On the first Friday of every month, we highlight one artist on the rise. For October’s First Look Friday, We spoke with R&B singer Saleka about her influences, representation for Indian Americans, the advantages of being the daughter of M. Night Shymalan, and more.
Saleka grew up in a household where her creativity was supported and excellence was the standard. The oldest of three, she is the daughter of The Sixth Sense and Split filmmaker M. Night Shymalan and psychologist Dr. Bhavna Vaswani Shyamalan. As a child, the Indian American R&B singer took piano lessons, and it seemed like her career was decided: she was going to become a classical pianist.
But she had different plans.
At 16, Saleka made the decision to become a singer and songwriter instead, going against everything she had been groomed for. The positive: she was able to use the same discipline that came from years of preparation for the conservatory to become just as sharp in her new musical passion.
“Our parents were and are pretty strict with us, but in the sense that they have high standards and truly believe we can be great, and they wouldn’t want us to settle for being less than what we are capable of,” Saleka said. “I understand how so much of that stems from the immigrant experience they and their parents had, and their constant awareness that nothing will just be handed to us, so we have to put in extra effort as kids to build foundational habits for a successful and fulfilling future.”
Saleka, who is 24, decided to study at Brown University. It was there that she met current collaborators, honed her skills as a performer, and developed as a songwriter. Before COVID-19 wrecked the live music economy, Saleka opened shows for artists like Baby Rose, Summer Walker, and Boyz II Men.
Last month, Saleka released her debut single “Clarity.” The song, which will be on her forthcoming debut, evokes classic neo-soul. Her airy vocals — juxtaposed with soulful keys — evoke comparisons to Walker and R&B group The Internet.
For the video, Saleka uses the backdrop of a dark Philadelphia jazz club to visually illustrate the journey of a person leaving a toxic relationship. Saleka enlisted her sister Ishana Night Shymalan to direct the video at the popular Philadelphia music venue Ortlieb’s.
For this First Look Friday, we spoke to Saleka about her creative influences, representation for Indian Americans in entertainment, the advantages of being the daughter of a successful movie director, and more.
Who are some musicians that have influenced your sound and how you create music?
Nina Simone and Bob Marley are two musicians that I really look up to as people and also through their songwriting. They’re both amazing songwriters and have dealt with so much in their lives and persevered through all those hardships to continue to spread messages of strength and love.
As vocalists, I really look up to Etta James, Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday. Etta James was the first vocalist that I really tried to copy when I was learning how to sing. I heard her record “At Last” a lot when my parents used to play it around the house. I would try to copy all the riffs that she did and copy the way that she sang. Of course I was never actually able to do that, but it inspired me to sing powerfully and belt things out, and also have that juxtaposition of her subtleties in nuance and emotion and go back and forth.
Lauryn Hill and Amy Winehouse…albums Frank, Back to Black and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill are albums I’ve listened to over and over since I was a kid growing up. I think they both influenced my understanding of R&B because they both bent the genre to their own unique tastes and styles. I think especially Lauryn Hill, because she’s a woman of color [with connections to] Philly, that influenced me in subconscious ways that I don’t even know. She’s definitely a huge influence for me. She worked with a lot of musicians that I am working with now so that’s really cool.
How did studying music at an Ivy League school shape your creative process?
When I started playing music, I played classical piano. That’s what I did for the majority of my life. The songwriting and singing aspects came later down the line when I was in high school and applying for colleges. I come from an immigrant family and the goal is usually to go to college and get a degree, so I think that was ingrained in me super early. At first I was going to go to a conservatory to study classical piano. When I decided I wanted to write songs, I felt like I wanted to go to a liberal arts college and study more things and have more freedom and be able to do that. That was my decision-making in going to Brown.
The two producers that made “Clarity” were friends of mine [that] I met there in the music program. That was a huge life-changing thing to meet friends there and develop that collaborative bond with musicians. Also, I studied literary arts there and learned about different writers and poets and that really changed the way I write lyrics and write music.
College life was an essential part of life experience I needed to have because I had been at home until then. I got to be my own person, perform in a band at school, and do basement shows. I was coming from being a kid that was doing classical piano recitals, which is incredibly anxiety-provoking with high stakes. Whereas in college you’re in basements where you can’t hear yourself and it’s really more carefree. I think I needed that really different experience to kind of break down some barriers that I have in getting over my stage fright — which I still have.
As an artist that has performed throughout the United States, what has it been like to not do that in the same way during the pandemic?
It’s sad. I’m grateful for a lot of reasons. There are so many musicians and people in the music industry who have lost their jobs and are suffering financially and I’m in the position where I’m just starting out in my career, so I didn’t have to cancel any huge tours and I didn’t have to lose months of prep for touring and merch and all this stuff. It wasn’t as huge of a loss for me as it was for so many other people in the music industry.
I miss performing and I feel like it’s something I’m just getting comfortable with. This was going to be my year of learning and kind of trying to do shows. I had a bunch of shows lined up that got canceled and I was going to have my training year of going out with my band and doing a bunch of gigs and learning how to be more comfortable on stage. I do miss that. It’s been cool to see all the artists doing live streams and still finding ways to communicate with their audiences even though they don’t have a stage to create shows. It’s been inspiring to see that. For me, it worked out okay because I had time to finish the album and record and start writing the next one, all stuff that I can do from home.
In the “Clarity” video, we see you go from a stage at a venue to what looks like a forest. How does that metaphor reflect your personal experience?
The song is essentially about the journey of leaving a toxic relationship. We kind of wanted to show that in visual spaces. Each of those three spaces represents a part of that journey and a phase of that journey. It was very intentional and my sister Ishana, who directed it, came up with that visual vision reflective of my personal experience and what I wrote about in the song.
The first space is the jazz club, which is kind of dark, red, and a small, almost claustrophobic space. That is supposed to be metaphoric of that toxic relationship. I’m in this place and I’m performing essentially for this guy and he’s not paying attention. I’m kind of on display. I’m wearing red because there is a lot of red in the environment and that’s a metaphor for me being a kind of a product of an environment at this point. It feels like this jazz club and space is everything the character knows. As you go through, I break out and am in a kind of warehouse space, a movie set almost. You have this realization that the jazz club was just a set that has been created and it’s a contrived reality. That’s metaphoric of how when you’re in a toxic relationship, your relationship is your whole world and when you leave it you see it for what it is. You see it’s not your whole reality and a lot of it isn’t real and you can escape it and be back to being grounded in reality.
Eventually, the last stage of this is breaking free in a forest outside. That’s supposed to be metaphoric of freedom and it’s the opposite of that closed space. I’m alone and it’s green, but it’s a cold, wintry forest. That was something we changed because when you do leave a toxic space or environment, it’s hard and jarring and a process. It ended up working out real well. We shot the video at the end of December. It was freezing. But that feeling was metaphoric for my real life feeling.
How important was it for you to have your sister Ishana direct your first music video?
It kind of was both of us being inspired by each other at the same time. She really resonated with the song “Clarity” and when she first heard the album she was like, “This one should be the first single!” She felt the song and saw a lot of visuals to go with it. For me, it’s my first video and I was watching her do her shorts and learning in school and I was inspired by her visual artwork and I thought she could really kind of create this story that I wanted to tell. So it worked out really well for both of us that we both kind of resonated with each other’s work and we’re both in the beginning stage of our careers and both just starting out. It’s the first for both of us in that it’s the first time she shot a video and it’s the first time I was in a music video. It worked really well to have that sister bond translate to that. Even though it was super high stakes, it created this kind of familial comfort between us on the set because we know each other’s tastes and how we work and we were able to communicate very well. It was a very unique thing I wouldn’t have had if anyone else directed the music video.
I’m super tough on my daughters. I demand a lot of them as artists and as people. My daughter @SalekaNight is releasing her first song and music video “Clarity” on Wednesday September 9th! You can presave the song by going to https://t.co/ytGsXK9JlI
— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) September 8, 2020
What benefits come with having a famous director as a father?
I have learned so much from both my parents and am endlessly grateful for all the support they have provided my sisters and I through our whole lives. One huge benefit was their understanding and acceptance of the arts as a viable career, which isn’t the case in many families, especially South Asian families. But because my dad had already broken that barrier with his parents, I had the freedom to prioritize art and to study music in college and dedicate a lot of time to it. If I had grown up in a household where music was considered a hobby and not a career, I don’t think I would have had the emotional conviction or experience to make music as an adult. There is an essay that I recently read and loved by Audre Lorde titled “Poetry is not a Luxury.” It talks about how necessary it is for women to manifest our dreams and share our perspectives through creativity and writing. My parents are definitely supporters of that mindset, and they always remind my sisters and I that all we have to offer the world at the end of the day is our perspective, and so it is our responsibility to always nourish our point of view in whatever we can, and then create something of value with it.
Another huge benefit was the experience through my childhood of watching my dad build a career in the arts from nothing. I witnessed each day of his relentless hard work and discipline. I saw how he managed to balance fatherhood, family life, mental health, and work — how he handled the extreme ups and downs of a career in the arts, and how he stayed grounded through ugly criticism and high praise. There is so much of every artist’s story that is never shown to the public, and I grew up observing and absorbing it. My sisters and I were on each film set to witness his dedication to his craft and the intense artistic collaboration of his cast and crew, and we were at home for all the complicated behind the scenes. We saw the internal emotional warfare that happens when investing in yourself and making original content and not knowing if it will work, and how that never really ends even after attaining financial stability or after decades of experience. I have had the opportunity to witness an artist go through his journey from the inside, and now as I’ve grown up, I have the ability to have many discussions with him about it, analyze each step of the process, and take notes.
What are some common misconceptions that people tend to have about Indian American entertainers?
From my perspective, it’s less misconceptions about Indian American entertainers and more the misconceptions that we actually aren’t entertainers. You don’t usually see Indian Americans in prominent authority roles in the entertainment industry. You don’t see a lot of us on TV, you don’t see a lot of us on the music charts. There isn’t a lot of representation especially for South Asian American women. I think that’s changing and more and more and I get excited anytime I see a brown person anywhere. It’s getting better but it’s definitely lacking. It’s interesting because in India the entertainment industry is so prominent. It’s integral in familial traditions a lot of times but you don’t really see it reflected in American entertainment. That was something I never really thought about until I became an adult. One time, my grandma was staying at our house and watching her Indian soap operas that she loved and I couldn’t understand anything that was happening but everyone looked like me and my family. I was so floored and it made me have this realization: “Is this what white people feel like all of the time?” They see themselves in every role and see themselves everywhere. I never really see anyone like me represented in American society. It made me think about it in a different way.
I struggled a bit with my identity growing up, but I think that was unavoidable as a young girl of color growing up in a predominantly white environment. It was a challenge to feel fully accepted as myself or to even just feel pretty or cool. When I was young, I definitely fit the stereotype of the “Indian nerd” in American culture standards. I was that kid who would be reading at recess and spent my weekends practicing piano. I also didn’t know many other South Asians besides my family, so I definitely grappled with how to embrace my culture and feel like a part of a community. But I eventually found great friends who became my extended family and are still my best friends today, and I learned to embrace those aspects of myself that made me not quite fit in in school growing up.
In what ways do you hope to see social justice reform in today’s America?
There is so much work to do. I would say the issues at the top of my mind and the top of many people’s minds right now are the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration reform, and everything that is going on with [the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.] I would say that I’m not somebody that is very into politics, per se, but there is so much at stake with this upcoming election for every woman, every person of color, every LGBTQ person, every disabled person. That is just so much at stake. I’m just trying to urge people to vote and at least seek out and make our voices heard. That’s just one part of the journey. I’ve been inspired by many of my activist friends to read more books and educate myself and educate my family, so that’s been a great development. Being able to have those conversations with people around me. I’ve been more forceful than in the past because I’m really fired up right now.
For South Asians, we’re in a particularly important position because we’re people of color but we’re also very privileged. Even though I’m a woman of color, I don’t have to carry the history of systemic racism of America on my back. I don’t have that history of slavery and segregation. My family didn’t have to overcome that. My family came a couple of generations ago and we didn’t have to deal with that. Yes, we have our own struggles but we have to recognize that we are very privileged and have to use that privilege to help the Black Lives Matter movement and everyone else that doesn’t have that privilege. I hear a lot of people say “It’s not my problem” and that really upsets me because I feel like it’s all of our problems. I was reading a lot about how South Asians in America are only here because of the Civil Rights Movement. The Immigration Act of 1965 is what allowed Asians to come live in America, so we owe everything to people that were fighting during the Civil Rights Movement, which were Black Americans.
Michael Butler is a Panamanian writer from Augusta, Georgia and has written about culture for publications like Remezcla and Lonely Planet. When he isn’t eating ripe plantains, Michael is a fan of the Atlanta Hawks and reciting every line from The Five Heartbeats.