Naima Shalhoub has an absolutely stunning voice. Listen to her sing “Ferguson-Gaza Blues.”
She’s accompanied by Bouchaib Abdelhadi on oud, Jeremy Mitchell on drums and Timothy Wat on Piano.
After hearing this powerful song, I wanted to know more about how the Lebanese-American Shalhoub’s art and politics intersect. She was kind enough to provide these thoughtful replies to my questions.
Ali Abunimah: What inspired you to make this song?
Naima Shalhoub: I’ve learned, seen and felt the systemic connections between the racial oppression of Palestinians in Palestine, as well as the racism against and mass incarceration of Black people in the United States for quite some time.
In August, however, when the attacks on Gaza were happening at the same time as the Ferguson protests and the wider call to draw attention to police brutality against Black and brown people, the grief was overwhelming. As an artist, I couldn’t help but write a song attempting to draw the connections between the two.
Both peoples experience oppression stemming from the global prison-industrial complex. It is no coincidence that Gaza is the largest open-air prison while the United States has rampant incarceration rates and death rates of Black and brown people.
The histories of slavery and colonization continue to haunt and fuel the present. I felt called to write something that tells somewhat of a story of the deep contradictions at present as well the lives lost in the name of so-called “security” and “democracy.”
AA: Is your art usually political, or was this a departure for you?
NS: I’m mainly inspired to write music that speaks to the human struggles with power, oppression and the desire we all have for freedom. Because of that I tend to write songs that some may categorize as political, but I really feel it’s just me grappling with injustice ingrained in the current order of things.
Being an Arab American, I have an intimate relationship with contradictions, with living in a country that sponsors the oppression of many. Nina Simone said that “it is an artist’s duty to reflect the times.” I take that call seriously and just hope to join the choir of many who came before me that really put their life on the line with their music in the name of justice, freedom and love.
I work weekly with a group of incarcerated women in San Francisco county jail facilitating music sessions in hopes to create a safe space behind bars that intervenes on the isolation and confinement of the prison-industrial complex and offers a place where incarcerated women can express and share their voices and creativity. My debut album Borderlands will be intersecting with this work. I’m currently working on it and plan to record and release it by early summer.
Freedom and the voice
Shalhoub gave a TedX talk at the Lebanese American University last summer that sums up some of the work she’s been doing on freedom and the voice: