interview: edmonton-based r&b/rock/soul singer karimah sits down with brnesh berhe, afropunk contributor

March 31, 2016

It’s been just over 10 years since Ashanti Marshall started playing shows in halls and cafes in and around her hometown of Edmonton, Alberta. At 18 she co-founded the rock band, Noisy Colours, and began to really find her bearings in the otherwise very male dominated – and often very white – indie and punk scenes.

After selling out her final show with her former band – who grew to become favourites in clubs around Edmonton – Marshall has gone solo once more. Now going by her middle name, Karimah, she has developed a stage presence and style reflective of a veteran of her scene and years of personal growth.

By Brnesh Berhe*, AFROPUNK contributor

What was it like for you when you were starting out in the Edmonton music scene?
[Noisy Colours] was an important time for me to develop being that rock star that I wanted to be. Especially when I decided to stop playing guitar on stage, because truthfully I was just stressed out from school and I [told my bandmate], “You can play guitar now, I’ll just sing”. As soon as I dropped the guitar I was able to jump up and down and run around on stage. My band was like, “Whoa you’re really a front woman; we didn’t know that”. I knew it was inside but I never got to express it so no one else knew.

Being in a band as a female is interesting, like walking into a venue and having the sound guy think that you don’t know anything. I’m so literal and love to help people, so if I don’t know something I’ll ask questions; I didn’t realize that people judge you if you don’t come in acting like you own the place. It still happens to me today. At a feature show that I was doing, the [sound] guy just went ahead and turned the knobs on the amp that I just adjusted. I didn’t realize [what that meant] when I was so young, but then overtime I started thinking, “Well wait, why aren’t you letting me carry the amps myself? I can pick up this amp, and I want to learn how to disassemble your drums too, so teach me so I can help you,” instead of me just standing there being the “girl in the band”.

So how have your influences and your past experiences affected you?
I never felt like I was the exact image that I grew up with or that I wanted to be, you know? When I got into Jr High I started discovering Jimi Hendrix, The Ramones, and more punk music; all these men. I never thought that I could just be myself and that would be enough; I always felt like “Why am I not a seven-foot tall skinny white man with bags under his eyes?”

It’s exciting to me that there is a resurgence of boundary breaking, future pushing [Black] people creating communities, sharing ideas and creating platforms to feel empowered within the colonial world. We don’t need to fit in. We can make our own identity and make our own worlds and our own stories. We can be imaginative and explore time, space and everything in between, and we can be superheroes, space explorers, aliens; whatever we want to be. To me, I finally feel like I can take part in the fun of fantasy [and science fiction] that I’m often excluded from. That community piece is so important.

All photos by Lordski

I know you’ve talked in the past about striving for that “Beyonce-level” of success, but it’s amazing how many local artists I’ve talked to don’t feel the same way; at least in terms of how high they set their aspirations as musicians or how open they are in talking about their ambitions. What is it that makes you feel differently?
I used to be someone who was really insecure and I didn’t like myself. I remember how much I was made fun of; I would cry so much and I hated everything about life but I was also furiously stubborn, so I just pushed and pushed to show confidence even though I didn’t have any. I think that’s what makes me so passionate because when I see people living below their potential or living in a way that kind of belittles who they truly are I feel for them.

I want to focus on the things that we feel are not possible and change my mind-set around those things. Why would anyone want to spend all their [brain power] on keeping themselves at a low level; it doesn’t make sense to me. So absolutely my aspiration as an artist is to change the world, and if I don’t do that then I would have spent my whole life believing that I could.

While Marshall has carved out a spot in Edmonton as a consistently dynamic performer and singer, her latest venture as a solo artist is a more realized effort stemming from her newfound confidence and sense of womanhood. Focusing more on conscious R&B and soul, and also positioning herself as a bilingual artist singing in both English and French, the singer-songwriter-producer is setting her sights as high as she can, continuing to evolve and build an audience that will take that journey to the stars with her.

*Brnesh Berhe is a writer and graphic designer from Edmonton, Alberta.