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Nilüfer Yanya is the multi-genre artist happy taking her time

Ahead of a London performance for International Women's Day, we spoke to singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya about life a year after her acclaimed debut, self-discovery through heritage and learning to take her time.

06 Mar 2020

Nilüfer Yanya is waiting for her new sofa to be delivered when she answers the phone. It’s a strange reminder that, in spite of having one of the most acclaimed debut albums of last year, life as a celebrated artist can be just as mundane as it is for anyone.

Miss Universe was a fascinating debut, dipping between genres to create something vast and intangible, woven together with strange, dystopian spoken-word interludes from the fictional organisation ‘WWAY Health’. It dealt with neuroses but also spoke to a bigger picture of identities and utopias – which all makes sense given her mixed heritage and the jarring times we’re in as immigrants.

Nilüfer was also one of the founders of Artists In Transit, a group of artists and activists who deliver art workshops to communities of refugee children and young people living in temporary accommodation, offering a safe space for joy, learning and catharsis. 

The West London artist is playing a special show for International Women’s Day this Sunday, and so I had a quick call with her to find out more about life one year on from Miss Universe, her work with Artists In Transit, and – of course – her thoughts on the concept of International Women’s Day. 

gal-dem: Miss Universe was widely considered as one of the best albums of 2019, so congrats on that! How does it feel now looking back on it, nearly a year since it came out? 

Nilüfer Yanya: It’s quite a blur. I was just doing lots of shows, lots of touring, it’s been a fast year. But I’m really grateful for all the experience.

To me your music draws on so many different things. Obviously you have Turkish, Irish and Bajan heritage – and for all of us growing up between cultures, I think it leads to a lot of questioning of yourself. For you, how has your multicultural background manifested in your work and your perception of yourself – if at all?

It made me want to dig deeper and work out who I am. The identity of being from London or from the UK is…it’s not fading, exactly, but it’s not the same feeling [as when I was growing up]. There are other parts of me, other cultures and identities that belong to different parts of the world. It’s interesting really, it’s like a journey – something to be discovered.

I don’t know if it’s fair to say your involvement with Artists In Transit maybe stems from that feeling of belonging to different parts of the world, but I wanted to ask more about that. It’s such a bleak time with the ongoing refugee crisis right now, and I really rate you doing that work. How do you think we can keep helping in those spaces where we can?

I think staying aware, keeping up about things and staying connected with what’s happening in other parts of the world and with other people is important. It really helps put things in perspective, to me, because it’s so easy to get wrapped up in your own stresses. With Artists In Transit, we just work as a small group of friends. And it can be really hard, but it can also be really rewarding.

The show you’re doing on Sunday is for IWD – increasingly I have mixed feelings over it, and how it can be such a white feminist thing (and sometimes a TERF-y thing). But equally it does feel important to take the time to celebrate women, and also to keep speaking up for marginalised voices. Do you have any thoughts on it?

Obviously it’s not about there being one day, and it’s year around, but I think the way it’s still received is very much it’s like a one day thing. So I don’t know much about the day itself. But maybe people would feel less inclined to get things done and get events going – maybe it’s just a good way to bring it to the media, giving the work of women space.

For sure, I think unfortunately a lot of the way that media works is having topical pegs – if you can say it’s International Women’s month or whatever then you maybe have a better chance of placing an underrepresented story that otherwise wouldn’t get spotlighted.

Yeah, I just hope it becomes more integrated. I don’t want it to be “Women’s Day” and then it’s over – or like it’s Black History Month and that’s it. Learning about and celebrating these identities needs to be in our curriculums, not just confined to a day or a month and that’s it.

100%. Do you ever get to take a step back and take stock of your career? Like, ‘wow, when I was a kid did I even think this would be possible’?

I’ve been thinking about it recently. Yesterday I went to my old college and did a live Q&A – I was last there when I was like 18, and I hadn’t released any music. And they were asking questions like, ‘What advice would you give to your younger self?’ And I just said, ‘don’t rush. Time is gonna happen. Just focus on the music and everything else will happen from that.’ Looking back on the past five years, nothing was more important than doing the work and making that the best it can be – being the happiest you can be with that. 

What do you hope people take away from your music?

I hope it brings some kind of joy, listening to it. Even when it’s sad or maybe not obviously uplifting, there’s joy in that. That feeling where you want something to keep going, so you don’t stop. 

And what brings you joy?

Listening to music, sunny days, walking, running, reading. Just really simple stuff. Spending time with my friends and family most of all. Waking up early and taking the pressure off, not feeling like I have to do something. Which is nice.

Nilüfer Yanya will give a very special candlelit performance at Union Chapel this Sunday as part of ReBalance Celebrates International Women’s Day. Tickets are on sale here.