Photo: Reuben Radding

‘We help each other win’: Alya Al-Sultani on musical heritage, identity and building your tribe

A few years ago on a balmy summer’s evening, I found myself at a private gig in a flat in Farringdon. It was a magical, surreal event – watching incredible musicians perform in a beautiful, intimate space. I befriended the host, Alya Al-Sultani, and have been in awe of her musical output and magnetic personality ever since.

Singer, composer and producer Alya has mastered moving through genres and styles – everything from opera and traditional Arabic folk music, to jazz, hip hop and grime. She is part of projects Collective X and SAWA, as well as running three record labels.

You seem to have had an amazingly diverse musical upbringing. Tell us more about your early childhood…

I was born in Southern Iraq, so the first music I heard was Arabic music – whether that was classical Arabic or folk music. Where I come from, singing is a much more communal thing. It’s not odd for people to randomly sing together.

When we arrived in the UK, we lived in Tottenham and most of my friends were either Caribbean or West African. Musically, there was all sorts – afrobeat, breakbeat, dancehall, reggae – when I was seven they played Shabba Ranks at our school disco!

I found myself in parallel universes all the time. I’d go home and it would be Arabic music or I’d put on some garage or hip hop, and then at school the focus was very much on classical music – playing in orchestras and singing in choirs. In some ways, that diversity was inevitable and I ended up developing a love for it all. Interestingly, the thing that I never heard was jazz…

When did you first get into jazz?

To be honest, not until I was in my mid-twenties! It ended up being my gateway drug into improvisation. I’d sort of passed through it aesthetically, but hadn’t studied the method, the politics or the freedom of it that is now very much with me.

I remember once being really frustrated after a function gig that had gone badly. I called my friend and he said sarcastically ‘Oh, an Iraqi girl growing up in Tottenham isn’t feeling the American Songbook, why do you think that is?’ It was a very important moment in my musical development, because essentially he was inviting me to seek my authentic voice in music.

Was that when you started writing your own music?

Yeah, but first there were a few things I had to make friends with again – my Iraqi-ness, which I’d sort of put aside. If you come from somewhere that is always associated with negative things, in the end it doesn’t become a source of pride or joy – it’s a constant reminder of pain and trauma.

I also went to a school that was predominantly white, where I really felt my difference, and not in a good way. This process required me to integrate all the aspects of my identity. My first album, Chai Party, which I recorded in Brooklyn in 2014, was me going, ‘yes, I am Iraqi and here’s what that sounds like in me’.

How did that lead on to SAWA?

One of my favourite bands, Masaa, is a German-Lebanese crossover with singer Rabih Lahoud and a couple of German jazz musicians, including Clemens Christian Poetzsch.

I’d invited my friend Robert Menzel to the UK to tour, and he brought Clemens with him. We got on so well that I asked him to come back and develop music with me.

At the same time, I had just met Shirley Smart, who’s this wonderful improvising cellist who’d lived in Jerusalem for a long time and had all those sounds in her mind. We invited her over to have a jam and it just worked. So we ended up as SAWA – a trio which has now been going for about two years. From the Arabic sounds point of view, that project is really where I’ve found my feet. I love it. It’s such an amazing feeling performing with both of them.

How did Collective X come about?

Someone had made the point to me that I either really orientalise myself or am quite whitewashed in my music, but I’m lots of things – I’m British, I’m Iraqi, I’m a Tottenham girl.

It was around 2016, the Brexit vote had just taken place, and I just sat at my table for about 24 hours and just bashed out this new album, Love & Protest.

Collective X is clearly a very collaborative project. How does that work?

The lyrics are all mine and the music started with just me and Clemens sitting at the piano. Then when we took it in for a couple of day’s rehearsals, it just evolved. There was a lot of collective composition that took place. Orphy Robinson was our musical director and facilitator – he’s an absolute legend – amazing ears.

Later this year, we’ll be touring the UK but also spending some time together developing ideas. It’s been a really, really beautiful experience. Really empowering.

A lot of your work is very political. Why is that important for you?

I’ve lived a political life. I was born on the eve of the Iran/Iraq war. My father was taken away to the army almost as soon as I was born and my mum was a doctor on the front line. Then arriving in the UK as a refugee – the whole migrant experience is a political one. Everything we do which is related to power and how we treat each other is political.

There’s a song on the album called Dear Sister, which is a love song for women. There’s a song for Banaz Mahmood who was killed in a so-called “honour killing” by her father and uncle. There’s a song about the fetishisation of black male bodies. There’s a song about Tinder, called Right Swipe. There’s a song called Take A Moment – our first single – which is about just stopping. Remembering you can smile, take a big breath. To me, all of that is political, but also just human experience.

You run three record labels. How do you balance all of these projects?

Two Rivers Records is a funny one – I started that because I needed somewhere to release Chai Party. It kind of just developed.

I acted a bit like a patron for a couple of years and funded quite a lot of debut albums. I thought if I can help people get on that first rung of the ladder, their creativity and courage will take them elsewhere. I’ve continued that in a way, not just with Two Rivers Records but also Black Wave and South London Space Agency.

How are those labels different to Two Rivers?

Two Rivers is for contemporary jazz and more experimental, improvised music. But I noticed that I had very few artists of colour, and not that many women. I think a lot of working class kids, people of colour and immigrant families don’t expect anyone to give them anything and that is a big part of where the disparity lies.

I’ve signed five artists so far. One of the artists is Shanaz Dorsett, who released her single Cake on 12 March. Her EP is about body image, her relationship with food, being a woman. Black Wave is a platform for exceptional artists to deliver exactly what they want to deliver. Great music with meaning, with heart.

South London Space Agency is a grime label which I run with DJ Grandmixxer. I think the music that we’re putting out is of an extraordinarily high quality and, from my point of view, I just love seeing young people do well.

Do you think it’s tough for new artists these days?

There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in the industry. It’s in some labels interests to make artists feel like they can’t do it on their own. The fact of the matter is (as we’ve seen with multiple artists who have managed to get PRS or Arts Council funding), you can do it on your own, you just need a bit of money.

We want to educate our artists – to make them feel able to understand what is going on around them, so they are empowered to make money from their music and don’t sign dud deals. At the same time, we as a label are going to do well as a result of that, because we’ve got people who know what they’re doing.

I’m into this collective idea – that we help each other win. When I find my tribe, I look after them. Grandmixxer is family to me – he’s my brother. I love him dearly, I respect him so much. We share aesthetic, we share ideas, we share values. We look after the MCs and producers in our care. Black Wave is the same. For me, every signing, every release, is an act of love.

What’s the best advice that you’ve been given – as a musician but also running a label?

Musically, I think the best advice I’ve been given is just do the work. Instead of sitting there obsessing over what something should sound like, or who’s going to hear it, or what the audience might want – make the music, make the art.

Someone who is a nice person and talented isn’t necessarily going to make money. The fact of the matter is that it requires the sort of person who is willing to promote themselves and doesn’t get embarrassed about doing so. We’re all insecure, but you need to have the resilience and fortitude to be able to overcome that.

What advice would you pass on to artists?

If you are approaching a label, research them. Make sure that what you’re proposing to them is in line with what they release and what their priorities are. It’s a relationship-led industry and you have to be real.

Be authentic, be yourself. Lead with your art, with your real personality, with your sense of humour. And go to gigs! Meet other musicians, say hello!

Making music and putting it on SoundCloud isn’t how you’re going to get an audience. I know there’s a generation of YouTubers, but it’s more than that – you need to perform… You have to actually move your body – go from A to B and be places.

It’s about give and take. You have to care, you have to engage. Build your tribe.

Collective X’s album ‘Love & Protest’ is out on 30 March.

To learn more about Alya’s music and projects, visit her website

Feature image: Reuben Radding

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