“This LOVE Thing” Is An Interfaith Call To Action
Written by Vocalo Radio on October 15, 2020
With “This LOVE Thing,” musicians and activists Rami Nashashibi of Chicago and Drea D’Nur of Buffalo present listeners with an album spanning faith traditions.
Nashashibi has a strong background in Chicago community activism as one of the founders of the nonprofit group Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN).
“This LOVE Thing” is a highly collaborative album, incorporating several different genres, musical styles and faith influences.
We spoke with Rami about the importance of interfaith dialogue and the challenges of collaboration during a pandemic.
“This LOVE Thing” is a highly collaborative effort between many talented and accomplished individuals of different backgrounds and faith identities. What was the process of organizing everyone’s contributions to best fit the album’s mission?
The project and its mission really evolved organically. It started with one song. I nervously sent “I’m Down” as a rough iPhone memo recording to Drea d’Nur exactly one year ago. On the recording, I was playing guitar and singing the melody with the first few lyrics I had written in the middle of the night.
I’ve known Drea for years through our work at IMAN (Inner-City Muslim Action Network), where she is an active part of IMAN’s national Artist Roster. Yet, this was the first time I built up the courage to send her anything. I just heard her voice on it and knew that she could bring it to life in a way that I was feeling it at the moment. After sending the recording I jumped on a plane to DC and once I checked in the hotel, I looked down to see a text from Drea with exclamation points saying that she absolutely loved it and was at the end of a studio session with well-respected music engineer and her long-time collaborator Elijah Hooks, where she was going to improvise around the original recording and send it back.
When she sent back the first bounced down studio rendition of “I’m Down,” we both knew we had to formally record this. We recorded the first rendition of it at GCR Studios in Buffalo, NY with a group of amazing instrumentalists that were a part of Drea’s recording circle for years, and then headed to NYC for a recording session in Brooklyn with the Rootstock Republic, a string quartet who blessed the track with an amazing score. I asked Drea if I could send her more songs and she was very open to it, and after a while we realized we had enough material for an album. We went about thinking what we heard on each track and in some cases it was just much more organic. For example, Qadir Lateef, the poet and rapper from Buffalo who was once signed to Rough Rider Records, was in the studio with us when we were laying down “Broken Promises” and said he was inspired to bless it with something and I certainly wasn’t going to stand in the way. Incidentally, Qadir is like 6’7″ and walks into a room with the presence of two linebackers, so you literally can’t stand in his way. In other cases, I very intentionally sought out people like Ronnie Malley or Amir Tubad Gray, again, knowing them for years through my work with IMAN and knowing that the sounds and soul they both bring is something I wanted on the project.
Drea, who has been a recording artist for over a decade, brought many others to the studio and throughout the year it just all felt right. It all felt like everyone that was on the album was destined to be there from long before the time we started formally recording together.
On a more technical side, how were you able to record and produce this album? Were you working remotely with different contributors spread across the country? What were some obstacles met in the production of “This LOVE Thing”?
Most of the album was recorded in Buffalo, NY at GCR Studios where Drea and Elijah Hooks – our sound engineer and co-producer – are from. I grew to love Buffalo and it became a second home for me throughout the year. Buffalo felt like Chicago’s South Side: intimate, warm, familiar and filled with amazingly rooted and dedicated artists that have been part of Drea’s inner circle for years.
On one occasion we recorded in Brooklyn and here in Chicago at Studio 35 on the South Side. Prior to COVID-19 travel restrictions, I was flying most folks to Buffalo but post-March all of that changed. Yet, I decided to start flying again in July. I was going back to Buffalo and we recorded songs like “Jerusalem” and “Mama Please” while on Zoom with Brother Ali in Minneapolis, Maimouna Youssef in Philadelphia and Jecorey in Louisville. The core band was rooted in Buffalo and remained consistent on each track and so it always felt like one big family in the studio and we all really did grow to really fall in love with so many facets of this experience.
What is the importance and influence of encouraging interfaith dialogue? How can your social activism intersect with faith communities?
Another important part of this entire project is that it was happening amid all the protests, violence and struggle, and Drea and I weren’t removed from that. In fact, the studio was often a space where Drea would be organizing creatively with artists and activists from Buffalo, meanwhile I would be back and forth between the responses to the violence in Chicago and the challenges that the pandemic was having on our communities. Drea and I both were fully present in that space while making this album, and I think for both of us these spiritual expressions of love became a source of healing and resistance.
The deep and passionate sounds and influences coming from different faith expressions are a big part of this album. While Drea and I are both Muslims, Drea grew up singing and playing piano in Church and I have always been inspired by spiritually rooted music forms from all over the world. On the closing track, “Better When,” we actually had the choir of Trinity United Church of Christ with Pastor Otis Moss III in the studio. We spoke at length with one another about our respective convictions and love for our faith traditions and the beauty in capturing the artistic longing for proximity to that sublime and transcendent force in the universe that many of us call God or the Creator. It’s that same longing that also propels us to strive to be forces of good, justice and mercy in the world. So, yes, for us at IMAN and for me in this project it was all connected.
How do you feel the diversity of the album’s collaborators has influenced the project as a whole?
I think it informed the texture and nuances of the entire album. For example, in the opening track, entitled “Jerusalem,” I knew I wanted the warm New Orleans-inspired feel of Amir on the horns up against the very distinct sound of Ronnie on Oud, which helped to give the song a soundscape that we were both looking for.
“Mama Please,” a song in support of Cariol’s Law and named in reference to George Floyd’s final words, is one of the most powerful tracks on the album. Tell us more about the message behind this important anthem.
The same word for Divine Mercy in in the Muslim tradition is related to the word for the womb: Ar Rahman and Ar Rahim. Across the globe, calling for your mother in moments of stress and pain is also really a call for Divine Mercy. I think that is in part why George Floyd’s horrific murder resonated across the planet in a very unprecedented way in recent history. I also feel that the dark and demonic forces of oppression try to silence us by getting us to fear an often illusory sense of power and control over us. When you strive to be spiritually rooted, you also try to remember that the ultimate source of power to create and take life is not in the hands of others. And while we often become the means for beautiful life-giving or horrific life-ending interventions, we all are still ultimately finite beings that depend on something else for our well-being. The idea in the chorus of the mother calling out to her children, “babies come home, don’t fear their death,” was for me a call of resistance, hope and life against the darker forces of death, destruction and despair all over the planet today.
Yet, ultimately this is a song sung by a mother of five beautiful children and all the emotion and the nuances you hear in the calling out to the mother come from Drea on this track, including the powerful bridge where she literally attempted to render the feeling of George Floyd’s soul rising to be with his mother.
“Mama Please” is also blessed to have the powerfully talented artist, activist and now Councilman Jecorey Arthur (aka 1200) on the track. I first heard and saw Jecorey perform several years ago in Louisville after speaking at a gathering called the “Festival of Faith” and was drawn to his artistic style and substance. Jecorey is also a member of the IMAN Artist Roster, and two years ago was inspired after an organizing training at one of our artist retreats to think more seriously about building power. He credits that as part of a seed that led to running for office, which he was doing while thinking about this song in the wake of everything else that was happening this summer. He literally won the primary – becoming the youngest in-coming councilman in Louisville history – just days before we were scheduled to record and shoot the video. We ended up filming on the day of his mother’s birthday; his mother and younger sister both appeared in the video.
Finally, we decided to dedicate the video to a woman by the name of Cariol Horne. Cariol was a former Buffalo police officer who, back in 2005, intervened when a fellow white police officer had an African American man, Neal Mac, in a choke hold. She saved his life and did what we should be calling upon every cop in America to do but instead of being celebrated she was physically assaulted by her fellow police officer, eventually lost her job, her pension and for many years was struggling to fight for her rights. As incidents of police violence against Black folks became more visible, Cariol remained on the front line fighting for the dignity of others.
Cariol was often in the studio with us while we were recording these songs and when it came time to shoot the video, Drea and I decided to dedicate the video to her and allow it to be part of a national push to raise her profile and pass what is now known as Cariol’s Law, a series of police accountability measures named after Cariol’s heroic intervention.
A lot of IMAN’s social outreach is tied directly to community-engaged art, and the organization is a presenting partner for “This LOVE Thing.” How does access to creative outlets help promote social change?
Since before our formal incorporation in 1997, IMAN has always championed and challenged artistic expression that we talk about as being spiritually rooted, socially conscious and spatially relevant. IMAN’s Arts and Culture Department is currently led by Director Sadia Nawab, who started at IMAN as a young organizer. At IMAN we have always seen art as a way to radically reimagine the world as it could be in our community and as a profound force to connect the disconnected. For many of us, hip-hop was the defining cultural force of our lifetime and it opened up the way to think about community, activism and artistic expression throughout a world that privileged those most authentically proximate to the pain and truth of their experiences.
Over the years, IMAN has drawn on the power of the arts to convene extraordinary gatherings here in Chicago and across the country, build the first permanent memorial to MLK and the Chicago Freedom Summer in the country and build and cultivate a nationwide dynamic Artist Roster.
Any initiatives or projects we should have on our radar for the future?
Over the next year IMAN will continue to be the lead organization that presents “This LOVE Thing” to live audiences in a multi-city tour in the Fall of 2021, inshaAllah (God Willing we collectively will be a place to facilitate such shows by then.) Meanwhile, a dynamic collaborative between IMAN and grassroots partners has developed a powerful community driven vision called “Go Green On Racine.” It’s the most exciting, ambitious and inspiring project that I’ve been a part of with IMAN in my close to 25 years of doing this work and artistic expression and phenomenal artists are an integral part of this vision. I anticipate seeing Englewood as an example of urban artistic renaissance with grounded grassroots voices that will be a model of how art can help serve as a radical vehicle for community transformation and justice. With entities like The Englewood Arts Collective on the rise, I already see this happening. I am very hyped about this work and can’t wait to invite the entire city to be a part of it with us. Stay tuned!
“This LOVE Thing” Releases October 23
Interview edited for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca and Luis Mejia Ahrens