Talibah Safiya Wants You To Embrace Your Feminine Power
Feminist Artists You Should Know
A bi-weekly series exploring art and feminism through the eyes of Southern creatives.
By Rachel Wells
Late one Saturday evening in July, Memphis-based soul singer Talibah Safiya stepped onto a small stage in an old, two-story East Nashville home. The performance, part of a larger House Concert Tour, was put on by Music Export Memphis, a group presenting Memphis-based artists. In front of a small crowd, Safiya brought a lit match to a stick of palo santo and cleansed the space, asking the audience to join her in a moment of silence and intention setting for a loving evening. Soon Black Cream, a Memphis-based band accompanying her, delivered a slow, rolling beat as she slowly turned around, humming and swaying to the music.
To say Talibah Safiya is mesmerizing would be an understatement. The music picks up and even though you can’t see her face, her performance fills the room. The way she lets vowels escape from her mouth is the same way she moves across the stage, with every bit of intention and control. Her voice is soulful, at moments velvety with warmth and at others gruff, revealing a soft, raw pain underneath it all. Her musical sensibility throbs with jazz and R&B, yet her show feels punk, solely for its unforgiving presence. As she sings, she rolls, sways and swings in dance, at times appearing lifted up, as if her voice has carried her there itself. Her show, a declaration of triumph, doesn't care what you think of it. Original songs like “Middle of the Night,” “Sugar Queen,” and “Imagine That” embrace the balance between a woman at power and play.
I caught up with Safiya while she was at REC88, a recording studio in South Memphis to discuss her artistry, process, and inspiration. “It’s not a magic potion. It’s actually daily work,” she tells me. Despite a hectic travel schedule, Safiya embraces each moment and individual with grace and presence. She’s been writing and performing music for nearly a decade, and yet her radiance seems to expand with time. When I ask about the vulnerability with which she performs, she tells me stepping on stage feels like entering her bedroom, a safe space to share one’s deepest emotions and reflections. Instead of offering a static version of her performance to each audience, she focuses on being emotionally responsive. “Whatever they [the audience] needs in the moment is what I want to be able to give,” she explains, “I’m in service to them.”
The performance ethos of being in service to her audience is something Safiya developed over time. “When I was younger and about to perform, I’d say [to myself in prayer] help me go out there and do the best I can and impress everybody, ” Safiya says. She’s learned over the years that by reframing the perspective with which she approaches performance, she can create a different environment, one she’s become comfortable with. These days, before she goes on stage, she holds a quiet moment with her band, looking at each individual in the eyes. She spends a few moments alone, taking the time to have a conversation within herself. Instead of praying to knock out a great performance, she now reminds herself to take care of her audience.
The emotional well from which Safiya writes didn’t exist without personal growth. The song “Sugar Queen” celebrates the intoxifying influence of femininity by layering smoky vocals over a minimalist looping beat, but the ode to womanhood’s meaning has evolved over time. While living in New York City, Safiya first wrote the song to commemorate a chapter when she was struggling and just learning how to leverage her smile, wink and walk to get what she wanted. “There was a time in my life where I’d see a certain type of woman and how she got the things she wanted, and I’d judge her: why is she naked trying to get something from someone, why is she showing her body trying to get attention, but then I’d reflect, and I could see myself, my mother, my friend, or whoever [in that person] and it occurred to me to write a poem about her.”
While the “Sugar Queen” character is an exaggerated version of what Safiya experienced and learned by observing others, she found insight in seeing the world from another’s perspective. And when Safiya realized she couldn’t wholly understand why someone would do the things they’d do, she rejected the judgments she’d cast, took the poem and crafted it into the triumphant song we know today. “We tell each other these stories, not just our own, because it gives more power to the story. Like I’m putting myself in check, walking in her shoes,” she says.
Sometimes “walking in her shoes” can mean stepping back and strolling through past versions of yourself. On “Middle of the Night,” Safiya reflects on recovering from a love lost. Broken romance, reflection, and reinvention are themes that show up throughout much of her music.
While Safiya understands you can’t change the past, she believes there’s tremendous value in examining who you were and why you did the things you did. She adds, “I think every woman growing up has experiences in relationships that can make us feel small at a young age. We have a choice to make at that time to let those experiences either empower or minimize us."
The creative process has helped her overcome some of that pain and discomfort. Safiya reflects, “Through writing about my experiences and creating a character, it’s strengthened me in times where I could have felt really shitty about myself. I was using my words, music, and performance to help shift my perspective." She elaborates, "It helped me understand shamelessness: how to tell the story rather than be ashamed for it. That started to give me a power I was avoiding by being afraid of telling the truth of who I am and what I’ve been through."
Talibah Safiya knows who she is and celebrates it proudly. This can lead some fans to feel as if they really know her. “When people admire you, they treat you as if you’ve never done anything wrong,” Safiya says. That couldn’t be further from the truth. “I have made a fool of myself many times and there’s something to be celebrated about that. Those memories remind me of what I’ve been through. It makes me a stronger, more powerful person,” she says.
For now, Safiya is off to New Orleans to record tracks with a local vocal group. As far as upcoming music, she’ll release a new project in the Fall and has new singles coming out as early as next month. “A lot of my past music was [written] in my early 20s when I was unclear about the direction I was taking. The music I’m dropping soon comes from a healing place. It’s not about being healed, it’s about being active in working towards that healing,” she says.
Suffice it to say, we’re ready and waiting.