FannBoy Friday: Visual Artist Aisha Jemila Daniels

FannBoy Friday: Visual Artist Aisha Jemila Daniels

Aisha Jemila Daniels is a visual artist born from Miami. In 2009, she began an art course at Michael M. Krop Senior High School, which prepared her to become a professional photographer. She then graduated from Howard University,  where she studied photography, in 2017 and from Virginia Commonwealth University School of Arts in Qatar, where she studied design, in 2019. She has trained and worked in the visual arts for over nine years, having exhibited and collaborated in Africa, the Middle East, North America, Central America and Europe.

Aisha’s work documents the authentic beauty of Africans across the continent and in its diaspora. Her photographic project “Afrikans,” which is an extensive photographic documentation of Black people on the African continent and throughout its diaspora, aims to unify the African people by revealing aesthetic and cultural similarities, while restoring the authentic and royal image of Africans in retaliation for white supremacy in the media.

“music was that thing that uplifted me. … my therapist was saying, ‘If that is your safe space, …you can share it with the world as well. your voice can be  a healing force for others.’”

– Aisha Jemila Daniels

In 2015, she received the Worldstudio AIGA Shutterstock Award for her “Afrikans” project and in 2016, she received the Creative Conscience Award from London and the Freedom House Finalist award for capturing human rights. Her work has been exhibited at the Miami Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Wynwood, Howard University, FRIDGE DC, Krikawa Jewelry Art Gallery, Studio Gallery, World Trade Center Dubai, The Center for Photography at Woodstock, 555 Gallery and Cube Gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi. In 2018, she was nominated for the BLOOOM Award by Warsteiner for International Emerging Artist.

In her project “The What If Exploration” (2019), presented at the fifth edition of the International Biennale of Casablanca from Nov. 17 to Dec. 17, Aisha uses discursive reasoning based on the imagination of a world where Black aesthetics and culture are recognized as the main example of society, to the detriment of white people. (Adapted from bio provided by Aisha)

Aisha was kind enough to reschedule her interview directly from Addis, Ethiopia, where she currently works, after a rainstorm gave her some wonky internet. While I was connected to her by my friends in the Mipsterz collective, (a “non-traditional arts and culture collective for emerging Muslim creatives. [who] enable and amplify Muslim creative voices by presenting and producing original works for general audiences”), where Aisha is on staff as a visual artist, our chat focused more on her personal journey, so I’ll be catching up with Mipsterz in another column soon.

(Aisha’s interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Aspirations in music

Shahjehan: What are your plans for 2023?

Aisha: So, funny enough, none of my plans this year have anything to do with visual arts. It has to do with me being a singer. I’m trying to give this music thing a shot. And so this year, by this summer, I’m manifesting it, I’m putting the energy out there. I’m gonna have my demo tape ready.

Shahjehan: Can you tell me a little bit about your musical journey?

Aisha: I started singing when I was four years old. That’s what my mom says. I don’t really remember doing it that young, but she’s like, “No, you were holding a key by four.  … By six, you were pretty much mimicking Alicia Keys.” And then her and my father decided to put me in piano lessons, and then summer camp and all that for piano. … Then high school is when I kind of switched from that classical stuff and fell in love with jazz. I grew up listening to Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, … but my interest in it didn’t come until high school when I joined the jazz band. Halfway through high school, I would say I kind of lost interest in the music and then just went into the visual arts.

And from my junior year of high school, all the way up until [my] masters, I was on visual arts, like crazy —  like photography. Something about it took me and grabbed a hold of me and did not let me go until recently. So, yeah my journey with music, you know, it’s deep. It does have a rich foundation. And even throughout my life [until recently], I wasn’t focused on it. I was putting all my energy into photography and graphic design, [but] I still would always go back to singing. That will always be my safe space, my happy place if I’m stressed out.

My friends will always say, when I’m stressed out, I’ll just randomly start singing. You know, I could be washing the dishes and I’m singing in the shower. …  I’m doing work, some graphic design work, and maybe I’m humming something. And so that’s why a year ago now, [I realized] I need to do something with this. 

And I actually do believe I have a very nice voice, so I can do something with it. And especially with my music training, and then bringing that jazz essence to Neo Soul and R&B, and to Afrobeat and other African music styles, … I think it’s something that could be dope. So I feel like I have something to show the world, [fill] some gaps that have been missing in the industry that I’ve noticed, and I feel like I could pretty much fill that void. 

Shahjehan: Tell me just a little bit more about the moment or series of moments that you were like, “You know what? I gotta give this music thing a shot.”

Aisha: I was working with the United Nations Development Programme at the time, and I was on my way to quit because I was just so stressed out. I didn’t feel like I really had a space to be creative. And I just realized my singing was such a safe space for me. Any chance I got outside of work to go do an open mic or go do a jam session with the well-known jazz musicians here in Addis, I was doing that, and those musicians were all like, “Hey, why don’t you have anything out? You really should think about it.” 

And so I kind of just had this shift. I actually went and quit my job. I resigned. I didn’t wanna do it anymore. It was just mentally draining me. And music was that thing that uplifted me. I was going to therapy at the time as well, and my therapist was saying, “If that is your safe space, you need to nurture that and you can share it with the world as well. And your voice can be  a healing force for others.” And I’m like, “Yo, that’s mad real. I really like that.”

So that’s pretty much where I decided to do it. And I went full force. I was finding those jazz musicians who can work with me. My debut was on TV. I had set up a whole mini concert for myself in collaboration with Shifta Restaurant, and when I tell you that concert went viral — oh my God, it was shown on TV every day at least five times a day. … [People were] saying, “You’re the only jazz singer in Ethiopia right now.” So that made me more excited. All the while I’m like, “Okay, okay, okay. I really gotta do this. This is something serious.”

So everywhere I performed  everybody ate it up. People were asking me, “When’s the next show? Are you releasing any albums? Are you on Spotify?” This elder lady who I was gonna work with, [Rita Marley’s former manager], even she was saying, “You have something about your voice that is so hypnotizing.”

The themes that I’m gonna be talking about in my music [include] feminism, women who have been hurt — raped — in these marriages they don’t want to be in, being Pan-African and Black-conscious, the transatlantic slave trade and what it means for me as a daughter of diaspora — the weight that is on my shoulders to represent my ancestors, what’s going on in America with race and then also just me being this Black woman who’s trying to fight herself through the pain, through the cries, through the smiles, through everything in such a very intimate way that anyone can really feel it and understand and get caught and lost in it.

Blending the visual and the auditory

Shahjehan: What are some lessons that you’ve learned in your creative life as a visual artist that you think might work for you in music? 

Aisha: I guess the way I process doing music. Even when I went to the producers that I’m working with, I kind of presented in a mood board type of way. He’s like, “Oh my God, you’re such a visual artist. Why are you giving me this whole design-thinking research thing for an instrumental?” But it works. It makes it easy for me to craft the ideas. 

Also because I’m visual, I understand the image I want to go for. I know how I want to look. I know how I want to do it. I even have my demo tape mood-boarded out, like what I want to look like, how I wanna dress, what I want to come across. Every single detail to a T. And I can thank design school & my masters [for that]. Because you know, you think about how people are going to feel about …  the colors that I’m using. What emotion am I trying to convey? And even each song, the title I’m giving it: how’s that going to nurture this image or this vibe I’m trying to set? And even the soundscapes within the music, how is it going to affect the listener? What are they going to see visually when they close their eyes? So I’m thinking about all these things, like how I’m really trying to set this vibe, definitely from a visual standpoint. 

Listen to Aisha’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “I Heard Love Is Blind.”

Spirituality and art

Shahjehan: Would you say that your faith as a Muslim creative person informs your art, and now your music, in any way?

Aisha: I would say no, Islam does not affect any of my music. As a matter of fact, I had a shift in my spirituality recently. I mean, it’s always been with me my whole life because this is what my ancestors practice on my mother’s side and African spirituality is [somewhat translatable] into Sufism, right? I’m not saying I’m Sufi, but that would be the closest to what I have shifted into spiritually — no longer officially practicing Islam. However, I will fast, I will do Eid, I will do everything. But I’m not “practicing” Islam anymore. 

Shahjehan: I totally identify with that. I’ve spent a lot of time in Pakistan and came to similar conclusions in and out over the years. In some ways I feel like I am closer to this thing [whatever it is] and I always will be a part of, and I’m a little more comfortable with the “not knowing” now, if that makes sense to you.

I usually end these interviews by asking folks to identify some Muslim or Muslim-ish creators or artists that inspire them but I want to make sure to respect where you’re at, so maybe let’s just think about it more broadly: Who do you look up to?

Aisha: An activist who inspires me as a creative is El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, aka Malcolm X. He’s my hero. He’s one of the most remarkable freedom fighters for Africa and her diaspora. Like in Spike Lee’s film for Malcolm X, towards the end there were scenes of Black children saying “I am Malcolm X.” And, I too am Malcolm X. 

Another is Ntozake Shange, an incredible African American writer. She’s a fierce and militant feminist [and] womanist. Her poetry sinks deep into your soul. The way she writes is so powerful, raw and unapologetic. It inspired my artistry, to make sure I keep it real and share my truth authentically.

View this profile on Instagram

Aisha (@aishajemila) • Instagram photos and videos

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