Ilham is living out her dreams each and every single day. Hailing from the Queensbridge projects in New York, the R&B singer-songwriter proves you don’t have to be a product of your environment — you can overcome anything you set your mind to. The fact that she still stays back home, in conditions where there’s even a lack of hot water, the “cycle of games” artist hopes to inspire, motivate, and empower all those who listen.
Last year, Ilham unleashed her first full-length EP titled 41-10, dedicated to her apartment building back home in New York. Just last month, she followed it up with another critically-acclaimed EP titled With Time, hailing standout singles “Honey Dripped” and “Never Even Know.”
If you’re heard Ilham’s music, you already know the vibes she’s coming with. It’s her smooth, sultry, buttery vocals over hard-hitting trap production that shakes up the R&B game in the best way possible. Beyond that, it’s her lyrics stemming from real-life experiences that brings a layer of vulnerability and authenticity — a sound and style unique to Ilham only.
Ilham’s accolades no matter big or small are not to be unnoticed. Her recent stint opening for Sinead Harnett on tour includes shutting down the stage at her first show at The Fonda in Los Angeles, even reeling in fellow Moroccan artist and superstar French Montana who pulled up in style. Flaunt Mag caught up with Ilham one day after to discuss her upbringing, With Time EP, recording process, Frenchie pulling up, and more.
For those who don’t know, who is Ilham?
Ilham is a human, a singer/songwriter. I just strive to inspire people to be honest. I want to be the vessel. I want to be the person for girls who look like me, guys who look like me, all the brown kids, all the minorities, all the people who literally come from nothing — I want them to look at someone and say “you know what, I can do that.” Everybody I grew up with is caught up in this bubble that because you grew up in a poor area, you have to stay in this bubble. You have to stay in the projects. No, you don’t have to. Nobody said I’d go to college, I went to an Ivy League. Nobody said I’d graduate, I graduated before I was even legally able to drink. People project their fears on you. I’m just a vessel who wants to inspire people.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Cornell University, where I studied Business/Entrepreneurship.
What were you seeing growing up?
I’m not even going to lie, I loved growing up in Queensbridge because of the culture. I didn’t even understand the concept of a minority until I left to a school that had dominantly white people. That’s where I’m like “oh shit, I’m a minority and this is how it is.” Growing up in the projects, it was dangerous. I wasn’t really allowed to walk around by myself. The people who babysat me I found out were drug dealers. It felt like a community.
Now in this environment with the police trying to be involved… even though Queensbridge isn’t the issue. They’re always there now, always harassing people. They’re harassing us but they don’t realize that usually neighborhoods with a higher economic foundation, those are the ones they have monitor. It’s not us. Queensbridge is at a place where people are coming back together, but it’s not what it used to be. Gentrification is happening right now. Before I came here [LA] for tour, our apartment flooded. No one did anything. The cops came and said nobody cares. They said “NYCHA isn’t going to care.” They’re treating everybody kind of like animals, it’s inhumane. I reached out to them, I reached out to the Vice President, to everybody. My parents shouldn’t be experiencing that. Nobody should be experiencing that, so it’s a blessing and a curse.
How did you push through those hardships? When did you feel you could do music even?
I was always a shy kid, but I knew I wanted to do music. For real for real, I started when I realized when my friends (who I love) weren’t my market. Every time I’d drop something on SoundCloud, I’d say “guys, listen to my music.” (This was before I met my manager). I felt like I was burdening people asking them to listen, then I realized I can’t keep asking. My goal, my vision, my sound isn’t supposed to only reach them. It’s supposed to reach masses. Before you release something, you think about your friends. “Oh, are they going to like it? Are they going to judge me?” But I had to stop doing that. I just made music and understood that I was valuable, that I can do whatever I set my mind to. As a woman, we do have to work harder but sometimes we hold ourselves to a standard that’s unattainable. So just learning that I’m worthy, you’re worthy.
You have such an interesting story interning at Capitol Records, talk about that experience.
When I graduated a year early from college, I knew I didn’t want to take a job. Companies like JP Morgan reached out to me, but I knew I wanted to intern. Something music-related so I could understand the business. I never wanted to be an intern just so I could get into the music industry. I wanted to also go to LA because I felt like I used New York. It was just a lot. I love New York but I really wanted to see what the West Coast was like. I got an internship at Capitol and nobody really knew I made music until the end when they’re looking at my IG and an article came out about me.
It was my first article ever on Earmilk, that’s when the A&Rs started noticing me. Steve Barnett, the CEO of the label, wanted to hire me based off my work ethic and innovation. Because I used my schooling and Cornell degree to contribute, that’s when my manager (Rahim) saw me and wanted me to be his assistant. He’s like “oh, this is the best intern.” From getting to know me in conversations, he found out I was actually using the internship as a tool to be in LA. After I was off, I’d go and make music with a producer. Towards the end of my internship, he asked me to send him music because all the A&Rs were going up to him like “yo, we have to do something with this girl.”
But it was all talk. I used to do exchanges where I’d write for a producer, like six songs for his artist for an hour of studio time. I only had two songs and one of them was “Say Less” which made the 41-10 EP. I sent him my music on my flight back to NY. When I landed, I got a message saying “I booked you a session.” It was my first session ever.
So you made those songs at home?
I wrote them all on my bed in Queensbridge. I was hungry, I wasn’t going to write in the studio. It was 4 hours, that’s a lot to me. So I went in and recorded four songs, three of them made the EP.
Congrats on your second project With Time. What was the significance in the cover art?
The cover art is my living room in the 41-10 building I grew up in. Right now, I’m still developing as an artist. Social media is a blessing and a curse. When people look at my social media, they see that I’m traveling to LA and making music, this and that. I guess partially, it’s my fault. But they don’t see that after I’m done in LA, which is a week making music — honestly, sometimes I’ll stay with my manager or my friends.
What they have in common? They have hot water. I consider hot water a luxury at this point. After that week is done, it sounds hard but I go back to Queensbridge and see my parents struggling. There’s literally no hot water, no heat and all that. I just want to show people that With Time, everything’s going to align. The project symbolizes me in my home. I’m obviously dressed well, it’s all this potential in a year. I want people to see themselves in me. No matter where you come from, you literally can do whatever. I’m telling you.
“Honey Dripped” is one of my favorites. Bring us back to that studio session.
Well I love Frank Ocean, that’s my favorite artist. My favorite song is “We All Try.” Me and my friend Dustin Cavazos, he’s a producer. We’re just talking, I’m like “I really want to sample something.” Then he asked me “what’s your favorite record?” I said Frank Ocean’s “We All Try.” He said “that’s crazy,” because his mentor Happy Prez actually produced that song.
Wow, what a small world.
It’s a crazy small world. He’s like “we can actually sample this and it’ll probably get cleared,” because the producer already fucks with you. I said “let’s do it.” We made the beat… that song took 10 minutes to write. It was so easy to write. When it was time to drop it, we hit up Frank Ocean’s team and we got the okay. “Honey Dripped” is just a fire song. It’s a song about a relationship, a friendship, whatever type of ship, being self-sabotaged because it’s ending. I wanted to have a song that is a bit more dramatic, not too literal. It’s a fire song honestly.
Talk about your recording process, what inspires you the most?
During my creative sessions, I listen to a beat and within the first 10 seconds, I go in the booth and freestyle a melody. Usually words come out too so I start to structure a song, then the producer and I build out the beat more. I also write with a director’s approach: channeling my own and other people’s experiences and applying them to the song.
Three things you need in the studio?
Three things I need for my vibe are dim lighting and candles, sage, and tea.
How important is social media for your career?
I use social media to promote my music, express my thoughts, and communicate with my supporters and fans. I literally respond to every single DM, and almost every comment. It’s important because it allows me to reach a wider audience while I nurture the audience that I already have.
Talk about PnB Rock following you the other day.
I deadass listen to PnB Rock. A lot of artists from my generation are too cool to express how they’re a supporter of someone, but that’s fake to me. I listened to PnB Rock all throughout college so for him to even reach out and give me that little pat on the shoulder to keep going is incredible. That shit’s necessary. I don’t need validation, but it’s definitely motivating to be acknowledged by people who inspire you. We need more artists like him.
What are you most excited for going on tour with Sinead Harnett?
Learning! This is my first tour and I’ve only done four shows previously, so I know for a fact that it will be fun. But I also know there will be inevitable challenges. I used to walk around campus listening to Sinead in college and now I’m on tour with her. I used to sit with my friends, they’d be like “girl, you’re going to start touring soon.” I’d be like “nah chill, I’m not ready.” Then boom, a month passes and I’m on the road. The whole thing is special.
That’s so dope French Montana pulled up on you at The Fonda.
French pulling up was one of those things where he didn’t have to pull up, but he did. That meant a lot. The fact that he supports my music, made sure to tell me, then went out of his way to come to my first show was encouraging. He’s a dope artist and incredible human. Moroccans are taking over, that’s all.
Best encounter you had with a fan?
I had one specific supporter pull me to the side and tell me how much I’ve changed his life. He expressed how I inspired him to focus on his mental health, step out of his suicidal thoughts, and chase his dreams. You could see the life in his eyes, he was so vibrant and passionate. That makes me so happy. I mean, my life isn’t even “changed” or fully together, so the fact that I can leave a mark on people is beautiful. That’s why I make music.
Who’s the most played artist on your phone?
Right now, I listen to myself. I have so much unreleased music. I love revisiting songs that I need to work on so I can get them ready to drop.
Who’s your dream collab?
A collab between Nas and I would be a no-brainer. It has to happen for the culture, for Queensbridge. It’ll happen when the time is right. My other dream collabs are The Weeknd, Drake, Rihanna, and Post Malone. All these artists have really honed into their sound and created an entire subculture around their brand.
What are some goals for yourself as an artist at this point of your career?
Right now, I’m focused on creating music and visuals on a high level so that with each release, I can grow into the top-tier artist that I’m about to be.