Shortly after inauguration day in January, I saw Jordanian musician Farah Siraj perform at Longwood Gardens. This was my first time hearing any of her music, and I was so moved by her performance and strong messages of unity, peace, and community. There was a reception after the show where I met Farah and her bandmates, which includes recent Grammy winner Marcelo Woloski. Farah graciously agreed to meet me for coffee in February to discuss her music, activism, and desire to do good in the world.
Creating a sense of community in a room full of strangers was Farah Siraj’s intention. At any given concert, Farah says there are at least 20 different nationalities represented in the audience. Many of her songs talk about being away from home, and she says that resonates in the crowd with people who aren’t from the country she’s performing in. She says she feels a beautiful connection with people. For Farah, it’s not just the music, it’s about reminding audiences that we’re all from somewhere and we’re all family.
“For me, it’s a medium. It’s my way for also trying to promote cultural understanding, and to bring light to humanitarian causes through music,” Farah explained.
Farah describes her music as a blend of her influences and music from places that she’s lived. As an Arab, Farah notes that there’s an Arabian part to her music, but having lived in Spain and the United States, she has also blended flamenco, jazz, and Latin music into her sound. She says her artistic process is very random and spontaneous, and songs will call to her to be sung specifically in either Arabic, Spanish or English.
She says that her life experiences become part of her identity; If she’s inspired by something, that will come out through her music. Even though music is very personal, it’s not just Farah’s stories that you’ll hear her singing about. She says she’s a very empathetic person, and sometimes the stories that other people share with her affect her so deeply that she’ll write about their experiences too. Her music, passion, and activism are intertwined, and when talking about causes she cares about, human rights (particularly refugee rights, women’s rights, and rights of people living under occupation) are a top priority.
Jordan has historically hosted many refugees, and Farah explained that refugees from Syria, Palestine, Libya and other countries were her neighbors while growing up. She said that Jordan is a peaceful country, but conflict was always right around the corner. Many of her friends were Palestinian and displaced due to conflict. She said they’ve experienced unimaginable situations, and are not able to return to their homes and the lands of their families. There’s a big difference between refugees and migrant people.
“Just because those stories aren’t your reality doesn’t mean you can escape,” she said. “Just because it isn’t happening to you doesn't mean you can turn a blind eye.”
Recently, Farah has also become very vocal about animal rights, focusing on the treatment of animals, their health, and the environmental impact of factory farming. She tries to live her life by her personal motto and practice “do no harm; do good,” and not cause harm to any living thing. Musically, she plans to write more about animal rights in the future.
When talking about the current political climate, Farah said that she feels we’re at a dark point in American history. But she was quick to note that she also feels a lot of hope because there are so many people coming together and standing up for each other in a way that she doesn't think would have been possible without the spark of the presidential election. She said it’s heartwarming to hear so many people speaking up for others, and that the protests are great, but a lot of action needs to come with it too.
“When you think about all of the negative that’s happening, you also realize that there’s some really good people doing amazing work, and that exists too,” she said. “The ultimate goal is to be one of those people.”
Farah believes that everybody’s voice matters, and that the first thing people can do when looking to be politically or socially engaged is to speak up. It wasn’t until recently that Farah felt she needed to purposefully identify herself as an Arab Muslim woman. She says that she’s able to break dangerous stereotypes about Arab and Muslim women, and I noted that at the show I went to Farah specifically labeled herself in this way when addressing the audience. Growing up in a matriarchal family, all Farah saw was empowered women, and she speaks up to break the stereotype that Arab women are submissive.
In 2017, Farah plans to engage more with education and conducting lectures about Arab women in the arts. She’ll also continue to perform and have pre- and post-talk discussions about humanitarianism and activism.
“People have their hearts open and they’re ready to listen,” Farah said.
Farah Siraj’s upcoming concerts include the Kennedy Center on May 1st and the Penn Museum on September 6th, and more dates will be announced shortly. She has a new album coming out soon too. To learn more about Farah and her music, visit her website, Facebook page, and YouTube channel.