Music And Healing
Nadine Almanasfi and Rui Da Silva sit down with three young musicians to discuss their relationship to art and healing.
Can you talk a bit about what you’re up to at the moment?
I’m currently studying for my A-levels (English, History and Music). I DJ and have my own online magazine called Sai Noir. It explores the music industry - not just focusing on the artist - but the different roles in the music industry, through videos, performances and more.
I’m also setting up an exhibition called Black Muslim Yout, exploring being a black Muslim child. Growing up, especially in secondary school, there were issues of, like, growing up Muslim, but also being black, and people assuming you’re not “Muslim Muslim” - like what does that mean? I’m Muslim. But it also explores and celebrates the cultural experiences of being Muslim and having your home culture that is normally explored through Asian culture - which is good - but I also want to bring in African-Caribbean culture.
How did you get into DJing?
My cousins are DJs, and my dad used to listen to a lot of old school hip hop and r’n’b. I went to my cousins’ house one time and they let me practice and realised I was quite good. So I asked my dad to buy me some decks and he got them for me when I just turned 16. One of my friends was doing an event looking for DJs and asked me to get involved. I was thinking, wow I don’t have any mixes out or anything, but that was the first gig I did last October in Shoreditch. It started off as a hobby but now it’s starting to get serious which is great.
What/who are your main musical or non-musical influences?
My parents, my dad especially, and my cousin who is always pushing me. My friends as well, they always make sure that I’m mixing and they’re always asking “when are you having your next mix out?”
Do you think there is a relationship between music and healing?
I always felt like music was a kind of therapy for me. When I’m feeling down, I know I can go to music. If I’m not feeling happy or a bit down I just go and mix. I’ve realised that even if I’m not recording what I’m doing, I’m mixing to try and better myself and I feel better knowing that I’m perfecting my craft.
One person told me that when they heard my mix, it was the type of music that they can play to their family as a way of spending time with them, with music they all can enjoy. It makes me feel happy knowing people use it for that.
Who are your favourite artists?
Old school hip hop artists like Brandy, Aaliyah, 2pac, Snoop Dogg and Erykah Badu.
How do you think music interacts with your identity?
The way I dress is kind of old school 90s. I have that kind of vibe to me and I also cover my head, I wrap it. I feel really comfortable with my identity and I think my music reflects that.
I feel like there is a lot of talk about being Muslim, black and female and it’s enabling me not to be afraid anymore. It can be a bit worrying being a Muslim DJ with a music magazine, but I do feel comfortable in being able to say there are more opportunities nowadays. I’ve never been afraid to say I’m black and Muslim making music, but I think there was a time when I thought I had to prove I was Muslim outside of the music industry. But with the artistic work I’m doing and my exhibition on young black Muslims, I’m able to just say yeah, I’m black and I am Muslim.
Being young means it’s a lot more fun but it’s also extremely hard because I don’t feel like I can tell people my age because they’ll judge me differently. At the same time I don’t mind having that barrier because when people are like “oh you’re so young” it pushes me to prove that I can do it.
Being a young woman in the creative industry can be challenging, I think that you just have to have a really strong grounding and this is where my religion comes into it. I feel like it’s hard being a young woman, but at the same time it’s really interesting to see people’s opinion, and when they hear you’re Muslim they’re like, “oh my god, what?”. I find all these barriers funny but at least I know they’re there and I know what to do next time.
Do you have any tips for people who want to DJ?
You don’t really need that much to start.I first started on the computer and didn’t have any decks - I just had a standard virtual DJ.
Invest in normal decks like a standard Numark mixtrack or something and keep practising. I find it really fun when I find a new technique and realise I’m getting better the more I do it, then you hear your old mix and realise the flaws.
Find your own sound.
Don’t feel rushed to beat everyone else or be amazing because you have to go at your own pace - the best thing you can do is look after yourself, enjoy it, and take your time with it.
Can you briefly talk about what you’re up to at the moment?
I run an organisation called The Mixtape Project. It’s a youth arts organisation namely centred around using music for personal development and creating further education and employment opportunities.
How did The Mixtape Project come about?
I used to go to a studio in our local area in West Wickham in a youth club. It got shut down and we didn’t have anywhere to go because at the time it was a good way to stay constructive. I noticed the real difference it had in the community when it closed. My idea was to be able to use my skills as a producer and help people around me in my area. Just before I went to uni, the Big Lottery, local authorities and Met Police came together and allowed us to bid for funding. Me and my mum put forward a bid and we both got money. I was the youngest person in my borough, let alone the youngest black person, to get the funding.
What kinds of things do you do at The Mixtape Project?
I’ve got an accreditation attached to The Mixtape Project, it’s like an arts award equivalent to a GCSE and A-Level. The main courses I do are: DJ skills, emcee lyric writing, music production and sound engineering. I teach young people what I do as it helps to grow the business. When I teach them and employ them, it helps me go and set up other sites. I’m trying to build this organisation, give young people the opportunity to get the employment doing what they like doing, just like me.
How did you get into music?
I’ve been producing since I was 13. I learnt how to DJ first and started on a playstation using Music 2000, then MTV music generator - from there I picked up Fruityloops. Djing was one of those things that was seen as cool at the time. My uncle was a DJ, so it was a cool thing. I asked him to teach me and he taught me really well. Garage was really big at the time so I learnt with garage tracks. I learnt the hard way on vinyl decks and that was at age 12. By 14 I was playing at house parties.
Aside from a business side to music, do you think it has healing properties?
Yeah, The Mixtape Project was created for young people to be able to express themselves and for self-realisation. When they do a song and listen back to it, sometimes they can be more aware of themselves. At first I wanted this to be positive but then I realised it’s not as simple as that. Not everybody's experiences are positive and if it is a kind of therapy, they need to be able to talk about real issues they’re facing. I have a kind of formula where I get the kids to write one positive song, one negative song, and once they’ve evaluated them both they do another song.
When they do the third song do you notice any patterns?
I’ve realised that they take into consideration both and they’re more aware of themselves. I’m there dissecting the song asking, “is that how you felt there?”. Sometimes I get people in the studio saying things like “now I can take flights out to the island”. I was like “yeah, really?”, he was like “yeah, you wanna come?”. I know he was chatting rubbish because he hasn’t got money like that and so they need to be challenged - it makes them think more. The third tune is usually more balanced because they’re being honest and talking about where they’re trying to get to and not glorify the bad.
Do you think these kids have other places/activities they can use as therapy?
I don’t think they can be as open and honest in school, with friends or with family. You have to keep up appearances. Even with the music they’re trying to impress everybody. But in music now it’s becoming popular to be honest and that’s what I was longing for. You’ve got people like Dave who are being honest. He’s not tryna say things for wow factor, that’s why a lot of people talk negative with their lyrics ‘cos they’re trying to get a reaction. I don’t think there is as powerful an outlet to express yourself and for therapy as music, to be honest.
How do you see the role of faith in music that is coming out at the moment?
My younger brother is in quite a well known clique in the music industry and all of them, apart from two, are Muslim. My younger brother is Muslim so I’ve always tried to be a good example for him and in their music from when they started, they always make Islamic references and obviously it’s difficult because we’re not supposed to, you know what I mean, but the things they usually say, for young people to speak like that is quite powerful. They have lyrics like “Allah keep me safe from around demons, my head’s hurt, voices screaming”. He’s still talking about real stuff they’re going through on road. It’s hard not to talk about it when it’s such a big thing in your life.
I can speak haram or halal if I wanted to on a track, that’s my conscious battle going on between me and God. I feel like we should be able to be honest, but if you’re going on talking about alcohol and sex and murder, and at the same time you’re talking about Islam, it might come across as contradictory, but at the same time if a person is actually going through stuff like that or dealing with that, wouldn’t it be their faith that would kinda help them to be a better person? I feel like people should just be able to express themselves freely but you have to be careful. You have to be conscious of how other people will take it we are representing the faith and people are looking at us. There is a certain way we should go about doing it, it’s difficult.
When I went to the masjid to speak to the imam about Islam, I hadn’t converted and one of the reasons I said I wanted to convert was because I thought it would help my music. He was like, “Boy, you’re gonna have to stop that”, and I was, like, “What - this is my life?”. He was like, “Oh, can’t you do a project where you’re using natural sounds?”. And I was like, “What’s this guy talking about? I can’t do that”. But now coming away from it, I understand why. If you’re not careful it can go left, because you can’t mix oil with water. In Ramadan I don’t do music. I can’t fast and be in the studio. That’s another reason why I know music does do something to you. If I’m fasting in the day time and I’ve not done anything and I’m listening to these frequencies, I feel even more hungry. It is difficult, the conscious dilemma. This is why I rate people that are able to quit music for the deen ‘cos it’s not easy, especially if you’re making a living from it. It’s a conscious battle all the time because obviously I am engineering a lot of songs and when they come into the studio, I’m hearing what they’re saying and putting it out there, but to a degree I think I’m glad that I’m able to be in the studio with these young people because it’s more about intervention for me. It’s a good opportunity for me to speak to them and challenge certain things. I’m trying to get to the hard to engage, the gang members, the bad breeds because they are the neglected ones in society. It’s difficult for me but at the same time I know that it gives me a way to engage with the ones that need it the most.
Who are your top three favourite artists?
Probably Nipsey Hussle, MJ and Bob Marley.
What things inspire your music?
Pain and struggle are some of the biggest motivators. I like to create easy listening music, people have even said that my music sounds like it’s got healing properties in it. I know what I hear in my head and how I wanna feel, so I replicate it in my music. Most of the music I’d like to make is happy, everybody wants to feel good. I remember one of our young people, one of the naughty ones, he came downstairs and he was like, “I just wanna hear some nice music please, I’m fed up of all this gang stuff - I just wanna hear some good music for once”. So I know the majority of these young people on the street they’ll listen to the cruddy tracks when they’re together just to hear what’s going on, or to feel pumped, but really and truly if they’re really going through it, they wanna hear something nice and you’ll find that a lot for some of the hardest and roughest youths. When you hear their music selection they’ve got a lot of soft and soothing music, like r’n’b/Drake sounding music. We’re going through a lot of pain so we are looking for healing, which is why I feel a lot of rappers are singing melodically now because it resonates better. It’s not cool to feel bad.
What’s been your most memorable live show?
Probably Wireless Festival when Jay Z and Justin Timberlake were headlining. The way they put that together, I like stuff that’s well thought out. Nas was there too, he went on and performed a couple of his ok songs but Jay Z put on a performance, he went that extra step further than everyone else.
I also went to see Jamiroquai when I was at university, they’re one of my favourite bands.
I’ve always just liked the vibe of music, I don’t care what it is. Sometimes I’ll cruise in my car and listen to Classical FM. My mum and my family have always played an eclectic mix of music growing up, I’ve heard a wide range. My mum used to play everything from Lighthouse Family to reggae and rnb, I grew up on a lot of that.
Do you have any tips for young people in music at the moment?
Be true to yourself. You might start up fine but forget along the way and turn into people you don’t want to be. When I say remember who you are and where you’re coming from, I’m talking about your family. What do you really feel, do you really want violence, do you wanna feel violence, do you wanna do a violent act, do you really like beef? You don’t. Don’t idolise ways of life, that is a big moral dilemma in Islam, that’s the biggest sin, idolatry. If you’re not careful you can fall into that.
Could you tell us who you are and what you’re up to at the moment?
I work as a freelance musician, playing recorder and baroque flute with many ensembles including my own group Improviso. I’m also teaching a course on rhetoric at the Royal College of Music in London, working on the next edition of the music magazine I edit, Revoice!, and working as Performing Arts Assistant at the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital Trust’s charity CW+.
How did you get into recorder playing and writing, particularly your specific focus of pre-19th century Western music?
I started playing the recorder aged 13, after I fell in love with Studio Der Frühen Musik an der Schola Cantorum Basiliensis’s record Estampie: Instrumentalmusik Des Mittelalters, from 1974. There is something incredible about recreating music from the 12th to 18th centuries using something as fundamental as your breath passing through a wooden column with holes.
What/who are your main musical or non-musical influences for your artistic work?
There are so many – the three-word statement ‘ideas have consequences’ (it’s the title of a book by Richard Weaver), the songs of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, spending time with animals, the music making of Florilegium, Seldom Sene, More Hispano, the Al-Kindi Ensemble, Mircea Eliade’s "The Myth of the Eternal Return", Frances Yates’s "The Art of Memory", Laurence Dreyfus’s "Bach and the Patterns of Invention", the soundscape at Maghreb time in Cairo, reading the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, just walking around in fields...
Do you think music has a healing element to it? If so, why?
Yes, absolutely. There’s evidence to show that Palaeolithic healing rituals were expressed in some of the earliest examples of art and music, so this is a connection that goes back a long way. The use of arts for healing in the Islamic tradition is something I’m particularly interested in at the moment – there are so many instances of this, from the Persian philosopher and physician Ibn Sina’s encyclopedia “The Canon of Medicine” (1025) wherein he mentions the art over a hundred times, to reports of the incredible music therapy practices in hospitals of the Ottoman empire. I believe strongly that music should be integrated into every healthcare setting, having seen some of the benefits first hand by playing and singing on hospital wards. On a more fundamental level, something I learned recently that filled me with awe is that hair cells in the cochlea of our inner ears quietly hum, creating a ‘signature sound’ for that ear. So every one of us who is born with ears is literally born with a kind of music inside us, unique to every one of us – how could music not then have an effect on our wellbeing?!
Do you think your faith interacts with your music?
My faith informs everything I do. I think everyone’s beliefs or worldview influences how they choose to live their life. For example, if your day is demarcated by five prayers that correspond to five different positions of the sun, that will influence your whole concept of temporality and affect anything you do - from playing the recorder to walking down the street, to washing up…
Do you have any advice for young people starting out with musical instruments?
Find an instrument that you can really sing with, and that tells your stories. I really believe that there is an instrument out there for everyone - you just have to find it!
Seek out a good teacher
Someone asked me these four questions which may help you decide which artistic approach you’d like to take: when did you stop singing, when did you stop dancing, when did you stop being enchanted by stories, when did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence? For me, I rephrase them as how will you start dancing, how will you start singing? And music is usually at the core of my responses.
Fatima is based in Oxford/London and can be at contacted: www.fatimalahham.com