Naima Shalhoub, by Robert Alleyne

Just over two years ago, on May 5, 2015, Naima Shalhoub recorded an album in San Francisco County Jail. The singer-songwriter, educator, and activist of Lebanese heritage was there to perform for inmates during a special event in honor of Mother’s Day. This makeshift session, recorded inside the halls of Pod B, would later become the aptly titled “Live In San Francisco County Jail.”

Shalhoub’s presence channels spirituality and consciousness. It is reflected throughout her music. Live in San Francisco County Jail is an ode to survival through struggle which searches for beauty and strength whenever it can. The music is effortlessly soulful; gentle like a fireside chat that is intimate, informative and reflective.

I ask what she feels the lasting impact of the album has been. It’s a question she contemplates before answering. “One main theme is hearing folks who have spent time on the inside, formerly incarcerated, have appreciated that the album sheds light, a little bit of light, on their experience and on some of the structural issues of the prison system,” she responds. “Not just [an] individualized focus on crime and [the] criminal, but more of the systemic effects.”

The album was released at the end of 2015, during a time when conversations around the American justice system were prevalent. It felt urgent. It felt necessary, and it received more press attention than she was expecting. It even managed to cross borders. “In Lebanon, there are some folks that I met who were really touched by it,” she says. “It's a different system there...but this idea of shedding a light on captivity and freedom went beyond the prison system and jail system. And [for it to] also cross culturally was really meaningful for me.”

Naima Shalhoub, by Robert Alleyne

Throughout the interview, Shalhoub poses questions which serve as reference points to her thoughts. “What does acceptance and grace mean in a time where so many people feel confused?” she asks as we discuss her new music. This raises more questions: “What is my relationship to the creator, and to truth and grace and love?...And what does it mean to be powerful in a time like now?”

“What does it mean to be powerful in a time like now?” I ask, probing for an answer.

“It's a question [to which] the answers will always change,” she responds. "Because since times are changing, I feel like our response has to change.” She pauses a little.

“What I feel like doesn't change, though, is one's relationship to whatever their source is... I have a very firm faith in God, and that really grounds me,” she shares. “I feel like it's important for me to have something that feels absolute, and have something that feels unconditional. We're surrounded by a world where there are so many conditions, and [faith] for me is an extreme source of strength and power, and I don't know where I'd be without it.

“I always come back to this notion of faith. And that might not be such a popular form of discussion, in these times, but I find that it anchors me. It enables me to take risks. It enables me to say things that I might not have had the courage to say before because I feel like as a human I'm fleeting. I'm here one day. I'm gone the next. So what can I do with the little time I have? I'd rather speak about truth to power, and try to be as honest as I can. And I feel like the only way I can be honest is to have some sort of relationship to what is truth and what is constant.”

Shalhoub shares that she had gone away from faith after being raised in a Catholic household. “I was raised in a Christian home...going to church every Sunday,” she shares. Her Lebanese-American upbringing would sometimes create cultural clashes that, at times, would make her jaded. “To this day I can't stand it. I can't stand religion,” she expresses. “I can't stand structured forms of spirituality that are...suffocating.”

While she never stopped being spiritual, it was a church in Oakland, Shiloh, that enabled her to rebuild her relationship with religion. “I hadn't gone to church in like 10 years...And I went, and the music was phenomenal!” she says. “[The music] started opening me up again because something so special happened that you just couldn't deny it. The power of the Spirit moving through music; it spoke to me in such a strong way, and that's how I started finding my own path toward my beliefs and my faith.”

“I had to find my way, and oddly enough, I found my way back, which I never thought I would… by reclaiming my own voice, within the Christian faith, that is empowering, that is about freedom, that is about grace and not about judgment,” she shares.

Naima Shalhoub, by Robert Alleyne

She speaks of religion and spirituality in terms of space — not just where the gap between the two things is, but also the points at which they join. The area where conflicting worlds connect is a theme in her music. “The heart of it really goes to this theme of borderlands: where are they, and what is the borderland of freedom and captivity,” she says. While the album was recorded in a jail, she tells me the idea of borderlands reaches beyond incarceration. “What separates us?  What brings us together? What are our internalized borderlands that we've learned, whether that be nationality, or race, or gender?” she says. “There's not much limit to where that conversation can go...it feels urgent for a lot of people to talk about these things. So I just find it a privilege to be able to step into that conversation and offer a voice to it as well.”

Shalhoub plans to release four studio versions of songs from her live album before moving on to write and record new music. “I feel like I just had to release this current music one last time,” she says. Her new music will be a chance to dig deeper on the themes of borderlands, captivity, and freedom that Live in San Francisco County Jail started to explore.

“I find the deeper I can go with myself, the deeper I can at least name some of these really difficult things to name,” she shares. “Most of the new music I've been writing appears to still be very much about the hypocrisies so many of us experience, or the injustices...I think I'm learning how to locate myself in that and not be so finger-pointing, but also point the finger at myself, and [explore] the ways that I also carry those dynamics of hypocrisy.”

“It's a new terrain for me...and I'm excited to see where it takes me musically,” she says.

As society changes, Shalhoub (inspired by a Nina Simone quote) feels artists need to be relevant and reflect the world around them. “I feel like artists are supposed to do our best to name the unnameable, or speak the unspeakable,” she says. “That might not change things directly, but it does open up space for others to feel heard and to not feel so alone.” with her music, Shalhoub is taking strides to bring people together no matter the situation.

Naima Shalhoub, Les Nubians
The New Parish
September 16, 2017
8pm, $22

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