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Throwing Shade (Nabihah Iqbal)

Why Throwing Shade swapped a law career for spinning decks

Whether on the NTS airwaves or in the DJ booth, thanks to a DIY attitude the producer is fearlessly renegotiating the landscape for women in music

In collaboration with Barbie, Girls Like Us opens a window onto five women who have made their dreams a reality. Through this series of features, we hope to inspire a new generation of girls to conquer challenges and follow their own paths.

Ditching your 9-5 career to do what you love creatively is a daunting process, especially if the industry you wish to enter into is a well-known boys-club. But since trained barrister Nabihah Iqbal – aka Throwing Shade – made the decision to ditch the courtroom for the NTS Radio studios, her reputation for an encyclopedic knowledge of world music and intimate own releases have seen her transcend 'ones to watch' lists and become a legitimate staple of the London scene.

Three years on and in addition to presenting her bi-weekly NTS show, Throwing Shade has released three EPs of her own, worked on commissions for the Turner Prize, performed in both Tate galleries, and is working on a film soundtrack. Thankfully, it’s not as if her success is the exception to the rule. Carving her own space in the music industry, supporting other women in their crafts, and proving you don't have to fit the cookie cutter mould of a pop star in order to make it in the music game – Throwing Shade is a perfect example of the current swell of empowered women renegotiating the rules on their own terms. 

As part of our Girls Like Us series in collaboration with Barbie, we sat down with the producer to discuss visibility, advice to fledgling producers and the importance of playing with dolls growing up...

Why has radio in particular been an important platform for you as a producer?

Throwing Shade: I love doing my radio show, it’s one of my favourite things that I do. It’s important because it’s another outlet for me. There are so many different kinds of music that I’m into, and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. Radio is just such a good way of communicating with people and sharing really interesting music that you wouldn’t necessarily hear on a dancefloor or anywhere else, because a lot of it is quite rare and old. It makes my whole project more human. So often with DJs and producers you don’t really know anything about them – they seem quite aloof, and that’s on purpose – but with me, I like the fact that people listen to my radio show and feel like they have a connection.

Do you think the music industry is becoming more supportive of female producers and DJs?

Throwing Shade: I don’t know if more supportive is the right word, but maybe there’s more recognition for female DJs and producers. It still trails into insignificance when you compare it to our male counterparts. Due to the internet and the fact that so much information is accessible, it makes it easier for girls to get exposure. Girls like me just keep doing what they’re doing and we’re moving in the right direction.

“I never think about being female, I just do what I want to do” – Throwing Shade

There’s been a lot of controversy within the music industry recently in terms of lack of female visibility, but how do we combat this and encourage more women to get involved?

Throwing Shade: I feel a certain sense of responsibility as I feel like a bit of a trailblazer in what I do. I want to help people who have any questions – girls will come up to me asking for advice, and I always do the best that I can, so I think it’s really important. I’m pretty small fry compared to other people in the music industry right now, but I just think it’s important for other females out there doing similar things to just be supportive of other people coming up through the ranks. If someone’s asking for help you should totally take the time out just to even give them a couple of tips, because I feel like something that exists within female spheres that guys don’t have is that sort of like bitchiness. You see it even in TV shows like The Apprentice, guys just get on with it and girls don’t want anyone else to do well. I feel that. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s definitely this sense of rivalry and it’s really important that we step away from that and try and help each other – instead of just thinking about ourselves.

What advice do you find yourself giving to young women that approach you looking to get into the music industry?

Throwing Shade: Just keep going, that’s the main thing. There are so many obstacles – someone got in touch the other day and was like, ‘oh, I sent my demo out to so many labels but never hear anything back, what can I do?’, and my advice is to just keep doing what you’re doing. I know everyone says that and it sounds cliché, but it’s so true. Just keep active, put on parties, do things with your friends, get a little community and build it up, see where it goes.

Amongst her many careers, Barbie has also had a career as a rapper, and has always been a big supporter of music – how do you think positive representation such as this has an impact on what young women feel they can achieve once they grow up?

Throwing Shade: I really remember Barbie from when I was young, I had loads and I played with them quite a lot. It’s a really good move that a huge toy company such as Barbie is taking the initiative to broaden people's horizons, and instil confidence and aspiration into kids to make them realise that there’s a whole array of things that they could be when they grow up. There’s no one way to look, either. Those sort of ideas make a person and mould you from a young age, so the fact that Barbie is recognising that importance and trying to channel it through their products is great and more companies should follow suit.

Careers aside, how do you think a step towards diversity from Barbie will help positively impact how young women feel about themselves in a more general sense?

Throwing Shade: Body image for women is always going to be a quite intensive and fragile issue because we’re bombarded by very select images of women all the time. But again, it stems from confidence and self-awareness that you have to develop when you're very young. By having all these different body dolls that have different skin colours, body shapes, height, different hair and professions, Barbie is increasing awareness amongst kids about the diverse world that we live in. Hopefully, it will have an effect on the kids who play with the dolls and make them aware that they can be who they want to be.

Over the past year there has been more and more women getting involved with the industry, from female-led production workshops to encourage more women into the profession to large icons writing and producing their own releases. Why do you think now is an important time in terms of women speaking up and carving their own paths?

Throwing Shade: Someone’s got to open the floodgate. For however many people that have spoken out, there’s probably a hundred other women who haven’t shared their experiences. I’ve definitely come across situations that I’ve known haven’t been right, whether it was sexism or just chauvinism. It’s probably because we have social media with which to call it out now, this public platform on which to speak your mind and you know that people will be able to hear what you’re saying. That then creates these online communities – people might retweet it and add their own experiences to the story. The internet and social media communication have got a lot to do with why people are opening up.

“For however many people that have spoken out, there’s probably a hundred other women who haven’t shared their experiences” – Throwing Shade

Have you ever felt like being a women has held you back in the music industry? How did you overcome this?

Throwing Shade: You hear women complaining all the time that they’re not getting enough bookings because they’re women. We know that happens, but spending so much time moaning about it is counterproductive. You should be focusing your energy on the work that you love to do, work hard and prove yourself that way. I never think about being female, I just do what I want to do. When I do go out, I feel like there’s a strong female contingent amongst the fans, and they come up to me afterward and are like: ‘it’s so great what you’re doing, it’s really inspiring.’ I like to hear that. Just don’t worry about all the negativity and just focus on working hard. Once you do that, the rest doesn’t matter. If you sit around complaining like a broken record, that’s when things don’t get done.

Who are some other women in the music industry that have inspired your career?

Throwing Shade: In contemporary music right now, I think M.I.A. and Grimes are amazing. They’re women to me who think about music and not the body image. In the past 20 to 30 years there's been a lot more women who’ve inspired what I do, Kate Bush or Sade; Siouxsie & the Banshees. On a more local scale, there are so many of my peers doing great things and I really respect them.