ZAKI IBRAHIM with HERO and WEE GOLDEN at the Mod Club (722 College), Tuesday (January 29). $12. 416-870-8000. www.ramosent.com. Rating: NNNNN
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.”
With Zaki on the beatbox, her longtime friend and singing partner Tanika Charles drops the rhyme they often kick in concert:
Charles speaks about the fateful phone call from Zaki that took her from a farm life to a career in music:
Sudanese multi-instrumentalist Waleed Abdulhamid speaks on Zaki's sincerity and worldliness:
Zaki, on the rarity of seeing friends and her increasingly demanding schedule:
Zaki says a few words about The Remix Project, the Toronto music mentoring program run by Gavin Sheppard:
Zaki, on how the media's need for an angle often leaves her highly misrepresented:
Zaki on myspace: www.myspace.com/zakiibrahim