Last week was the stuff of nightmares for Noha Al Maghafi.
In the days leading up to her show at London's Finch Cafe on Saturday, the Yemeni-British singer woke up without a voice.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “It was gone and that stressed me out, which didn’t really help. I just took the required medication and basically didn’t speak to anyone until it came back.”
Listening to her stellar EP What Are You Willing To Do, released under the moniker Intibint (Arabic for "you are a girl"), you would think intense vocal prowess is not required for her performances.
The four tracks are predominately downbeat, with Al Maghafi’s voice barely registering above a steady croon. Her intimate and studied delivery, full of nuanced jazzy and soulful inflections, could position her as the Arab world’s version of Lorde.
Similar to the Kiwi superstar, Al Maghafi, 26, digs deep with bilingual tracks discussing some of the fears and doubts that come with being young.
Similarly impressive is the production. Tracks are delicately spliced together with sporadic percussion, haunting piano notes and the occasional flutter of the oud and guitar.
Not bad for someone who only picked up the knack for songwriting last year as a response to the pandemic.
“When we in the UK entered our hard lockdown in June last year, I, like many people, went on a panic-buying spree online,” she says. “I got a keyboard, ukulele, a piano and downloaded [music production software] Logic Pro.”
Songs about love and loss
All songs on What Are You Willing to Do were written and co-produced during the past year. With London's music scene at a standstill and Al Maghafi spending time indoors, the resulting material is both meditative and thematically focused.
“The songs are talking about love, faith and acceptance, and how I view these as a migrant, a Muslim and as a Yemeni who was born and raised here in London," she says.
"Coming from that gives you an interesting way of seeing things, but also its own share of challenges as well."
Control’s off-kilter piano and plodding beat captures the confusion that comes with the first pangs of love. The inherent tension within the track lies in the lyrics, which detail the angst some conservative migrants feel when a relationship blossoms outside traditional norms.
"It's about what many of us, from certain backgrounds, are taught about what love and relationships are," Al Maghafi says.
"The way I grew up I was taught that relationships, other than marriage, are just wrong and I just wanted to open up that conversation and show that it’s not only black and white."
Such conversations are fraught, Al Maghafi admits, but need to take place to understand some of the anxieties second-generation migrants experience growing up in western societies.
“My friends are like me and we go through similar things,” she explains. “We all had the same issues in finding ourselves feeling guilty about feeling certain things because they are supposedly wrong and not from our culture.
“You not only feel a bit lost, but you end up burying all parts of your culture to make it easier to navigate in society. At the same time, some societies also have their share of racism and people viewing your background as backwards. So it’s always difficult.”
That internal conflict is captured in the track WAYWTD. A poignant affair, the hazy production of lamenting pianos, sensual horns and festering high hats channel the angst of identity loss.
“I think a lot of us who grew up in the West went through that,” she says. “I certainly did a few years ago when I just decided to totally hide that part of myself just in order to fit in.”
It didn’t work. As she says in WAYWTD’s, such a path didn’t “seem true”.
"I removed so much of myself because I felt like I couldn't be both a Yemeni Muslim and a British girl," she says. "It was a slow process to figure how I can do that. I had an identity crisis I had to go through and reconcile."
Finding her voice
Al Maghafi credits music for not only providing solace in an ambivalent British society, but also a large and noisy household.
“I have three older sisters and a younger brother and sister," she says. "With my mum included, there are so many powerful women at home and everybody's opinionated and vocal.
"While that is wonderful, at times – especially when I was younger – I felt overwhelmed. As a shy person, I often used art and music to get my thoughts out there.”
This is touchingly illustrated in What Are You Willing to Do’s closing track, Telling My Mother. As the title implies, Al Maghafi paints a tense and ultimately tender scene of confronting her parent to reveal her partner was a non-Yemeni.
The confrontation was triggered, she recalls, when her mother revealed Al Maghafi had received a proposal for an arranged marriage.
"It's my favourite and last song of the album as it summed up what I have been talking about in the EP," she says. "It wasn’t an easy conversation, as I spoke to my mother about things I had to accept about myself first.”
And what was her mother’s reaction? “She took it as a bit of a betrayal in that she thought I didn’t want to have anything to do with my heritage, which is completely not the case,” she says.
“But my mother is so strong and it has been so amazing to see her go through her own process of acceptance. It made me even more proud of her. It was just beautiful.”
The common cold aside, What Are You Willing to Do shows Al Maghafi is in no danger of losing her voice for good any time soon.
Intibint performs at Finch Cafe, 12 Sidworth Street London, UK on Saturday.