Published Oct 11, 2013Zaki Ibrahim is truly grateful for all the attention she's been getting lately, but admits that it's all a bit surreal. Landing on the shortlist of this year's Polaris Music Prize for the silky smooth album Every Opposite (released back in fall 2012 and officially re-released in Canada this past summer by indie label Pirate's Blend) managed to expose the Nanaimo-born singer-songwriter to new audiences outside of her long-time underground R&B/soul base. Recorded over several years in spots including Canada and South Africa (where her father is from; her mother is Scottish/English and still based on the West coast), Every Opposite is heavily R&B- and soul-influenced yet draws from many diverse musical elements, defying genre categorization in the process. Far from an "overnight success" — she's been a fixture in the Canadian R&B/soul scene since the early 2000s and released her breakout EPs Shö (Iqra in Orange) in 2006 and Eclectica (Episodes in Purple) in 2008 — Ibrahim stands as an industry case study representing the steadfast determination a "non-mainstream and/or urban" artist needs into order to achieve lasting success in this country. And Ibrahim herself notes that her own success is a journey, not a destination. Splitting her time between Toronto and Cape Town, she currently appears on the new Red, Hot + Fela compilation, is doing spot tour dates supporting Every Opposite, and is wildly excited about getting the ball rolling on her new full-length projected for release "sometime next year, hopefully."
How are you?
I'm well thank you. How are you?
Doing great. How've you been?
You asked me that already. [Laughs]
Awkward. So where are you at right now?
In Toronto right now.
How did you find yourself appearing on the latest Red Hot + Fela release?
I was asked by [South African musician] Spoek Mathambo when we were both in transit and happened to be in the same city. [Fela Kuti cover "Yellow Fever"] was recorded in Johannesburg, South Africa. "Yellow Fever" was covered because the song touches on issues of mis-education and being a victim of conditioning. My music is about promoting of freedom of thought and without conditioning or category. Spoek is a longtime friend and collaborator. I worked on his record and have toured with him. He is always amazing to work with and an inspiring, open-minded individual.
Taking a step back, congrats on the Polaris Prize nomination for Every Opposite and also for performing at the gala as well. How was that whole experience for you?
Aw thanks. It was cool. It was really, really cool. It was cool to be recognized for the music and artistic integrity. I had to learn more about what the Prize is as it was rolling on but it was cool. The people that were nominated with me were all excited [that night]. I had a couple of conversations with people like the guys from METZ, Whitehorse, A Tribe Called Red, Young Galaxy and Purity Ring. We were talking about it and it was like cool to be put in a top category of musicianship I guess. So it was like wow, this is really cool.
Is there a sense of validation in being recognized on this level?
I guess so. I guess everyone is looking for a bit of validation but it's definitely not something that I was looking for, you know what I mean. I guess I'm just trying to carve out my own thing with the music that I make. Good is another person's bad and it's not better or worse. It's not a competition. When it comes to art, I don't think that competition is in my context [when] making it. People have asked me if I wanted to be on [television show] The Voice or wanted to do Canadian Idol but that was never anything that I was ever interested in. It's interesting to be nominated for anything — Polaris or the Junos — and it was surreal.
So you were living and making music in Toronto in the early 2000s: what was that like in terms of making records and having a deal with Sony Music?
I never created any record in a Sony environment. That was like a misconception because I created the record on my own pretty much. That Purple EP, that record was like the follow up to the Orange one, which was created in pretty much the same way. Towards the wrap up of it, the relationship with Sony kicked off. And it was cool, it was like we were all finding our feet with each other. It wasn't like anything big and scary, which was kind of me having reservations about getting into anything that wasn't going to fit me. And I think that they were sensitive to that as well.
Having said that, I don't think that we were able to find the right fit within the market that was happening at that time. In discussions it was like, take your time with it, and I just wanted to get out of it because I felt like I can't help but feel to make a certain type of record and I didn't want to feel that at all. So I just had to kind of be out and be a complete free agent. Not matter what genre you submerge yourself into, there are limitations with it. And in terms of making music, I don't like limitations at all. Like even being called a hip-hop or R&B singer is like cool, but that's not necessarily what I am. You know what I mean?
I write songs — that's a fact — and I produce as well alongside many collaborators. But as far as what that genre is or what you want to call it, I don't really prescribe to it so much. But, I'm not going to argue I do hip-hop music, I do soul music, I do R&B, I do electronic, broken, ambient, whatever you want to call it. You know what I mean? It just sounds mad flighty when you're trying to describe it what genre you're a part of it. It's just everything. Everything is everything. Always, everything.
So if you had to define the sound, what would that label be?
Sci-fi soul. [Laughs] I don't know, people come up with new stuff all the time. Like, neo-soul was created when Erykah Badu came out, someone came out with "progressive soul," like Frank Ocean or Bruno Mars, but you can call it whatever you like. "Sci-fi soul" sounds really cool. I didn't come up with that, but it kind of sounds cool so I'm going to run with it.
What are some of the challenges for a Canadian-based R&B or soul artist trying to make it in this country?
It might be a little bit difficult when it comes to having a consistent gig or having definite bookings at "R&B" nights or festivals. It just the luck of the draw. But that's the choice that I've had to make in terms of being an artist or musician. To be both it's a bit of a challenge; at the same time, I've never wanted to be that type of self-indulgent type of artist. I never want to be where [I'm like] "It's way over your head, I'm just genre-less" or anything like that. It's not like that at all. It's just sometimes like R&B, like soul, like acoustic R&B.
What's the challenge for you specifically?
The challenge so far has been a lack of placement, but it doesn't worry me so far. But I don't want to be the flavour of the month as an artist either. So I have to keep consistent in terms of what I want to do, while paying attention to what's around me in the Canadian music scene and take that in. As far as support, I think there's been support, but besides the Polaris thing, there wasn't been anything big like that. Which is why I think the Polaris thing is really amazing and a really huge blessing because it speaks to the art and the genre-less, hopefully. Except for you could say indie rock because I know [previously] there was a lot of controversy around it not speaking to R&B, urban or black music before and I heard a little bit of that in the lead up.
I don't want too political [laughs] but there is support of the arts and a welfare system [where] artists get funding. I've gotten funding and I definitely appreciate it but I do also see a dependence on it, and there's this feeling of it being unfair. And when I step away some, this type of system where there isn't any support for art, where artists are making stuff with no or little money, it's about collaborating because everyone wants to see something beautiful happen, as opposing to waiting for the grant, or waiting of the cheque before making that move. It comes from a different place [and] as a Canadian and spending time in Canada, I feel lucky for having experienced that other side. I'm going to go ahead and make this record where I could definitely use that funding to take things that much further in that way, but it's also like we need to look at our communities, not just the R&B or the hip-hop or the indie rock but look at the whole thing to see how to maximize use and collaborate. I think that's the wonderful thing about Canada is that it's all a mixed bag and there's something really beautiful here, compared to the United States and compared to the rest of the world.
So where do you call home these days?
My skin. [Laughs] My suitcase. Yeah right now I can't even make that call.
What was the process of recording Every Opposite? Where were you living? Were you in South Africa the whole time? What's that scene like?
I was back and forth a lot during that time, which is not much different from how it's been for the majority of my life. Going back and forth, I'm really missing things. I'm always missing food, I'm missing people, whatever. When you write about something — inspired to write about something — it's because you're missing something or romanticizing something. So often times my South African influences would come out when I'm recording and writing in Canada, and vice-versa. Does that make sense?
Yeah. Moving about and the distance makes the heart grow fonder — that sort of thing — that's the influence for writing.
So what about new stuff? What's happening with any new music at this point, from the concept on down?
I'm into my [new] record now. I'm working with Catalyst, Alistair Johnson and also I'm working with Jervais Gordon from the UK and Scratcha and Rich Kidd. But it's too soon to say because I'm in the production and writing stage. But that's who I'm working with right now [and] it's not about trying to make it sound exactly like the last record. I'm not going to think too tough about it or get too cerebral on stuff like that. I think it's a lot more raw, a lot more intimate, I don't know.
Have any projected release dates?
No I don't. But I'm getting there. We'll see. Maybe I'll have a good summer of touring [next year] and then that can be a lead up, hopefully. But it's hard to say. It would be cool if it happened sooner than that.
Is there anything want to do differently music wise? Any lessons learned from creating Every Opposite?
Nope. I don't regret anything as far as the making of the record. It's led me up to this point so far. It's about continuing to move into different spaces. Every Opposite is set to release in Europe this December or January.
Was how you distributed the album — South Africa in fall of 2012, Canada in mid-2013 — a conscious decision?
That's a different story. Every Opposite was a learning curve, as far as release and timing, all of that. I'd like to line it up nicely and I hope the release of my [next] record can time out a bit better.
So how do you define success at this point?
By being present. Being present and conscious of the moment. Not having your head in your ass. Being able to enjoy your life, spread peace and love. And sip cocktails poolside every once in a while. If you can go through success without being a douche about it, then that's good.