EXCLUSIVE: Queens Native ILHAM Talks Debut EP, Growing Up In The Projects, Graduating From Ivy League, More

Emerging R&B artist ILHAM enters the R&B scene with a lot of promise. She recently released the welcoming debut EP, 41-10, named after her building in the iconic Queensboro Projects, and featuring appearances from Dave East and Arin Ray. The project features her personal tales of struggles, love, insecurities, and strength.

ILHAM is a first generation child of two Moroccan immigrant parents, who weathered the ups and downs of life, finding her way through Laguardia High School and graduating from an Ivy, Cornell University, a year early, despite her challenges.

That same will to fight is the soapbox for her music career. Get to know ILHAM.

Tells us about your musical journey. What did it take to get to this point?

When I was 7, I deadass thought the only way to be an artist was to put covers on Youtube, magically get discovered by Usher, and then boom-your a star…But, that’s not how it works.

It took a lot of hard work and persistence. Growing up in the projects, a lot of things seemed far fetched or intangible. So I started educating myself. The more I learned about something, the less intimidating it became. Ever since middle school (and still today), I watched interviews. I took note of how different artists got into the industry and started understanding that there was a whole team behind an artist. While my friends hung out, I ran home and studied the music industry. Eventually, I started connecting the dots.

In high school, I started releasing covers on SoundCloud and sneaking into different events with my best friend. Soon, producers and engineers in NYC started reaching out to me. Throughout high school and college, I wrote songs for producers in exchange for an hour of studio time. It was hard because not everyone’s intentions were pure. I learned a lot. Later, I started interning for recording studios, radio stations, and labels. I wanted to learn the ins and outs. Eventually, when I went to LA to intern for Capitol Records, my current manager discovered me at the label, and the rest is history.

Was music a staple in your household growing up or are you a first generation artist?

Yes, music was always a big part of my life. I really think I’m sane because of it. I grew up listening to Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson, Carlos Santana, Marc Anthony, anything my parents put on, I became a fan of. I was also heavily listening to Moroccan and North African artists like Samira Said, Nass El Ghiwane, Cheb Hasni, Nancy Ajram, Cheb Mami, and Cheb Khaled. Outside of my home, in Queensbridge, I was exposed to Nas, 50 Cent, Ashanti, and Mario. I fell in love with R&B and Rap.

Artists backgrounds usually play a central role in their artistic output – As a Queens, NY native, how does your surrounding and life experiences influence the music you create?

My surroundings and life experiences taught me truth and honesty. Life was really harsh for me; I had to understand that this was the reality I was living. My family and I are poor; there’s really no way to flower up the concept. I went through phases in my life where I would change how I spoke because I wanted to fit in. But at the end of the day, I’m this girl from the hood who loves music. I’m really smart, I’m hella abrasive, and I had trust issues. I had to grow up way too fast, and you know what, that’s okay because there are millions of girls like me. My music highlights those realities, “imperfections,” and addresses situations that are real, yet not spoken of. That’s what you hear in my music. It’s an onion. The first layer sounds like one thing, and you keep peeling the layers, and you find a plethora of sounds and emotions that make me, me. As you start hitting the core of the onion, your eyes will water because my music is very straightforward; it’ll hit you.

Your song “None of Your Friends Business” was featured in the season finale of HBO’s “Insecure.” Did that achievement provide a boost of confidence?

I was always confident, but that just gave my manager and I a different level of confidence and reassurance. It just happened so organically. It was unexpected. I don’t have a big team, so that placement was a big cosign for us. If you didn’t believe in the movement, well, now you kind of have to.

Tell us what inspired your female empowerment anthem, “I Don’t Wanna Be With You No More?” What’s the underlying message to listeners? What was the goal for the music video?

It’s funny because there are a few comments under that video saying “oh she just ended cuffing season” and my response is, ‘Nah, I just woke people the fuck up.’ I pushed women and men to realize they’re worth in ANY situation. The song wasn’t written about a boy. I wanted to write a song that opened both men and women’s third eye. It’s the eye that allows you to recognize your own worth. Whether you don’t want to be at a specific job no more, a certain situation, or even a position. I just thought it would be easily digestible if I wrote it in perspective of someone recognizing they didn’t want to be in a relationship with a toxic person anymore. I of course related to the song with regards to love, but it was much deeper. I think the message delivered well because so many boys and girls have been reaching out to me, thanking me, and I’m like ‘woahhh, my lil ass song did that?’ It’s a great feeling.

What does your EP title 41-10 mean? What situations/experiences/people inspired this body of work?

“41-10” is the building number in Queensbridge where I live at. It’s where I wrote all of my music. It’s where I drew all of my inspiration from. Each and every song was derived in 41-10.

It’s not typical to see someone go from the projects to graduating from Cornell University? What kind of commitment/sacrifice did you have to make personally to accomplish this feat?

I still get confused when people praise me for going to Cornell and graduating at 20 years old. I feel like anyone can do that. But society really brainwashes kids from the hood to think otherwise. One thing I learned and is heavily engraved in me is the concept of “survival of the fittest.” I’m not sure how I did it, but I deadass cut off every negative person from my life. Almost all of my “friends” in Queensbridge told me that “we” were born here, and therefore, we were going to die here. Uhm what? My parents didn’t come here all the way for Morocco so I can be brainwashed by the system and government. So, I really had to change my whole mindset. I also understood the harsh truth. Us poor kids have to inevitably work harder. Period. We don’t have money for SAT tutors, books, or subject tutors, which is why I had to sacrifice a lot. I rarely hang out with friends after school. Even when I went to Cornell, I had to work hard and amp up on credits to get out. College wasn’t for me, but I recognized it was a privilege and I had to do this for my parents and myself. Also, a lot of artists make it look cool to not be educated. But I recommend everyone go, there’s literally no negative outcome when you go to college, it’s boring, but I learned a lot.

Were your parents strict? Did you have moments when you rebelled against their rules?

My parents weren’t strict, they trusted me. They worried about me being out late at night for safety reasons, but I’ve always been level headed. I had to grow up pretty fast, recognized that I’m in the hood and that I need to work hard, so I wasn’t doing dumb shit, I was focused. But I also truly don’t understand the concept of “rebelling.” I always got mad at my friends for stressing their parents out. Like if you want to do something, and your parents aren’t letting you, and you thought about it, and it’s safe…just do it in a lowkey manner. My best friend snuck out to a party, and came home drunk…like Sis? You did that to yourself; you should’ve been low.

What artists inspire you artistically? Who are some of the people you would like to work with and why?

Artists who inspire me and I’d like to work with are Stromae, Sia, Rihanna, SZA and Dean. They’re all unique and creatively brilliant.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

In five years, I will be one of the top artists, my family will be out the hood, and I would have attained true happiness. Period!

Stream ILHAM’s 41-10 below:

Gary Gentles

Founder and Creator of and Follow me on Instagram at @gary.gentles.

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