Written by Sam Prager
Photographed by Bethany Reid
Seeker of knowledge, clear-minded and pure: Talibah Safiya has been on a path of self-exploration since being named. The Memphis-based musician is on the rise.
First and foremost, Safiya is a storyteller. Her sophisticated songwriting emotes the struggles of romance, idealized-femininity, and personal strength. Often her songs highlight both sides of the coin—the desperation of isolation, the power of independence.
She delicately vocalizes her poetry, subtly showing her vocal prowess throughout her songs; a restraint of her strength and an insight to her keenness of waiting to show her cards. Her sound is hypnotic and natural, nostalgic but innovative. Each song stands alone, cohesive in theme, but isolated in style.
Like many musicians, Safiya found her passion for music at an early age. She remembers being in choir in grade school and noticing her talent for the first time. This led Safiya to pursue theater, a decision that would take the Memphis native to Washington D.C. to study theater at Howard University.
After a few semesters Safiya found that institutional learning wasn’t for her. She moved to New York City to continue her education by learning life first-hand through the city that never sleeps. It was there she decided to take her music to the next level, recording in some of the city’s most famous studios. After five years, she decided to come back home to Memphis.
Safiya explains that at the core of much of her songwriting is romance, a subject within music that was introduced to her at a young age by her parents.
“My parents weren't musicians, but they were great appreciators of music. Our house was very musical. I have these real vivid memories of blasting these soul classics early in the morning,” reminisces Safiya. “My dad worked at 103.5 back when it was Soul Classics. He worked the morning show and we’d always listen to him.”
Many of these songs were her first glimpse into storytelling, and eventually songwriting.
“I love the writing style of old classic songs,” she says. “The hidden meanings behind things. The romance. I love romantic stories and visual stories. I love hearing a full story where you can still fill in the details. I think of the O’Jays song ‘Cry Together’ and the imagery of them being in the bed in the middle of the night like, ‘We can’t live like this anymore. How do we go on?’ The couples in bed, just holding each other until everything is right. The emotion behind it is incredible. I just like love stories. I feel the characters. Sometimes it’s a playful romance and sometimes it's a dangerous romance.”
Her interest in the story behind the song has led Safiya to appreciate other past generations of musicians. Most recently she has started connecting with older blues icons, citing artists she always heard of, like Muddy Waters and Memphis Minnie, but has never really given a chance.
“They're wild. Content wise, they don't give a fuck. They’re saying some of the craziest stuff, especially for the time. It’s so impressive. Listening to Ma Rainey has changed my life for real,” says Safiya. “Her willingness to say things was so daring. I think ‘How can I be nervous to say anything about how I feel and who I am in 2019 when she wasn't scared then?’ Memphis musicians are super honest and transparent about their pain and the ways they cope with it. Memphis music has a lot of heartbreak, but also a lot of triumphs. You can hear the heartbreak, but you can also hear the love.”
Strength, seduction, weakness and rejection have always played a part in Safiya’s stories. Her goal, she says, is to write stories from a perspective that enables women to experience positions of power. She explains that heartbreak, for instance, always makes you feel weak, but that it can also make you feel powerful. Her writing style reexamines negative situations, finding strength lurking in weakness.
“I have this song ‘Morning Glory.’ It tells this story, but you can take it a couple ways. You can see it as this woman who has tricked this man to stay with her with spells and potions, or you can see it as her way of saying ‘Please don’t leave. I know I'm strange. I know I'm complicated, I know I'm this.’ They are two different stories in one, but to me it’s so sexy and alluring, even though it’s from a space of desperation,” she explains. “At the root of my songwriting is the desire to tell a pure story. I use songwriting to navigate my own emotions. It gives me an opportunity to look at my own story objectively and tell it like somebody else. If something makes me feel really down or small, I can shift my perspective and start to believe what the song is saying.”
Safiya’s songwriting is impacted by a variety of different artists and genres, including Al Green, Nina Simone, Destiny’s Child and Cotton Jones. Though she says it may not come out in her music, she is influenced by pop and trap music just as much as she is R&B and soul. However, there is always one aspect to music she always looks for:
“My favorite thing in music are dope ass songwriters. The ones who make you feel like you're not alone when you're going through something,” she explains. “People who can write poetry off of your pain. They tell your story so well, that you ask, ‘Do they know my life?’ I want people to feel like that when they listen to me.”
Safiya doesn’t play any instruments herself. She writes the base of her songs by making loops or beats through samples to write to before finding musicians to play and expand on the parts. She describes her songwriting process as a very natural one, with the melody and lyrics forming simultaneously.
“Most of the time I write the melody and the lyrics together. The melody is the energy, the spell. You just have to say ‘I feel this, this is a thing. What is the story telling me?’ I try to get the story to tell me what to write. I typically write a whole song in one session,” explains Safiya. “If I try to come back to a song, it never works. The energy is gone. When I try too hard to write something, it’s always trash. But when it starts to come naturally and the words fill in themselves, I’m so impressed. I feel like I didn't even write the song. When I try to force a song, it's like putting together a 500 piece puzzle that should be 16 pieces.”
The finished product is a culmination of genres — Diaspora music she says.
“My dad always describes me as a cafe woman in a dress with nice, clean shoes drinking whiskey out of a brown bag and a cigarette. I’ve always called my sound Diaspora music. A collection of all versions of black music: blues, jazz, hip hop, gospel, folk. It has all of those influences. It’s just Delta music,” she says.
Upon moving back to Memphis, Safiya saw change. She explains that Memphis is becoming less ashamed of being different and is opening up artistically.
“I remember when I would come home, prior to moving back, I felt people were trying to be a certain way. Most of the bands were singing cover songs and people felt they had to dress a certain way. Now, I feel people are more colorful. They are more likely to take risks aesthetically,” says Safiya. “Musically, people are writing more of their own original songs, taking chances on making different kinds of music, creating immersive artistic experiences. We’re becoming more vulnerable as a city and are taking more risks.”
However, she also explains that while Memphis is moving forward artistically, there are also threats to our city’s culture and the people who call it home. She continues to describe both sides of the coin as parts of our city continue gentrifying:
“For me this is obviously a double-edged sword that the city is gentrifying under our noses. My family has been in the same South Memphis neighborhood for four generations. My brother lives across the street from me in a house my great-grandparents bought in the ’60s. Honestly, I’ve never seen nothing but black people in this neighborhood. But recently I saw this older white man and an Indian man I was like ‘They finna’ start buying stuff,’” explains Safiya. “It's a good thing and a bad thing. For the people from there, it hurts to watch it change. But it also challenges folks to take hold of their neighborhood. If you want to have it then treat it well. Take care of it and nobody can take it from you. I think there is an opportunity to learn with this, but it does suck. At the same time though, when I was living down the street from Overton Square I was happy it was there. It’s good there is something as opposed to nothing. I live in Memphis and have felt afraid to walk the streets late at night, meanwhile I could be in a city I’ve never been to and not feel afraid at all.”
Learn more about Talibah Safiya by visiting her website www.TalibahSafiya.com or follow her on instagram @magicmamii.