I first heard Samia Malik's (Norwich based artist) music back in 1998 when her debut album The Colour of the Heart had just been released. The haunting melody of her voice with its deep sense of longing, the originality and sensitivity of her lyrics - which resemble the Urdu Ghazal in form but extend and subvert its content and the strong feminist and anti-racist message of that first album spoke directly to me. It made me think of the young Pakistani women living in Bradford and Oldham whom I had met when I was researching my book Finding a Voice, Asian Women in Britain, and how uplifted they would have felt to hear this music and these words which expressed emotions and experiences so close to their own.
On a very different level I remember thinking that here, at last, was a British Asian musician who was able, not only to write songs and sing in Urdu and English, but to combine a powerful performance in English with an uncompromisingly South Asian sensibility. I felt that Samia's work implicitly challenged the stereotypes which so often shape the way South Asians are represented in Britain - sometimes even by South Asian performers and artists themselves.
In 2017, nearly twenty years later I got to see Samia perform again at the launch of her brilliant third album Azaadi: Freedom. Her voice still haunting and melodious now has a new strength and conviction, its music qualities honed and perfected by intense training in Indian classical music and complimented now by a wonderful group of musicians including the so-called 'sitarist to the stars' Baluji Shrivastav. Her presence on stage together with projections of her own visual art is tremendously powerful and inspiring. (Azaadi, as she tells us, reflects her own personal journey through art 'which was an instrument of... healing and empowerment').
Her feminist message has become a strong uplifting current. It embraces our pain, sorrow, and anger and speaks out about Asian women's oppression, epitomised in being 'the third daughter in a culture which worships the first son', and finally gathers us up, as it were, calling on us to
'let go of fear,
nothing can contain you
Believe in your own truth,
Claim what was always yours'
At the core of Azaadi are songs and poems which speak specifically about the South Asian (sometimes Muslim) women's experience, as in Shubaab: Longing
'What crimes have been committed in that longing
For that which is not tangible
For that which is not hidden in books
Some search in the Mosque
Some search in the Quran
Some search in their hearts,
Some search in wine'
or more specifically about the South Asian woman's experience in Britain as in the unforgettable Colour of her Heart:
'It’s not the colour of her heart
It’s the colour of her face
It’s not the whisper of her dreams
It’s the roar of her race'
Samia frames these songs, however, in a broader perception of struggle, by including, for example, a riveting spoken-word performance of Kishwar Naheed's poem 'Anticlockwise' (translated by Rukhsana Ahmad) written during the Zia era in Pakistan, and at the end of the show by singing finally of revolution
'I was awake
How did I dream such a beautiful dream
A beautiful dream of revolution?
When we walk hand in hand
Together we will sweep away palaces of privilege’.
At a time when women the world over are facing an onslaught of intensified patriarchal violence and oppression, these iconic songs are needed to heal and empower us too.
Amrit Wilson is a writer and activist on issues of race and gender in Britain and South Asian politics. She is a founder member of South Asia Solidarity Group and the Freedom Without Fear Platform, and was Chair of Imkaan, a Black, South Asian and minority ethnic women's organisation dedicated to combating violence against women in Britain, from its inception in 1999 to 2014. She was a founder member of Awaz and an active member of OWAAD.