Naima Shalhoub found inspiration in an unlikely place: SF County Jail. For a year now, the Oakland-based singer-activist has been facilitating live music sessions with incarcerated women, and recently recorded a live album, Borderlines, behind jail walls. Her commitment to women’s voices at the intersection of arts and the jailhouse places Naima’s work within the long and expansive history of creative cultural responses and expression in the face of oppression.
This week Naima Shalhoub releases her first single off her upcoming album, a rendition of the iconic American Civil Rights movement song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” The song opens with a beautifully soulful oud placing us first in the desert homelands and long memory of the Middle East. In the context of #SayHerName, American activists traveling to Palestine to collaborate with freedom fighters there, and the ever-revolving door and burgeoning profits of the prison-industrial complex, Naima’s inspired version emphasizes upliftment from oppression and resonates with the famous anthem’s core theme of freedom. To hear the female inmates in the live audience getting all riled up and singing to the repetitious chorus “hold on” is riveting and soul-stirring. Naima’s version situates itself right here in our modern civil rights movement.
As a Lebanese-American woman with a MA in Postcolonial Anthropology, Naima easily sidesteps the misconception that Middle-Eastern women are passive and controlled. Rather she bespeaks the strong herstory of women-centered culture, leadership and spiritual power which is largely overlooked by the West. Also an actress, this spring Naima had a role in “Xtigone,” produced by the African-American Shakespeare Company in SF. Significant in the production was the focus on ritual and the sacred while dealing with the subject of urban violence. Our own Oakulture review said of her performance, “ . . . Naima Shalhoub practically steals every scene she’s in.”
Prior to interviewing Naima, I read every article, listened to every interview and researched her search results on Google. Yet when I saw her perform live recently as she opened up for Nneka at the New Parish, I was unprepared for the immediacy of her performance. When she covered Erykah Badu’s song “Certainly” I heard the lyrics, addressed to a date rapist, more direct and real than I have in a long while. What struck me most and yet hadn’t been conveyed in anything I’d read or listened to, was that she sang as a woman committed ultimately to letting loose her raw power. Her work is admirable. Her politics are on point. But what I recognize most strikingly about Ms. Naima Shalhoub hearing her perform live and on this single is a deep personal commitment to freeing her own voice, an instrument which she uses to connect with other women.
Her upcoming album, Borderlands, which will feature some of the women inmates from the jailhouse music sessions, is due to be released late Summer/early Fall. Putting her money where her heart is, fifty percent of the profits from the single and the album will go towards re-entry programming and support for incarcerated women.
Oakulture: How long have you lived in Oakland? What is exciting to you about Oakland culture right now?
Naima Shalhoub: I moved to Oakland 5 years ago and since day one I’ve learned and felt a deeper understanding of community than anywhere else I’ve lived. From what I’m learning, Oakland continues to experience its own borderland, facing a surge of gentrification while those born and raised here still continue to hold its culture down strong. Even though culture is a moving force that shifts with time and different influences (and to me it’s never a singular thing) there are power dynamics in those influences. What’s exciting about Oakland is learning about the rich legacy of people and movements that have claimed and reclaimed Oakland as a town in the face of a lot of pressure to collapse or water down its history because of racism, classism, etc. And its complex because I don’t think it’s a clear binary divide between gentrifier and cultural worker for most. Oakland is in an interesting time because of the fluidity and hybridity of many cultures here, and I’m constantly moved by the beauty of cultural resistance and rebirth that communities continue to participate in and create. I feel really blessed to live and be a part of some of these communities and to stay open and learn about what my part is in all of it.
Oakulture: What do you do in the music sessions in jail? What are your goals for this project?
Naima Shalhoub: I didn’t have many expectations of where the work would go when I first started volunteering over a year ago in SF County Jail. I just felt called as an artist to do something to intervene on the confinement and isolation of the prison-industrial complex and was inspired by others who have done similar work for years before me. The first session we had together was simple yet profound. As an introduction I sang a few songs on my ukulele that I felt might relate to their experiences, but was not prepared for how deeply that meant to the women in the room. The gratitude and appreciation was overwhelming. The music sessions moved me in a deep way and showed me how powerful music and story-sharing can be in spaces of confinement – how it could be a time and space that is safe and reaffirming of one’s value, even within a context that is opposite of that.
I had it in my heart to create a collaborative space with incarcerated women for many reasons. One being that women are currently being incarcerated at the fastest rate. Two being that the reasons most women are incarcerated are for non-violent offenses. So the complexity of that alone has been staggering to me, especially hearing the stories why they are there or in and out of jail. I don’t believe that a retributive punishment system does anything to improve society. I’ve only learned that it makes things worse. So I’ve been asking myself and learning from others what it could look like to create spaces that are restorative and transformative rather than the way things are now in the criminal justice, education and health system, as they are all related.
Oakulture: On May 5th, you recorded your forthcoming debut album, Borderlands, within the SF county jail with a live audience of the women inmates with whom you have been facilitating the music sessions. This was a different set-up than the sessions which you and the women were accustomed to. What are some of the lessons learned from that recording project?
Naima Shalhoub: Because the Borderlands recording was in a context of me collaborating with many of these women for the past year, the album performance and Mother’s Day celebration that we had was one of the most powerful days of my life. Even though it was clear we were in a jailhouse, there were very rich moments of resistance, beauty and community as the spirit moved through the space. The dichotomy felt like a borderland and for a moment I felt a sense that spaces can be transformed with community, art and a lot of hard work.
Rhodessa Jones, founder of The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, graced us with her presence by opening up with a ritual of poetry and call and response. None of it would have happened if it wasn’t for Angela Wilson, program coordinator in the B Pod of the Sheriff Department with whom I’ve been working. She has been in The Medea Project for 16 years and is a huge advocate of these women and became one for me. Angela introduced Ms. Jones and after she blessed the space we performed our set for an hour. The amazing musicians who played with me were Isaac Ho on Keyboard, Tarik Kazaleh a.k.a Excentrik on oud, guitar and tabla, Aaron Kierbel on Cajon and drum kit, and Marcus Shelby on bass. To close the whole event after our set, we had an open mic and several women came up to share their poetry and words. It was profound and felt like a spirit-filled, soulful, collaborative experience in the least expected place.
Oakulture: What is it like to perform for that crowd?
Naima Shalhoub: It was powerful to sing freedom songs in the context of a jailhouse – to record them with the women’s voices present in the recordings. Opening the set with “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” an arrangement of the the Civil Rights resistance song, with lyrics like “the jail doors opened and we walked right out” in call and response with women who are incarcerated was unforgettable. There were several moments like that on the recording day, moments that felt like expansion beyond the confines of the jailhouse where our voices created a unity beyond the barriers of the system and those we carry inside ourselves. To see the energy of the women participating and collaborating with me and the band during the songs was immense and moving. I’ll never forget it.
Oakulture: Why does voice matter for women? What is important about working for freedom with a group of all women?
Naima Shalhoub: I asked a question in one of my music sessions in SF County Jail after we read Maya Angelou’s poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”: Do you feel you have a voice? Half the room said “yes” and half said “no.” We discussed the various feelings and experiences of having a voice yet not being heard, and if that means that one really has a voice at all. We discussed the possibilities of still having a voice even when dominant social systems may not recognize you as having one that is worthy. I still grapple with this question.
On a personal level, I’ve come to a place in my life where I have to believe I have one, even though in some spaces I may not be heard. And in the spaces I am heard I try to think of whose voices I could carry with me that may not be heard. I often think about how the voice is haunted by justice and ask myself how I can sing in a way that gives voice to the stories, places and people that may not be recognized as worthy in mainstream histories or systems. The voice can be a complex thing, but when I sing it feels the most simple because the soul can be expressed through music in a way it’s difficult otherwise. All this to say, the conversation matters. The voice can be an expansive tool in spaces of confinement–through music, poetry, speech, movement, etc. That’s what moves me most about freedom and the voice, the ability to express oneself even in spaces of so-called un-freedom.
Learn more about Borderlands: Singing Through the Prison Walls
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