Naw Ruz marks the end of the Fast and the beginning of a new year in the Baha’i calendar. Naw-Ruz is a celebration of a “spiritual springtime” that symbolizes both individual renewal and mankind’s revitalization.
I was probably 15 when I was first asked if I’d ever make “secular” music. To be honest, I actually had no idea what the term “secular” meant until I went home, asked my dad and learned it means not having a spiritual basis. I was a little confused as to how this newly acquired knowledge was relevant to the music that I was creating, in my bedroom, at 2am on a Tuesday morning.
Throughout my late teens I continued to craft music that inspired me and represented who I was and what I believed in. It was music that I felt proud of and made me a more confident mentor to the younger youth I was working with in the community. I turned to the finest inspiration and guidance of them all: the words, stories, history and Holy Scriptures of my beloved Faith. This didn’t feel “non-secular” at all. It just felt right. Personally, I didn’t think I was doing anything differently than the musicians I’d listen to on the radio or in the mix CD my friend had given me. I was struggling, growing, making mistakes along the way and searching for answers just like any other young adult, and I was using music as an outlet, a means to express myself and learn.
This expression took many forms. Sometimes it was centered on a prayer that I’d read in a testing time, which brought me much needed comfort, or my experience in the Holy Shrines, or the exploration of my roots, which provided with me the rare opportunity to work with my talented mother. Each song or prayer I’ve put to music has meant something to me: it’s gotten me through a moment in my life, and made me the person I am today.
I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished, and I’m eternally grateful for the support I’ve received for my music over the years. I’m always touched to receive messages about how my music has impacted others. Although it’s always come from the most sincere and encouraging place, this question of “secular” or “non secular” is still a lingering concern of many friends and colleagues. I know that I could definitely cast a wider net and reach a greater audience by making music that is less affiliated with the Faith, but then who would hear me through all the other noise? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written songs about my daily struggles, love lost, or the cute boy at the coffee shop, but I don’t usually feel like I’m doing myself justice. People are often worried that my Faith is constricting me from becoming the artist that I COULD be, but I like to see it as an ideal framework that I choose to strive and live by. There’s a ready audience that’s waiting to receive me, just as I am.
I also feel liberated by a really cool concept I recently discovered (I know, perhaps a bit late to the party). I’m not making Baha’i music, because there is no such thing as “Baha’i Music”. A letter written on behalf of the Guardian states that:
Music, as one of the arts, is a natural cultural development, and the Guardian does not feel that there should be any cultivation of ‘Baha’i Music’ any more than we are trying to develop a Baha’i school or painting or writing. The believers are free to paint, write and compose as their talents guide them. If music is written, incorporating the sacred writings, the friends are free to make use of it….. As long as they have music for its own sake it is all right, but they should not consider it Baha’i music. 1
This question of making “non-secular” music or “secular” music reminds me of the concept of “false choices” that was explored in the 2013 youth conferences that happened in 114 places around the world. In its study materials for the conference, the Universal House of Justice discusses how we can learn
to avoid a fragmented approach to life that fails to see the connections among life’s various aspects. […] Failure to approach one’s life as a coherent whole often breeds anxiety and confusion. Through service, young people can learn to foster a life in which its various aspects complement each other. 2
So, you see here, the point I’m trying to get at is that these paradigms don’t need to exist. If we keep compartmentalizing music into either of these two categories, we’ll never get to hear T-Pain rap about respecting women, Lana Del Ray sing about the importance of having access to education, or distorted Flying Lotus tunes being played at the next devotional meeting. I want to be cool, love God AND listen to the current music of our time without feeling contradictory. I want youth from all over the world to be inspired by more frequent examples of uplifting music from in and out of this Faith – music that wasn’t available to me when I was an awkward indie pre-teen. I want them to love God, and love Baha’u’llah, be proud of their beliefs, all the while being confident in who they are, serving their communities, staying grounded and open minded, and respected amongst their peers.
Call my music what you will, but personally I find that if we focus our energy on separating the two, we’re losing time that could be spent exploring how elevated concepts such as detachment, humility, kindness, and dignity can be integrated into mainstream pop culture, so much so that it becomes the norm for the impressionable souls that are surrounded by it. I believe that music is an art form that surpasses cultural boundaries and penetrates the soul of anyone who hears it. Abdu’l-Baha says music is “spiritual food for heart and soul.” 3 So I’m calling out to every human heart that reads this: if we want to see change, we have to create it. What a time to be alive!
Shadi is widely recognized for her musical contributions to the Baha’i community and involvement in arts based initiatives and discourse relating to the Community Building Process. Shadi now resides in Vancouver, BC, where she continues to work, serve, travel, perform and record her music (for more info, visit www.shaditolouiwallace.com).
Very interesting article and it strikes a chord in me, as I myself am an artist, albeit a visual arts one. I very much agree with the words quoted here by the Guardian, which I find very wise. It means that, as artists, we can be inspired by our spiritual beliefs but it also means that we should be open to world at large and express our artistic creativity completely free from any kind of restraints, without, of course, clashing with what we believe in. I think a good exemple of this, when it comes to music, was “Seals&Crofts”, a baha’i duo from the 60s who were quite successful both within and without the baha’i world, owing, I reckon, to the universal appeal of their songs. And althouhg they didn’t always mention their spiritual connection with the Faith openly, one could easily feel it by listening to their music. Other musicians, such as Dizzie Gilespie, were not so directly conoted with the Faith, and yet his great talent and congeniality spoke volumes about his admirable personal values both as a baha’i and as an artist. Cori
Coriolano Correa (September 9, 2016 at 8:35 AM)
Great thought stirring article! As a Bahai and musician I have also wrestled with these questions. I agree that we shouldn’t draw a division between religious and secular music. What is more important is trying to make music that is a ladder for the soul because not all music does this and different music acts as a ladder for different people.
Peter gyulay (September 9, 2016 at 9:26 AM)
hello, kindred spirit. i’m so looking forward to living down the road from you and look forward to collaborations… <3
Kelly Snook (September 9, 2016 at 12:26 PM)
Sometimes there are music that reflect the teachings of the Faith. We should read the lyrics also. If it’s good. Music in the Bahai Faith can be used for meditation and reflection especially during that Fast.
Criselda R. Figuerres (September 9, 2016 at 11:31 PM)
Wonderful approach on this, I learned a lot from this. I grew up Catholic and became a born again Christian when I was 15, at that time I was influenced to not listen to music that did not uplift God. So I stayed away from secular music for two years, and realized I was missing out on great songs! But when I listened to secular music I felt like I was creating a sin and would have to repent immediately after. 🙂
As a Bahai, I never know what to call Music that is not spiritual and I have never educated myself on what I should label it. I often wonder if Bahai Music will be as big as the Christian Music Market. Like I said I learned a lot from this, it is so refreshing to be reminded that we are created to like the things we like, it’s not sinful to like music that isn’t labeled “spiritual or Godly”. It’s Music and the artist displaying the music doesn’t have to fit in a label for me to enjoy it.
Thank you for your article!
Cristina Leonard- Nourani (September 9, 2016 at 12:31 AM)
Wow. This article definitely leaves a reader feeling inspired and in awe. I really couldn’t agree more with this article. Old tendencies seem to continually draw us back into dichotomising a ‘Baha’i’ and ‘non-Baha’i’ culture in every way, including music… But it seems like a new culture is steadily being created, where this dichotomy is falling away as more diverse people are coming together with the same purpose.
Nadeem Navidi (September 9, 2016 at 10:05 AM)
Thanks Nads! I couldn’t agree more, if we begin to normalize the spiritual influences in our art, the less we feel the need to dichotomize. The more I see friends contributing to this process, the easier it becomes to be a part of it. Miss you Nostradeamus <3
Shadi Toloui-Wallace (September 9, 2016 at 6:52 AM)
Shadi Toloui Wallace, The article is inspiring and speaks to my heart and mind. Thank you for writing it. “So I’m calling out to every human heart that reads this: if we want to see change, we have to create it. What a time to be alive!” You are a very good example of your above words. I can feel all the love and hard work that went to your creation. Keep it up!
Farrah Marasco (September 9, 2016 at 4:24 PM)
Thanks Farrah Jan, always appreciate your kind support <3 Hope you're able to make it to my album launch on September 24th 🙂
Shadi Toloui-Wallace (September 9, 2016 at 6:53 AM)
As a musician who has sung to Baha’i audiences for over 45 years, I’ve often pondered the questions you raise. I’ve written songs of faith, love, life’s ups and downs, my Appalachian home, and historical ballads. I tailor my set to fit my audience, but I always hope to leave listeners with a sense of the special power music holds to bind people together. If I can achieve that, I feel I’m serving my role as a Baha’i singer. Let me add that it is a joy to see the great number of musicians now adding their very diverse talents to the Baha’i community, so many more than the handful we had when I joined the Faith. Keep up your wonderful work! – Greg
R. Gregory Shaw (September 9, 2016 at 8:44 PM)
“Music is the language of the spirit.
It opens the secret of life, bringing peace, abolishing strife”
_ Kahlil Gibran
Yvonne Lenders (September 9, 2016 at 11:31 PM)
Great article Shadi. Although I discovered your music as someone new to the Faith whilst searching for ‘Bahai’ music, all I need to do is close my eyes and listen to feel that the meaning of your music moves beyond any one label or definition.
Another universal message I took from your writing is our growth towards becoming congruent as human beings therefore not feeling divided within ourselves. When we reach this place labels don’t mean much anymore because we are comfortable with who we are.
Listening to your evolution of music and your most recent album I can hear your growth as an artist and person.
Keep up the work of blessing us with your music. We are better off for it.
Sean M (March 3, 2017 at 7:12 AM)
Shadi, thank you for the article. Please write more. You have a lot to say and please come to Virginia to perform! The poet, Roger White, who served for many years at the World Center wrote about “Baha’i poetry”. I believe the essay was in World Order magazine many years ago. I recommend it! Shadi, when we live a Baha’i life, whatever we do is Baha’i. Even when we clean toilets at the World Center.
Jay Bender (December 12, 2017 at 12:32 PM)