Author : Lisa Blanning
Nabihah Iqbal, formerly known as Throwing Shade, defies easy categorization. Known for her synthetic gossamer pop productions, the global worldview of her NTS Radio show, and eclectic DJ sets in clubs and festivals, the British artist studied South African history, ethnomusicology, and law, and worked in human rights law until her music career took on a life of its own. Recently signed to Ninja Tune, the first listen from her debut album – Weighing of the Heart, due out on December 1st – signals a sonic shift towards the warmth of electric guitars and shoegaze aesthetics. Just when you think you’ve got her figured out, she reveals new layers, as our discussion about existential identity shows.
Why did you decide to change your artist name from Throwing Shade to your real name?
It’s a combination of reasons. Part of it’s because when I picked the name Throwing Shade – I think it was about 2008 or 2009 – I was just DJing for fun on the side of university, and I never imagined that I’d be doing music full-time. So I feel like it’s a name that’s specific to a time and place, and now because I’m doing music full-time and I feel like this is going to be my career, I’m thinking about the future and I just feel more comfortable using my real name. Also, I picked Throwing Shade because I liked the sound of the phrase. But I didn’t realize that in America it has such negative connotations. I don’t really want to be associated with that because it doesn’t really match up with what I’m doing or who I am.
And the fact that I get a lot of messages from people – all the time, actually – quite a lot of Asian or ethnic minority people are sending me messages to say that it’s really inspirational to see what I’m doing because they don’t see a lot of other brown people doing the same thing. So, maybe what I’m doing is a bit trail-blazing, and therefore maybe it comes with a certain responsibility. And I also want to be transparent with who I am, and let people be able to see me and see what my name is, and hopefully it will inspire loads of other people to do the same thing. Not to feel that their name sounds too ethnic or too foreign.
How does your background as a first-generation British citizen affect what you do musically?
It’s not something that I think about consciously, but I guess the main thing is that it undermines people’s stereotypes of what they think someone like me should be doing. The initial response to the new record from some people is, “Wow, I didn’t think you’d be making this kind of music, because it’s really guitar-y and it’s got a lot of ’80s influences.” People say they hear bands like New Order or Joy Division and that sort of influence coming through. Which is cool. And then they’re like, “How come it’s you making it?” and I’m like, “Why not? Does my music have to sound Asian because I’m Asian?” I think what I’m doing is testament to the fact that I am part of this new generation of people who are the children of immigrants living in the UK. Our parents have worked really hard to provide us with opportunities for us to be able to do things like that. It would be unthinkable probably for my dad or my mum to think that they could have done the same thing when they first came here because the priorities weren’t the same. I feel really lucky in that sense.
It’s funny because when you mention that people say that your new music sounds like New Order or Joy Division, those are both British bands.
Yeah, exactly. It’s like people wouldn’t be so surprised if maybe a white British person was making that kind of music. But when they’re like, “Oh wait, this is a brown girl making this kind of music,” it sort of catches them by surprise, I think. Which is a good thing, because it goes to show my influences and my upbringing, and all the music I’ve been surrounded by growing up is probably really similar to all other kids and teenagers growing up in the UK, too.
What about your background in regards to your music previous to this new stuff? To me, the new music is pretty different – not so much in terms of affect or mood, but in terms of sound. You’re saying how really it’s more Britishness that’s linked to your new sound. Is it related to your old sound at all?
I think there’s a clear difference in the direction of the music now. But at the same time, you can hear similarities maybe in terms of the atmospheric feel of the music. There are motifs on the new album that you can definitely find reflected in my older music. With this record, it’s my first album, and it’s the first time that I’ve put so much time, effort, and energy into a project. When I went into the studio with the aim of making an album, I was really conscious that I wanted to make music and not think about what I wanted it to sound like too much.
I also wanted to use more live instrumentation, because prior to this, I’d been incorporating the guitar into my live shows, but it hadn’t featured on any of the recorded music. I wanted to play more – play more keys, play more guitar, more live percussion, and things like that. The combination of those aims also with the fact that I wasn’t thinking too hard about what I was doing resulted in this new record that sounds pretty different to my old stuff. It’s not that the old stuff didn’t feel genuine to me, but this feels like I’m closer to the music, because maybe it’s been influenced by the stuff I was listening to as a teenager more. Your formative years, those are the sounds that stick with you for life.
If I listen to some of the mixes you’ve done, or your radio show, or your DJ set at a festival, what I think are the important bits of that kind of experience is surprisingly not what comes through in the music that you make. I don’t think the music that you make sounds specifically localized in the same way or has any sort of world music sound.
Yeah, I don’t consciously try and incorporate world music influences or other stuff into the music I’m making. But I guess subconsciously there are probably ideas that come through. It’s more like my musical tastes are so wide – and I’m lucky that I have all these different outlets through which to explore the different things that I’m into. For example, the stuff that I play on my NTS Radio show will be really different to the stuff I play out in a nightclub or at a festival, because a lot of the stuff I play on the show isn’t dancefloor-appropriate. But it’s stuff that I think sounds amazing, and I want to share it. And obviously in a club context, you play stuff that’s going to make people want to dance and have a good time. So therefore you approach music from a different way. And then when it comes to making my own music, it’s something that’s really personal, and it’s comes out in a different way, again.
One of the things that I thought was interesting about your personal history is that you used to work in human rights law, is that correct? Can you tell me a little about that?
Yeah, that’s correct. Just the fact that I’m doing music now is so funny because it’s so unexpected. But yeah, my undergraduate degree was at School of Oriental and African Studies in history and ethnomusicology. After that, I did a MPhil [Master of Philosophy] at Cambridge specializing in South African history. And then I did the law conversion, and then the Bar to train as a barrister. In my mind, I just thought I was going to be a barrister and focus on law.
After I got called to the Bar, I went out to South Africa for six months to work with a group of human rights lawyers focusing on women’s rights in Cape Town. That was a very important experience for me, because it was so intense. You’re working on women’s rights in the rape capital of the world, and you’re dealing with cases of extreme sexism and sexual violence and domestic violence that you don’t really come across in your day to day life living in London. So, it was hard to adjust, but it was really eye-opening. And I think it changed me as a person, or changed my outlook on a lot of things.
I was there for six months doing law, but also doing music at the same time. And then I came back to London in the middle of 2013, and I was working here for a bit at an organization called INTERIGHTS. But that’s when all the music stuff started happening by itself, and it was strange because it was so unexpected and seemed to be a force unto itself. And I just thought, “I’m going to concentrate on music, because it’s my favorite thing in the world.”
But I’m so glad that I did law. Not even in the practical sense, where it gives you confidence and you know how to read a contract, and you know how to deal with people – because that’s all come in really handy. But also from the perspective of being a female and working in an industry which is male-dominated – as are 99% of industries – made me conscious of that in a different way. And it also makes me feel like I want to create a platform for myself, which I can eventually put to good use and try and do something to further women’s rights or girls and education, something like that.
You did touch on this briefly earlier, but as an artist whose work exists in the public sphere, do you feel a greater responsibility towards any kinds of activism?
Probably in a more general sense. So not a particular kind of activism, but when you are in the public sphere, you’ve got followers – even though it might not be millions, it might just be a few thousand – and you know people are looking at what you’re doing, you have to be conscious about that. And you always have to be conscious about how you’re going to present yourself, how you’re going to position yourself. Whatever your views are, it doesn’t really matter. But there’s definitely a responsibility that comes with it, because you know you’re reaching a larger number of people than just your immediate friend circle or whatever it is. So yeah, you definitely have to think about it.
Earlier you said in response to something else that it should always be about the music. What about this idea of having a positive message to spread – how do you balance those two things?
The music always comes first. People who appreciate the music, the radio shows, or the DJ sets, the reason why they follow me is something about the work I do appeals to them. And that always comes first, because that’s the way that you can strike up a connection with people. Whatever comes after that is really up to you. But I think that music is the most powerful thing. If people aren’t into the music, then you’re not going to keep their attention for very long.
Given that the music comes first, clearly there’s an engagement there with issues beyond just music, do you think that’s something that you see amongst your peer group a lot? Specifically, an activist kind of approach?
I think you do see it quite a lot, just because of the power of social media. I think people have realized that there’s a lot power that lies within the number of Twitter or Instagram followers you have. More and more you see people posting about stuff that’s beyond the music. Whether it’s about something personal, something political, or something else. I think that’s just a general trend, really. And I like it, I think it’s good to use the platform in other ways. But you do have to be careful about it, because sometimes it can get too much. You can alienate people. So it’s a bit of a fine line that you have to balance.
Do you think that’s maybe a trend in general, or it’s generational? I’m talking about specifically having a message beyond the music. Now you’re signed to Ninja Tune, and Matt Black [from Coldcut] has been vocal about making activist statements via the work. To me, I think that your peer group amongst your age are more engaged now politically than ever.
I don’t know, actually. I don’t think so. I feel like it’s half and half. Maybe some people are getting more politically engaged, but at the same time, I feel like a lot of people are becoming desensitized to the outside world because of the bubbles that they can create for themselves on the internet. I don’t know how I feel about that. I don’t feel like there’s one general wave and we’re moving a certain way. I think it’s quite fragmented. And it’s still really early to see how things will pan out. People who are teenagers now, it will be interesting to see how they turn out in ten years or so. Because the way they use the internet and social media is so much more extreme than how we use it. I just look at my younger brothers and sisters and how they’re engaged with it. It’s hard to say.
But you don’t necessarily feel the need to make a more overt statement with your music? Like for instance Matt has done?
Not right now. I’m definitely making statements about stuff with music. But it’s not really political. It’s more just about humans in general, about everybody, about life, and bigger questions, I think. Bigger things that people think about in their day to day existence. That’s the sort of thing I like exploring through the music. Without sounding pretentious, more philosophical ideas – a lot of the tracks on the new album are influenced by ideas of thinking about what’s the point of stuff? What’s the purpose of music in general? Ideas about isolation, living in a big city, dissatisfaction, what makes people want to live? Ideas about how everyone’s true self is a secret – I really believe that. I feel like you can be hanging out with people who you’re the closest to in the whole world, but they’ll still never really know the true you, because there are always things in our mind that we never share with other people. What does that mean in the greater context of things, if we never actually know each other?
I’ve been thinking a lot about those sorts of things, and that’s what’s come through on this new record. So it’s definitely communicating messages and ideas about people, but in a broader, more general sense across the spectrum of being a human rather than having a specific message about something political or something more localized.
I like that those are things that can apply to people everywhere. And it does give your music a global slant, in a metaphysical way.
Yeah, it’s quite metaphysical, existential ideas, because those are the things that I think about most. Beyond politics and all of that, bigger questions, ideas about life and death, ancient civilizations and religions, and how we fit into the broader trajectory of being humans on this earth and the universe. And where do we come from and where are we going? All those kind of things. Those ideas are what I’m thinking about more and more. But I’m trying to deliver it in quite a pleasant way, I guess. A lot of people who have heard the record are like, “Oh yeah, it sounds really relaxed and chilled and almost puts you in a trance. You can zone out to listen to it.” Which is cool, but then if you pay attention maybe to the lyrics and the ideas within the lyrics, then it’s actually quite dark. But you might not pick up on that straight away. But that’s part of the plan, as well.