An interview with Nabihah Iqbal

Nabihah Iqbal is one of the most compelling artists around. Over the course of her career, she has fluctuated between the art and music worlds, tried her hand at a number of different musical styles, all while touring internationally and hosting radio shows for NTS.

During a wide-ranging conversation earlier this year, we touched on how Nabihah approaches radio, her decision to use her real name in 2017, and the untapped nu-metal nostalgia scene.

Hey Nabihah! Thanks for taking the time to chat.


I first wanted to ask about how you incorporate “ethnomusicography” on your radio show, and the planning that goes into these episodes.

Are you listening to something loads and you’re like “I must do a show on this” or do you decide “this is interesting, I should look into it more” and then build it into a show?”

Both ways really. My last show on NTS it was a Tears for Fears special. The process for this was me just listening to them loads recently and realising that I need to dedicate a whole radio show to them, because they’re one of the best bands ever. Other times, I’ll get an idea and then I’m like “yeah this could turn into something suitable for a radio show” and then start researching it. It works both ways. It just depends what I’m thinking at the time.

It takes a lot of preparation, but it’s worth it because it’s all about sharing music that you care about and that you know that you’re enthusiastic about. That’s the point of being a DJ and a radio presenter. I just want to share stuff, I don’t want to sound like too dogmatic or anything like that. It’s just me literally talking about things that I find interesting that and that I hope other people will also find interesting.

Yeah and I mean I’ve listened to your NTS show loads, but I know you’ve done quite a lot of stuff with the BBC. Do you have a different approach to how you play on those different platforms?

There is a difference because you’re doing two different things. On my NTS show there’s not really any boundaries, I’ll play any kind of genre. But on the BBC, I was doing the Saturday night residency so with that comes a lot of pre-requisites. You’ve got to bear in mind it was Saturday night, prime-time, 22:00-01:00, and it’s on the BBC. For them that slot means upbeat, going out, getting ready for a night out on the Saturday.

It’s also a lot more professional; there are more rules and regulations. You’ve got to plan all your music in advance and check it with the producer, which was a big learning process for me because I’d never approached radio in that way before. But it was amazing, because it makes you think about radio from a different perspective.

I was going in there and the three-hour show is quite long. But you’re mixing live, loads of dance music, and regularly having to come up with a brand-new playlist so you’re listening to all the new music meticulously as well. I felt like I improved loads over that residency of a year and a half of doing it.

How do you try and categorise your music? You seem to listen to such a breadth of stuff. I’m always fascinated by how you can keep that interest in disparate strands of music in enough of a way that you can actually make it into something coherent?

Well I feel that if you truly love music you can’t be narrow minded about it, because music is limitless. There’s so much to appreciate across all genres and all cultures, all eras. We live in a world where everybody wants to categorise things and call you a certain type of DJ and put you in a certain box.

And yeah… sometimes I think maybe what I’m doing is confusing for people but who are booking festivals and things like that. But, at the end of the day, I feel like you don’t have to worry about that kind of thing, you’ve just got to do what feels authentic to yourself and everything else follows on from that.

I think when you get older, you know like post-teenage years, that’s when you start realising like you don’t have to like one type of music. Cos obviously when I was a teenager I was really like: “I only listen to punk. It’s the coolest type of music. And I’ll never listen to r&b”.

I liked the 2000-2002 nostalgia show you did.

Yeah that was such a risky one, because I was like “no-one talks about this era of music anymore”. People just want to act like it didn’t exist and that they weren’t part of it, because it’s not cool. It’s not like throwback UK garage, or like 90s R&B, that has all made its comeback and sort of pastiched in a nostalgic way.

But nu-metal hasn’t really done that, but for me that was the main type of music I was into probably from the age of like 13 to 16. I just thought I’d come on and do a whole NTS show about this, and you know I was thinking “this is gonna be either a hit or miss”. And it was actually a hit!

I’ve never seen such an active chatroom, because everyone was reminiscing about going to see Less Than Jake live at a certain place, and talking about Reading Festival, and all of that era. It felt like a community radio show that day. I felt like I was really interacting with people listening to it at the time.

I guess there is a pretty big untapped nostalgia scene there.

Yeah I need to do volume two now: from 2003-2005. That’s all bands like The Rapture and Feint and Le Tigre. You know the whole Electroclash thing that started coming through; I need to do a show about that too.

So you play music from all across the world. When you tour internationally now, do you play like Brazilian music in Brazil? And if so, how do you find the response differs to how you play that to like a crowd in the UK?

I always try and do that, because I think it’s always nice for people to hear that a foreign DJ is coming that is making the effort to research their local music scene. It always goes down really well.

And actually like, not even talking about foreign countries, when I played at The Warehouse Project in Manchester, I played The Smiths as my last track – ‘This Charming Man’. Which, probably no-one has ever done before at WHP. But it was like whatever…when in Rome. And it went nuts! Sacha Lord who owns WHP was there. He came up to me afterwards and was like: “you don’t understand I feel so happy to hear that song in here. Jonny Marr is my next-door neighbour, I’m gonna tell him right now”.

If you can appreciate or show an appreciation for the local culture wherever you play in some small way, that means people will respond to that in some positive way.

You started using your real name in 2017. Do you think you’ve seen much change of how you feel as an artist or how people perceive you as an artist since the name change?

The thing is since changing the name, I’ve become a lot more conscious about what that name represents, what I represent, from that kind of identity background. Something was a lot more anonymous before I started using my real name.

Because as Throwing Shade, I was just using that because I liked the phrase. People didn’t necessarily know where I was from. When I first started as Throwing Shade, I didn’t even have any pictures of myself on the internet, on purpose. Loads of people thought I was a guy when my first productions came out on Ominira in 2013. So it’s still like a massive issue that needs to be dealt with because, since I’ve started using my real name – Nabihah Iqbal – I’m noticing the fact that I never see anyone with a quote-unquote “foreign”, “different”, or non-English name on a lot of festival lineups.

You don’t hear their music being played on mainstream radio, and then the question is why? Right? It’s a two-pronged thing, cos it’s like there are prejudices and inhibitions about people because of what they look like or what their names are, that’s one issue.

Then the other issue is are people afraid to use their real names because of that? It’s coming from the artist. In terms of them thinking about their identity and wanting to fit in, or wanting to have a certain image and fit in with their surroundings. And then on the other hand it’s about the gatekeepers of that scene and how they respond to people like me.

So yeah… I’m not gonna pretend like there’s not a lot of things that need to change. But for me anyway, it just felt like the right thing to do. I’m glad I made that decision, whether it’s made things harder or easier. I don’t know. But I just gotta fight that fight.

Yeah, I think it’s really good. I re-read the Dazed article that you did. I guess you had a sort of equivalent of a privileged position that you were in, in that you were being booked, people were listening to your music. So, to use that privilege to be like: “I’m actually going to do this thing to boost that representation and also shine a light on the lack of that representation”. I think that was a really great thing for you to do.

I mean it’s something that, it took me a while to get there, and that’s the crazy thing. Because I never thought about it at first. I didn’t think about it until people started sending me messages. Like, other people from ethnic minority backgrounds started messaging me and saying that it was great to see me doing what I was doing. That they found it really inspiring and encouraging, and then that’s maybe what triggered my whole thought process about identity and representation.

I was wondering do you try have a sort of conscious approach to curating the stuff you put out into the world?

Well, if I’m totally honest, I feel like I should curate it a bit more. It’s hard, I think a lot of people know me through my radio show, and on my radio show you hear me talking about the music. I feel like people find a personal connection with me through that. Because they’re hearing your voice. So then it’s hard to then come across as a very enigmatic aloof artist.

Other people can cultivate that image, sometimes I think I just seem too geeky! I am a geek…and this interview is now adding to this cultivated context. I think there’s probably some things online that I wish weren’t but not.

Now we live in this cosy internet world so everything’s there all the time for all to find, it’s different from how things used to be. I think before the internet even really brilliant artists were always developing. They were always shifting, changing, having different ideas and you’d keep up with their current status. You can’t just do a search for what they were saying like ten years earlier. So, it’s just changed the way that people perceive artists now.

On Weighing of the Heart it seems like you’re trying to articulate a certain kind of melancholy 9-5 existence. Was that something you went through?

All the songs on that album were about things i was thinking about a lot at that time. I guess the 9-5 reference is from Zone 1-6000. But that whole song is about more than just that, it’s about an observation on London life. And it’s about the daily grind and it doesn’t literally have to be about doing a 9-5. It’s more about having different social pressures and other pressures on you that you have to manoeuvre around. It’s hard to get away from that.

Yeah one thing I saw as well, from Zone 1-6000 didn’t someone paint their lyrics out onto their sofa?

Yeah! In Indonesia.

Which I guess shows the universality of that sort of experience.

I was talking about that the other day at the Tate Britain. I was doing a talk about William Blake. That song is inspired by William Blake’s poem ‘London;. So I was talking about how it all comes back to him.

A lot of people have really identified with that track. I guess it’s because the subject of it is really relatable; whether its thinking about your 9-5 boring job you have to do or just you know feeling alone in a big city, or feeling social anxiety. A lot of people have sent me very in-depth messages about their reaction to that track.

I remember one person at a gig showing me their Spotify ‘commuting’ playlist, they were like “it’s on my commuting playlist”, I was like: “doesn’t that make you want to kill yourself?!”

So yeah like that Indonesia thing was funny. I was playing in Jakarta for the first time, and then this guy came up to me in the DJ booth and was trying to show me this photo on his phone, but I couldn’t really tell what it was. Then he told me like: “I’ve painted my leather sofa at home with all the lyrics to your song because I love it so much”. It’s amazing. It’s also like really crazy.

As an artist it feels really crazy because you’ve made that song in isolation for ages on the album, then it comes out and you don’t know how people are going to react to it. Then someone from the other side of the world in a place you’ve never even been to has felt like such a strong connection.

And I remember another guy from France translated all the lyrics for me into French but like sticking with the rhyme and rhythm. That must have taken him…well that’s a lot of work. It’s so cool when you see people having a strong response to your music.

But a very well-earnt response! Thanks so much for chatting with us.

NB: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.