Naima Shalhoub Sings About Pushing the Limits

A Lebanese-American songstress ushers listeners through the borderlands with her prophetic musical message.


Photo by Melati Citrawireja

Naima Shalhoub raised hers arms and clenched a fist, her tightly curled hair and fiery spirit in full display as she crooned to her listeners to “go deep down and find the cool river inside” amid the turbulent waters of their lives. On stage at The Sound Room in Oakland, the songstress moved between extremes of light-hearted jazz, gospel, R & B, soul, and Middle Eastern tonalities. Yet Shalhoub contained it all within her long, slender figure that punctuated the stage. Her presence — at times fun and free-spirited, at other times fierce and intense — was a testimony to the dichotomies she sings about and embodies.

We are living in a time of dichotomies and extremes, of boundaries defined and boundaries blurred, a time of building walls and crossing lines. These are the borderlands, the liminal spaces of our internal and external worlds, that Shalhoub explores as a musician, an educator, and a public speaker. Through her soulful songs and poetic insights, she channels a message of boundless possibility from the stage, engaging audiences in the places where they feel trapped and oppressed both physically and psychologically, posing the question: What is unleashed when we cross lines that protect us, define us, or confine us?

“For much of my life, I felt fragmented,” said Shalhoub. “I felt completely separated from myself. That’s why I resonate with the idea of borderlands. What are all these borders? Who told us that these things are separate? I want to be a messenger through the borderlands.”

Shalhoub’s quest to bridge the divide has led her on a musical exploration and ministry of song that spans from the Bay Area to the Middle East. She first came to local renown in 2015 when, after a year of facilitating music therapy sessions in the San Francisco County Jail, Shalhoub recorded her debut album there to a live audience of incarcerated women. Surrounded by such respected musicians as Marcus Shelby on bass and Tarik “Excentrik” Kazaleh on oud, guitar, and tabla, and with Rhodessa Jones from the Medea Project as the performance’s MC, Live in San Francisco County Jail plays like a modern soundtrack to a spiritual revival. It’s animated and soulful.

As a scholar of postcolonial anthropology, Shalhoub often frames her music around themes of structural oppression and the need to unshackle the human body and spirit. She has taken her message from the local prison to restorative justice practices in Oakland’s public schools, to Richmond where she is a middle-school voice and music teacher.

Most recently, with the support of local contacts in Lebanon, Shalhoub has been expanding her musical expression to the land of her ancestry. In 2017, she toured Beirut and held a series of conversations and performances at a prison, a university, and a co-working space while building partnerships with local organizations working at the peripheries of society there. Her tour culminated in the release of her EP Borderlands and a video by the same name. She hopes to continue to build on this work in the coming months, performing and speaking out “in places of isolation, confinement, and incarceration” and encouraging people to “break through to their passions.”

“I am consumed — personally, culturally, in every way — with this tension of freedom-captivity, joy-sorrow, love-hate, belonging-unbelonging, citizen-not a citizen, embracing all the different parts of ourselves while honoring our differences. Why can’t there be unity and difference?”


Learn more about Naima Shalhoub and her music by visiting her website

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