Photo Credit: Steven Moran
First Look Friday: ilham Is Reinvigorating the R&B Genre on Her Own Terms
On the first Friday of every month, we put the spotlight on one up-and-coming artist. For this month's First Look Friday, we chatted with singer ilham, who talked about her artistry, growing up in Queensbridge, and how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting families who live in public housing.
Growing up in the Queensbridge Housing Projects ilham says she was constantly engaging with music.
Located in Long Island City, Queens, the public housing development is most known for being a breeding ground for hip-hop artists like Nas, Mobb Deep, Marley Marl, and Roxanne Shanté. The legacy of the projects was solidified decades ago as the artists told gritty, vivid stories of the largest housing projects in the world.
New York City’s radio culture also heavily influenced the singer. Ilham, 23, grew up playing Hot 97, listening to artists like TLC, Aaliyah, and Mariah Carey. Since she had such a difficult time expressing herself emotionally whenever she stepped out of her neighborhood, she turned to songwriting. She loved the power that comes with taking feelings and putting them into a song.
After going to Cornell and graduating a year early, she began applying to music-related internships and landed one at Capitol Records in Los Angeles. Her trek to LA eventually landed her in recording sessions when she wasn’t interning. While there, she couldn’t afford sessions, so rather than paying, she exchanged studio time with songwriting for producers and artists. This proved to be fruitful for her and she began carving out her sound — a fusion of R&B and pop.
So far ilham has dropped two full-length EPs, with time and 41-10. On both of these releases, the influences of Aaliyah, one of her favorite vocalists is prevalent. The projects also don’t pin down a specific genre as she’s always open to exploring different sounds. The Weeknd, Rihanna, and Stromae are additional global artists she looks to for inspiration.
Honesty is a driving force that is omnipresent in ilham’s artistry. In her music, she finds solace in sharing reflective thoughts on relationships. Her sound has evolved organically over the past two years. The rigorous journey that began in LA has led her to garner a loyal following. She’s even appeared on the soundtrack of Insecure’s Season 2, a highly coveted co-sign from the series creator Issa Rae and Raphael Sadiq, the show’s composer.
Since Ilham is gearing up to release a project, we figured it’d be the perfect time for a First Look Friday feature with the singer. We talked about what it’s been like since the pandemic hit, why attending an Ivy League university helped her career, and why she’s so vocal about the disparities in the projects. We’re also premiering her newest single, “in my room (quarantine freestyle),” which you can listen to it below.
What have you been doing to keep your mind busy during quarantine?
So the first couple of days, it was difficult because I had to figure out how my family [was] going to be OK. Right now, a big part of quarantine is to stay home and not spread the virus, right? And it's also to be clean and make sure everything is sanitized. However, [New York City Housing Authority] doesn't do a great job at deep cleaning or sanitizing any of the buildings, so my first thought was, how do I get my parents to understand, "Hey, this is really serious and you need to stay home."
The first couple of days [were] really confusing. After a couple of days, I'd say a week or 10 days or so, I kind of got to my parents. On this end, they're good, they have all their food, they're stocked up. I started waking up earlier and working out in the morning, making sure my body is moving and active. And, right now, I've been really focused on learning how to engineer myself.
How are you feeling about still posting on Instagram?
Honestly, Instagram has just been a platform that's given me anxiety. Again, it's something that has a lot of rules to it, right? So when I started taking music seriously, everyone's like, ‘There's these algorithms, there's these things,’ and this and that. And, at the end of the day, it's all organic. If I want to post, I will post. Sometimes I'll post in three days, sometimes I just don't feel like posting. I think right now, there are other platforms that are posting every day, and to me, it's like people are just trying to survive. I don't see a need to have to entertain like a lot of people by posting, because at the end of the day, it's just me, like them, I'm just trying to survive.
Yeah, the whole grind thing — it's not healthy to tell people every day that they need to be out here doing a million things and they need to be creating businesses and making money because everyone’s mental health is being affected.
Exactly, and some people are just dealing with a lot, such as a pandemic that's happening and you're trying to make sure your family's OK, that you're okay. Every day something different is being discovered, right? [I’ve been thinking a lot about] how [to be] more self-sufficient? A lot of female artists that I am friends with, they're all kind of timid to do it. We've been intimidated by the idea of just recording [ourselves].
Even if you ask my manager, I dreaded it. I was like, "No, this is scary. I don't want to." Because you’re on software that you pay someone else to use. So I definitely did that. My next song [that’s] coming out, it's actually engineered by me. I'm super excited about it. I'm smiling right now. I know it sounds corny, but I'm so proud I've recorded myself.
Photo Credit: Steven Moran
I'm also curious about you going to Cornell because I feel like it's definitely important for artists to have some type of professional training beyond just, "oh, I love music and I'm making music." So can you touch on how you feel going to school helped you as an artist?
OK, there are several things. It gave me good communication skills. For example, you have to communicate everything. You have to be able to talk to your team and tell them what you want, what you don't like. Sometimes, I get shy, sometimes I'm like, "I don't know how to speak," but for the most part, you have to communicate it, especially because if you do decide to sign to a label, that's a corporation. These college professionals basically get [their] degree to work for a corporation. It [also] taught me a lot of networking skills because even when I was interning at different labels or radio stations, I was able to communicate and network with people properly.
I think it's important to really understand the business side, and I think that it's really dope that you're in a position where, because you went to Cornell, you're able to see things a little bit differently and in a way, I feel like it makes you more strategic with the moves that you make.
A lot of artists really don't know anything about the business. They don't even talk to people. They just relay whatever message to their manager and the manager does everything, where I am able to [engage] in these meetings and say, "Hey, this is what I like, this is what I don't like." I'm able to look at contracts and I don't fully understand them, but I'm able to kind of tap into it and say, "Hey, this part is something I stand for.”
I remember before our initial meeting, I heard that you were working with producers that were involved with shaping Jhené Aiko’s sound. That really reeled me in. is that what you look to evoke in your listeners, music that’s expansive and keeps you coming back for more?
So honestly, when I go into making a song, especially in the past with just making it, I'm as honest as I can [be] because I [can] get [in] a daze. If you're honest with how you feel or with a person, people are going to resonate with that. This is the only thing I have, which is honesty. Whether it's about me or whether it's about someone else, it's still a story. I've only dropped two EPs, but I actually have a lot of different types of music, and even when I dropped “uh huh,” people didn't expect it, but a lot of people really were [feeling] that song. And it's a fun song. It's just me talking shit. At this point [I like] being as versatile as I can because I listen to all different types of music. So it's just expanding that and showing people the different types of sounds that I tap into, and that I'm just a whole artist, not just one in sector, in one sound. I want to tap into everything.
You’ve spoken about being influenced by artists you grew up listening to like Nas, Mariah Carey, and Aaliyah. Can you touch on what it was like growing up in New York City and how you feel that that influences your music?
Growing up in New York just makes you be the most well-rounded human. I know that's like a lot of things, but I just feel like New York has made me fearless. Like shit happens and I look at it and a lot of shit doesn't phase me, just because of how I've [grown] up and how I was raised. In New York, it's just a place that molds you into being independent. I started taking the subways and buses, city buses at 12. New York is definitely — and I know it sounds corny — a melting pot. There's so many different communities, so many ethnicities. You can walk three blocks and it's like an Indian neighborhood, and the next three blocks [are] all Arabs and that shit is beautiful. I think, right now, it's like taking all of those, all of that and putting it into my music. And that's why I'm making things versatile because I listened to Hot 97 growing up.
It's definitely a place that has a certain level of energy. You brought up radio here, so can you talk about how you feel like that affects New York artists?
I think Hot 97 is rooted in the culture, and I think it would be amazing to be put on it, but I don't make music for the radio. But I do know a lot of New York City rappers, that that is their goal. If they hear their song on a radio in New York, that's just amazing. When I was younger, I definitely would be in my dad's car and the main way I would listen to music was the radio.
Do you have any women artists you look up to?
I really grew up with Aaliyah, I grew up with Mya. I grew up with Ashanti. I grew up with a lot of artists that [have] similar voices to me. It's very light but powerful. I think Doja Cat is really dope. It's like she can have a super '80s song and then she'll go and she'll rap her ass off, and then she'll do a pop song. I think Nicki Minaj does that too. Nicki was really popping into different types of sounds. Also Jhené, she’s amazing.
The album that she just dropped — I was shook.
With Jhené, she's just truthful to herself. She's definitely herself, and it's energy in general. I've never looked at her and she's never had to try to sell sex. She's never had to be over sexual. Jhené is just herself, and I think that shit is so beautiful, especially because in this, how do I say, in this generation, sex sells.
What do you feel like your sound is?
What would you describe it as?
It's very R&B. Your vocals are always very clear, and the drums are really relaxed for a lot of the song. And then, sometimes, it's more experimental. So I definitely feel like it's R&B with little pop inclinations, here and there.
Yeah, I 100% agree with you. I do experiment with my sound and I do, when I step into a session, say, "Hey, let's put the weirdest sounds that they can find, and let's just experiment." But yeah, [the] foundation is R&B, but I'm definitely pushing it a little less if that makes sense. I'm also trying to just carve my own lane. I think I'll be able to fully define it [on my next album] but it's just about, right now, I know that my voice is very unique and I have that voice, nobody else can replicate it. So that's exactly why the drums don't need to be as loud. Because my voice kind of carries on.
You just touched on new music. Do you have a project that's going to be coming out at some point this year?
Yeah, definitely. I'm always working on new music. I think an EP, but we're working towards something bigger, but I'm excited. I haven't really released anything that will be on an EP yet, because I'm just saving what I find [and] what I think the best music of me is. But I do think that when I do drop the next project, it will be amazing.
Photo Credit: Steven Moran
I want to touch on Queensbridge. I feel as though you've been doing a really good thing by expressing how you feel, candidly, about what your community and how unequal things are for people. Can you touch on why you feel it's important for you to be honest about these experiences?
When I was younger, I didn't understand what was happening, because my parents did a really good job in making sure that my siblings and I were happy. We were having fun. We'd go to school and whatnot. But, by and large, there is pain behind these barred windows. People are going through it. Especially in hip-hop culture and music culture, pop culture, New York City, the projects, growing up in the trenches, all of that shit is very notoriously glamorized. And for me, it's like, "Well, shit, if you all want to make fucking money off of doing shoots in the projects and shit like that, let me exactly show you what's happening." You film me. Let's really understand what's happening, because the shit I've been through these past couple of years — I'm sure you saw my Twitter post.
\u201cThe way @NYCHA (NYC Projects/Section 8) treats poor families: A THREAD.\n\nI tried to push through it but this is inhumane. After dealing w/ mold, lead, leaks, roaches, rats, & floods for the past few YEARS, my parents, siblings, & I are sick. emotionally & physically.\n\n(pls share)\u201d— ilham\ud83c\uddf2\ud83c\udde6 (@ilham\ud83c\uddf2\ud83c\udde6) 1575413880
My jaw almost dropped to the ground. I just didn't understand. At the end of the day, I'm a human, but we were treated like fucking animals. I'm very vocal about this, but I'm also not stating feelings, but I'm stating facts in all of it, because, yes, my family's going through this, but you want to know something crazy? There's thousands of families throughout the projects that are going through this. There are families who will never have someone come and do a basic repair for them. But this one basic repair means that their home will stop flooding. I have respiratory issues, all of my siblings have respiratory issues because we've breathed in lead and mold for such a long time, for such a long time. And my dad... It's just so much, so much, and I think people need to kind raise the awareness that people in the projects — we are in inhumane conditions.
You have to live in a space that's pest-free, mold-free, and lead-free. And we did not live in that type of space. I'm always forever going to speak out because I have this platform. Maybe it's a platform that's growing, but not the biggest, but it's like, my voice has already shifted and it has done a lot, you know what I'm saying?
I'm glad you did that.
Now, with this Corona thing happening, it's more important to revisit this. Because you make a [repair request] and they don't fix it. And then it becomes two months, three months, four months. There's a pandemic going on [and] I need people to understand, there are families who are living in mold. But NYCHA told them to open up their windows to let the mold out, which doesn't make sense. NYCHA needs to step the fuck up, but also help your neighbors out. If you see someone struggling, help them out. Wipe down your own doors with Clorox. Because you can't put your life in their hands, because clearly they haven't done anything.