Culture-inspired musician Sabiyha takes us into a beautiful stream of reminiscing with her eclectic new single Lullaby. With diverse musical inspirations ranging from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Missy Elliott, Sabiyha showcases her mixed-genre appreciation through her unique sonic concepts and lyrical creativity. She discusses with us the need for more diversity within the music industry and her future projects.
Your music has a powerful blend of musical genres such as R&B, traditional Carnatic music and grunge. Growing up, who were your musical influences and which records did you seek inspiration from?
Over the years, I’ve developed a really eclectic taste in music and I have learned to find the value and inspiration in so many different genres. I grew up in Croydon and was surrounded by grime, funky house, dubstep etc., which had a huge influence on my love for the UK South London scene. I have a Caribbean heritage as well, which has played a huge part in my music today.
My family parties were usually buzzing with soca, bashment, reggae and lovers' rock and I fell in love with the rhythm, delivery of lyrics and the playfulness that comes with our culture. This has been instrumental in how I represent my culture through music; singing in broken English and repping the sound that I associate with childhood.
Being Indo-Caribbean as well, I’ve taken inspiration from my South Asian heritage, pulling on the vocal stylings of Carnatic and Sufi artists, such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Outside of that, I also loved metal and grunge and was drawn to the aggression and grittiness of these genres; something that really influenced my track Choorile.
In my late teens, I truly fell in love with folk, blues and jazz and would spend hours near enough studying the fundamental artists of these genres. Joan Baez, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Blind Willie Johnson etc. were constantly being blasted out through my old stereo. I would say a few of the most important records for me would be Missy Elliott's Cookbook and Under Construction, Laura Marling's Alas I Cannot Swim and Joan Baez's How Sweet the Sound.
In your new single Lullaby, you include a beautiful celebration of your Guyanese heritage. In what way has your culture shaped the way you’ve created your sound?
My culture is an integral part of who I am and something that I’m extremely proud of, so I try to incorporate it in my music where I can. I’m drawn to dancehall and soca beats and love the delivery of bashment artists such as Spice and Shensea. There’s something about a female artist performing with conviction, confidence and slight aggression that I love and it has definitely influenced how I write.
Music is a huge part of my culture and that lullaby that my nanny used to sing has always stuck with me and my cousins, to the point where we sing it to all the young ones now! It’s the raw sincerity in the lullabies, the old Indo Guyanese songs and just the general heartwarming laughter and chatter that I take with me and incorporate into my sound.
Your music tends to reference themes of nostalgia and childhood. Have you always been drawn to these themes or is this something you’ve newly explored?
It’s always something I’ve been drawn to but only ever written about over the past few years. My childhood growing up with my cousins was such a beautiful time for me! We can spend hours all crammed into my nanny’s living room, crying with laughter over all the memories we had together and I felt like I had to write about it. As someone that has suffered from depression since childhood, I’ve always found it hard to write about happiness. But as soon as I started to draw on these memories, it became so much easier; I felt inspired like I had brought a whole new lease of life into my music.
Who did you look up to growing up?
My mum; I talk about her a lot, but there's a good reason for it. My mum was always a vision of curly black hair, red lipstick, a glamorous outfit and most importantly, she exuded confidence. My mum has always followed her own path and been very independent and has always taught me to lead my own way. She believed in encouraging individuality and wanted me to form my own opinions and beliefs.
My mum is strong but she’s not afraid to cry; she’s confident but she’ll share her insecurities; she’s had a hard life and prevailed but still needs to be held when she remembers all the pain. She's taught me that there isn't one way of being strong, it’s complicated – and I admire everything she’s lived through, who she has become and I am grateful for everything she’s taught me.
As well as nostalgia, you also tackle themes surrounding gender and femininity. How important is this representation to you?
Most industries are super male-dominated, and the music industry is no exception to this. Stepping into a studio can feel like such a boys club sometimes and you can feel very underestimated as a womxn. I think by now, many of us are tired of gender normative ideals and prescribed versions of what it is to be a womxn. I want to make it clear in my music that being feminine is whatever the hell you want it to be, not what society tells you it is. I’m loud, I proudly have body hair, I love sex and that doesn't make me any less of a womxn than anyone else.
I want womxn to be able to express themselves without being judged and having their bodies policed and I want fair and equal representation in the industry. As much as I love my culture, progression can be slow, especially when it comes to the perception and expectations of womxn. I want other womxn of colour from backgrounds such as mine to feel as empowered as I do and to not be afraid to break through the cultural barriers that have been built around us.
“I’m looking forward to the days when I and other marginalised people in the industry no longer feel judged or afraid and are able to exist and create without unsolicited judgement and hate.”
How do you usually prep for a recording session? Are there any particular rituals you stick to or do you like a varied approach?
It really depends on what we’re doing that day, if it’s a writing session then we try to make the atmosphere as fun and vibrant as possible. So, if it's an evening session, we’ll get a bottle of rum, make some punch and get ourselves super hyped. It usually ends up with myself and Drew Jodi (producer and co-writer) dancing around like toddlers to whatever demo we’ve just made.
On the other hand, if it’s a vocal session, we tend to be a lot more serious in our prep for that. I always make sure my pipes are in tip-top shape and get the manuka honey tea on. Drew and I sit and discuss the emotional landscape of the song. He really pushes me to be in the moment with the lyrics and wants to understand exactly how I was feeling when I wrote them; it brings so much more depth to the song when I truly mean what I sing.
As the music industry is becoming more diverse and acceptant of artists from all backgrounds, genders and sexualities, what are you looking forward to the most for the future of music?
I’m looking forward to the industry doing better really. For too long now, Black artists have been appropriated against, sexuality has been hidden and womxn have been pigeon-holed and policed, and this only skimming the surface. I chose to drop my last name Rasheed because my family feared that it sounded too Muslim and didn't want me to be abused online and to not be accepted by the music industry due to heightened Islamaphobia. And yes, we have society and systemic prejudice to blame; but this poison has crept into all industries, music being no exception.
Artists should feel free to be open about their identity, whether they’re queer, trans, sex-positive or from any different cultural or racial background. I’m looking forward to the days when I and other marginalised people in the industry no longer feel judged or afraid and are able to exist and create without unsolicited judgement and hate.
Your passion and appreciation for music are clearly evident in the songs you’ve produced. Has music always been the career path for you?
Not always! I went through so many different phases as a kid; one minute I wanted to be a marine biologist, then a psychologist, then an economist, then a journalist… The list goes on really. Music didn't seem like such a valid option in my early teens; whilst my parents became amazingly supportive as they are now, coming from my culture, the creative field isn't really seen as a valid career path and my parents wanted me to probably end up being something with 'Dr.' in the title. I used to resent that idea but I get it now.
It’s hard for immigrant families to make their way in a country that barely accepts them; all our families want is the assurance that we’ll be stable and, unfortunately, the creative fields don’t provide that stability!
However, Kelli-Leigh, who was my singing teacher at the time, convinced me that I had the talent to be in music around the age of 15. She held a showcase for her students and after my dad heard me perform my own song for the first time, his mind completely changed. It was only from then that music became a serious career path for me and my parents have been my biggest cheerleaders ever since.
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Are there any genres you’re looking forward to exploring in your next releases?
Definitely! I’d love to incorporate the rhythm from Indo Caribbean Chutney music or the infectious beat of Bhangra. A lot of my inspiration from harmonies comes from classical and choral music so I would love to sink my teeth into that more; I’m such a harmony nerd, it’s my favourite part! I’d also love to use elements of hip hop and grime, with their relentless dark and gritty South London edge. Speaking of the UK scene, a garage song would be sick! Would be like a throwback to my youth and so much fun to make.
What can we expect from you in the future musically?
Growth, I hope! My music has matured so much over time and I hope that continues, I guess that’s come from keeping my mind as open as possible. My music has become more and more self-assured as I gain confidence as a person and I’m pushing boundaries that I never would have even two years ago. I don't exactly know what my tunes will sound like in the future, but I expect my music to be fearless, conscientious and something worth screaming at the top of your lungs at a festival!