Photo by Wade Hudson
On a hot summer day at a studio in Toronto, Saidah Baba Talibah is getting her makeup done, clad in garments by American Retro and rocking Chanel combat boots. Her manager, David ‘Click’ Cox, sits nearby and is responding to an email.
“Would your mom be pissed if someone called her a blues singer?” he asks.
The content is for a book about blues. Talibah isn’t having it.
“I wish my mom could talk right now. She’s not just a blues singer, she’s not just a jazz singer…”
Rather than succumbing to a sole label, the multi-instrumentalist, whose main tool is her voice, prefers to omit the word ‘genre’ from her vocabulary. Born and raised in Toronto, Talibah is one of the city’s most polytropic artists. She leaves eardrums ringing, wanting more, with an idiosyncratic mix of edgy, raunchy soul, but will always be the daughter of Salome Bey – “Canada’s First Lady of Blues.”
From being the frontwoman of 90s metal band Blaxam to her Chevy commercial hit, “Revolution,” Talibah believes that “whatever touches us, resonates with us,” regardless of chord and verse.
“We don’t listen to one type of music because those genres would not thrive. But because we are humans, we have to see certain colours or touch before we taste. That’s human nature, but if you don’t like it, keep it moving.”
Talibah is doing just that. Her next record is all about “finding your place, finding your voice and speaking your truth.” RedBlack&Blue, scheduled for release in 2014, is a sonic memoir of familial connection. The album’s concept is shaped by the influence of three women: Talibah’s mother, sister and daughter; and three animals: the red robin, Black Panther and blue butterfly. What the vocalist initially called a “crazy idea,” the animals aren’t necessarily symbolic of three people, and the context is neither good nor bad.
“It’s how they’ve influenced and inspired my life and how I have moved from that,” she says. “We are all dealing with different kinds of adversities and it’s about how we get through them.”
The greatest challenge in Talibah’s life now is witnessing her mother live with dementia. Although Bey’s struggle has been an emotional journey, the singer believes that compressing inner battles isn’t a way to gain support and grow. For when she encounters rough waters, that’s when she finds clarity to write a good song.
But Talibah witnesses Bey on good days, too. The songstress that once belted “I Never Knew” can sing and groove when she’s present. This has taught her daughter the art of patience and gratitude.
“I miss my mother and miss spending time with her,” Talibah says, wiping water from her eyes. “I am learning to appreciate each moment as it comes as opposed to just taking it for granted because you can’t get it back.
When Talibah found out that her mother also had epilepsy, she was told to keep it on the down low. But the constant oppression of bottled-up frustration made her realize that RedBlack&Blue required the opposite. Hesitant to begin the project of raw, vocal expression, she valiantly decided to take the first step by discussing the issue openly in a status update on Facebook.
She pressed enter. Tears flowed. People responded.
“That’s when you figure out that there’s a thread that connects all of us. We all have to know that there is support.”
On the morning of the shoot, she walked by a homeless man asking for money, and realized: “How many emotions must you go through before you get to a place where you’re standing on a corner asking for help?” The artist now finds herself in his shoes, seeking the support of her fans to produce her next album.
RedBlack&Blue is funded by Pledge Music, a “direct-to-fan” project that assists the artist in creating the record while providing audiences with exclusive content. Talibah’s audience will choose up to six songs from three EPs – Red, Black and Blue – which will be narrowed down to 10 tracks for the final production.
(S)Cream, Talibah’s debut record, was also released through crowd funding. She has complete faith that RedBlack&Blue will be just as successful, if not more, as she reciprocates the support to a cause close to her heart
The artist will donate 10 per cent of the money raised to The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada. Talibah likes the format of Pledge Music because it shows a percentage, rather than a dollar, which “gives a sense of being a part of a big picture.” Currently over quota, things are looking pretty good.
The search won’t be over, even after the album is released. With a surname that means “seeker of knowledge,” Talibah lives up to her name in all aspects of life and is guided by her craft.
“It’s the ability to bring a sense of unconditional love to the surface,” her voice says with vigor. “That’s what I am seeking through music; talking with and connecting to people.”
This piece was first published in the Fall 2013 issue of CHLOE Magazine