Interview with DJ Nabihah Iqbal

Nabihah Iqbal DJ

Nabihah Iqbal is an exceptional musician, DJ and multi-layered person. After graduating from SOAS with a degree in History and Ethnomusicology, Nabihah completed an Mphil in African History at Cambridge before a brief stint as a human rights lawyer in South Africa. However, Nabihah instead decided to utilise her musical talents full-time, as a performer, composer, producer and DJ.

She has DJed at NTS Radio for the past seven years, and performed all across the world. Whilst locked down in Pakistan for seven weeks, she also created a ‘Lockdown Herbalist’ series (which has now transpired to’ Lockdown Musicologist’) to share her insightful knowledge on plants and music

We met with Nabihah at her studio in Somerset House, where she is artist-in-residence to learn more about her experiences at SOAS and beyond. 

DJ Nabihah Iqbal

What did you study at SOAS, and how did your time here affect you – as a person, or in your career?

I studied History and Ethnomusicology. Specialising in South African History, West Africa and the Atlantic slave trade. I did a bit of South Asia too, like the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals. I’m still friends with a couple of my teachers!        

How did you become interested in making music your full-time career? As opposed to your background in History and Human Rights Law. 

Just by pure accident I guess. Not with any planning, it just happened! Well, I suppose it’s not purely by accident, because music has always been my favourite thing. I’ve been doing music since I was a kid and then went onto study it at SOAS. 

The whole way through uni me and my friends were always making music or DJing and putting on parties in London. So I was always doing that but, you know, I thought it was just a side thing for fun. I thought I was gonna be a barrister and like, focus on human rights, and I did all of those things. But then at the same time, the music side of my life just started getting busier and busier. 

Photograph: British Council

Did you feel guilty? Like switching from human rights, and the idea of ‘changing the world’ to Music? 

Yeah, I mean, I still think about that quite a lot. And also it’s not just like guilt from that but also thinking, I don’t want to disappoint my parents and stuff but like they’re cool with it now. 

I think in terms of switching from a career that is so involved with helping people including those in the most compromised parts of society, and then switching to music, yeah, I definitely think about that. But, I feel that out of all the art forms, music is probably the most spiritual, there’s so much to get out from it.

I feel that when you become successful in any field of work, whether it’s Law or Music or Fashion or or whatever it is, you can use that platform to promote different ideas and causes and try to help people. There’s loads of ways of doing that through music. I feel like even just being a South Asian female, trying to navigate the music industry in itself is something that hasn’t really been done by a lot of people who look like me. So just trying to help others come up through the ranks as well and like giving people advice, especially young girls who want to do music, there’s all of those sorts of things.

This weekend I’m playing at a fundraising event for a refugee charity in Manchester. There’s like different things you can do! Obviously it’s different to if I was spending 24/7 in a law job… 

I feel like I’ve still got a long way to go. I hope that one day, I can get to a point where, you know, maybe I’ll have loads of money and then I can start a charity or donate all in the right places. Just do more and more. I think it’s really important for everybody, if you’ve got the privilege to help at least one person or just do something, then you should with whatever you do in your life. I think it’s just about having the right outlook right?

What is it like navigating the music industry? Do people kind of box you up? 

Yeah, I don’t really know how much you can blame people for it, but I feel like in the music industry, they want to categorise everyone, like know exactly what you are and what you do. And I think, especially as a female, if you’re not like, an over-sexualised singer, which is how most women in music are basically perceived, If you’re not that and you’re trying to focus on the more technical aspects as a producer or a DJ, and you’re not known to be semi-naked in your music videos, then I think people find it quite hard to understand what you’re trying to do, because they’re just not used to seeing women in any other way. That’s quite tough. I feel like the more diverse the range of women we see in music, the more confidence it gives others who want to pursue it.

You mentioned that you did a lot of music when you were younger, what did you play?

Like most kids, I learnt to play the recorder but I was really serious about it, I played like two different types… I was in the school orchestra, I played the piano, flute and guitar and then I used to go to music school every Saturday, the Centre for Young Musicians. I just, you know, liked to do loads of music and then when I was at SOAS, that was amazing, because it was the first time I was  exposed to different types of music from around the world, learning about different instruments. 

Do you find the teaching of the instruments at SOAS to be in depth?

I mean, when they’re trying to cover so many different areas and topics and subjects within the course, there’s only so much you can do… A lot of the instruments I learnt , in the countries and cultures where they come from, people devote their whole life to playing it. So, it’s obviously not the same as that, but in terms of just being able to try out different things and then if you’re interested in being able to pursue it yourself, it’s pretty cool. There’s not a lot of other places where you can try and learn the Balinese gamelan…  

How do you go about the research for your bi-weekly NTS show? Do you use some of what you learnt at SOAS as inspiration? 

Yes, that is definitely where I got the basis for my radio show when I first started doing it. I was sharing music that I found really interesting, a lot of which I discovered whilst I was at SOAS. I knew that most people wouldn’t have heard that kind of stuff before. No one else was really doing that when I first started, I think that is why the show got its own following and people were really interested. 

I’ve been on NTS going on 7 years!  So when I think over those seven years things yeah, I say things have changed a lot. There’s definitely way more of a hunger to listen to music from different cultures. And there’s loads of record labels putting out music from all around the world now. So, it’s become a lot easier to tap into different music styles. 

Nabihah Iqbal
Photograph: Nabihah Iqbal/Facebook

Do you ever replay the same songs? How do you go about finding inspiration?

I haven’t really repeated a lot of music at all. It takes time to research my shows, especially because I like to talk a little bit about the music and where it comes from. So yeah, it takes a bit longer.

It just depends, like if I’ve got a specific idea. Sometimes I’ll base a show on recent travels, if I’ve gone to a country and made field recordings there and found some interesting music from that place, then I’ll do a whole show based on that theme. Sometimes it can be just other things.

Recently, I did like a lover’s rock special because it was Valentine’s day so we were playing loads of romantic reggae and stuff. Yeah, it just depends, really. But I think the country shows are really popular. I’ve done one about Pakistan after going there, Japan, China, Sierra Leone and yeah, I think people like to just listen to it and to get a view of the word. You just hear this field recording of a place and then it transports you. People like that.

When you go to those countries, how do you insert yourself into the music world?

Well, I’m really lucky because a lot of the travelling I’ve done over the last few years is through music. Doing different projects and going out to play gigs you’re automatically with people who are involved in the local music scene. That just makes it easier. They can show you where to go, where the good record stores, you can really delve into the local scene quite easily.

But then other times, like for example, when I went to Pakistan to visit my grandparents. I was making recordings of the street and the call to prayer and like the birds and different things, and then making recordings of different people singing.

Do you have any specific memories of SOAS that stand out to you? 

I think the library was really important…people used to call me the library girl. I used to just be in the library like all day everyday. From like 9am to 11pm. I just used to stay there till close and then cycle home, go to sleep and wake up the next day early…and then would go straight back in. 

I was such a geek really, and then I was also doing extra readings because I was really interested in a lot of topics I was learning about. So yeah, the library’s always got a soft spot. I think it’s the best one as well. I always worked on D floor. I have good memories of that and then just hanging out like with my friends outside on the steps and like the benches…   

Have you been back recently?

Well, I’m not far from it even here. So I always kind of go past Russell square area and Malet Street. The last time I went was last year, 2018, to do some research for a music project. I went to read some stuff in the library. 

That was really cool, combining history and music, my two favourites. I got commissioned to write a piece of music about the role of colonial soldiers in World War One. All the brown and black soldiers that no one talks about, even though there were millions of them. SOAS have got some good resources. One collection of letters I found had around 200 letters written by Indian soldiers on the front line and someone had translated them.  

What was the general consensus of that?

Many of the soldiers thought that the food was really s*** and in need of some herbs and spices! Yeah, it was quite interesting. There was a story of a Muslim guy who’d started having a relationship with a French woman whilst he was stationed in France, and then that was a big scandal. After the war, he stayed there to live with her and they had a kid. Must have been one of the first mixed-race children in Europe, imagine that! 

A lot of it was really sad, some made me cry. When they describe death! One guy was writing to his parents that his brother had just been shot and killed. Also their descriptions of the cold. If you think about it, many of the soldiers were coming from West Africa and North Africa or India/Pakistan area, they lived their whole life in hot weather. Suddenly, they were transported over to the Western Front and that was actually like one of the coldest winters on record ever in Europe. They didn’t even have proper clothes or anything and would just be freezing. Many wrote about the cold and seeing snow for the first time. 

It was a horrible situation and they just don’t really get any recognition. When I was doing the research, I found out that at least two of my relatives fought as soldiers in World War One. I’m thinking that probably a lot of us probably have relatives who were in that war. But again, the stories haven’t really documented properly. 

Did you do your MPhil straight after SOAS? 

Yeah, I went to Cambridge straight off. So, I graduated from SOAS in 2009 then went to do my MPhil. It was a research Master’s so I had to write a 30,000 word dissertation. I looked at the political role of the black press in South Africa during apartheid. I went out to South Africa to do some research. I went to Cape Town and Johannesburg and interviewed old journalists and black consciousness activists and then looked at  newspaper archives.          

How did you know that you wanted to do your masters straight away?

Going from SOAS to Cambridge I feel like were two ends of the spectrum, SOAS it’s very leftist and the history department in Cambridge was still quite old school.  

At that time, I was like, so into studying, I thought that maybe I would want to do a PhD. History and South African History was what I was most interested in but that yeah… it made me realise that I didn’t want to do a PhD. It was really isolating as well because you’re just by yourself researching.    

Does your Law degree come in handy with your music career? 

Yeah, I’m so glad I did it! This is what I’m saying, you never know why you take a weird route in your life but now that I’m doing music but I’m so glad I did law! Because it helps me with things like treating contracts and dealing with people.    

After I got called to the bar literally the day after that, I went out to Cape Town again. I was working with the human rights lawyers. Focusing on women’s rights for six months. And then for that, so I was doing music stuff at the same time out there. And then when I came back, music started getting busier. But yeah, that was cool. But it was very intense, doing women’s rights in South Africa in instances of sexual violence against women. 

Having grown up in London, how has the city inspired your music?

When you make art, everything that comes out is productive. It’s all your inspirations, influences and experiences. Being born and bred in London, that affects my music production. On my last album, there’s a whole track about London, Zone 1-6000. It was inspired by a poem by William Blake. I think he is an inspiration because he was also such a like, solid Londoner, the whole city inspired him. 

I think a lot about the magic of being in a big city like London, it’s got so much history and within that, so many layers and so many stories. Millions of lives intertwined and, and there’s a whole like spiritual aspect of the city aside from the physical nature of it and I think William Blake does a really good job of like, trying to describe that and touch with that. 

I just gave a talk about him a few weeks ago at the Tate Britain actually, it was a big exhibition about him and that was cool. Yeah, he was such a cool guy. The exhibition had really amazing paintings as well. They’re really trippy! Despite being used in the 1700s, it doesn’t look like anything from that era.  

When you say the spirituality of London, in what sense? 

I just feel like there’s a real energy to a big city like London, which has probably been one of the most important cities in the world for hundreds and hundreds of years and one of the most diverse places for that long as well. 

I get this feeling sometimes when I’m walking over the Thames, like on the bridge, or at the time of primrose hill, I just look around land I just think about everything that’s happening at the same time in the city with all the people and it’s quite crazy and it’s been like that for hundreds of years. It’s really hard to explain it but when you think about it you’re like omg. Yeah, I think William Blake was trying to tap into that as well. But he said he saw loads of visions. He said he saw a tree full of angels in Peckham. He talks about walking on primrose hill and talking to the sun.

Would you say that the music scene has changed alot from when you were younger? 

Yeah, for sure. But I think that’s because that’s one of those things that’s always going to change. There’s some sad things about it, like a lot of the venues that I used to go to for gigs, especially around London, central London, they’ve all shut down. And that’s a real shame. 

Nabihah was recently locked down for seven weeks in Pakistan. During this period she began an Instagram series “Lockdown Herbalist” which transpired into “Lockdown Musicologist” where she provides a contextual insight into a diverse range of records!

Sasha Patel is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and fourth year student of History and South Asian Studies (Hindi Pathway)

This interview was conducted pre-lockdown by Sasha Patel and Fisayo Eniolorunda at Nabihah’s studio in Somerset House. To find out more about Nabihah Iqbal, check out her website.

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