Nabihah Iqbal’s Restructure of Rock

Nabihah Iqbal (fka Throwing Shade), released her debut album ‘Weighing Of The Heart’ at the end of 2017, putting her voice and birth name stage-front for the first time. In the ceremony depicted in the album’s cover art, Osiris – god of the afterlife – watches the weighing of recently deceased hearts, and judges whether each is heavy with wrongdoing. The ancient Egyptians believed that, along with blood and muscle, the heart was filled with emotions and memories. To weigh the heart was to look at a person’s essence. This is the challenge of both music writing and music criticism, one that Iqbal has taken on with awesome grace, unlike her critics…

The album begins with a tentative, heavy fingered piano line, that is gradually swallowed up by the sounds that will go on to define the record, driving its faster moments and burning beneath the slower ones. Though Iqbal’s previous work has interpolated sounds from across the globe and sonic spectrum (sounds explored in her work as an ethnomusicologist) this album returns to the fuzzy guitars that soundtracked her teenage years.

‘We’re all searching for something more’. With the anthemic confidence of her beloved Oasis, Iqbal’s vocals step out from ambient textures into a communal address on the second track. From there on she delves deeper into her own mind, consolidating textures with appropriately personal revelations, from the general dreams on the expansive clearly sung In Visions, to the tender moments of human intimacy on the twinkling instrumental Alone Together, and the aching Slowly.

‘Slowly you tell me there’s nothing left, but you try your best’. The line doesn’t analyze a situation, or even specify it, but simply states it dumbfounded, and explores this deeply felt loss through repetition, intonation, and – saying what she cannot – an awesome proggy guitar. The next track’s lyrics contain tantalizing glimpses of personal issues (‘eternal passion, eternal pain’, ‘darkness is a bed where you close your eyes to rest your head’), but the vague words slip back into the mix as clear bass and guitar lines take the lead, so the lasting impression is one of a character finding it easier to express herself through music than words.

I focus on Iqbal’s thoughtful uses of guitar music on the album, because I wish that the rest of its reviews had done this, rather than simply evaluating the fact and surface level achievement of this use. One particular review has caused a lot of frustration, not least from Iqbal. Published by xlr8r, it stated ‘what’s interesting about her mixed heritage and education and experience is that the music to my ears sounds very “white”… I don’t sense the Asian-British experience we’re usually given’. The word experience is important here; this record is Iqbal’s first full personal statement. So much could be read into the record, but this review deigned to call its main achievement that of racial novelty, underlined by its description of her adoration of Oasis as ‘beautiful’, ‘unexpected’, and ‘rare’.

When discussing the review on Nihal Arthanayake’s BBC Asian Network show, Iqbal defended her description of the review as racist, arguing that it perpetuates restrictive racial prejudices, by implying that there was some mismatch in Iqbal’s choice of genre. Arthanayake played devil’s advocate, suggesting that a more accurate label was racial categorisation, a less unanimously recognised evil, referring to the struggles of black musicians to redefine ‘urban music’ as ‘black music’.

I don’t feel confident drawing the line between racism and racial categorisation, but I am sure that either way, this review was unacceptably thoughtless; it showed no appreciation for the complexities of Iqbal’s work, or of the relevant issues. It was like the reviewing the first Detroit techno records, and designating their main value as the revelation that black Americans listen to German and Japanese electronic music. Do you really find it so surprising as to prioritise it over the music’s personal expression? Whether it’s possible to identify or recognise racial heritage in music, publicly judging a newly public artist as an example of their race, rather than a person in their own right, encourages new listeners to do the same.

‘The Weighing Of The Heart’ ends as it begins, with sonic elements found nowhere else on the album; this time it’s House. Perhaps the whole album recounts the end of a tough day; languishing in a sad song on the radio, reasserting yourself through your favourite albums, thinking vaguely about the shit that went down today, and finally hitting a nightclub to shake it off. Maybe it’s about the progressive steps of finding and defining your own voice, something familiar to anyone who is challenged by restrictive stereotypes. Either way, the general, titular theme of searching inner essence – one that’s deftly reflected by the album’s shifting sounds – is not a definitively white experience by any stretch of the mind. But then and again, neither is rock music.