'One day I packed a bag, told my parents I was going to college and didn’t come back'
Growing up in Hounslow, the only piece of music singer-songwriter IMAN could get her hands on was her cousin’s old Whitney Houston CD. Here she tells Marie Claire how she broke away from a strict Muslim upbringing to set up her own record label and jam with Ed Sheeran.
How would you describe your music to the uninitiated?
‘I think it’s quite British: unrefined, raw and a bit gritty. If I were to compare it to two modern-day female artists, I’d probably say Jessie Ware or Emeli Sandé.’
What do you think makes British music special?
‘There’s so much character to it. I always enjoy listening to artists who have a distinctive tone to their voice. In some records you listen to, the melody’s amazing, the production’s amazing, but they can just sing. I think it’s more about character.’
The best musicians aren’t necessarily the best singers…
‘Yeah – like Lily Allen, she’s not the best singer, I think she’d admit that, but her storytelling is great, there’s character and humour in her vocals.’
Tell us a bit about your background…
‘I grew up in West London and I come from a Muslim household. Music was definitely frowned upon. My parents came from a country where kids didn’t grow up going to festivals or watching the BRITs. Pop was very much synonymous with sex, drugs, busking and living a very hedonistic lifestyle.’
How did they react when you told them you wanted to be a musician?
‘They were just not feeling it. I’m the only musician in my whole family, everyone else is just very much like, go to school, go to college, go to university, have a job and be self-sufficient. So the whole concept was very alien and scary to them. There were times when I did try to shut it out and think of doing [something else]. People would ask, “What do you want to do when you’re older?” and I knew that I couldn’t share it, because it would be shut down.’
What was the turning point?
‘My mum decided she was going to take my brother and I to her home country of Yemen to experience the life and culture of the place. We were there for the whole summer holiday and it dawned on me that if I had been born and brought up in that country with the same dreams, there would have been no chance. I felt lucky to be British, born in a country where you’re always going to be supported. I decided that when I came back I was going to go into music. There was a lot of, “Who does she think she is? We don’t do this in our family”, and it got to the point where my family were like, “You abide by our rules, you do what we want you to do, or you leave this house.”’
When did you leave?
‘I had hinted to my Mum that it was time to go, and one day I just packed a bag, told my parents I was going to college and didn’t come back. I had met a girl at college, we’d become good friends and she invited me to move in with her and her family. [Then later] I ended up in living in Islington, which was totally different to my suburban upbringing. I just immersed myself – took up vocal lessons, knocked on doors, took a lot of rejection. Then eventually I decided to set up my own label.’
Iman’s song ‘Wishing’ has been nominated for Best Unsigned Song at the Best of British Awards. Voting for Best of British unsigned begins 23rd Oct.
And you met Ed Sheeran along the way?
‘Yeah – I was at a song-writing seminar with a load of industry people, there were thirty musicians in the room and we all got a chance to play our songs. Ed gets up and he starts playing ‘You Need Me, I Don’t Need You’ on his guitar. I remember thinking, “Oh my god, why is no one losing their shit right now? This guy is sick!” You see a lot of white guys playing that whole folk thing on the guitar, but Ed came with this kind of country bumpkin look – you know, not looking too cool. But he just owned it. He was like, “this is my style, I’m going to rap and sing, deal with it.”‘
What happened next?
‘We walked straight up to each other afterwards. He was like, “I love your stuff”, I was like, “Oh my god, I love your stuff”, then we went to McDonalds and we ate and talked about music. I think he wasn’t in a great place at the time, he had just been dropped by his management, every label had said no to him and told him he had to change his look. We didn’t see each other again for another two years, then we bumped into each other and we found out we were under the same management. We got into the studio and wrote a couple of songs together. When we were recording, I remember him being so excited about having 4000 Twitter followers! I remember thinking back then, this guy is going to be an icon. Hats off to him.’
How is your relationship with your family now?
‘It’s good. They still don’t really get what I do, but I think by leaving I showed them I’m someone who is just going to do her own thing regardless, so long as I’m not hurting anyone. I think they’ve come to accept and respect that.’
What’s been the most exciting moment for you music-wise so far?
‘Getting to Number three in the Urban music chart – seeing my name next to Rihanna, Jay-Z and DJ Khaled – that was amazing.’