Naima Shalhoub: Liberation Through Remembrance

On ‘Siphr,’ the Oakland-based musician pulls contemporary social justice allegories from timeless themes.

Whether by design, destiny, or a combination of both, some moments just seem made for particular people.

In 2018, when Oakland musician Naima Shalhoub slipped away to Lebanon for three weeks to begin the creative process on a new concept album, she had no inkling that she would be writing songs that could later double as anthems for the social uprising currently gripping the globe.

She wanted to create something that reflected the entrenched problems she had confronted for years — institutional racism, cultural intolerance, cruel incarceration practices — all of which are now at the forefront of our collective consciousness. Her debut studio album, Siphr, set to come out on August 6, may have been a lifetime in the making, but its themes are so prescient that it feels like a living document of the moment.

“I’ve been involved in community organizing and social movements for the past 15 years in the Bay, so I think it’s natural to see that reflected in my art,” says Shalhoub, who recorded the album during a yearlong residency at the Women’s Audio Mission in San Francisco. “But really, the themes on the album are not fleeting. In fact, because of the pandemic, because of these uprisings, I feel that the album is all the more relevant to more people.”

Shalhoub is an ideal avatar for these fractured times. A Lebanese-American, she has confessed to feeling trapped between two worlds — culturally, socially, and religiously. Siphr, an Arabic precursor to the English word “cipher,” captures that dislocation vividly, travelling between tracks sung in English and Arabic and weaving between sounds that are both contemporary and traditional.

Yet throughout that byzantine journey, which plumbs the depths of both universal and personal awakenings, Shalhoub has a surprisingly optimistic message embedded in the album — one of reconciliation, self-reflection, and ultimately hope.

“I’m kind of consumed with the belief that we are never in a static place as humans,” said Shalhoub. “There’s always going to be another portal, or another cycle that we have to go through. But ultimately, there is healing through that struggle and hopefully we all continue evolving and transforming.”

The album is written with that cycle of pain and forgiveness in mind. The opening track, “One (Remembrance)” is a wordless piece meant to evoke visions of those who have come before, while the finale, “Nine (The Return”) — a fiery, emotive number that reprises the opening track’s beat — signifies emergence and renewal.

Shalhoub’s debut album was a live recording at the San Francisco County Jail — an undertaking that aimed to raise awareness of, and inspire empathy for, incarcerated individuals at that facility. Similarly, the theme of social justice permeates Siphr, although the album isn’t merely a vehicle of politically expedient, righteous outrage.

The most overtly political track “Eight (Arab-Amerikkki)” references the Klan in its title and attacks the legacy of colonialism, occupation, and white supremacy — but it also acts as a parable for religious awakening. (Shalhoub says she believes in the gospel of Christ, but has a disdain for its formalized institutions. “I do not consider myself religious and draw a difference between what religion and colonization did to the gospel.”)

On that track, which details her quest for enlightenment, she laments, “What is this life/When our death is our freedom,” a lyric ostensibly conjuring up the George Floyds of the world, while also exploring the limits and depths of spirituality.

With its moving 12-bar blues licks, “Four (Roumieh Prison Blues),” would seem like a vehicle to address the horrors of America’s deep-seated racial animus, but its sung in Arabic, with words taken directly from inmates held captive in the song’s eponymous Lebanese prison.

That is why the album has such a timeless, yet timely feel. When Shalhoub sings “Don’t look to the left/Don’t look to the right,” on “Five (Calling),” it could easily be interpreted as a warning against relying on political machinations — no matter how noble their intent — to find answers for societal wrongs.  However, Shalhoub said she wrote that song as a way to detail the shortcomings of seeking material satisfactions in life.

Still, with the world as it is, Shalhoub understands that listeners will link her lyrics to themes that are relevant to the current crises. You hear what you want to hear, and music is the perfect vehicle to deliver on those wishes.

Adding to the sense that Siphr’s songs belong to the universal realm are the ambitious, far-ranging numbers that underpin her evocative lyrics. Aided in large part by Excentrik (nee’ Tarik Kazaleh), a Palestine-American multi-instrumentalist, the sonic backdrop of the album is both contemporary and timeless; worldly and local. The songs range from ethereal jazz tunes to traditional blues songs to brooding hip-hop tracks and soulful ballads. Through it all, the album continues to return to the whispering sounds of the Middle East, particularly through the timely use of the oud, an instrument with origins that trace back thousands of years to the Arab world.

The album tackles huge issues, but it does so in a manner that feels encouraging for the future. In the liner notes, Shalhoub quotes the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who said “we who are capable of remembrance are capable of liberation.” Siphr is ultimately about seeking justice and answers by asking difficult questions and challenging the status quo.

With live music on hold for the foreseeable future, Shalhoub has been sharing her messages of understanding and awareness through her work as a restorative justice practitioner. She’s been live-streaming her music and teaching students techniques through remote learning, but she is eager to spread her message to a greater audience once Siphr is released next month.

“I hope that people have the opportunity to listen to this album and engage in conversations with me,” Shalhoub says. “Ideally, this will lead to further conversations about healing and honesty and struggle. Music is intended to open doors, and I hope this album can accomplish that goal.”

The world may not know much about Naima Shalhoub right now. But if any artist deserves a broader platform at the moment, it is her. Sometimes it takes a movement for one to realize their moment.

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