Memphis Music Feature: Talibah Safiya
Ed. Note: Get to know Memphian Talibah Safiya and her music in this interview with contributor Wesley from February 2019. Then check out her 2020 releases on Spotify here.
Talibah Safiya is a Memphis-born musician who has recently returned after making a name for herself elsewhere.
What has she been up to since being back?
“Making music, writing music, spending more time with other creatives, learning about the strategy of the creative sphere, and re-familiarizing myself with the city. Digging into my roots a bit more, reading, cooking.”
In the past year, she’s also performed at a Sofar Sounds Memphis show, in New Orleans as a part of her A Deep Water Sound tour, to a sold-out crowd at Old Dominick’s Pure Memphis Music Series, with Music Export Memphis’ House Party Series, at the 2018 MEMPHO music festival, and at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, among plenty of other local and out-of-town performances that keep her schedule busy.
Safiya moved back to Memphis in 2018 from New York City — Brooklyn, to be specific. After growing up in Memphis, singing in the choir at Hanley Elementary in Orange Mound, and doing theatre at Overton High, she finally found the confidence to break out on her own when she was 18.
“I realized I needed some form of therapy through writing, and from writing music came the confidence to perform, to tell people my story,” she said.
She was enamored with the creative adrenaline of New York City, and wanted to experience it for herself. At first, the closest she could get was Howard University in Washington, D.C. “I went to Howard for theatre, and after a year I realized that organized education wasn’t for me, I needed a little bit more of a creative experience,” she said. Safiya decided overnight to quit her job, leave her apartment, and continue onwards to New York.
After living there for five years, she came back home. After being gone for so long, she’s grateful she’s come back when Memphis art and music is once again a major player in the cultural zeitgeist, so to speak.
“I feel like we have to deal with being a ‘legacy city’, but we’re singing new soul classics, continuing the story of Memphis through our music, talking about joys and sorrows through our own words. I’m really grateful to be a part of that.”
Through Music Export Memphis, a local nonprofit that makes it easier for Memphis musicians to find a global audience, Safiya traveled to Nashville as a featured artist in Americanafest 2018. NPR’s All Songs Considered featured her in their Best of Americanafest 2018, where they described her performance as “zeroing in on people speaking directly to them,” then characterized her as “witty, bawdy, and frank.”
Americana as a genre of music, unlike Safiya herself, is unassuming. There are a few loose rules, but there’s no definitive “sound” and there’s no heavy scrutiny of who’s-playing-what-and-why — and that’s a good thing. Americana music a celebration of diversity in American culture, incorporating sounds and techniques from R&B, blues, country, rock, and folk music to create something completely different.
The key word there is “something”, because I still don’t know what the hell Americana music is despite listening to a bunch of it for a good-enough understanding of the genre to properly write this paragraph.
Safiya says she wasn’t after the Americana label, but also doesn’t mind it either. To her, she was simply speaking her truth. “It’s a part of the American story because it’s black music,” she said. “It’s really more diasporic music, like blues, jazz, and folk. I think that’s how I was able to get into an Americana space.”
The song featured on NPR was Safiya’s “Middle of the Night”, a solemn song about those early morning hours when the memories of a lost love are their most pervasive and painful.“I take a thousand days just to embrace the love we made, I’ll take it to my grave the way you watched me misbehave,” she shyly sings over lush acoustic guitar, as if she’s not quite ready to admit what’s happened. The song climaxes as she finds the power in her voice, singing, “we can’t be in love no more.”
I listened to the rest of Safiya’s Soundcloud uploads expecting more of this, but what I heard was a songwriter who doesn’t want to be bound by genres, much like many other musicians today. She goes from sultry R&B on “Sugar Queen, to Erykah Badu neo-soul on “Sweet Heat”, to lo-fi hip-hop beats to relax/study to on “So Alive”. Apparently I’ve been listening to Americana music for years.
“A lot of Memphis music right now that’s mainstream is masculine, so to be able to do it from a woman’s perspective is cool,” she told me. She considers herself a Memphis musician, but not necessarily a local one. She’s lived in other cities the majority of her adult life, and started her music career elsewhere, she sometimes feels like a new artist in Memphis after being gone for so long, but that doesn’t deter her from repping the city that raised her.
“I mean, I’m down for Memphis, I represent Memphis, and it’s true that I am a local artist, even though I started my music career recording songs in Howard dorm closets,” she added.
Even if she doesn’t actively shed the “local” label, she believes that such labels limit the expectations of your reach. “I definitely have a reach outside of the local market and a relationship with music that didn’t start inside the local market.” Whether it be Brooklyn, D.C., or right here in Memphis, Tennessee, Safiya uses her music as nourishment from her black, southern roots. Anyone who’s down for that can come along for the ride.
“Everyone around me is celebratory of what I do, because we celebrate each other. It’s clear what I’m here to do and who I’m speaking as. I’m not sure what the conversation is beyond my circle, but it ain’t got shit to do with me.”
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Original photos by Wesley Paraham. At the Art Bar at Crosstown.
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For even more, check out Talibah’s article on Funky Feminist.