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“My voice is a gift from God.” Khaira Arby in an interview with Steve Hochman for Spinner.
Reading through a list of upcoming acts at my local music venue, I came across a woman whose name I hadn’t heard of before—Khaira Arby. Intrigued, I clicked on her act to learn more about her.
Singing in four languages, Arby hails from Mali and performed in March at the SXSW music festival. Her latest album, Timbuktu Tarab (translated as “Timbuktu my land”), was released in 2010 to critical acclaim. In March, the New York Times’ Jon Pareles called it “one of the decade’s best African albums” and proclaimed Arby “one of Africa’s greatest singers.”
The lyrics of her music relay subjects as diverse as praising the prophet Mohammed and the local harvests in Mali and to denouncing female genital mutilation and bringing attention to the condition of African women. A line from her song “Khaira” is translated to English in her interview with Steve Hochman for Spinner:
“I am your servant and my job is to spread joy around the world with my songs. I am proud to be your servant of happiness.”
The fact that Arby is Muslim was not the predominant theme in the articles and interviews I came across. Most of those I read discussed her singing ability and album, emphasis on women’s rights and social justice, and her own personal background fluidly—there was no over-lingering on any one of these themes over the other. I’ll admit that I had expected that her being Muslim would predominate in articles—but that was not the case.
While Arby was discouraged from pursuing music from her family, she overcame their disapproval and pressed on to become an internationally renowned singer. I felt inspired by her resolve to pursue her passion, despite the discouragement she faced, as she remained within her faith. In an interview with Afropop, Arby discusses the sociocultural constraints she faced in her first marriage to a man who opposed her singing (whom she divorced):
It is very different now, very very different. I felt really abandoned. I was so tired of this thing. “A woman must be married. You must get married. Women must remain seated.” I said no. Me, I’m going to play music. And I’m going to make people listen to my voice everywhere, and educate women, encourage them to do what they want. And thank God, where I am today I have succeeded. They’re are married women who play music. They go out. I am married. Right now, I am married, but I go out as I please. I make my tours. I come home. I respect my husband, and he respects me.
Her focus on social justice themes and faith in her music is an empowering reminder of the strength of Muslim women in Africa and across the world. Far too often, the predominant narrative in media outlets is of how African Muslim women (that is, when we do hear stories of African women) are unable to achieve societal change without the assistance of a western intermediary.
In her interviews and articles, this narrative is turned on its head—Arby is a musical force, whose messages of social justice, musical ability, and resolve transcend the condescending narrative. Arby’s story becomes a positive and successful example of the tireless uphill battle women face.
I wish I had heard of her earlier! I grew up in a household where qawwalis played alongside Bollywood songs on cassette tape, to listening to Youssou N’Dour and Lupe Fiasco on my iPod in more recent years—the number of Muslim women singers, though, has remained woefully small (why?). Arby’s soulful music—and the message of overcoming her tribulations while remaining true to her faith—has found a permanent and endearing place in my musical collection. In an article from Rockpaperscissors, Arby concludes:
I want to struggle against war, sickness, and poverty by recording albums in all the languages I can. I want to teach the daughters of the world, teach them to think, to value themselves, to sing.
Khaira Arby will be on her summer tour in Montreal and the United States starting July 4th. You can see her tour schedule here.