The September Issues

NABIHAH IQBAL

NINJA TUNE

WRITER JILLIAN BILLARD TALKS WITH LONDON-BORN, PAKISTANI MUSICIAN, DJ, AND PRODUCER NABIHAH IQBAL ABOUT THE INNATE TRANSCENDENCE OF MUSIC, HOW SOUND IS INEXTRICABLY LINKED TO THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE, AND WHY ARTISTS MUST SURRENDER THEMSELVES TO CREATE AUTHENTIC, CATHARTIC WORK. 

photographed by MARY ROZZI at Somerset House, London on July 12, 2018
fashion director SIOBHAN LYONS
suit NICHOLAS DALEY

n pendant CELINE

words JILLIAN BILLARD

The notion that music is a universal language has long been debated. However, it is nearly impossible to trace the history of humanity without noting the ubiquity of music. For London-born, Pakistani artist Nabihah Iqbal, formerly known as Throwing Shade, music is a form of transcendent communication inextricable from the human experience. It holds the ability to tap into something deeper within us, perhaps even beyond the artist’s intention or control.

Iqbal grew up studying music—learning the guitar, flute, and piano at a young age—but she never considered the profound role it would have in her life. “Music has always been my first passion, but I couldn’t imagine that I’d be able to make it into a career,” says Iqbal. In her teenage years, Iqbal dabbled in London’s punk and noise scene before attending the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where she majored in history and ethnomusicology. 

She says, “Studying ethnomusicology really broadened my horizons, because it was the first time that I was properly exposed to music from other parts of the world.” She recounts learning the sitar and studying Gamelan and Turkish classical music, saying “it made me think about music in a deeper way rather than just music for music’s sake, and the profound effect that it can have on people.”

After completing her undergraduate degree, Iqbal went on to the University of Cambridge to study South African history, followed by a law conversion degree. Having passed her bar exams, she relocated to South Africa to practice human rights law. It was there that she began DJing and experimenting with writing her own music and eventually recorded her 2013 EP Mystic Places. It wasn’t long before people began to take notice of her unique sound, and her career as a musician began to develop.

dress SOPHIA KAH
shoes DR MARTENS

“It’s been five years since I’ve been focusing on music full time, and it still feels surreal,” says the artist. Her debut full-length album Weighing the Heart, released last year, exhibits an innate musical sensibility informed by her studies of ethnomusicology. Iqbal’s voice is hypnotic—crooning over ethereal soundscapes grounded by ‘80s synth pop-inspired basslines. The album marks a growth for Iqbal. Not only is it the first work she’s released under her birth name, but it also incorporates live instrumentation and poetic lyricism. Says Iqbal, “With this record, I was really thinking about the communicative aspects of music. I began to think about lyrics in a more serious way.” The resulting tracks are a beautiful synthesis of introspective rumination paired with dancey, club-inspired rhythms. “My main goal was to make music that has an emotional effect on people...I mean, you always want people to feel something or react in some way when you’re doing something creative, otherwise what’s the point? I want people to feel something, but I’m not trying to determine what that feeling is because everyone responds in their own way,” says Iqbal. Since the release of the album, Iqbal has received messages from around the world from people saying that her music had brought up something that they hadn’t thought about in a while or that it had brought them to tears. “That has been a really intense experience for me” says the artist, “because you work in isolation for so many months, and then suddenly it’s out in the open and people are having these reactions to it.”

We asked Iqbal about her thoughts on the relationship between music and seduction. She explained that while evoking an emotional response is her main objective when writing music, there is a clear delineation between the notion of seducing an audience and creating something that stimulates a cathartic response. “The dictionary definition makes it imperative that in order for ‘seduction’ to take place, there needs to be a ‘protagonist’ and a ‘victim.’ Music, on the other hand, is not about deception and manipulation.” She argues that music is “egalitarian and connects us with our most truthful feelings.” The artist’s role is not to seek conquest over an audience, but rather to offer a sense of clarity. Says Iqbal, “Music is a guide and a healer, while seduction is a cold facade.”

Ultimately, Iqbal suggests that music transcends the capabilities of seduction, as its effects on us are beyond our control. “Music and sound are so pure and so innate in our existence. Our whole bodies are run on vibrations, and we’re really affected by it even if we’re not aware of it,” she says. Music operates on a higher plane, and “the power of frequency and vibration are intangible.” Says Iqbal, “We humans are simply vessels through which the essence of music is channeled and received. We feel music and it gives us life, but we don’t understand it. We can’t. All we can do is surrender ourselves to music, and take in the energy that it offers to us.”