5 Questions to Tariq Al-Sabir (composer, vocalist, music director)

Tariq Al-Sabir is a composer, vocalist, and music director. His latest project, #UNWANTED, recently finished a premiere run at the newly-opened downtown venue in New York City, The Shed. #UNWANTED consists of a full-length concert with voice, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and synthesizers. The genre-fluid song cycle is paired with movement and visual accompaniment by Monique Muse Dodd. The concert and visual art are an exploration of the black millennial experience online. Together, the musical and visual mediums work in tandem to probe questions about the very fraught passageways Black Americans are left with to uncover deeper meanings of identity, home, and healing. 

Al- Sabir is active in the New York City musical scene. Within the last year, he served as music director for the Off-Broadway run of Jomama Jones’ “Black Light” at the Greenwich House theater and has most recently finished making his LA Phil debut in the cast of Meredith Monk’s ATLAS under the direction of Yuval Sharon.

What kind of labels do you refer to when you describe yourself to people as a musician?

That’s a great question, because I’ve changed it so much…

The response from people can be very different depending on what I say. If I say I’m a vocalist, it normally leads to the same kinds of questions–“Where do you sing?” “How do you sing?”–and, of course, people will make assumptions about what I sing because of how I look. But when I mention that I’m also a composer or music director, that’s when I get more questions and inquiries that are open-ended. 

There was a time when I introduced myself as a vocalist because that was the closest representation of what I was studying at a conservatory, where every day I had to do something related to singing. But when I was in high school, it was the first time I was writing a whole lot and playing a whole lot. So, I was calling myself several things. I think in college, there was more pressure to call myself one thing on a resume, but now, I do all of the things pretty equally, so I do say vocalist, composer, producer, director. 

Tariq Al-Sabir--Photo by Kelly Marshall for The Shed

Tariq Al-Sabir–Photo by Kelly Marshall for The Shed

What are your earliest experiences as a musician and how did it inform your experience in school and afterwards?

I never really got to choose what I wanted in school. I always had to kind of choose something close to what I wanted to do and then work my way around. When I was in middle school, I just knew I wanted to create songs somehow, some way. I started with writing raps. I was really, really into Hip hop. I remember when I was writing those raps, I was biting the rap because that’s what I could do, but it was a vehicle for me to visualize the whole song. I was feeling the track, I was feeling the instruments, I was feeling the chorus. 

I started writing songs, too. I started working with another singer in my class. I got her to sing my songs with me, and it was in fifth grade that I blossomed in that way. But at this point in time, I’m still thinking more like a composer than a performer or a songwriter. I’m thinking about the whole thing and how the song should be sung. However, because I’m writing the work myself, it was the work that pushed me into being a performer because I had the need to work on my own music. 

I grew into singing more, I joined the local choir that my mentor started, and that exposed me to different voices and styles of music. That’s when I think I became a songwriter, learning to write songs, learning to write lead sheet. I also wrote a musical that won a local award that propelled me into exploring all the possibilities that my interest in songwriting could bring.

Was there any project you became a part of that really cemented the image for what you wanted to do professionally?

Around this time, “The Wire” was starting to film in Baltimore, my hometown. The producers wanted kids to sing the theme song. Being chosen to do that was really cool, but what had a big impression on me was being in a studio setting and watching the artists produce the song. They would instruct us on how to sing, add and take away instruments. Watching that process unfold was really pivotal to my growth because I saw music making. It was the first time I was exposed to how making music and the impact of these little levels of an idea would translate to something on HBO every week.

So it was really cool to be a part of this process, where everyone on that project was black, too. I remember realizing that I could do what I wanted to do if I had the work, a plan, and could convince other people that it was valuable.

Tariq Al-Sabir--Photo by Kelly Marshall for The Shed

Tariq Al-Sabir–Photo by Kelly Marshall for The Shed

So how did your schooling unfold?

In middle school, I had a scholarship to study at Peabody. I had already written a lot of music and was familiar with theory, and the instructor recognized that and helped me get a scholarship to study.

During that study at the Peabody program, I was singing and writing a lot, but not writing a lot of classical music. I had some choral pieces under my belt, but I was mostly writing a lot of pop, jazz, and R&B music during the time that I auditioned for colleges. Peabody offered me a scholarship for composition, but instead I chose voice, and thankfully the scholarship was still available.

But while I’m at school, I’m still trying to take composition lessons and I’m still writing a lot and I’m still sneaking into classes where I can have access to the audio engineering department. I’m trying to learn as much as I can in every, in everything that I’m interested in–basically at that point where, in my mind, I can’t really fail and also reinforcing that I’m not only just a vocalist. My career is still budding, but I’m sure that being a vocalist isn’t meant to be my only universe. 

Is there anything about navigating as a performer and composer that you find difficult?

I do have trouble defining myself at times. My approach is really just convincing these presenters and people who review applications for different programs that I actually do all of the things that I do. Even when I’m on stage, I can always expect that there’s going to be a little shock in the audience when they see me switch from singing into one style or another, but I want to do everything that feels natural. It’s an attempt to do my best to say, “This is my identity as an artist. This is how I represent myself on stage.” I think that because we’re also in a time where people use as many different elements and skills to describe themselves, so they say they do everything to reflect an aspiration to do many things.

At the same time, as I was creating the recent commission for The Shed (#UNWANTED), I was becoming familiar with how the theater world was working. I ran much of this as if I was going to be presenting a concert, so that was very helpful for me in terms of choosing who was going to play. It was great to end up with a mixture of musicians who are much like myself, who are versatile and who have sought training formerly from an institution in classical or jazz. Each of them then decided to expand their gifts and do whatever they want. Each musician on the stage that was with me has their own project, and so many of the musicians in #UNWANTED are making music entirely different than what they were doing in this show. I consider it such a cool thing to get to collaborate with those people and collaborate with so many minds in the room talking back to me, and it puts me in a great place to experiment with them.

On top of the collaboration that was happening to create the music, I also had the pleasure of working with Monique Muse Dodd. She’s someone I’ve known for a long time, and we’ve watched each other grow as artists. So when it worked out for us to work together–after she’d watched me grow as a musician and composer and I’d watched her develop as video director and visual artist–it felt like with the timing, it was just meant to happen. It was going to happen eventually, but it was great that it happened this time.