First Look Friday: Embrace Fez's Finest By Way Of VA, ABIR
First Look Friday: Embrace Fez's Finest By Way Of VA, ABIR

First Look Friday: Embrace Fez's Finest By Way Of Virginia, ABIR

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Photo by Jason Chandler for Okayplayer

The music industry can be a magically confusing place. With the emphasis on categorizing artists by genre, look, ethnicity and sexuality, it can be a bit of a cold place for those that do not fit the classic mold. As a female musician, the odds are often stacked against you. Are you sexy enough? Are you physically attractive enough to sell a product? Is there a message in your music? Or are you there solely for male consumption? These questions are not far-fetched, and quite the reality for many emerging musicians.

In the case of Fez, Morocco-born and Virginia bred songstress ABIR, these sentiments rang true in my first meeting with her. Unlike my digital discovery of many new artists via suggestions from friends, or simply perusing the internet, I became familiar with ABIR the woman and the musician in a choice meeting at an all-women’s organization that we are both members of. It was evident from day one that representation, specifically of Arab musicians, was very important to the budding singer and songwriter.

Unassuming in nature, her music features powerhouse vocals + songwriting, with choice production from the likes of !llmind and EFF3X. With her single "Wave" crashing all over the internet earlier this year, she's set to serve up something hot for the summer.

Get into her newest release "Girls" below and read on for our exclusive chat with Fez's finest!


Okayplayer: Being born in and growing up in Morocco before emigrating to Arlington, VA with your family, what are some of your earliest musical memories?

ABIR: My dad used to be a limo driver before he started doing what he’s doing now, and he would pick me up every day after school when we moved to Virginia, in elementary school. When you’re a limo driver you have jazz music on all the time, so the only thing I would hear was Etta [James], Ella [Fitzgerald]…when I was 6 or 7-years-old just chilling. I would try to mimic it and do things like that. If it wasn’t for my dad, I honestly would not know who Bob Marley was; I wouldn’t know who Michael Jackson was. It’s all because of my dad literally.

OKP: When did you decide that you wanted to professionally pursue singing?

A: In my hometown, you would find me at every talent show. You couldn’t get away from me. I was at every talent show, every fair, every time there was a stage to perform, you could catch me on it singing a cover. At one talent show I sang, “I Shoulda Cheated” by Keyshia Cole. It was seventh grade. I got up on that stage and I was singing for my life, you know what I’m saying?! After that talent show all my friends came up to me and were like, "Yo, you’re actually good!" They started giving me compliments and I was like, "Alright, I got this."

It was in ninth grade when I first went to a professional recording studio in [Washington] D.C., and I thought to myself, "I could get used to this!" I started writing songs around age nine, so I had so many that I could have just gone in and taken the instrumental off and recorded to. It was right after that moment when I decided I really wanted to do this.

OKP: What most inspires your songwriting? Would you consider writing for other artists in the future?

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Photo by Jason Chandler for Okayplayer

A: Honestly, it’s so weird because I guess there’s no one right way to write a song. I just put my little voice recorder on when I get a new beat or if we are in the studio making a beat, and I literally will say what comes to my mind. It could be the stupidest of things, it could be the slang words [that] I use, it could be whatever and then I keep saying them until the beat runs me dry and like I’m over it. Then I will come back to the voice memo and piece it together. I’m 100% down to write for other people because they are sending my message out if I can’t send it [on my own], so I would definitely consider doing that.

OKP: Musically, we are in a time where genres are becoming less important, and the feeling of the music is taking precedence. What emotions are you trying to tap into for the listener when you create?

A: That’s a good question. Honestly, this is going to sound so cliché, but I try to give the best representation of who I am as a person. When I used to study interviews and performances of Beyoncé or Whitney [Houston], I would think, "Wow, they’re very well put together." But in the end, they could really be all there, or it could be the front that you give the world. For me, it’s like I don’t want to give you a front. I want to speak in my songs exactly how I speak with my friends, so it’s more like giving you the best representation of myself. That’s basically the emotion; it just comes from being real about everything. Whether it is about heartbreak, if it’s about being at a party, if it’s about talking about a bunch of girls in the bathroom, it’s everything that happens to me daily in real life.

OKP: What has your experience been like working with iconic producer !llmind?

A: I used to work with this producer named EFF3X and my manager would tell me, "Yo! You can’t just work with one producer," and I was like, "Yes I can!" I was so hardheaded and not open-minded to working with other producers and !llmind was one of the first people I worked with outside of EFF3X. It was completely different styles and a different way of creating. So when I work with !ll, I hate the word "vibe," but there’s a feel, you know? We come in the studio, talk for like an hour-and-a-half and then we start creating. It’s very organic. It’s very chill. There’s no pressure. It’s so funny because !llmind is one of those producers that has a grasp on his life, you know? He gets in at 8:00 a.m. and he gets out at 8 p.m. because he has a life. He goes home at night and does his thing, and to be around that is inspiring. I come in and write songs at 10 a.m. Who does that?

And actually, the producer who produced “Wave” and “Girls” [Mark Henry] I met through !ll—he’s on his label Roseville Music Group—so it’s kind of all in the family to be honest.

OKP: Earlier this year for your single "Wave" you collaborated with fellow DMV representative Masego. What do you feel is unique about the region's sound that it continues to captivate us year after year?

A: I mean, I won’t say nothing about Missy [Elliott], or Timbaland, or Pharrell Williams [cough, cough], but I don’t know. I feel it’s so crazy because when I look at those artists I used to look up to—like Missy, Timbaland, Pharrell—that I still look up to, I think, "Yo, they’re from Virginia! That was a time in our life where Virginia was on the map!" But [really] it’s like nah, VA is still on the map. There are a lot of artists that are out here killing it and that I respect are from Virginia. And the thing is, when I found out Maségo is from Virginia, it changed the entire mood in the studio. We were all like, "VA wassup! Rep up!" I think we’re on the map.

OKP: Do you think that sense of community is what helps push the music forward? That you really are in each other’s corners?

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Photo by Jason Chandler for Okayplayer

A: 100%. The DMV is very responsible for me going out of my reach to go to New York. I did a lot in D.C. from open mics and small shows, but the scene there stays stagnant. You do that stuff and nothing happens unless you move away. Being from Virginia, there’s not a huge push for you to keep doing your music. Everyone’s supportive, but it’s not like here in New York City. So when people like Maségo, Sunny & Gabe and artists like that go out of VA and do more than just the local shit, that shit is real.

OKP: You graduated from university this spring. Do you have the same anxieties we all have in taking the first step into the real world post-school?

A: Absolutely not [laughs]. But seriously, I clocked out of college a long time ago. When I first started coming to New York, it was like I had grown 10 years. I was coming every weekend and I would put off all my classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and would come to Virginia Tuesday through Thursday, and be in New York Friday through Monday. Then I would come back and do it all again. By time I actually graduated, like two months ago, it didn’t even feel like I graduated. It feels like I’ve been graduated. I had to give my parents that. I had to give them the good GPA, a college degree and then I can do my music shit because they're Arab as hell [laughs].

OKP: Tell us about your new single and what we can expect a full-length project from you.

A: My single is called “Girls,” and ironically it’s about this awkward encounter in the Webster Hall bathroom. It was like a movie where literally a bunch of girls walked in and all I hear were the most shallow conversations. They were talking about "Black Cards," how they just got a baller boyfriend, how they don’t mess with such and such and literally everything I’m saying in the verse. It was an inspiration for me to go like, "Yo, there's a bunch of people who aren't doing anything, who are just talking and not doing anything!" So I literally wrote the song because even though it sounds like a diss track or whatever, it’s honestly an anthem for people who are doing shit. Say no to the catty girls and bullshit boys who talk about crap, and reps up to the people who are actually doing something with their life.

There’s no full project yet, even in my mind, because I don’t feel I have enough content out. When there is a demand for it, then I’ll do it, but it’s so fun to just drop songs. That’s kind of the era we live in: nobody buys albums anymore. A lot of people my age don’t buy albums, they buy their favorite song from the album. Or they might not even buy it, they stream it. So I think when it’s time for me to do an album, I’ll do it. I feel like it would be lit.

OKP: As an Arab, female recording artist — what are some walls you are looking to break down in the music industry?

A: Oh, wow. I’m trying to think... Have there been any Arab singers that have made the Top 10? Are there any Arab singers that have came through and hit that number one on Billboard? That would literally be it for me. There hasn’t been a good representation of, not even just Arab, but North African singers. There’s a couple that are coming onto the scene, and I feel like it will be very exciting to come in and basically be like, "We sing, too! We got soul, too," but I want to be the first, the second, whatever, I just want to be up there and get that number one hit. Get that Grammy!

And the thing is, it’s my culture too, I’m Muslim, so yeah, there’s been Muslim artists, but I am Muslim. I’m Arab. Look at all this shit that is happening in the world, and to be that person to be like, "Yo, on some real shit, we are not this image that you see! We're also creators... we're also people with dreams!" To actually achieve my dream or to get where I wanna be, it’s going to be fulfilling. Just to be one of those iconic pop stars—up there with the Whitneys, the Michael Jacksons, the Lady Gagas—all of these people that are international superstars, there’s not one [that's] Arab. So, I’m trying to be that!

Be sure to keep your eyes and ears open for more from ABIR (and us!) by following her on Twitter at @xoABIR