Heart to Heart: Zain Bhikha

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Pioneering South African singer-songwriter Zain Bhikha details the challenges of maintaining intention in a rapidly growing nasheed industry.

So we are in the new year.  2012, mashaAllah, you travelled a lot performing plenty of shows. Should we expect more of the same for 2013?

Last year was exceptionally difficult because I did too many shows and every show was in a different country that required a lot of travel and time. I think I need to rethink my future plans and  play less this year.

I guess those air-miles prove the nasheed genre has truly expanded globally.

Alhamdulilah, from the time that I started, way back in 1984, Islamic songs in English was relatively unknown. Today, alhamdulilah, it is affecting so many people around the world and they are really finding inspiration from it. It has changed a lot but I also think we have to guard ourselves that it doesn’t change into something that is not suitable in what we are trying to achieve.

Do you fear the commericialsiation of the genre could affect the goal of what you are trying to do as artists?

That is our biggest fear. When we first started there was only a few of us and it is now become so popular. Alhamdulilah it is a good thing because it means more and more people are using their talent to convey a good message as opposed to 90 per cent of the music that is out there.  But I think it has now become commercialised and there is a big business behind it and we must not give up on our principles. The message of the song is more important than the person giving that message.

What is more important to you, the message of the nasheed or the intention of the performer?

It all starts with intention. That is the foundation of our religion, every action is based on a good intention. But you know, it is very easy to fool ourselves. I been doing this for many years and it’s easy for me to say I want to do this song for this reason but in my heart maybe I feel differently and maybe it is because of the fame and stage. I think the intention is more important and we have to check ourselves and ask ourselves “are we really doing this to please Allah?” I believe if the intention is right, then Allah only requires us to do a little amount of work and He does the rest.

Can a nasheed artist’s lack of sincerity be picked up by an audience?

When I do a lot of workshops for young people to encourage their talent I always say the heart speaks to the heart. Sometimes you hear something that is done simply and it doesn’t have the all the fancy things behind it and the person may not even have a great voice, but because the intention is clean they do it from the heart and they really believe it, then that song will shine. There will be barakah in it that you wont get if you do it for other reasons.

Your nasheeds are known for it’s trademark minimalist production which basically focuses on your vocals and soft percussion. Do you sometimes feel restricted in that format?

Because I did a lot of songs over the years and albums it is difficult to remain original. Every song and melody that I write I think maybe I did this before or it sounds like something else. You are sometimes working against your own creativity. Also, as a creative person, you want to venture into new directions as well. You want to offer something new. But then again I have to remember that it all comes down to intentions. If it is a good song with a good message, then all I am doing is presenting it. But if it is for the wrong reason then no matter how much I work there will be no barakah in it. So yes, it is important to try new things but more doesn’t always mean better.

A lot of the spiritual themes you and other nasheed artists deal with are familiar to Muslim ears. Is it a challenge to present such topics in a way that can still inspire others?

You hit the nail on the head. It is about taking a subject and looking at it from a completely different side. I think what has happened is that people has seen this business and some realised that to get into this industry you need to come up with a formula, like if you do a song about Palestine, or this or that, it will make a successful album. But they don’t realise that art is about putting a piece of yourself into something. It is your fears, your tears and your deepest thoughts and telling the world this is who I am. That can only happen from deep within you and if you are truly inspired, especially in the nasheed world.

How can one open up themselves up to receive that inspiration?

To be truly inspired by Allah you need knowledge. I am learning all the time, some of the best songs that I have written was when I was truly inspired and felt close to Allah and thinking about my life. That is what people want to hear, something real from someone else. At this stage, I am just reading and praying and that is when you become inspired. You think about the purpose of life and that is more important than the songs. The songs are just a byproduct of a person on their own journey seeking the truth.

So in a way, some of your biggest songs, for example Allah Knows, can be viewed as a bookmark or pitstop on that journey?

Absolutely. All the key songs I knew exactly where I was when I wrote them. Allah Knows was during Ramadan, after Fajr, and I was thinking that we all go through tough times and we forget that Allah is aware. Even the song Mountains of Mecca, I finished my hajj and was feeling so content and peace with myself and I had this view of the mountains around the Kaaba and I thought about the song. It is about times like that and not about formulas and saying something that other people would like. It’s about encapsulating the deepest thoughts and feelings that we Muslim feel towards Allah.

Are you more comfortable performing live or in the studio?

Live performance is one of the most effective ways to promote your songs. It is also the biggest hurdle for artists because it is so deceiving. You can be up onstage in front of thousands of people and you can really start to feel that it is all about you. But it’s not, it is really all about the message. Dawud Wharnsby once told me that if the person you think you are, and the person that the audience thinks you are and the person that you really are, if those three people are close then you have a chance of surviving and being true to yourself. If I had a choice I would much prefer people listen to my song on their own, in their own circumstances and I don’t have to meet them and they don’t ever have to meet me. As an artist you can start doubting yourself and creating illusions. The person on stage doesn’t exist. It’s only you as an individual who is flawed, highly temperamental and an ordinary human being.

It must be vulnerable to be on that stage alone and singing a-cappella because you can’t hide behind a band or backing music.

It is also beyond that because you are singing with a purpose and people expect you to live the message that you are singing and rightly so. My biggest fear always is when Allah speaks about the hypocrites who say things but do not act on it. For me, as a public personality that is my biggest fear, may Allah protect me form that. It does come with a huge sense of responsibility and may Allah help me fulfill what I sing in the first place.

Finally, you know I need to ask you this brother, what are your thoughts on how one of your songs was part of an online hoax stating that Michael Jackson converted to Islam and has now also become a nasheed artist?

I found it amusing but that’s the world we live in.The rumor started on the internet with one of my older songs Give Thanks to Allah. It spread by email and it became one of those things that people spoke about. Off-course when he passed away I got a lot of calls from journalists and radio personalities asking me if I met him. Off-course I never met him. Growing up in the 1980’s for me Michael Jackson was an icon. His songwriting and singing ability, I don’t think many people had his vocal talent in that the emotion he put in his songs as well as their meanings. This is why in my last album I really wanted to pay tribute to him and that’s why I sang one of his songs Heal The World.

For more information on Zain Bhikha click here.

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