By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO
Baltimore born and raised composer and vocalist Tariq Al-Sabir found himself attending Hollywood premieres in high school but wasn’t as fazed by it as his Mom was. After singing the the opening theme for the fourth season of HBO’s crime classic The Wire, he attended the star-studded premiere. “I didn’t understand the magnitude of it,” he says. “I went to the premiere screening and met all these actors I knew but I didn’t get star struck. When I showed my Mom the pictures, she was like, ‘That’s Idris Elba!’” However, Al-Sabir did realize in a real way that music could be lucrative and could become a career. “It put in my mind very early that all the things I saw people who I admired doing, were accessible, that I could do it.”
Perhaps this gives us a clue as to his commitment to the work of creating music rather than receiving accolades. Spurred by a mother who he says, “Was really good at exposing my siblings and I to everything.” It’s a work ethic he cultivated early on. He recalls, “We were always at events; especially if they were free and we could learn something.” With this as a foundation, Al-Sabir almost obsessively composed music throughout his childhood. When asked how he spent his free time, he replied, “I wish I had a better answer but it was always music. As far as singing in the house, my brother and sister would get annoyed at that sometimes but my Mom was always supportive” The time he spent creating his catalogue of songs throughout his youth eventually paid off in the form of acceptance to the esteemed Baltimore School of the Arts for high school.
His penchant for being productive never lagged. He explains, “By my senior year in high school I had already written tons of songs in tons of different styles including classical; I had a gospel group and we would go around Baltimore performing.” This kept paying doing what he loved and the universe responded in numerous ways. Not only did Al-Sabir receive financial compensation in the form of scholarships during middle school and high school, but he says, I was getting calls to sing operatically, and getting calls for jazz, hip hop and R&B.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Still attending Baltimore School of the Arts, Al-Sabir was also a Young Arts recipient in pop and classical voice.
With the arts community already familiar with him and his work, he was invited to audition for Peabody School of Music at Johns Hopkins University for music composition. Al-Sabir auditioned for voice and was accepted and awarded a full scholarship.
He encountered a few challenges at Peabody. He cites his experience there as being perhaps the most impactful on his life so far. “It was hard,” he says “Getting people to take me seriously, especially in the classical music world.” He quickly realized that developing non-musical skills would be key to getting himself to the next level of expertise. “I really learned how to use my words and strategize. I continued to be honest but learned to also be clever to make sure I got the things I needed as far as an education.”
Legendary soprano Leontyne Price is one of Al-Sabir’s top musical idols. “Her talent and artistry are unmatched,” he explains. “Of course the gift is there and that’s from God but you can see the work that she puts in. It’s like she’s given every note three hours worth of attention.” When it comes to jazz, Al-Sabir loves the bossa nova tinged stylings of musicians like Sergio Mendes. His all time favorite musician though, is Stevie Wonder. “His music is extremely vivid and I think everyone has something to learn from Stevie Wonder. I mean singers, musician, pianists even actors and dancers. The intricacies of his music are endless and he can make people do myriad things with one song. He can make a musician scratch his head, he can make a listener cry and he can make them dance. The mark he has left on music is everywhere. I’ve heard it in musical theater, jazz, everywhere!”
Al-Sabir will be performing his self-composed show called #Unwanted: A Social Media Song Cycle that focuses he says, on the impact of social media in the African-American community, at Lincoln Center in February and later on as part of The Shed’s inaugural Open Call Program in New York City. In the Spring, he’ll also be debuting a role in the opera Atlas, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.