Nabihah Iqbal shakes off expectations of what it means to be an Asian-British musician - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

Nabihah Iqbal shakes off expectations of what it means to be an Asian-British musician


It’s about fifteen minutes before Nabihah Iqbal is due to start recording her bi-monthly show for NTS Radio and she’s standing completely still in London’s Gillett Square, which has been home to the cult station since it launched in 2011.

One hand resting on the handle of her indestructible-looking record case, the local characters that make Gillett Square one of the last true bastions of old East London mill around her. You can just about hear the closing tracks from the Charlie Bones breakfast show that proceeds Iqbal’s, partially obscured by the laughter from the man cooking food beneath a Jamaican flag next door. And in the middle of it all is Iqbal, seemingly taking everything in, perhaps calibrating a little. Yesterday she returned from a trip to Sierra Leone where she spent time with traditional bubu musicians; the week before that she was in Japan, DJing and digging through the shelves of Tokyo’s famous Dub Store Records for the vinyl that will make up today’s reggae-themed radio show. This evening she hosts a listening party with South Asian jazz percussionist Sarathy Korwar and tomorrow she begins her new series of talks with the likes of historian David Olusoga and artist Wolfgang Tillmans at Somerset House.

Her stillness, though, is only fleeting because one of the main things that emanates from Iqbal is the sense of perpetually being in motion. Driving forwards. Pushing at the seams. It’s there in her seemingly endless travels to far-flung destinations and in her constantly-evolving creative output (there too, in her own constantly-evolving relationship with that creative output); her records, her live shows, her DJ sets, her radio shows, and even her social media presence are all testaments to this notion.

Furthermore, as much as those musical projects captivate on their own merits, Iqbal also makes you see the value in thoughtful exploration of places, people, cultures, and history that are so often overlooked. The value of questioning, celebrating, and scrutinising as much as possible, in order to gain a deeper understanding of, say, the city or country you think of as home. Iqbal herself comes from London. As a child she learned instruments and went to “music school” on Saturdays, but the plan back then—certainly from her (now incredibly supportive) parents’ perspective—was never to turn that into a full-time career. “When you’re doing something creative and kind of intangible, it’s a little hard for them to ‘get’ it. It’s not like you’re going off to work your nine-to-five every day, earning a certain amount of money every month.” Iqbal notes this pressure increases when “you come from an immigrant background as well, there’s a generational shift. My Pakistan-born parents are from a generation that didn’t have a lot of choice. Being able to pursue a passion, something I enjoy, is a luxury that they didn’t necessarily have.”

This goes some way to explaining the remarkable path that Iqbal has been navigating since her formative younger years. She first adopted the Throwing Shade moniker when DJing as a teenager (“my friends and I used to just throw these parties, it was just a fun thing”). This presumably took more of a back seat when she went to study an undergraduate degree in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, before gaining an MPhil from Cambridge University with a focus on African history. Then came a ‘real’ job in the field of human rights law. In the context of everything else she achieved so early in life, it barely registers when Iqbal mentions that she’s also a black belt in karate. “I was the highest ranked black belt at my last club—halfway through the first session the instructor told everyone to line up in front of the highest black belt and practice punching them in the torso! I didn’t want to be like, no, don’t hurt me… but the next day I was so bruised from these guys just punching me!”

This toughness has faired her well when negotiating a place for herself as a woman of color in a music industry dominated by white, Western men. “Yeah… if you’re female do not read the comments,” says Iqbal, referring to that perfect storm-microcosm of toxic, fragile masculinity that so often spawns just below the Youtube uploads of female/minority artists who dare to express themselves. The racism and sexism that burbles there beneath the surface was exposed in a review of Weighing of the Heart—Iqbal’s first release under her own name—that appeared on influential music website XLR8R. The review by Anton Lang (eventually removed by XLR8R) described the music as sounding “very white” and “not like the Asian-British experience we are usually given”—both ridiculous statements given the vast, non-homogenous group of people who fall under those terms. The orientalist condescension was further compounded by Lang’s assertion that he found Iqbal’s love of the band Oasis—bearing in mind she was born and raised in England during the ’90s—“beautiful, unexpected and rare.”

Where once such thoughtless words would barely cause a ripple, this time, a weaponized, fed-up online community caused the backlash to morph into something more akin to a tsunami. It started with a tweet from a person in Canada who Iqbal had never met and, from there, BBC interviews, coverage in The Guardian, and an op-ed from Iqbal herself in the magazine Dazed and Confused, followed.

Iqbal makes the point that this isn’t just about music. Such attitudes “create obstacles across other industries for many people from ethnic minority backgrounds”—and she readily embraces the rare platform she has been afforded as an acclaimed figure from her particular background. Yet one can’t help but see how much energy Iqbal expends which, in a more just world, could otherwise be spent advancing the music she feels so passionately about. Much of our conversation feels very much in the weary aftermath of a long flight home, but a singular vibrancy emerges whenever we do circle round to that central theme: the music. “It’s something that I love in a way I don’t love anything else,” Iqbal says. Take her recent experiences in Sierra Leone, where she “had a very physical reaction to the music and the sound and the movement and the people. You know, it’s hot at night and we’re by the sea at the bottom of this huge hill. Loads of palm trees, stars in the sky and these musicians just sweating, sweating for the music… It was like the time I played at Berghain! Only this was more intense than that even. It gets inside your body in a way that’s hard to explain.”

Later that night, the listening party with Sarathy Korwar offers a glimpse of the transcendental experiences that Iqbal describes—experiences that Iqbal says she has been touched to hear about and see at her own shows since the release of Weighing of the Heart (“one of the most common messages I’ve been receiving is that the album is making people cry, making them think about things they haven’t for a very long time”). After a lively on-stage discussion, tabla, flute, and voice begin to flow from the vintage Klipsch speakers at venue Brilliant Corners. The crowd relaxes into hushed reverie. At the back of the room, Iqbal’s parents and little sister look on with pride. A lone dancer rises to her feet instinctively and begins to sway among the mostly bowed heads. Everyone within the packed room seems consumed by their own, individual negotiation of the sounds flooding over them. And at the front of the room, perched on a stool next to reams of notes is Iqbal. Eyes closed with movement fluttering just beneath the lids, she’s luxuriating in some moment that is, as she says, perhaps “hard to explain.” It’s a moment of stillness, driving something forwards.

Formally known as Throwing Shade, Nabihah Iqbal’s first full length album, Weighing of the Heart, was released in 2017 to critical acclaim. The London-born singer songwriter will play at Babylon, Istanbul, on December 8th and Fellah Hotel, Marrakech, on March 28th.

For more on Iqbal visit her website, or listen to her bi-weekly radio show on NTS. And don’t forget to read her article for Dazed and Confused on her experience of making guitar music as a British-Asian woman.

Text: James Darton
Photos: Tina Hillier