Ready and Rising: A Review of Sariyah Idan’s New Album
Deeper Than Skin
Album by Sariyah Idan
Produced by Sariyah Idan, Jordan Feinstein, and Sam Zeines
It seems like every summer there’s an album that comes along and rocks my world. And I think I’ve just found the 2014 edition.
“i know i’m fly / i know i’m wise / won’t let no one colonize my mind,” flows the chorus of “Feel Like It.” And it’s true—there’s this casual confidence that exudes from this song, this artist, inspiring at once a passion for life and a simultaneous and audacious love of justice. This is the power of the music of Sariyah Idan, and her new album packs a punch, in the most delectable way.
Sariyah was trained in jazz and folk music, and influenced by the sounds of her Jewish roots. And her debut EP, Deeper Than Skin, shows it. Deeper is a unique blend of music genres ranging from soul and dub reggae, to disco and hip hop. The album’s smooth, alternative soul sound is seasoned with a passionate and hopeful longing, and its topics cross boundaries between intimate love and the territories of international affairs. Sariyah’s poetic lyricism illuminates the experience of interracial relationships and presents both a respect and skepticism for populist political struggles. These songs remind me of Rumi’s longing for union with the Divine, Martin Luther King Jr.’s pursuit of truth, and Balkan Beat Box and Manu Chao’s cultural hybridity. Throw in some love ballads, and this is one stellar album.
Taking inspiration from the moan, a classic form from the African American spiritual canon, as well as from jazz- and pop-influenced arrangements, Idan’s music layers bass, keys and guitar over live and electronic drums. Latin percussion, trumpets, and melodic elements from Ashkenazi Jewish music merge in these tracks as well. Sariyah refers to herself as “Urban American Jewess”: Urban, as in hip-hop influenced; American, acknowledging the baggage of privilege that comes with that identity, the history of oppression in the USA, and the need, she says, “to be mindful of the level of ignorance and arrogance with which I sometimes unintentionally behave [as an American]”; and Jewess, paying homage to her roots and, in the artist’s words, to “reclaim the term as a form of female power and reject the concept that the role of ‘jewess’ as the exotic sexual ‘other.’” She also acknowledges her Jewishness “as a deep yearning, a propensity towards investigation and over-questioning in the attempt to find truth and justice for all.” That investigation leads her to constantly examine her work in light of cultural appropriation and to honor both the forms and the socio-political context from which the traditions she borrows from arise, including her own ancestral traditions. There’s a fine line between sampling or borrowing from another tradition in order to engage in a conversation on the construction of culture and politics, and sampling to simply to create art without paying homage to origin, and Sariyah is striving for the former.
The album is at once personal and political. The last track on the album, “Rise” brings us into the protest streets. It’s a love letter to the global Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, and the many different uprisings around the world in which people are demanding economic equality. In this song, Sariyah elegantly and boldly presents the complexity of individual, collective, and cultural growth, singing, “If you want hope, you have to see it / if you want change you have to be it… and OCCUPY vision.” The song speaks to the need to combine dreams for justice with clear vision and daily action that shifts the paradigm of self-interest and fear. “We must be clear what we’re building,” Sariyah sings. “So we don’t replicate disaster.”
The Story Behind the Album
The album began production in 2012 in San Francisco and was mixed and mastered in late 2013 in Los Angeles, where Sariyah lives. The tunes were written in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Israel/Palestine. This may be Sariyah’s debut EP, but she is no novice to performing. Just in the past year, she has taken the stage at venues from New York City to Los Angeles, and she has joined female artists in the Vienna-based Dublestandart band for their U.S. and European tour for the Women in Dubalbum. She has performed with Bay Area Latin fusion band La Gente, dub-reggae legend Mr. Lee “Scratch” Perry, and the late, great American folk music hero Pete Seeger.
Sariyah Idan grew up in New York dancing and singing professionally with the modern and world folk company Vanaver Caravan. She first recorded with them at age nine on an album of world folk music for children called Sheaves of Grain. Music is in her roots; her first music teacher was her classically trained mother Gail Ostrau, and she went on to be the vocalist for Jazz Ensembles at both Oakwood Friends High School and Hampshire College. Her lyrics have been influenced by her father’s radical political views and the Sufi spiritual practice of both parents. While Sariyah was raised with a strong Jewish cultural identity and often performed Israeli folk dance and music, she was born at a residential Sufi community in upstate New York. The hybridity of her spiritual identity has informed her interest in exploring the Middle East conflict through her art.
Sariyah is best known as the writer and actor of the documentary theater show Homeless In Homeland, which documents a young, radical Jewish-American woman’s struggle to understand her identity, her family, and the meaning of home through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For me, watching this show was one of the strongest catalysts to action for a just peace in the Middle East. Homeless has been performed for college campus audiences, urban theaters, and festivals. Last year the show went to the Brighton Fringe Festival in the U.K., and this past February was given a rave review in Los Angeles by the Jewish Daily Forward. Through her new album, Sariyah is seamlessly springboarding from the spoken word poetry and acting of her theatrical background to occupy the stage with the presence and focus of an actor artistically coupled with the passion of an embodied songstress.
Love, Betrayal, Desire, and Vision
On Deeper Than Skin, Sariyah’s soulful voice guides us on a lyrical journey through the realms of love, betrayal, desire, and vision. Betrayal? Yes, betrayal. Because here is an artist unafraid to give voice to the uncomfortable realities, both in intimate relationships and in geopolitical conflict. “Betrayal is a voice that sings sweet to you … tells you to do things you known you shouldn’t, convinces you your morals are flexible,” opens the song “Why You Do.” Sariyah wrote this track in Jaffa/Yafo on a recent trip to the Middle East. This tune utilizes a dub reggae feel with elements of Jewish religious melodies, Middle-Eastern percussion, rap/spoken word, and R&B harmonies. Thematically, at its core it is about hypocrisy, and the challenges of creating the Israeli state. The song is a gentle invitation to understand the perspective of those who hold onto Zionist nationalist ideas: “i believe ur dreams were true / and for clutching them i don’t hate you… persecution gives way to fear but even still / i cannot swallow these false truths that you distill.” And it creates vision for a peace that rests on equality, referencing a quote by Haile Selassie made famous in the song “War” by Bob Marley: “Until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation / there is war.”
Another song, “Heat,” offers a sensual message in the voice of an empowered woman who is solid in her desire and intention. The tune utilizes elements of disco, jazz, and American folk, and the lyrics explore the heat of mustard, chilies, and curries to get listeners in the mood for passion.
When I first listened to this album in my car during my morning commute, the fierce lyrics and smooth rhythm on Deeper at once captivated me. I wish I could say that I turned on the radio and heard Sariyah’s voice beaming from the Clear Channel-owned pop station. But the way the music industry works these days, it’s hard for artists to get a break, and it’s up to us to seek out independent music. The Internet—with tools like BandCamp and SoundCloud—has created the opportunity for more visibility for independent music artists and obviated the need to pay for CD printing. But this art is far from lucrative, and taking the time to purchase and download the mp3s on an album, even for just five dollars, can go a long way in supporting an artist’s growing career, sustainability, and vision.
There are so many talented emergent artists, and this summer I feel particularly steeped in the music of female Jewish singers, from the sacred chanting of Taya Shere to the neo-Chasidic melodies of Joti Shephi to the jazzy songs on motherhood by Ahri Golden. I’m in awe of these artists who commit their lives to music without the promise of financial stability from their work.
These tracks beat with the pulse of our modern movements. Activist scholar Joanna Macy says there are three things we must do as change makers: dismantle current destructive power systems, birth and build new alternatives, and create cultural paradigm shift. Paradigm shift is one of the most crucial components to effective change making, and this album engages in it. Deeper Than Skin is a smooth delivery of raw truth, bold stance, and real vision—a soulful communiqué from an artist making a bold entrance onto the global stage.