Azam Ali of Niyaz: An Artist In The Garden of Life

Life is a balancing act and nobody knows more about that than Azam Ali, quite possibly the kindest and wisest soul that the music industry has seen in years. Ali is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and composer, as well as a mother, speaker, educator, and activist. The albums that she has released as a soloist, as well as part of Niyaz and VAS, are all passion projects that are thought out, loved, and intricately crafted. Being proud of the work you put into the world and the effect it has on both yourself and your audience is what drives Ali to speak truthfully to the most students, put on the most immersive shows, and create the most personal form of art she can. Nobody will get in her way of being a creative force, a strong willed woman, and a voice for musicians, artists, and immigrants all around the globe. 

You are touring now as a Niyaz, alongside your husband, which is understood to be a band in the ethno-electronic genre. What do you think of that and what are your thoughts on categorizing music into genres as a whole? I can only imagine that an artist like you doesn’t feel strict pressures from where your style comes from or where it takes you.

Well, it’s always challenging, but I do understand the need for genres in terms of trying to market music to people and that there is a need to put it in a category. It’s unfortunate for artists like ourselves who really redefined a lot of genres that people end up putting us in. You know, a lot of times it’s “world music,” but it’s so much more than that. I just hate the term “world music.” That’s probably my least favorite. I prefer “global music.” But it’s also not exactly electronic music. When we started–we started the band in 2005–we called Niyaz electronic acoustic music, and I know a lot of people thought that that’s an oxymoron, but now it’s become a very legitimate genre. Electric acoustic music is considered a genre in and of itself. But I hate all the categorizations. Actually, I describe our music of postmodern-decolonial, but that’s too intellectual. You can never market that music. If I had to describe what we do, that’s how I would describe it.

I actually agree, because that does fit your sound well. It’s all encompassing with the different styles that you integrate in.

Yes, that’s what we hope for. Thank you.

You’re welcome. On top of being a performer and touring with your music, you are a speaker, an educator, and an activist, visiting schools of all ages and all backgrounds to lecture and engage students on culture, feminism, politics, current events, and mass media. What made you interested in doing this thing and how did you actually begin to get involved with doing so?

Actually, I think the work really started for us very gradually after the September 11th attacks. We were touring quite heavily in the U.S. at that time and we had some horrible experiences because we are Middle Eastern. We realized that there is much more of a need for education that there is for our music. We found that if we just go somewhere and give a concert, it’s not as impactful as if we go somewhere and we have a residency engage with communities. We have workshops, discussions, and those sorts of things. We feel like if we’re able to do that kind of outreach before a show or after a show, we then ended up having much more impact than just going and performing. So it started gradually around 2001 and then it became much more serious over the years where we decided to develop actual programs–very specific programs–in areas that we were interested in. And we felt that there was a sort of lack, not necessarily of education, but a lack of connection with the life experiences of people like us. So I think people need to sit in a room with people like us who have had a very different life experiences than themselves and hear it firsthand from our mouth instead of just reading it from textbooks. It has become a major part of our work now. I often tease and say that when we take the gig, we do it so we can do the residencies. Whereas for a lot of artists they’ll take the residency because they want to do the gig! 

We’re here at the University of Washington. We did two days of intense residency there and there would be many students and it changed our lives. It always changes us and we have such a major impact on those we end up sitting in the same room with. Speaking with a lot of students who were not even planning on coming to our shows end up coming to the shows just because of that exchange at a residency lecture. We see firsthand that this is the work that really ends up making a difference. We need that now more than any other time given the current political climate in this country with a phobia of immigration and immigrants. We need that.

Oh, absolutely. That’s such informative and wonderful work. I really commend you for that. What has the response been like from the sessions, both at schools and concerts?

Well, I wouldn’t say we change every single student’s life by showing up and giving these lectures or engaging in these conversations, but I would say we have a lot of impact on some of the students. I say maybe because for a lot of students, they take a course and it’s mandatory for it that they come and sit in the sessions we give as part of the curriculum that they are in. But for a lot of them, you know, they may have ended up there because the professor required them to be, but they end up really listening and finding that we are having an impact on them. So a lot of times after we’re finished with our sessions with the classroom, there’s always a group of students who come up to us and they hug us and they thank us. Then they want to come to the shows as a result of that. And a lot of times, especially within the last year or so, a lot of the students stayed in touch with us through Facebook. They keep us posted on how meeting us have changed them and have opened a new area of interest for them.

That must be so special and so momentous to just make that connection and know that as much as you are changing their lives, they are changing yours.

Absolutely. My life has completely changed. I swear I get depressed when these residencies end, because I get so much energy from being around the students, particularly because they have not made up their minds yet. They’re so open and there’s such optimists and I feel like as we get older, the more we see makes us so pessimistic about humanity. So it’s also energizing for me and hopeful when I sit with them and I see them and I experience their optimism. 

That really is so wonderful, and sort of on the same line, what is it like to be an artist and an activist in such a hostile, whirlwind political and social climate?

I mean, it’s not for everybody. I am, and I always have been, so outspoken and active. I do get the rare “Shut up and sing, nobody wants to hear what you have to say politically,” but I think that you have to be an activist. For me, art and politics are deeply intertwined. What I tell people is that I am the artist that I am as a result of politics. You know, I came to America as an immigrant because of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and that has completely shaped my art and who I am. How can I not be political? I cannot divorce one aspect of who I am from another. When we do these residencies as artists, it is not so much our art that makes it important, because the art comes at the end, but I think as artists we have this tremendous power to influence people just by sharing and being honest. Given that we do have that power, it’s a pity to me when artists don’t use it. So I plan on being just as political, if not more, as I get older.

Oh, please do! We need people who are completely open about who they are and using that to their advantage, which is exactly what you’re doing. You’re using your life and the world around you to influence, change, and shape for the better.

I absolutely agree with you and I really encourage everyone to become an activist in whatever way they can. Everybody has a life experience that, if they’re willing, can be shared with those in their community and it can have an impact on others.

Oh, surely. Especially in this day and age. Switching lanes a little bit, your latest endeavor is this musical multimedia experience and that will be coming to life at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. That is insane! Can you tell us a bit about what people can expect from that? Because that just seems absolutely phenomenal.

It’s a very unique show in terms of something that you see on the usual smaller stages. It’s a multidisciplinary show that involves light, sound, and movement. We have some preset visuals, and, of course there’s a live musical performance happening throughout. We also have a female whirling dervish. We also have this body mapping we do and we also have a series of visuals that are triggered by sound and movement in real time. So there’s some certain lower frequencies and mid to high frequencies that will trigger certain visuals. That aspect is new every single time we perform, depending on how the musicians decide to solo. So we also have these eight panels that are set up on the stage that creates a very three dimensional effect. I mean, it’s a very psychedelic show, so when you sit and watch it, you get completely sucked into it. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to get sucked into it. I’d like to just describe it as an experience. It’s a complete experience from start to finish.

Wow. And to perform at The Metropolitan Museum of Art…. Wow, did you ever think that your music and your art and your passion would bring you there?

No! But you know, I never didn’t think that it would bring us there. That’s also the other side of it. I never thought that I would and I never thought that I wouldn’t. And I think that we just do our best to create high art. You know, I think of what we do as high art. It’s not really for entertainment per se. If you’re entertained in the process, that’s wonderful. But really, for us, what we do is such a deep expression and there’s so much attached to it. We just create the best high art that we can and we hope that it resonates with audiences. And yes, it is a remarkable achievement that it is being presented at The Met. It’s sort of like the pinnacle (at this point) of our career.

Oh, I can imagine that that is a bucket list sort of goal for sure.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

You were speaking on how you find this music to be more of a high art, how did you grow your art and your creativity to this point? How did you come to become the artist that you are today?

I think the most challenging thing for any artist is finding your own individual voice and vision, because inevitably all artists are influenced by other artists. We become artists because other artists influence us. For me, the hardest part of my personal journey–and when I sit with younger artists, this is what I speak to them about–I always say, at one point, you’re going to have to be brave enough to let go of your influences and find your own voice. And that is the most challenging part. The only way you really can do that is to be completely honest with yourself and make sure that whatever it is that you are expressing, it’s coming from you. It is yours. It is you reflecting your unique voice in this world, because we are all just like individual flowers. No two are alike. And discovering what flower you are and what your purpose is in this garden of life is really not only the most challenging thing to do, but at the end of the day, it is truly the most beautiful thing you can do. It’s the greatest contribution you can make as an artist to society; to find your true voice and share that voice and vision with people.

And you’ve done exactly that.

Thank you. I hope so. I hope so. You know, it was a long journey for me for many years. I didn’t feel that. I felt I could hear so many of my influences in my work.  I think, finally, now, I can sit back and listen to my work and know that it’s mine. If someone hears this, they’re not going to be able to compare it to anyone else. They’re going to hear it and say ‘That’s Azam.’

Regrettably, Niyaz: The Fourth Light Project at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 20 has been cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.