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Genre Hopping With Talibah Safiya

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Talibah Safiya is feeling grateful in these days of quarantine, despite having her latest ambitions curtailed by the ongoing pandemic. The Memphis native has been performing her own songs around town for nearly a decade, but had clearly started an upward arc recently, culminating in her win, with director Kevin Brooks, of the Indie Memphis Hometowner Music Video award for her song "Healing Creek" last fall. Since then, she says, "I've been working on an EP that I recorded at Memphis Magnetic Recording. Because it's all on tape, that shifted my focus a little bit. We weren't able to get into the studio, with the social distance practice."

But you couldn't really say she's putting on the brakes, as she continues to drop new songs, all startlingly original, every month. The most recent have been "Up and Down," "The Great Disguise," and "Golden Egg," which came out on her birthday, April 23rd. The latter track, equal parts earthy soul goddess and Memphis trap seductress, should resonate deeply with local hip-hop fans. "That was a Soundcloud exclusive," she notes. "Because I'm singing over a classic Memphis trap beat that DJ Paul and Gangsta Boo did, a '94 drop called 'Cheefa da Reefa.' I only put that on Soundcloud because I was using somebody else's beat."

Talibah Safiya - TAJA JANEL
  • Taja Janel
  • Talibah Safiya

While that's standard practice these days, Safiya is more comfortable creating her music from the ground up. "I'll start to craft the songs while I'm performing them. That's how they start to get super musical, because we're exploring it a lot in rehearsal. It comes together, birthing in a live space."

The intuitive, open-ended process has made her music hard to pigeonhole, and that's just how she likes it. "I'm a genre-hopping musician. I say that it's diasporic music because it's every form of music that black people have explored. Some of them sound kinda bluesy or folk-inspired. Some of them are totally R&B, and then one of the new releases sounds super hip-hop. So ... I do everything."

She puts it down to growing up between two worlds, in a sense. "Orange Mound and South Memphis is where I grew up, and I would say there was a duality to the way I grew up because my neighborhood became more 'street' over time. When I first got there, it wasn't like that, and then it started to change. It had different personalities in it. I was growing up with my mom, reading a lot. So I had this kinda duality. Also, my dad loved freestyling with us when we were kids. So my brother and I still freestyle together, all the time.

"My parents are great. My dad was a DJ on 103.5, so my relationship with music was so deeply informed by his relationship with music. The whole classic blues love that I have in my music comes from growing up listening to that every day on my way to school."

For anyone who's heard Safiya's unique blend of strength, sass, and melodicism, it's no surprise that her principal inspiration is Nina Simone. "She's the ultimate storyteller, through music. And she's another genre-hopping artist who is good at many kinds of music." And Safiya, like Simone, can inhabit her characters fully. It's also no surprise that she was a theater major in college, before dropping out and moving to Brooklyn. "But ultimately, home gives me the cradle that I need to create as my best self," she notes, describing her return to Memphis.

Here on native ground, she's found a crew of musicians and others who can follow her every turn on a dime. One of her latest collaborators has been Kevin Brooks, and it goes far beyond last year's award-winning music video. "Kevin Brooks traveled around with us while we were on the road last year," she says. "He was always in the corner, catching all the cool shit. I'm so excited to show how raw that journey was, and how much we learned along the way. It's called A Deep Water Sound."

Look for the new EP and the film this summer. In the meantime, Safiya will keep working through the pandemic. "Luckily I had some raw tracks, and I have things to work with on my computer at home. I have a decent mic. And I've been finishing things by myself, learning to produce more, and just trusting my skills, so I can continue to share and not feel like I'm on pause."

Keep up with Talibah Safiya at instagram.com/talibah.safiya.

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