hen singer-songwriter Shaheen Sheik meets music industry executives, rarely do they ask how she is able to pen such poignant yet accessible lyrics or if she’ll serenade them with her smoky, dulcet voice. They usually have a much more pressing concern to inquire about: “Where’s your bindi?” they say, puzzled at Sheik’s lack of the traditional Indian adornment for Hindu women. After all, her exotic South Indian appearance and foreign-sounding name seem to be an invitation for such a simple, if completely uninformed, line of questioning.
Such questions don’t faze Sheik anymore. But the false perceptions are frustrating nonetheless. “First of all, as a Muslim woman, I don’t wear it. It’s not something I would do in my personal life,” she clarifies, a tinge of exasperation in her voice, as if she’s having to explain herself all over again. Her music, which is a captivating combination of part pop and part folk accompanied by the soulful strumming of her guitar, doesn’t exactly pulse with Bollywood beats or traditional tablas. Her lyrics, which deal with relationships and life, are thoughtful and introspective. And she admits that she even “sounds like a white girl.” But she has a hard time justifying that to a music industry that expects an Indian woman to deliver an Indian sound.
It’s very vogue to be Indian right now; it’s stylish. When we were kids, it was not so stylish.
In her stereo
Night Song, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Folklore, Nelly Furtado
Erotic Rhythms of the East, Govinda
Heavier Things, John Mayer
On her nightstand
The Twentieth Wife, Indu Sundaresan
In her stomach
Spicy vegetable kurma, roti and homemade plain yogurt
Is it racism? Sheik explains that it’s more complex than that. “I don’t think I face old challenges like racism. It’s very vogue to be Indian right now; it’s stylish. When we were kids, it was not so stylish. I face a new form of discrimination. People are ready to accept Indian culture—they say, ‘We can accept you guys as scientists and lawyers and doctors, and we can accept you guys as Bollywood, bright colors, musicals.’ But it’s much harder to take South Asian artists as mainstream. It’s always, ‘Shaheen, she’s a South Asian singer-songwriter,’ but not ‘Shaheen, she’s a singer-songwriter’ … music people still expect [from us] a tabla or eastern vocals in the music. We can’t be straight up pop and rock artists.”
But that’s precisely what this Midwestern girl, whose sound has been described as Ben Harper meets Sade, aims to be. “My music is pop music. I want to reach the masses. I’m not trying to be a niche artist; I’m not trying to have a tabla and sitar. I grew up in Cleveland. I don’t want to wear a bindi,” she says vehemently, as if she’s closing the subject once and for all.
The seeds of a singer
Yet Sheik is quick to explain that she’s not trying to dismiss her cultural heritage—it is a big part of her life, and she’s got the history to prove it. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, to a psychiatrist mother and an engineer father from Tamil Nadu, India, Sheik grew up with a strong appreciation for her Indian background. Her parents loved Indian art and her father used to blast South Indian classical music to wake Sheik and her brother up every Saturday morning. When she was just 3 years old, Sheik’s mother took her to a dance class, and at age 7, she introduced Sheik to Bharatanatyam, South Indian classical dance. Sheik became enamored with it and spent her formative years as dancer. “My body seemed to understand it and take to it very well,” she recalls. “I loved the art … it took over me in every way. I remember when the family was watching TV, I’d be in the den practicing Bharatanatyam.” Sheik practices the art form to this day; she is currently a company dancer with the Rangoli Dance Company in Los Angeles.
Though dance took center stage in her early years, music was always in Sheik’s life. As a child, she’d make up songs and sing them to herself, while, as a teenager, the seeds for Sheik’s talents as a songwriter were planted. She remembers hearing a George Michael interview when she was young: “He talked about hearing some song and thought, ‘I could do that better.’ Then I realized there is such a thing as someone who writes these things. I started listening to the radio and changing melody lines, imagining how I would write this song differently. It was just something I did for fun—mind games. Now I know that I was practicing early songwriting and editing skills.”
But it wasn’t until after she graduated from college that Sheik actually began making music. Having moved from working-class Cleveland to sunny Los Angeles at age 12, Sheik attended UC-Berkeley to study anthropology and prepare herself for degree in law. Still in love with Bharatanatyam, she bargained with her parents: She would graduate in three and a half years, provided she could spend that extra semester immersing herself in dance. The deal sealed, Sheik was able to study dance six hours a day with her guru—an immersion that sparked her creative energy and prompted her to look for news ways to illuminate it.
Sheik realized she had an urge to write music, but there was one problem—she didn’t know how to play an instrument. Undeterred, she simply dug out her brother’s old, undersized, plastic child’s guitar from a storage closet. Its strings hadn’t been changed in 20 years, but that didn’t stop Sheik—she started plucking to get acquainted and never looked back.
Map of the Music
It’s hard to classify Shaheen Sheik’s music. Her voice is a bit Dar Williams, a bit Sheryl Crow. Her melodies are a partly top 40, partly folk festival. And her tone is sweet and sincere one moment, husky and mysterious the next. Inspired by both Indian classical music and the likes of Peter Gabriel, Nelly Furtado and Sting, Sheik creates a sound that is all her own.
Her five-song EP, In Your Love, is titled that as a tribute to her family and friends, whose love and support were vital to Sheik’s accomplishments. Even the cover depicts a collage of photos featuring her loved ones. Available at Cafe Press, the album is full of songs perfect for a crisp fall day, the kind that provokes both introspection at a summer ended and optimism for what’s to come.
Making it in music
Playing it safe, Sheik started law school at the University of Virginia. But even the pursuit of a JD didn’t get in the way of her music as she kept in tune by singing, performing and taking guitar lessons. After graduating from law school, she promptly passed the bar exam, packed her suitcases and moved to San Francisco—to begin her career as a singer-songwriter.
It wasn’t an easy ride, but it soon became obvious that Sheik made the right choice. Though her parents were concerned with her change of direction, her family was mostly supportive of her decision. She got a voice teacher and started performing at a weekly open mic night her teacher had orchestrated. “It was eight months of performance boot camp,” she recalls. That training, coupled with her knack for writing deft lyrics and composing sonorous melodies, paid off, and Sheik steadily progressed as a songwriter and a live performer. Moving back to LA, her popular open mic nights and coffeehouse jams continued, expanding to ever-bigger venues.
Then, in July 2003, ArtWallah happened. Sheik was the talk of the stage at the South Asian arts festival and was even encouraged to audition for a role in a Broadway musical. On a whim, she went for it—and made it all the way to the second round of casting. Though flattered by the experience, deep down Sheik knew she was a pop-folksinger first. Later that summer, she finished recording a five-track EP, In Your Love, with producer Jay Ruston and was selected by California State University-Northridge’s Music Industry Studies Program as its Artist of the Year. The program offered her publicity in the shape of valuable LA radio airtime along with the opportunity to record more songs in the studio.
Inspiring with authenticity
Performing with the Rangoli Dance Company, singing live as much as possible and even teaching yoga, Sheik’s schedule is nothing if not busy. But this singer-songwriter remembers her roots—she felt so indebted to ArtWallah’s contribution to her growth that she volunteered to be the administrator for the 2004 festival in July. Though the position was the equivalent of a 40-hour-a-week job, Sheik firmly believes it was worth it. ArtWallah seems to serve as an outlet for her desire to help change the landscape for struggling South Asian musicians. After all, she’s still confronting the music industry that continues to challenge her with stereotypes. But she’s not about to give up her identity or become someone she’s not.
“I’m not trying to sell out,” Sheik says patiently. “I’m definitely not saying I’m white. It’s a hard line to toe. But there are South Asian purists saying ‘Where is your tabla? Why aren’t you embracing your culture?’, and then there are mainstream execs saying, ‘Where’s your tabla?’ But I’m not having a tabla to please anyone. It’s not my style; it’s not what I hear in my brain. I love Nitin Sawhney and Karsh Kale—I love their art. But if I tried, it would be hard for me to do it because it’s not me. I think it’s about authenticity. That’s what’s going to inspire. That’s what’s going to move people.”