By Olivia Cuthbert
Sitting editor: Khalid Abdel-Hadi
Photographed by: Oumaima Dermoumi
Image designs by: Mohammed Moe Mustafa
Styled by: Marwa Asserraji
Creative Direction Khalid Abdel-Hadi & Marwa Asserraji
Behind the scenes conducted by: Camille Léage
The lights are low and Juliana Yazbeck starts softly, warming the audience up for what comes next. As her voice builds, so does the atmosphere in the room, electrifying listeners with her fiery, theatrical performance. By the third track, everyone is hooked.
A few weeks earlier, I caught a glimpse of this larger-than-life stage presence when we met for an interview by London Bridge. “I have this big energy when I perform, then people see me face to face afterwards and say ‘Oh you’re tiny!’ ”
In person, the 31-year-old singer songwriter does look petite, her black top and trousers framing a physique she describes as muscular. But like the other identity markers that she has, at times, considered a hindrance, Yazbek now celebrates her look, eschewing a bra or make up because they make her feel alienated from her body. “I have learnt who I am without the patriarchal conditioning. This is my body and I feel feminine in it.”
It’s a spirit she carries through to the songs in her debut album Sungod, which invites listeners to join her in shedding “indoctrinated shame, self-hate and colonial and patriarchal destruction.” Released in March 2018, it drew rave reviews and now she’s riding the wave of that success, booking major venues, including London’s Electric Ballroom, where she’s opening for Egyptian rock band Cairokee in December.
“Something else to say”
Her listeners have found the album, “life-changing and empowering,” telling Yazbeck that it “made me see my inherent strength,” “realise I’m not lacking,” and “understand that I don’t need to aspire to things I don’t want to aspire to.” The biggest reward is when young women write to her or come up after a show and say they will never see the world the same way after listening to this album. “That’s everything I could have dreamed of.”
One of her most popular tracks Alihat (“goddesses”) digs down into the inherent resilience of the matriarchy, exhorting women to find their own form of feminism. The song was written to find expression for a message that Yazbeck wanted to hear and champions the mothers, aunts and grandmothers that support the next generation to shine. “We have been told that feminism is a Western invention but there are many feminisms and it’s important that we don’t have to choose.”
It’s a celebration of innate female strength and the value of individual womanhood. “The message is that we are not lacking,” she says.
The words resonate powerfully with young women in particular, both in the Arab world and among diaspora communities in the US and UK, where Yazbeck has spent large parts of her life. But this is not music that engages with one audience alone. Singing in English and Arabic, Yazbeck’s songs have a universal relevance that draws on her multicultural background and the different influences that have shaped her identity today.
Growing up in New Jersey, USA, as the child of Lebanese parents who fled the war, she wanted to assimilate. Then, aged six, she was taken back to Lebanon and experienced a culture shock.
Immediately she threw herself into theatre, later performing in musicals like my Fair Lady and Fame. From an early age, her parents wanted her to be a concert pianist and encouraged her to study classical piano. “I hated it, all that ballet music; I think somewhere inside of me, some ancestor was saying don’t let them colonise you! I kept revolting because I knew I had something else to say.”
Harnessing her creativity
On stage, it’s clear that Yazbeck relishes the opportunity to engage with her audience, interspersing songs with rousing tributes to the protests in Lebanon, which were in their second week when she performed ahead of El Sarah and the Nubatones last October. Whoops and cheers go up from the audience as she expresses solidarity and support.
“We are not doing enough as Lebanese people, none of us are free until all of us are free,” she told me when we met.
“…I think somewhere inside of me, some ancestor was saying don’t let them colonise you! I kept revolting because I knew I had something else to say.”
Performing in Lebanon, particularly in her hometown of Batroun, is high on Yazbeck’s agenda, but for the moment, she’s busy building on her momentum in the competitive London music scene.
This year, she was a finalist for the Arab British Centre Award for Culture 2019, part of the biennial award’s first all-female shortlist. It’s a reflection of the powerful contribution female Arab artists are making to the Arab cultural sector, and the appetite from the British public for new work. “There’s a big change in the world and I think women of colour are at the forefront of it,” Yazbeck says.
Reviewers have raved over Sungod, describing it as “absolutely beautiful” (Bido Lito!) and “a fantastic combination of traditional Arabic sounds, electronica, rock and hip-hop” (The National), with “lyrical eloquence that flows as beautifully as her vocals” (Resonance FM). Yazbeck is “super-psyched,” by the hype, but initially held the touring and the media at arm’s length. “It may have seemed insane to some, but I just wanted to make the album, release it and then see.”
At the time, there were other things going on in Yazbeck’s life and her song writing had to be free from distractions. She married her husband Francesco, a computer science engineer from Italy, and spent time in therapy, a process that has helped her harness the ebbs and flows of the creative process. “I have learnt not to force inspiration – it comes in waves – when the ideas aren’t flowing then I’m resting and that’s a crucial part of the process.”
It’s often late at night when inspiration strikes. “I used to see this as anxiety and insomnia; now I view this as my creative time and see that nervous energy for what it really is – excitement.”
The impetus to start recording an album came when she won PRS Foundation’s Women Make Music grant in May 2017. “In a leap of faith, which was very unusual for me, I applied for the award and got it.” It was the boost she needed to graduate from small acoustic duo shows with her long-time guitarist Alexis Kraniou and perform for a wider audience.
Palestinian-Jordanian producer Hamza Arnaout of the band 47Soul came on board to produce the album. “I didn’t think about how it would land or whether people would like it. I made it for me.” That changed as soon as it was released. “After that, it’s not yours any more, it belongs to the listener.”
For Yazbeck, it has to feel indigenous. Moving to London in 2010, she started a career in jazz and performed her own songs in spare moments. Inspiration came from all over, Lebanon’s soul queen Umm Kulthoum, singer songwriter Julia Boutros, Motown greats like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, Canadian electronic duo A Tribe Called Red, Tunisian songstress Emel Mathlouthi, Irish musician Hozier and 47 Soul, among many others. The unifying factor is a sound that’s “true, real and raw – music that’s not made within or for a colonial capitalist sphere,” she says.
She has avoided world music circuits, refusing to be labelled as marginalised or minority. On the contrary, “I have every faith that we are mainstream,” she says. “We live in a world that tells us we don’t belong because of who is in power. I’m channelling all of my energies into showing that I am the mainstream.”
Living in London has its challenges but the cultural diversity of the city is a source of constant sustenance. “No matter how tired I get here, I could not live in a place that’s not this diverse – the art, the music, the events, the club nights, the food and people from all over the world.”
The city has also been the scene of her biggest shows to date. Last summer she performed at several events across the UK, including the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival and the Shubbak Festival, where she did her first open-air show. It rained all day but as Yazbeck went through her warm-up ritual, the patter stopped and sun broke through the clouds. “I could see the crowd’s faces, their expressions. Usually I perform in a controlled environment and the audience is in the dark so this was a beautiful challenge.”
A big part of this is planning the wardrobe for herself and the band. Yazbeck customises the outfits she wears on stage to create ensembles that are “showstopping.” Her look combines a New Jersey East Coast vibe with elements of her Arabic roots. “I like it to be powerful – I feel larger than life in a baddass costume.” During her photoshoot for My Kali in Paris, she took items from her own wardrobe to mix with the designer pieces selected by our stylists. Even on set, Yazbeck’s look is very much her own, doing her own hair and staying resolutely make-up free. “It has to be me, if it isn’t, then I’m not gonna wear it.”
It might sound like Yazbeck has attitude – and she does, lots – but during a three hour interview she comes across as warm, funny and open, ready to talk about the challenges of pursuing her music against the wishes of her family, and the artist’s doubts that hover beneath the surface, which she has, in the main, mastered. Music is a calling for Yazback, as well as a responsibility. “I see it as my divine purpose to accept this gift and use it to challenge oppression and tyranny and make the world a better place. I hope I can be a vessel for that.”
Juliana will be present at the Electric Ballroom, Camden, London Sunday, 01 Mar 2020 at 7:00 PM performing with band Cairokee. More information on the event here
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العربي 👇 تحت . What is the relation between voice, sexuality and body? Did the tone of their voice affected their life in any way? Can voice suppress or liberate? Our latest dossier revolves around ‘VOICE’. There is a marginalization of queer and feminist voices facing silencing in our patriarchal societies, that aims to serve masculine and normative voices. Our cover story for this issue is Lebanese emerging singer/song writer @julianayaz. Read this issue’s structure and access some of it’s articles, link in bio. (English version is linked in the arabic article, linked 👆 in bio). Note: We usually publish the issue’s structure as an introduction, then we publish articles and art work/photography in the coming days and weeks. . ما العلاقة بين الصوت والجنسانية والجسد؟ هل أثرت نبرة صوتكم/كن على حياتكم/كن بأي شكل من الأشكال؟ هل يمكن للصوت أن يقمع أو يحرر؟ ملفنا الأخير يتمحور حول مفهوم ‘الصوت’. هناك تهميش للأصوات الكويرية والنسوية التي تواجه إسكاتا في المجتمعات الأبوية المسمومة بميزات تخدم الأصوات الرجالية والمعيارية. ويقع على عاتق العديد منا توثيق تلك الأصوات والقصص التي تحملها. نستضيف ايضا في هذا العدد – شخصية الغلاف – المغنية اللبنانية جوليانا يزبك. بامكانكم قرأة هيكل العدد و بعض المقالات المنشورة حديثا عبر موقعنا، الرابط في 👆 البايو. ملاحظة: نحن ننشر الهيكل اولا كمقدمة، ومن ثم ننشر المقالات و التصويرات خلال الايام و الاسابيع المقبلة. . Juliana’s feature By @liv_cuthbert Photographed by: @six_neuf_trois Styled by: @nausicaaiv Cover design by: @moe.mus Creative Direction Khalid Abdel-Hadi & @nausicaaiv Behind the scenes conducted by @camilleleage Sitting editors: @musashadeedi & Khalid Abdel-Hadi
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English 👇 below . هناك تهميش للأصوات الكويرية والنسوية التي تواجه إسكاتا في المجتمعات الأبوية المسمومة بميزات تخدم الأصوات الرجالية والمعيارية. ويقع على عاتق العديد منا توثيق تلك الأصوات والقصص التي تحملها. في هذا الملف، نطرح عدد من الأسئلة: ما العلاقة بين الصوت والجنسانية والجسد؟ هل أثرت نبرة صوتكم/كن على حياتكم/كن بأي شكل من الأشكال؟ هل يمكن للصوت أن يقمع أو يحرر؟ نستضيف ايضا في هذا العدد، شخصية الغلاف المغنية اللبنانية جوليانا يزبك. بامكانكم قرأة هيكل العدد و بعض المقالات المنشورة حديثا عبر موقعنا، الرابط في 👆 البايو. ملاحظة: نحن ننشر الهيكل اولا كمقدمة، ومن ثم ننشر المقالات و التصويرات خلال الايام و الاسابيع المقبلة. . There is a marginalization of queer and feminist voices facing silencing in our patriarchal societies, that aims to serve masculine and normative voices. In this dossier/scope, we ask a number of our writers and participants: What is the relation between voice, sexuality and body? Did the tone of their voice affected their life in any way? Can voice suppress or liberate? Our cover story for this issue is Lebanese singer/song writer @julianayaz. Read this issue’s structure and access some of it’s articles, link in bio. (English version is linked in the arabic article, linked 👆 in bio) . Note: We usually publish the issue’s structure as an introduction, then we publish articles and art work/photography in the coming days and weeks. Juliana’s feature By @liv_cuthbert Photographed by: @six_neuf_trois Styled by: @nausicaaiv Cover design by: @moe.mus Creative Direction Khalid Abdel-Hadi & @nausicaaiv Behind the scenes conducted by @camilleleage Sitting editors: @musashadeedi & Khalid Abdel-Hadi