Zaki Ibrahim
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Zaki Ibrahim


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"Zaki Ibrahim's Global Soul"

By Cristina Cerullo

Zaki Ibrahim is not afraid of change, as she declares in the lyrics to "You Choose," a track off of her most recent album, Eclectica (Episodes in Purple). The genre-bending songwriter's eclectic artistry has brought her to the stage with artists such as The Roots, K'Naan, and Erykah Badu, but it is her desire for growth and change, both musically and socially, that has her inspiring crowds with a fresh, honest view of the world.

Zaki was born to a South African father who was an anti-apartheid political activist involved in community broadcast radio and a Scottish-English mother who taught English as a second language. "I think that just from living in South Africa and experiencing what they've experienced has made my family all very politically minded in that they are aware of and involved in community initiatives." Her father, who lead a community radio station in Cape Town and later on in other parts of Africa, demonstrated the importance of communal expression early on. "I've been able to observe how important it is to have access, to be a voice and to express the issues of your community. I've just been surrounded by that all of my life."

Because her parents wanted her to explore the diversity of her roots, Zaki grew up in both Vancouver, BC, and South Africa, exposing her at an early age to the vast cultural differences between the two.

"It was during that time, going back and forth as a child, that I got to see a lot of the differences in things like education quality and people's attitude towards it. On one side in South Africa people are struggling to go to school while there were a lot of riots, and then coming to North America later on in high school people are skipping school and the attitude is completely different. Just being able to observe that was an experience. It shaped the way I see the world in general, in interesting ways that come out in my art and in my poetry."

Constantly on the move, Zaki learned to digest and express those experiences through her music.

"I feel like I've always had to embrace and accept change and find ways to embrace different angles and perspectives while still paying attention to how I am able to make change myself. It's almost like self-therapy in a way. I do see it as being a gift to be able to kind of lay it out in front of me and then be able to share it with someone else."

Zaki's live performance blurs the line between performer and audience, exhibiting an innate sense of community awareness. The seamless combination of her soulful music and socially conscious lyrics transcends cultural boundaries.

To reduce her art to its recognizable hip-hop, r&b and jazz influences seems absurd, so I asked Zaki how she feels about the seemingly inevitable confinement of genre classification.

"This always brings up the question of where my influences come from because there's obviously a lot of different cultures behind them. But it reminded me of while growing up during apartheid in South Africa there was this pass that one had to carry stating what they are, as in 'what's your race.' And I never really thought about this particular thing, but I felt that that was a really weird concept for a child to understand and be able to accept. On the pass there were all these categories stating whether you were either African or Indian or Malay, and you were not able to go into certain areas if you were not white. But yet you were still put into a category for no reason. It created major division. So the idea of putting yourself in a genre is not a comfortable thing to do. It's just music. And therefore [it] involves everything that's part of you."

Captivating audiences while eschewing borders and cultural divides, Zaki's music has the undeniable ability to open minds and touch souls. "Whenever I'm able to address something on a smaller level it usually translates into the bigger picture. For instance, when you are not able to see the big picture because of fear, or being set in your ways, that fear of difference makes it harder for you to make any kind of change. If I'm able to do that for myself then I feel like whatever is put out there might inspire someone else to do something similar."

- Huffington Post

"Zaki Ibrahim: Soul Searcher"

By Jason Richards
The Toronto R&B sensation faces the music industry meat grinder head on

Ask anyone who knows her and they’ll tell you Zaki Ibrahim is destined for greatness. Hell, we knew that when we named her Toronto’s top R&B singer of 07. Seems the 25-year-old doesn’t read her own press.

“I feel lucky that people are saying nice things,” she says, modestly.

Modest or not, she’s smart enough to see the benefits of good ink, even arranging a Mod Club concert to coincide with this cover story.

We’re in booths with a few of her close pals at the Skyline Café, near her Parkdale address. Surrounded by the 70s decor of her favourite greasy spoon, Ibrahim is much more comfortable beatboxing spontaneously while her friend and backup singer Tanika Charles kicks the 87-era rap they sometimes bust onstage:

“Driving one day, there was a nice cool breeze / just enough of a chinook to sway the leaves on the trees / There he was, yes, I wanted to skeez him / He asked me what my name was, I caught amnesia.…”

Everyone laughs, including Ibrahim’s other accomplices, artist Heather Thompson and musician Sarah Shafey. An older man in a red sweater who blends right into the quirky decor has been enjoying his lunch right behind us. He says it sounds like he missed something great. He did.

“Oh well,” he says, “shit happens.” More laughter.

Lots of shit – the good kind – has happened to Ibrahim in the four years since she moved to Toronto from her native Vancouver. When she’s not collaborating, writing, recording and producing songs at a prolific rate, Ibrahim has been building her audience like any other aspiring superstar.

She’s played at V Fest and the Hillside and Montreal Jazz festivals, among other shows. She’s opened for the Roots and toured the country with the Jo-burg-based hiphop group Tumi & the Volume.

Demand for her unique sound was high enough for her to collect a few songs for her Shö: Iqra In Orange EP in 2006. Interest in Ibrahim has been rising in Europe since several dates there with Bedouin Soundclash, and her songs Grow and Daylight were released as singles on the Treehouse label in the UK.

Oh, yeah, and she just signed a deal with Red Ink (Sony/BMG), which will distribute her debut full-length, Every Opposite, later this year. Before that happens, she’ll drop another independent EP, Eclectica In Purple, showcasing her hard-to-place soul style.

Seems Ibrahim’s on the verge of blowing up into the “urban” Feist or the next Nelly Furtado – the early, cool Nelly Furtado, not the current pop sellout writhing awkwardly in her videos. Or she could be the next Amy Winehouse, addictions not withstanding. Asked if she’s planning a drug- and alcohol-fuelled meltdown, Ibrahim deadpans, “Fucking totally.”

Regardless, all the elements are in place for Ibrahim’s ascension. She’s original, she’s talented – and she’s not hard to look at. The right promotional boost from the label could equal some serious pop appeal.

And she’s still young enough in her career that there’s no trace of diva-ism or egotism. She wants other artists and musicians – many associated with District Six Music (aka D6), the independent label she developed with Dave Guenette – to be included in this story. Yes, she’s being gracious, but she’s also being astute – she knows exactly who got her to where she is and it’s never a good time to burn bridges.

D6 arose from the shared interest she and Guenette, then total strangers, had in bringing Tumi & the Volume here after both saw them with Blackalicious in South Africa in 2003.

The daughter of an English teacher, writer and poet from the UK and a South African musician, community leader and anti-apartheid activist (“Of course he’s a freedom fighter – he’s black – but it’s not like he’s Assata Shakur”), Ibrahim lived in Cape Town for a few years in the early 2000s and landed a gig at the radio station where her dad worked. She and Thompson hosted The Souled-Out, which some listeners found too off-the-wall, on a politically significant South African community radio station.

“It was madness,” says Ibrahim of the program, which covered topics ranging from “institution vs. revolution” to the hiphop Grammys, ideas they’d come up with 10 minutes before going live. “We were getting heat. Some people were like, ‘You have the power of the media in your hands. You should be taking advantage of this.’”

Years later, after moving back to Vancouver and then Toronto, Ibrahim invited Guenette to her show with hiphop-funk band the Quartertones at the Drake Hotel. There, he discovered that Ibrahim wasn’t just an aspiring promoter but a phenomenal singer, too.

From then on, the two started working together while making friends and meeting creative partners: DJ Nana; DJ L’Oqenz (pronounced “Eloquence”), who has taken on some management responsibilities along with Ibrahim and Guenette post-signing; artist manager Sol Guy; director Charles Officer, who will work with Ibrahim on music videos; and artist/designer Bryan Espiritu, a good friend of Ibrahim’s and the designer of the D6 logo, among multiple projects.

Ibrahim fills a canyon-sized void within Toronto’s disparate soul scene, bringing an earthy sophistication to her songwriting unheard in the exhausted club R&B sound plaguing the city’s lone “urban” radio station. Without sounding contrived, biting mainstream trends or trying to mine authenticity from a retro sound, she has gracefully broken the monotony.

Canada’s most popular soul singers, like Glenn Lewis, Jully Black and Keshia Chanté, have hit their genre’s heights but never enjoyed the sort of crossover breakthroughs that the country’s indie bands have in the last few years.

Ibrahim’s own “grassroots” approach with District Six is much closer to the Broken Social Scene model than the traditional major-label process typically used to sell Canadian R&B.

And at a certain point it is all about selling. Which is why, next day, I see Ibrahim at a label-coordinated photo shoot at a King and Dufferin warehouse. She’s been here since 7 am, and it’s well after 5 now. Dave Harris and Erica Silver of Red Ink are here, too. After being encouraged by REMG founder and A&R rep Jonathan Ramos, Harris started building a relationship between the major label and D6.

With her complement of new colleagues and collaborators, the small universe Ibrahim has fostered with D6 since 2004 is expanding. Suddenly, people she hardly knows are offering creative notes and assisting with the direction of her image.

“The goal is simply to remain genuine and authentic,” she says, reciting a page out of the celeb-speak marketing handbook. “There’s an art to showmanship and putting across a personality. But you can’t overthink that stuff.”

At the photo shoot, Ibrahim ducks out of the colourful studio holding a frilly white dress. She seems to be in good spirits after 10 hours and six makeup, hair and clothing changes.

Still new to this process, she speaks about it over the phone the next day.

“At the start, it was horrible,” she says. “You’ve got lights in your face and you’re in these really awkward positions. All morning I’m thinking, ‘This fucking sucks,’ and all the looks on my face were like, ‘This fucking sucks.’ I felt so bad to be wasting everybody’s time.

“Some people from the label were there who wanted to kind of capture the process and make sure everything was going okay. During the shots, they weren’t really feeling it. Like, they weren’t really liking the choice of poses or clothing.”

While Ibrahim has learned to appreciate the dual – and sometimes duel – arts of collaboration and compromise, she and Guenette say that creative control is ultimately hers. She relies on her friends’ input and listens first to the advice of her D6 circle on many matters, from sound to style.

“She’s a music lover first and foremost,” says Guenette. “We’ve been bugging out over the new Radiohead. And we’re not all at the centre of one another’s universe, but we’re all fans of each other, too. We listen to so many different things. If there’s a genre that fits everything together, that’s where she fits.”

“To me, it’s impressive that she can do a show with Bedouin Soundclash and another with all these rock bands and still always catch people’s ear,” says L’Oqenz. “It’s a breath of fresh air.”

“Let’s just leave it at ‘urban,’” says Ibrahim, sounding about 55 per cent certain that this is the best description of her music. “Let’s figure out what the hell ‘urban’ means and then get back to me. I’m not mad at the word – I just think the way it’s used is ridiculous.”

But working on her forthcoming “urban” release, Every Opposite, has caused Ibrahim to concentrate her sound, which draws from folk, hip-hop, jazz, ambient and electronic elements.

“[Every Opposite] has gone through a few changes. I was starting to get a little bit frustrated, because I am open to input but the input was sort of scattering my head and the original concept.

“Some of the songs are being tweaked a little bit because they go from being super-beat-heavy and big-sounding, hiphop-influenced to super-stripped-down, with Bobby McFerrin tones and an extravaganza of vocal percussion,” she says. “And then there are some grimy beats with simple samples, with not too much added.

While rooted in hiphop and soul, she represents a time of musical cross-pollination; her sound has qualities that are both familiar and exotic without ever seeming forced. While names like Hill, Badu and Scott are routinely invoked, Ibrahim’s songs are above and beyond neo-soul.

The day before the photo shoot, we visit the Remix Project, a music mentoring centre off Queen West founded by Gavin Sheppard.

Ibrahim has a number of friends here, like Toronto MC Kamau and Legends League founder Bryan Espiritu. While everyone says she’s been a positive influence in this space, Ibrahim swears she’s not “involved” in Remix per se but has been supportive, helping to promote and making connections with students when she can.

“We’ve had young vocalists come in who aren’t necessarily interested in fitting into the mould of the BET-type artist,” says Espiritu. “She’s worked closely with them about being expressive and true to themselves.”

But days like these, when Ibrahim can spend time with the people she’s been working with for years, are becoming an endangered species. Rehearsals, recording sessions, meetings and aspects of the development process are a full-time grind. With her schedule only heating up, how will Ibrahim build with friends, help support important projects and protect her freedom to create at will?

“Most likely a large part of a year will go by when I’ll be touring and won’t get to see familiar faces,” she says.

“What comes will come, and I trust myself to be able to deal with things.”

- NOW Magazine (Cover story)


Sho (Iqra in Orange): 2007
Eclectica (Episodes in Purple): 2008
Songs streaming on radio include "You Choose", "Computer Girl"& "Grow Again"



Zaki Ibrahim’s music is captivating and vibrant. It’s thick with poetics and steeped in a delicious mixture of earnest emotion and social commentary. Zaki’s path continues to progress, layering new experiences on top of each other that uniquely influence her musical ventures, culminating in her most recent project, eclectica (episodes in purple).

Zaki’s road has been paved with creative encounters that have propelled her forward – from a childhood steeped in musical influences, to performing at Capetown’s historic Armchair Theatre, then touring Canada with South Africa’s Tumi and the Volume, the Roots and Bedouin Soundclash, to collaborating with famed DJ/Producer King Britt, to now.

With a full length album in the works, Zaki will continue to break new ground, challenge assumptions and step outside her comfort zone. Her philosophy of making connections based on a mutual admiration for expression, creativity and the power of words, directs Zaki’s path. Expect the unexpected as Zaki continues to grow as an artist.