Multitalented artist Hanifah Walidah has a resume full of global achievements, and her new album, Once Upon It Is, is set to launch next month — but that's not all. The writer, musician, actor and director has toured extensively with the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, written a hip-hop opera and play, and directed and performed in the first music video to exclusively feature gay women of color, “Make a Move”:
She also maintains an online, underground art magazine with a blog appropriately called Sucka for Life, Temporary Relief of the Multi-Talented Blues.
But Walidah describes herself first and foremost as a musician, saying, “Music's my first love, and everything else kind of stemmed out of that.” She credits growing up in New York and being exposed to the birth of hip-hop as having a large influence on her decision to become a musician: “Just to experience hip-hop when it was a baby and being a baby at the time … I think I was in fourth or fifth grade when it really started making a little bit of noise, but only in New York. … To be a part of something and claim it as my generation; it is my voice as opposed to it being handed down; I was a part of the creation of it, I was a part of the movement of it.”
Individual artists have influenced her as well, especially “people who have distinct styles and distinct voices, you can't really box them … I'm really into voices and how you approach music.” She remembers listening to what she now recognizes to be the beginnings of hip-hop on the radio with her friends, but says, “What actually made me pick up the pen and paper to become an MC was hearing MC Lyte on the radio for the first time and thinking she was a little boy and realizing that it was a woman, and that really inspired me. Before then I was just doing poetry and selling it in school.”
Walidah fused her interest in both poetry and hip-hop early in her career; in 1992, she co-founded the Boom Poetic and the Vibe Khameleons, groundbreaking groups that were among the first to combine hip-hop rhythms with traditional prose. She has long been a musical force in Europe, beginning in 1993 when she recorded with Swedish pop artist Eric Gadd and performed at the Swedish Grammy Awards. “Being in different countries was beautiful, and that's where I really started to develop my voice outside of hip-hop,” Walidah says. “It was almost like an opportunity to explore without any sense of judgment … and it was so well received I started to explore more, and that's when I really started to harness what is my voice.”
In 1999, she collaborated with traditional Turkish musician Laca Tayfa to record the LP In the Buzzbag, which made it to No. 1 in Turkey, and in 2001, her single “Woman Thing” began rotating regularly in France . Because she was raised Muslim, performing in Turkey was a special experience for Walidah. “It's interesting being out onstage in a Muslim country … singing a song … called ‘My Jamaican Girl' where I'm obviously speaking about my girlfriend, and they are just going crazy. … They understand English, they know I'm a woman, so they can put two and two together … so that is like coming full circle for me. It's like I wish my father was in the audience to witness that.”
In 2001, the Brooklyn Funk Essentials were part of France's Summer Festival Tour and performed for audiences of more than 80,000 people. Walidah credits her experience with the group as helping her mature as a musical performer. “I've been with the band since they started,” she explains. “We started off as a small band in New York and then became one of the most well-known bands in New York, and that was a springboard to go overseas, so I get to do those big venues with them. … I got to know how to really have an audience of that size in the palm of my hand … how to really respect your audience and respect that moment onstage, and that's how you can really wield power — and that's a lot of power. They are depending on you for a good time, or to be moved in whichever way.”