Zaki Ibrahim is a natural. Her genre-breaking music is a reflection of the diversity, artistry, and raw emotions that have lead her through life. Brought up within music and sound between South Africa and Canadaâ€™s West Coast, Zaki is now based in Toronto working with the cultural collective known as D6. After releasing her first EP â€œShÃ¶ (Iqra in Orange),â€ the young songstress continued garnering attention, sharing the stage with artists such as the Roots, Bedouin Sound Clash, Toots and the Maytals, Kâ€™naan, and Erykah Badu. With her latest EP, â€œEclectica (Episodes in Purple)â€ being distributed by Sony/BMG, Zaki has taken her craft to the next level. Format sits down to talk to Ms. Ibrahim about her lineage of sound and expression.
â€œAs a person, if you are going to go through your life not caring, not really understanding, kinda having this complex of â€˜yeah, Iâ€™m ignorant, butâ€¦â€™ Youâ€™re like a loaded gun.â€
Format: What are some of the areas your influence comes from, geographically, culturally, and musically speaking?
Zaki: I think it comes from a whole lot of different stuff. I listen to a lot of different music influenced by my parents, so like blues, jazz and afro beat; stuff like that.
Also hip hop, my dad used to listen to hip-hop. He was someone who pushed me in the hip-hop direction at the time. So thereâ€™s a bunch of different influences — like different sounds. But thereâ€™s also the influence of, um, when you hear a sound, you give your own rendition of it.
So like when Michael Jackson came out with â€œThriller,â€ there would be the family rendition of it, you know, with all the cousins. I guess I donâ€™t think too hard about what the influence is. I just try to be me, myself, and make the sounds that come out naturally. Over my musical lifetime, this last chunk of years, and [by using] my understanding of music, Iâ€™ve been trying to make it my own science, in the way that Iâ€™m super, super particular about rhythm; like polyrhythm kinda stuff, and [regarding] harmonies [Iâ€™m] particular to the point of being like, â€œ No , actually, it has to be like this, it has to be this minor.â€
Format: Your music has generally been thought of as hard to classify into set genres. Is that a reflection of your self?
Zaki: Itâ€™s gonna be harder and harder for the media to classify things, because I think itâ€™s gonna be a reflection of that person, and because so many of us in this generation have so many influences. For instance, Iâ€™ve been called a hip-hop artist, like â€œ[a] new hip-hop artistâ€ on the CBC and stuff like that, or for certain festivals and things, because they needed to have the hip-hop or â€˜urbanâ€™ [element] or whatever. I wonder what it is about hip-hop that comes throughâ€¦ but I guess that makes sense, â€˜cause the way I followed the musical path was through hip hop, or the formula of what hip hop is in a way. But then thereâ€™s this whole other side, like this electronic dance music. When I was a really little kid, I would watch my big cousins dance to house music and break-dance. Like mid-tempo house; very minimal kinda stuff that people are now calling â€˜hip-hop electroâ€™ or whatever. So I remember being like seven or eight years old and like, â€˜Holy, this is so exciting.â€™
Format: Do you still feel like hip hop is within your music?
Zaki: Yea there must be, because itâ€™s there. Iâ€™ll be writing a ballad that sounds maybe a lot like a folk song, and Iâ€™ll be like, â€˜I absolutely canâ€™t pronounce those two words together. This rhyming couplet has to be the way that I learned to rhyme and add.â€™
The way I actually did learn how to MC; how to put rhymes together, was through people like Rakim. Iâ€™d actually break down peopleâ€™s rhymes, listen very carefully, try to write my own in different ways, and try to rhyme without rhyming; that kind of thing.
Format: These last few years have been pretty big for your career. Whatâ€™s it been like on a more personal level?
Zaki: Itâ€™s been a crazy couple of yearsâ€¦a lot of fun, and a lot of learning. Thatâ€™s where the eclectica of the album came from. [Then there is] the purple [aspect] – purple is kind of a grown up colour to me. Itâ€™s like the difference between just trying your luck and seeing, and just going out for sheer experience. Orange represents love and sensuality, and “Iqra [in Orange]â€ means “to read or seek knowledge,â€ or just stay open and keep learning. So â€œIqra in Orangeâ€ is learning [about me and my music] and doing it with love. Purple represents coming of age and self-confidence, so putting to work the things I’ve learned and continue to learn, with each â€˜eclectic episode,â€™ so to speak.
Format: The new LP, â€œEclectica,â€ has a more experimental vibe to it compared to your previous EP. There’s a lot more detail in the sound. Did you feel a personal onus to push the boundaries in your music?
Zaki: I found that there were challenges in trying to put across the sound that I had in my head, and not have it be too much, because thereâ€™s a lot of stuff there. Sometimes I write songs over a two-year period, or six-month period, or sometimes 45 minutes, you know what I mean? But when itâ€™s that one-year or two-year period, itâ€™s a lot of different things, a lot of different concepts. So it was a challenge for me to not get too busy. But I donâ€™t think it was me trying to push the boundaries, like, â€˜This has got to be some new shit.â€™
Format: Your stage shows are almost always themed in some way by the outfits or attire you and your bandmates rock. Where did that come from?
Zaki: I love visuals, I love art, and I love fashion. I think visuals sometimes gotta be as expressive as the music in its own ways. I really like the idea of having this visual component. When I dress up, I get into character, and I get comfortable being in that character. I think that a group of people that are dressed for the occasion gel more easily in some ways. Itâ€™s just fun to be a crew, and be like, â€˜Yeah, weâ€™re in this production.â€™ There are so many ideas I havenâ€™t got to flex yet. Iâ€™m just a fan of the showmanship.
Format: You’ve always been active and exploring within the community in which you make music. How important is it for you to have this sense of community behind you?
Zaki: Thereâ€™s a sense of community of a bunch of levels. There are my friends, aka my family, my support system; people who are giving me encouragement when I see them. Over the past few years, it has been really busy, but Iâ€™ve always felt like I need to touch in with my community, friends, and like-minded people.
Itâ€™s always been important [to me] to have a sense of community, but thereâ€™ve been times that thereâ€™s this kind of feeling like, â€˜I canâ€™t very well go and do this thing, because itâ€™s just not within what the community is doing.â€™ I think itâ€™s important for everyone in the community to be going at their own pace and in their own direction.
Format: Cool, on a similar tip, artists in an ideal sense can be the voice of the people, or a certain group. Who do you feel you speak to, or for?
Zaki: Okay. During my childhood, I experienced poverty, extreme poverty. Iâ€™ve also experienced being very comfortable, in the same kind of stage of upbringing. So I had an understanding at a young age of what it is to have, and what it is to have not. But then as I grow, being of mixed heritage, Iâ€™ve had to figure out where this anger and animosity is coming from, from both sides of the spectrum. Like from, â€˜Youâ€™re too light skinned, youâ€™re too white,â€™ or, â€˜Youâ€™re too brown, exotic looking or whatever,â€™ all sorts of stuff. Iâ€™ve had to sort that stuff through [while] growing up.
When Iâ€™m speaking to my people, Iâ€™m speaking to a lot of different groups. All of whom need to, in my mind, understand that there is a responsibility to understand the other side. Otherwise, youâ€™re fucked. As a person, if you are going to go through your life not caring, not really understanding, kinda having this complex of â€˜yeah, Iâ€™m ignorant, butâ€¦â€™ Youâ€™re like a loaded gun.
Format: Do you ever feel in danger of being preachy?
Zaki: There are some songs [that Iâ€™ve written] that to me are a little too preachy.
I wasnâ€™t meaning to be preachy at the beginning, just wanting to get a feeling acrossâ€¦when I listen to music, I donâ€™t want to be preached to. The thing I like to work on is the metaphor and simplifying the lyric; so there are certain words [within my music] you hear and can hold on to, the lyric that resonates within you.
Format: Whatâ€™s next for Zaki?
Zaki: Work, world travel, tours, concerts, developing music, writing and producing with my girl Tanika Charles. Babies. Tons of kids.