It’s Bigger Than Representation: An Interview with Queens’ ilham

“If you look at the pool that we have already, there aren’t enough brown girls.”
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ilham, a rising singer-songwriter from Queensbridge, New York, is no stranger to breaking genre barriers. Her sweet, smooth voice flits over R&B, pop-inflected beats, but according to her, she’s no standard R&B singer. ilham, 22, has never taken to being boxed in or having her story told for her. She prefers to be on the front lines of her narrative, and her music is all the better for it.

“As soon as I dropped my first record, everyone started boxing me into that [R&B],” ilham says. “More so, [listeners] would box me into alternative R&B. But personally, every time I walk into the studio, I never thought, ‘I’m going to make R&B music today.’ I just kind of make whatever feels good to me and then if my team also likes it, and if I’m very passionate about it, we drop it.”

ilham debuted her first project, 41-10, back in 2018—its title referring to the building she grew up in, in Queensbridge. The album’s production features a mix of R&B, soul, heavy bass, and elements of pop, creating a signature sound to her heartfelt ballads. Soon enough, her song “none of your friends business,” received airplay on Season 3 of the HBO series Insecure. Keeping up the momentum, in 2019, ilham released her second album, with time.

Beyond music, ilham is proud of her Moroccan background and wants to see more representation for brown and black communities. “I think brown girls are beautiful. I think there needs to be more representation, and I think girls, in general, will be a bit healthier mentally if they see girls like me. There still needs to be more representation in general, but if you look at the pool that we have already, there aren’t enough brown girls.”

Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

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DJBooth: What sets you apart from other R&B artists, and how would you describe your music?

ilham: I think my tone. Just my voice, in general, is unique and not the same as other R&B artists. My honesty—I’m not always talking about the stereotypical R&B topics, like love and whatnot. I may formulate it and keep a director’s approach, so then the listener can maybe relate and think it’s about love. But for the most part, it’s a little deeper than that. I feel like I’ve lived a life with amazing highs and super little lows that need to be highlighted.

As soon as I dropped my first record, everyone started boxing me into that [R&B]. More so, [listeners] would box me into alternative R&B. But personally, every time I walk into the studio, I never thought, ‘I’m going to make R&B music today.’ I just kind of make whatever feels good to me and then if my team also likes it, and if I’m very passionate about it, we drop it. My first project—41-10, there was a pop record on it. There was a dance record on it. I think music is just music. But what separates me [is] my voice, who I am, my story.

Did your family always know that you were interested in making music professionally? How did they take it?

My mom knew that I had a talent, but they knew when I would do talent shows. When I went to a performing arts high school, and I told them that I was serious about it, my mom and dad just kind of embraced me. I think they’re proud of me. They just want me to be happy.

What’s your current process when working on new music?

I’m able to go to the studio, and a producer will be there, and we’ll just run through a couple of sounds. Whichever one I think is more my type, we build a beat from scratch. I go in, and I freestyle melodies. Then I’m filling in the words and make it as honest as possible. This is my first time where consistently I’ve been in the studio with a producer. In the past, I’ve either been sent beats, or I found them on YouTube. It’s a beautiful process because I’m able to go there and make stuff from scratch. It’s not already built. 

How important is representation to you?

It’s really important. Every day, we’re looking through social media, and we see the same girls, the same body types, and I think every body type is amazing. Not everyone wants a man-made body or has certain things that are portrayed as beauty standards. I started reflecting and comparing myself to other girls. I’m beautiful the way I am, and if I want to be overly sexual, I can be. Right now, I don’t want to be. Just be yourself.

I think brown girls are beautiful. I think there needs to be more representation, and I think girls, in general, will be a bit healthier mentally if they see girls like me. There still needs to be more representation in general, but if you look at the pool that we have already, there aren’t enough brown girls. My goal in life with this music thing is to take it as far as where Ariana Grande [and] Justin Bieber have taken it. Being in the music industry, I see a lot of the backend stuff that occurs. I see what goes into making an artist a superstar. I don’t think an average person understands that anyone can be a superstar.

I grew up in the projects, but I still went to college, and I went to one of the top universities in this country, and I still live in the projects. What I’m trying to say is you can do anything. People like myself or people with deeper melanin that still come from where I come from, the stats are wild. You’re either in prison or [on] drugs. A lot of things could’ve happened, but you can defeat all odds. We tend to put other people’s success stories on a pedestal instead of looking at it and saying, ‘I can do that.’

Let’s talk about your song, “never even know.”

“never even know” is one of my favorite songs. It was produced by Dustin Cavazos, who’s my best friend, so I just love that song. During that time, I was going through things, but I didn’t know how to communicate it properly. Whether it was with my friends or management, I would kind of just be abrasive or angry. I was always the person who sat down and listened to people’s issues, but I was never the one who properly had that reciprocated. So I just always sat down with emotions, and people never knew about it. I’d be smiling and stuff, and deep down, I’m struggling. That’s where “never even know” stemmed from.

For the music video, what were you and the director trying to convey through the visuals?

It was an all-women production team, which was super dope, and highlighted black and brown women. The director, Kajal—she and I were talking, [and] one of the topics that came [up] was about cultural appropriation, Islamophobia, and stereotypes.

“never even know” is shot literally in my hood...I wanted to humanize us. I think the media has created very strict stereotypes. I hope this video kind of just knocks away those little stereotypes because we all have beautiful, rich cultures.

If you notice, the girls from the video are all from like 18 to 25. But we all look hella average and chill. That is the majority. That is true, accurate beauty representation. This is how we look like; this is how we move. This is how we talk, and I think it’s beautiful. 

How does it feel going back to New York after recording in LA?

This last month my anxiety has been the worst. It’s difficult. It’s like two different living situations because you come to sunny LA. For the most part, when I do couch surf, I’m with my friends or people on my team—they have hot water. They don’t have roaches. You start seeing the different spectrums of living, and it fucks up your head. When I go back to New York, not to sound crazy, but roaches are normal. Oh, we don’t have hot water? That’s super normal to us. Oh, it’s another flood? That’s normal. This is what we deserve since we’re poor. Everybody deserves humane living situations, regardless of how much rent you pay. I think that’s kind of what’s like [for me] to be that voice and be an activist because I don’t care how I look right now.

Do you see yourself taking on a bigger role in activism?

In the last three months, I’ve been in contact with certain people who hold positions either in the Senate or any one of the other [governmental] branches. I’ve been communicating a lot with other activists or social influencers affected. I’ve been communicating with the federal monitors and vice president of NYCHA, and honestly...I do think I had a tweet, and it went viral, [and] that shifted everything. I know that I will use my platform to help my community and other communities like it.

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