Lebanese/American Naima Shalhoub Does More Than Just Singing in the U.S.

August 29, 2017

Songstress and educator Naima Shalhoub was born in the U.S. to Lebanese immigrants and pursued her graduate studies in the field of postcolonial and cultural anthropology.


Shalhoub has been actively involved in the San Francisco music scene. A combination of music and passion for social development is what brought to light her debut album "Live in SF Jail", recorded at San Francisco County Jail in 2015.  As a volunteer, the multi-talented activist has been facilitating weekly music sessions with incarcerated women, offering them "an hour of freedom" as quoted by one of the participants.


I first got introduced to Naima through a report from AJ+ popping on my timeline in 2015. We happened to be relatives with no prior sign - a wonderful coincidence. I also had the pleasure to interview Naima for the Middle East Sight as we discuss her upcoming plans. 


SAMIR: I'm thrilled to get this interview started. Can you tell us about your background?


NAIMA: Hi, Samir! I'm honored to be interviewed by you. I guess I can answer this in many different ways. I am definitely proud of being Lebanese. My parents came to the U.S. from Lubnan in the late 1970s and being Lebanese was always a big part of my identity growing up. I was also really drawn to music, playing piano and singing​ at a very young age. Those two things really shaped a lot of who I ​am ​- ​in addition to ​my​ genuine care for justice and ​the​ ongoing question of freedom and the ways in which we can collectively experience ​"​freedom and liberation​"​as people. The intersection of music and freedom has really been an anchor in my life especially ​th​​e past ​ten years. My graduate studies ​also​ had me questioning those issues of power and privilege and ​where I stand in the world with regard​s​ to history and social conditioning ​- ​​that are embedded within us in the form of racism, sexism, heterosexism, notions of nationalism, identity, and belonging. It is during that program that I started becoming undone and redone at the same time​ - it really took me back to my roots​. I started learning Arabic, going back to Lubnan, I also started prioritizing music in my life. This is really where the prominent intersection of music and questions of freedom - and how it shows up - was born.


SAMIR: I'd love to hear more about your music and how it motivates you in what you do. 


NAIMA: I've always been in admiration of the artist​s ​​who have shown deep discipline ​towards their practice ​- ​artists who ​are constantly looking out to better themselves​. Artists who ​us​e​ music as a language to communicate to the world​​, ​as a way to speak and give a voice to things that might be difficult or even taboo. ​Artists who challenge notions of justice, freedom, ​and mainstream norms. I ​believe in my mission as an artist - I ​have a vehicle, I have a vessel to actually speak these things and hopefully influence culture. I really admire artists such as Nina Simone, Umm Kulthum, Marcedes Sosa... so many that I could name. So many that are currently doing the same thing that I look up to, motivating me to push myself to question how I can refine myself. To be honest, I feel like I have just begun.


Emotional moment between Naima and a participating woman during the live recording session of "Live in SF Jail" / courtesy of Sarah Deragon


SAMIR: What does it mean to you to be Lebanese, yet born and raised in the U.S.?

NAIMA: I think that as an Arab/American, identities often at war with themselves​, ​it's important for me to just speak truthfully and honestly through the music that I write​. ​For example in 2014 when the Ferguson uprisings were happening in response to police brutality against black and brown people in the U.S. and racism that ​has​ been going on for hundreds of years, simultaneously Gaza​ was under attack​... I was deeply disturbed and from it, I wrote a poem that eventually turned into a song which is called "Ferguson Gaza Blues" that I've been performing the last few years... So that's an example where my Arab/American position kind of lends itself to. Just having a sensitivity toward​s ​injustices that are happening in the Middle East and the way they show up ​in the U.S. and the solidarity that can be born such as with black people, in ways that we can uplift each other through​ music - a natural way that ​helps me ​express myself and ​seeking to break barriers.


SAMIR: I'm also intrigued to learn more about Borderlands and the work you've done with incarcerated women and so forth. 


NAIMA: The "borderlands" project was really born from a place of trying to understand how unjust the prison system is in the U.S. and learning about the prison industrial complex. I was really motivated and inspired by artists like ​​Rhodessa Jones and Marcus Shelby who have taken their artistry and used it as a platform to speak against injustices and support incarcerated people. Rhodessa spent more than 20 years using her art to have the women tell their story and not someone else tell their story for them. Borderlands was kind of born from that place. I started asking my community how ​can I experience sharing music in jails, and I was introduced to this amazing woman Angela Wilson who worked in one of the women's jails. My first day happened to be on mother's day, I shared a few songs and ended ​up ​resonating so deeply with the women ​that ​it turned into this weekly Friday session of an hour of sharing music together. After a year going in weekly, I decided to record a live album in the jail to try to capture to the world outside the jail walls​, ​that each woman has a story. The criminal justice system isn't so just. We need to understand the systemic reasons that put people behind bars to begin with.​ The music I shared speaks of such injustices, along with the underlying issues behind the prison complex. ​


SAMIR: Congrats on your upcoming EP.  What are you trying to let the world hear through your music?


NAIMA: I'm really excited about this EP. Releasing it is really a symbol of ending a chapter in my life of the last seven years​ -​ what I've done and what I've experienced ​- and beginning a new chapter. These songs that I've written are a snapshot of where I was​, ​and the questions that I was wrestling with​. What are the ways in which we can show up each day trying to practice freedom​? ​Imagine creating a creative force in a world that wants to dull that. Overall I'm really excited and can't wait to hear what people get from them!


SAMIR: I've noticed some feedback from the Middle East encouraging you to exercise your work in the region, your homeland, rather than keeping it to the U.S. exclusively. What is your say?


NAIMA: As an Arab/American​, ​it's natural for me to want to take my music outside the confines of the U.S. and share it with​ others across the globe​. ​I'm not just referring to Arab​,​ Lebanese, ​or Middle-Eastern communities, but anyone who care​s to join a global community of folks who are sharing​, ​struggling, loving and dreaming.​ That​ is​ the​ true​power of music​ - soundscapes that go beyond language, igniting common feelings and thoughts. I'm excited to continue moving in that direction and hopefully, have more invitations and opportunities to be able to perform in the Middle East and internationally.

Naima's new EP "Borderlands" will be released later this year. Follow Naima online: 


Facebook/Instagram/Twitter: @naimashalhoub



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