IN DIALOGUE WITH RAHILL JAMALIFARD, ARTIST & DJ
Rahill Jamalifard is an artist, DJ, photographer, singer-songwriter and front woman of the Brooklyn-based rock band, HABIBI. A first generation Iranian-American, Rahill grew up in Michigan while often spending summers in Iran, and her love for her heritage brings a deep passion and intimacy to her creative work. Through her visual artworks as well as music that combines English and Farsi lyrics with music inspired by genres like Michigan garage rock and surf rock, Rahill’s work is a rich contribution to today’s creative landscape and brings needed visibility to Iranian, Muslim and Middle Eastern culture. She is currently based in New York City. If you are on desktop, go ahead and hit the play button on the bottom right corner of your screen to listen to a mix Rahill created for our store.
Interview by Gabriella Lacombe ~ Photos by Mina Alyeshmerni
Can you describe the house you grew up in?
Persian rugs connecting every room, the smell of basmati rice cooking, garage full of out grown soccer cleats, boxes of old photographs under my parents bed, and adornments from Iran on every wall and shelf.
What is one of your most cherished memories from your childhood?
I feel grateful to have had a childhood rich with fond memories. One that stands out and I often reflect on visiting Persepolis for the first time during a trip to Iran. We rolled sixteen deep with my cousins and took a caravan of cars about an hour outside my father’s city of Shiraz to visit the ancient ruins. Until then I had only seen photos and heard my father talk about the ancient Achaemenid Empire built by Darius and Xerxes. It was so special to walk through the historical site with my father, and interact with a place that was once the cradle of civilization and where my ancestors came from. My father brought his cameras with him and I remember shooting my sister and cousins standing before fallen columns, that day really touched me, brought me closer to myself.
On Instagram and in interviews, it’s clear that you have a very special relationship with your father. How would you describe your bond?
Heavy, deep, spiritual. With my father its been like that since the first day, we’ve had this transcendental bond since I was a child, a bond that defies the traditional father/daughter relationship, we function more as kindred souls like spiritual extensions of one another. His presence in my life is substantial, what he’s taught me guides most of the decisions I’ve made, shaped much of my artistic taste and informs my relationship with god/spirituality. We’ve always fed off each other’s energies and that has been a constant source of inspiration for me. Also he makes me laugh harder than anyone. I love the guy big time.
You’ve previously said of your creative partner, Sunny Shokrae, that you “can tell she understands my struggle and my celebration.” Tell us more.
I think the struggle I was referring to was the search for identity as a child of immigrants. It’s a strange duality when your cultural identity clashes with the cultural landscape you are physically a part of. Neither is a place you feel you can entirely belong to. So that duplicity creates a lot of anguish and vulnerability, whether we acknowledge it or not we have a complex. But, I choose to celebrate my differences, using music and art as a vehicle to understand and inform. Sunny shared the same sentiment, as do so many of my first generation friends.
You’ve mentioned your love of Middle Eastern psychedelic rock from the 70s. It’s really interesting to see the way a particular genre is interpreted internationally; can you expand on what excites you about 70s psychedelic rock from the Middle East in particular?
Yeah, it was just a very unique time. Musicians in Iran/Turkey/Lebanon were putting down traditional instruments and picking up electric guitars, inspired by the rock bands of the West. Minor scales and eastern rhythms started being played in a different format, a bridging moment where east met west, I think that synthesis of sound captured real magic. One of my favorite artists to come out of that era was Kourosh Yaghmaei, his music fully embodies that union.
HABIBI is your first band. Can you tell us about what brought you to music, and how being a musician particularly fulfills you?
I’ve always loved music, its captivated and moved me since my youth. I guess naturally as I got older I became more and more absorbed by it, it was something I could identify with and felt close to. Never intended on actually making music but that too happened naturally. I met Lenny, whom I started Habibi with, ten years ago after moving here, and our friendship was built on our shared love for music. So when we started writing songs together it took off very quickly from a ‘fun’ past time to a passionate project.
In addition to music, you create illustrations and design work that is heavily inspired by Persian tales and religious stories. Can you expand on what you find most compelling about some of the imagery or visual themes that you return to the most?
Persian miniatures and the geometric patterns found in Islamic art inform most of my visual work. I think it started with stories my father read to me from the great Persian epic, Shahnameh. This book serves as the cultural and mythical bible to the Iranian people and is filled with so many captivating tales and folklore, the imagery of the tales are so beautiful, I think half of the saved photos on my phone are of miniature paintings, they are definitely what I return to the most.
You recently posted a video on Instagram of Sima Bina, who you call your hero. Can you tell us what inspires you about her, and who some of your other heroes (musical or otherwise) are?
I bought myself a Sima Bina cassette as a teen while on a trip to Iran, I was probably 14 or 15 at the time. I didn’t stop playing that tape till I was 19 before gifting it to a friend. I idolized her because she was an Iranian female composer who dedicated her life to bringing forgotten traditional folk songs back to an audience, she has such a captivating and powerful presence and her ensemble is all female, I respect that. The list is long of personal heroes, forough farrokhzad, abbas kiarostami, Bijan Mofid, Mohammad Mossadegh, Joseph Campbell, Muhammad Ali, Jodorowsky, Martin Scorsese, Pee Wee Herman, Rasheed Wallace, Hafiz, Saadi, Batistuta, James Baldwin, my father.
Musically Shuggie Otis, Mark E. Smith, Mizzell Brothers, Alice Coltrane, Donald Byrd, David Axelrod, Pharaoh Saunders, Fela, Aaliyah, Ronnie Spector, Oum Kalthoum, Brian Eno, Dick Dale, Sade Adu, Kourosh Yaghmaei- ok that’s enough.
What has been the most rewarding moment of your career thus far?
Speaking to classrooms, especially to the young WOC during my Duke residency, playing a concert at Lincoln Center and having my parents in attendance, opening for ESG, a long time favorite band of mine, and spending a day at NPR headquarters to talk on the Morning Show about my cultural background and how it informs my music all come to mind as personal accomplishments. Also just being able to travel the world playing music is a privilege i am grateful for everyday.
What is something you are yearning to experience?
I guess getting to a place of true spiritual alignment, where I’m fully living in my higher self. I yearn for that kind of inner harmony where my essence is completely unaffected by the material world. The journey to that source is what makes up life, which is challenging for sure, but the moments of oneness I’ve felt with nature and the universe continue to guide me in that direction.
As you know, ‘maimoun’ comes from the Persian language word, meaning to welcome a guest into your home. If you could invite anyone to dinner in your home, who would it be and why?
Hard to say, but probably my grandmother, she is lives in Iran and its been three years since I’ve seen her, she’s the strongest woman I know and we have so much tea to spill! Also she would take over cooking duties so you know I would be eating good.