Halima: “So often as Black women in music, we are told to sound a certain way. Intrinsically, I’m just not that”

Ahead of new EP, 'EXU', Arusa Qureshi meets Halima to talk about mixing up her sound, defying expectations and making her most authentic music to date.


Since the release of her debut single ‘If Love Was Green’ in 2018, Halima has been steadily bolstering her portfolio of cross-genre compositions, refining her craft as an artist and producer with each new project. Growing up in Lagos and London and now based in Brooklyn, her music draws from an intercontinental journey that has involved soaking up the sounds and cultures of numerous settings, each one contributing to varying elements of self-discovery and artistry. EXU, her first EP on the Secretly affiliate drink sum wtr, is an amalgamation of genres from soul to UK garage, exploring Halima’s influences and musical pedigree, as well as her innate spirituality. 

On a rare break in Paris, in the run up to the release of EXU, Halima tells us more about the five-track EP and its links to her Nigerian heritage, along with her feelings on getting something new out into the world…

Halima: “I’m really excited, honestly. I’ve just been working on it for so long so it feels kind of surreal that it’s finally coming to fruition. There’s a lot of heart and soul that’s gone into it so I’m excited just to put it out there and have people receive it.”


Can you tell me a little more about the new EP, its main themes and ideas and whether you had a mission statement going into it?

“The project is called EXU and if you’re familiar with it, EXU is a Yoruba deity. They represent crossroads. And they also often bring with them chaos and unpredictability, and a lot of the time that can be misunderstood as negative and wrong. But actually, it’s necessary for everyone to experience. So I’ve really connected and resonated with this deity and the mythology around the deity. And I wanted to explore that, and explore it in a way that I feel hasn’t really been contextualised in music. I’ve worked with such incredible people to bring this vision to life, and not just musically. It’s kind of taking on another life of its own, from other people’s experiences and I’m just excited for other people to interpret it however they feel it relates to them. So it’s not just my own nerdy brain getting caught up in it!”

As someone that was raised between two countries, and is now based elsewhere, how would you say location has influenced your overall artistry and approach over the years?

“So much – I mean, it was the reason why I started making music, honestly, just to deal with the instability that came from moving. It was a way to put structure and stability back into my life. Moving from Lagos to London was quite a tumultuous experience for me as a kid. And I closed in on myself a little bit. Music was a way for me to express whatever I was feeling, and then in London, just what I was hearing growing up, was so eclectic. I grew up pretty close to Camden and would spend all of my days after school exploring Camden Lock, and seeing how people were dressing and really trying to find myself or trying to find myself reflected in that music. And then I started listening to people like Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading and these different Black women occupying space where there weren’t many people that looked like them. That really inspired me, as did travelling back to Lagos, listening to the outdoor music there and learning about Feli Kuti and learning about the different folk artists and Afropop artists, and the histories – all of it just completely informed my study. For some time, I would try different hats on and be like, I can make music like this or I can make music like that, not really knowing what was authentically me, but just trying to wear things to figure that out. This project was the first time I was not really trying anything on anymore. I’m just saying and refining what I’m saying, from an honest place.”

I know that in recording the EP, you also took some inspiration from location and your surroundings. How did you find the sessions for this EP and working with co-producer Ben Shirken?

“Ben is one of my best friends. We started working together when we were 18. So we’ve grown up together and musically, we were able to explore that parallel to each other. He had just started working with modular synths at the time and I came into the studio and there were all these colourful cables everywhere, all over the floor. I was like, OK, he’s now exploring something that I feel really curious about but also, I wouldn’t go down this road by myself. At the same time, I was trying to think more about my lyrics, and being very intentional about what I was saying. Up until then, I’d really just felt the music, and not really thought much about lyrics and this was the first time in this project that I was forced to. Ben would write something and then I would present to Ben and he’d be like, ‘this is cool, but I think you can do something better’. So I feel like that was a really necessary learning curve for the both of us to push each other and explore new territory together. We both made something that I feel like, individually, we wouldn’t have. Together we’re so proud of it – I couldn’t have done this without him.”

As someone that’s been self-producing music from a young age, how do you feel about the current musical landscape and your part in it?

“That’s actually a tough question for me to answer because I’m constantly trying to find my place in it. But I think, as of now, I’m no longer looking to place myself. I don’t know if that’s my own responsibility anymore. My focus is being inspired by my peers and always wanting to collaborate with them, but not necessarily thinking about where I fall in the context of other artists. But it definitely is exciting to travel and to hear what people are doing in different places, different spaces and being inspired by that. And I’ll just constantly be fuelled by that conversation.”

Looking at this new EP, what are some of the main elements that have changed for you between the debut EP ‘XYZ’ and now?

“Mainly, it’s just that I’ve stopped trying different costumes on musically. I slowed down a lot during this process of four years of writing this project. It’s odd to say there was a privilege in that pause but there was for me. I was able to reevaluate my values and I left really thinking about who I was at that time, how I’d been informed, and what was really, authentically me and what was more so what I thought was expected of me, or what I needed to perform to be accepted. So I think the biggest difference between XYZ and EXU now is just the stripping of those pretences. And I hope that it reads like that, too. I hope you listen to it, and you can hear that, and then also feel like you can do that for yourself.”

The EP has such a great mix of styles and sounds. There are R&B hooks but then breakbeat and garage too. Why is it important to you to be able to keep the variety and contrast in sound?

“Because I think that so often for Black women in music, we are told that we need to sound a certain way, make a certain kind of music, and categorise ourselves. So I felt like, intrinsically, I’m just not that. I tried being that and it just doesn’t work, because it’s also not real – it’s all manufactured by the industry. I felt like the easiest way for me to say this without literally saying it to people and getting tired of repeating the same thing, was just to make a project that is in itself eclectic and unbound by genre. Because to me, it’s just energy and then it’s feeling. So playing with jungle, breakbeats, drum & bass is just higher energy, higher tempo, versus something a little more soulful, a little more dubby. And not to discredit genre – genre is important in certain conversations, but I just felt that with this project, what I was exploring, the unpredictability theme, it felt natural to just create this world with different sounds.”

You released ‘Awaken’, the first song on the EP, in March. Can you tell me more about that song and why you chose it as the first taste of the EP?

“Chronologically, it was just the first track that Ben and I made. We made it in 2019 and it sounded completely different to what it sounds like now. It was very ambient, it had a lot of synths and a drum & bass sort of backbeat. And it took us some time to strip that away and treat it with enough space for the true essence of the song to come through. I think that process also informed the whole project. I didn’t know at the time that we were making an EP; we just were like, ‘let’s get back in the studio’, then we put out this one single and people liked it and we thought, ‘let’s do something again’. But that was pre-pandemic and it was pre a lot of things. We were about to graduate from school and we didn’t know a lot of things – chaotic things – were to come. This was the first song and it’s like awakening into this new world so it felt natural to release this as the opening to EXU and then tell the story from there.”

Do you have a personal favourite track on the album? Or one that you maybe connect to for a very particular reason?

“They’re all my babies – all of them for different reasons. I was obsessed with ‘Ways’ when we first made it. That was also the second song that we made on the EP. Then when we made ‘Don’t’, and I was like, ‘Okay, this feels like the heart of the EP, this feels like an amalgamation of everything I was trying to say and how I’ve been feeling.’ And then ‘Samantha’ always has a sweet spot for me. I’m always coming back to that song and feeling a sense of it being like a reprise, like coming home. But yeah, I don’t know. I think I probably would have to say ‘Don’t’ – it’s still refreshing to hear it. Whenever I play it, I think ‘oh yes, this is gonna keep hitting for a while’, which is good. That’s what you want.”

You’re, of course, busy with the EP release but what else have you got coming up that you’re looking forward to? 

“I’m always making music. We do have two release shows coming up – one in New York on June 7 and we have an amazing opener to be announced. And then we have another show, June 12, in LA and also have an incredible opener to be announced. And then I’ve been working on an album for a couple of years, with a lot of other artists and musicians and that honestly sounds completely different to this EP, in a good way, I hope. But it also kind of was tangential to making this project and I sort of needed, I think, a counter space where I could release something else. You can expect really boundless styles and genres but other than that, I don’t think there’s any other throughline.”

How would you say you’ve changed as a performer and artist since you first started? What are some of the main things that have changed?

“I guess the one thing that has changed a lot from XYZ to now and even beyond – because a lot of these tracks were recorded two to three years ago – is my voice. I felt really insecure about the sort of voice that I had, and then what kind of music I could make with that. But I feel like in EXU, I had space to play with that and also grow into my voice and myself in a very natural way. I think it just had to happen with time. So I’m very grateful to the project for helping me with that.”

EXU by Halima is out May 24 2024