With her alabastrine skin and magnificent mane of dreadlocks, the performance artist M. Nahadr has a presence on stage that is hard to ignore and even harder to forget. Recently featured in Elle and Maxim magazines, the Maryland native combines music, poetry and theatre to create stage pieces such as MADWOMAN: A Contemporary Opera or her new disc, EclecticIsM (LiveWired), a “beyond category” motherlode that encompasses funk, R&B, blues and free jazz.
In an interview with The Root, Nahadr unapologetically embraces her identity as an albino, black American woman, what she calls her “uniqueness” or her “birth attribute.” Her powerful voice can be compared to Chaka Khan or Sandra St. Victor, and she has a knack for writing poignant, personal songs akin to those penned by Tracy Chapman, Nina Simone and Joan Armatrading. Despite these bankable gifts, Nahadr opens up with us about choosing the “performance art” route instead of a career in mainstream R&B and jazz.
The Root: In MADWOMAN: A Contemporary Opera, you touched upon “otherness.” Tell me about growing up and realizing your otherness as a legally blind, albino, growing up in an African-American neighborhood, right outside of Baltimore. What were some of the hurdles you had to leap over?
Nahadr: The presentation of the word, “otherness” as you’ve interpreted it, is exactly what I deal with, except, it is flipped. I’m not singing, writing or performing about otherness; I’m actually talking about sameness. What I’m saying is that it’s all the same. What you see is other because it’s so stark. But it’s indeed, so not.
The uniqueness of us all is not seen in comparison and contrast because some of us are so similar to our mothers and our fathers; there’s a comfort in that similarity. But everybody is so unique and that’s so unseen that someone like me would seem other. Get it?
The Root: Yes, I do get it. But I also argue that it takes a while for people to get to that perspective and self-acceptance. I think all of us have been teased, especially during childhood for some perceived oddity, whether it’s wearing braces, being dark-skinned (or of fair complexioned), having freckles or whatever.
Nahadr: Indeed, it does. [Laughs.]
The Root: Which artistry came first? You’re such an amazing talent. Was it the piano, the singing, the songwriting, the acting?
Nahadr: I guess it was the conscious recognition of music. As a baby, I plucked a piano. But eventually, I found [the piano] within my own physical being; everywhere I went, there it was. [Laughs.] Then I began to sing.
The Root: Let’s talk about your new disc, EclecticIsM. You have a wonderful voice and have great songwriting skills. One of the things that impressed me most was that it didn’t have the cageyness of many “performance art” CDs. It’s fairly accessible with songs that you could actually bump inside a club.
Nahadr: [Huge laughs.] Cool. Very cool.
The Root: Did you ever aim for a career in mainstream jazz or R&B?
Nahadr: I’ve always thought that my kind of artistry would be well-suited for the market of commerce, which doesn’t necessarily follow a specific genre. But I’ve also desired to hone my craft to cover all of my influences. I’ve been influenced by so many things, including American radio. I have the ability and have enjoyed thoroughly composing in a mainstream way, but there are other selections on EclecticIsM that don’t do that at all and wouldn’t be considered normal. What I want to do is to give beauty and make something that you feel.
EclecticIsM reflects who I am, basically as an artist with a nice chronology attached to it. You can hear several facets of my writing.
The Root: My favorite song is “Over (The Ballad of August & June).” It’s such a melancholy song about two star-crossed lovers that hints at emotional abuse with the haunting lyrics: “Mama said that she never knew this song/His way was to vindicate what’s right or wrong.” What’s the back story?
Nahadr: It’s about stigma and experiences that we have in life when someone is looking through their eyes at you as being “other” instead of seeing the sameness. You and I exist: That’s the base root of commonality.
I think seeing things, through the eyes of other, is the problem. I’m a black woman with naturally blond hair and with skin fairer than most white people—that is in your face other. Except that it’s not; it’s the stark reminder of how unique we all are. When you’re on the playground and someone looks at you through the eyes of “other,” whether you’re gay, straight, albino, rich or poor; if you’re outside of the in club, you get better. It’s the sameness of it all. That paradox is all different, and that difference makes it all the same—it drives people crazy.
The Root: Wow! That was a lot, but it doesn’t really tell me the back story. For me, the song reminded me of a poignant yet brief doomed fling I experienced last summer that had all sort of Brokeback Mountain overtones, in which “other” was the ultimate downfall of the relationship.
Nahadr: Well, the song is about a relationship in which two points of light meet and the relationship seems to not work. But what happens is that there’s an ultimate positive situation for both sides of the connection. Interwoven in the lyrics is the understanding in “gaming.” I had entered into a relationship with someone, and I found out that they weren’t being honest with me, because they weren’t being honest with themselves. It devastated me because I was wide open and because I had not experienced that. Now that I’ve experienced it, I will never be dishonest with myself, and I will always be able to gauge people who are dishonest with themselves.
The Root: Another great song on the disc is “Funny Ha Ha or Funny Strange.” Tell me about this one?
Nahadr: It’s just a song about irony and paradox. It’s about how we sometimes don’t see the value in things that we throw away.
The Root: I want to talk about the emotional and mental process of getting there to that level of self-acceptance and self-celebration.
Nahadr: Well, I consider myself really, really, really, really lucky. Because of my birth attribute, I had to get real quick. [Laughs.] People who are not seen as different, but as normal or as belonging, don’t have to deal with it as quickly.
The Root: As an adult, how do you deal with people who have to catch up with you in terms of how you project your uniqueness?
Nahadr: Well, I have to catch up to them, too. It’s always a thing about when someone meets me and they react; I also react, too, in terms of “I’ve never met this person before. I haven’t heard that accent before or haven’t seen that hair color before or that shape of face.” We all choose how we deal with things like that.
John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root.