HearTOGETHER Podcast

“Change is uncomfortable…but give me a chance,” with Khadija Mbowe

October 07, 2022 The Philadelphia Orchestra / Tori Marchiony
“Change is uncomfortable…but give me a chance,” with Khadija Mbowe
HearTOGETHER Podcast
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HearTOGETHER Podcast
“Change is uncomfortable…but give me a chance,” with Khadija Mbowe
Oct 07, 2022
The Philadelphia Orchestra / Tori Marchiony

Season 3 of the HearTOGETHER podcast opens with a passing of the torch as Executive Producer Tori Marchiony interviews incoming host, Khadija Mbowe. Khadija is a socio-cultural content creator, classically trained soprano, and self-described loving provocateur. In this episode, you’ll hear about Khadija’s cross-continental upbringing, musical evolution, why they made a sharp turn away from the opera world, and much more. 

[07:03] Khadija's cross-continental upbringing
[08:48] Khadija's journey into music
[16:57] Facing impossible comparisons
[23:46] Marigold Music Program
[28:13] The messiness of newness

Music from this episode:

Links from this episode: 

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s HearTOGETHER series is generously supported by lead corporate sponsor Accordant Advisors. Additional major support has been provided by the Otto Haas Charitable Trust.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Season 3 of the HearTOGETHER podcast opens with a passing of the torch as Executive Producer Tori Marchiony interviews incoming host, Khadija Mbowe. Khadija is a socio-cultural content creator, classically trained soprano, and self-described loving provocateur. In this episode, you’ll hear about Khadija’s cross-continental upbringing, musical evolution, why they made a sharp turn away from the opera world, and much more. 

[07:03] Khadija's cross-continental upbringing
[08:48] Khadija's journey into music
[16:57] Facing impossible comparisons
[23:46] Marigold Music Program
[28:13] The messiness of newness

Music from this episode:

Links from this episode: 

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s HearTOGETHER series is generously supported by lead corporate sponsor Accordant Advisors. Additional major support has been provided by the Otto Haas Charitable Trust.

Hello and welcome back to the HearTOGETHER podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, Inc. I'm your host Tori Marchiony, and this is a space where we hope you'll find home in this music and art that we all love so dearly. The music you heard in the intro was Robert Owens, “A Complaint” performed by our guests today, Khadija Mbowe. A guest, unlike any other, because starting in November, they'll be taking over as host of the here together podcast. I'll be sticking around behind the scenes, but after two wonderful years, I feel strongly that it's time to pass the mic. In addition to being a classically trained singer, Khadija is also a beloved content creator, widely known for sharing social commentary analyses on their autonomous YouTube channel. In this episode, you'll hear about Khadija's cross-continental upbringing, musical evolution, and why they made a sharp turn away from the opera world. But first, some rapid-fire questions to break the ice.

What was a great meal that you ate recently?

To be honest, it's not a meal. Um, I found two Hogan's caramel ice cream bars in my freezer the other night, and I thought I had finished them all and I was so happy. Oh my God made my night, made my week. 

Give me a comfort TV show.

Oh, that's good. Cause I love TV shows. Community, RuPaul's Drag Race, recently The Bad Girls Club. Oh God. <laugh>

Forgive me.

Forgive me

A book that you could reread endlessly?

Terrence Real's, How can I get through to you?  I would read that endlessly.

What are you most proud of about yourself today?

About how much nicer I'm being to myself. I'm actually really proud of that.

What does hope mean to you and how is it cultivated?

I have recently heard and I don't know the exact source of this, so Ugh, forgive me. But seeing hope as a discipline, it's a muscle you have to keep working. I think so many people just think to have hope and faith is just to believe one time. And if you don't believe you're just never going to and it's like, no, you have to practice believing because your beliefs are gonna be put to question all the time. And for me, I have spent so much of my life feeling hopeless that I have no more interest, at least not right now. And going back there, even when it's frustrating, even when people irritate me, even when I just wanna like, oh my God, y'all what are we doing? I have to practice that muscle ever since I've heard it. Explain like that. It's it's, it's reinvigorated my belief in it because it allows me to know it's not always easy to have hope and to not only know it, but believe it.

And what brings you joy?

Random moments of silence where I like don't realize everything's quiet and that I've just been kind of sitting for a while and I'm like, oh wow. Going for a walk. And just seeing people enjoying their day and their lives, my cat being nice to me when she chooses to be ice cream, a really random and good conversation with a stranger. Yeah.

Uh, what is something that you get super excited to talk about lately,

Lately? Ooh. I get really excited to talk about relationships lately. Not like romantic specifically, but the way we relate to each other as human beings and all of the things that we make up to separate ourselves. Yeah.

What is one thing you wish people would stop asking you?

I actually wish people would low-key stop asking me what my pronouns are, ‘cause I just don't like, it's not that I don't care in like a flippant way, but it's more so that I don't wanna keep reifying gender by talking about it. Do you know what I mean? Like I'm really on this kick of making things irrelevant by slowly chipping away at like the necessity for them in your everyday life. And so for me, gender is one of those things where I'm just like, like say whatever pronoun you want. Sure. If that's what helps you for sentence structure, ‘cause I know people need to communicate and language is how we do that. I understand the reasoning for it 100%. And so that's why in my bio, I just have she, I actually have she/they/he now, ‘cause I'm just like girl, anything. But I think, I don't know.

Language is a great tool. It is something that is important for us to be able to understand the world around us, for us to be able to understand each other, all of that. But I also think when we get too focused in on it, we put borders around things <laugh> that don't need to have borders and like we're human beings. If we're supposed to be so intelligent, sentient, whatever. There's so much room for us to be able to explore who we are without needing to be told who we are. This is all just play. It's not so serious. Like people are over here, like trying to literally eliminate large groups of people because they're upset with how they are not just choosing to live their lives, but how they are are radically accepting themselves and allowing themselves to change and evolve. Like there are people that are just so upset about it and I'm like, girl, it's not that deep mind your business. <laugh> what, oh my goodness. People in control it's wild.


That was an excerpt of Def Bem Toup from Khadija's debut album Lookbook recorded and produced in Gambia when they were just 19 more on that later,

Where have you lived start at birth and bring me up to the present.

<laugh> okay. I was born in New York, Flushing Queens. I was originally supposed to be born in Norway, but my mom, my dad convinced my mom not to, uh, because apparently I guess you have to live there till you're 18 to get citizenship. And my dad was already in the states at the time with my older siblings. So he was like, girl, what? Like my mom was just got pregnant and she hated the states so she traveled ‘cause she was just very chill. Like my mom, God, she's low key. I think she's lowkey gangster. Like she's very, she's a hustler. She knows how to get things done. I think I get my tenacity and work ethic. I've always said this from my mom 100%. And like we've had rifts at our relationship and things like that, that I'm open and talk about. But like she is somebody that she's that girl as Beyoncé would say.

So I was born in New York, but I was raised in Georgia. I lived in Georgia till I was 15 and then moved to Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I lived there till I was 23 and then I moved to Toronto a place. I said I would never live <laugh> and I then what happened next? Oh yeah. And then I moved to Montreal last year. So, uh, 20, 21. Yes, those are the places I've lived and I've been to Gambia off and on since I was like four, sometimes for six months at a time, sometimes for two months, sometimes just for three weeks. But yeah, that's the, uh, other constant.

So how did you discover singing ‘cause stereotypically that would not be the activity that Gambian parents would necessarily be like, yes, go become an opera singer.

God, no man. Me and my parents were beefing for so long because of that, because the other thing is I've been stubborn. So I started singing in choirs in like elementary school. ‘Cause like my parents couldn't afford to take me to any extracurriculars. They were working a bunch of jobs. Like my dad was working actually Domino's pizza delivery guy and was getting his ma- master's at Clark Atlanta’s and then my aunt was working as well. So it was like a three income household, but like working like jobs at Macy's and a Frito lay factory and like all these, which is great. Actually we used to get chips, garbage bags full of chips. Oh it was great. Anyway, my, uh, parents couldn't afford to get me into extracurriculars and I was always kind of independent. So I just joined choir. I don't really know how it happened.

And I was in choir from like kindergarten, all of elementary school. Whenever I was in a new school, I was in choir there ‘cause it became like a nice thing for me. I never thought that I could sing though. It wasn't until like the seventh grade in Georgia, they do a thing called Allstate <laugh> you like audition and do all this stuff before that I had auditioned for a solo and one of the girls that used to sit next to me was like, you actually have really good voice. And I was like, oh wow. And I could see my teacher was like reconsidering. Like she was like, oh wow. In the, and so when I moved to Canada, there wasn't a choir that I could join. And I remember printing out song lyrics, like every, oh my God, my dad was so mad at me, wasting printer ink on these song lyrics.

But I was printing. I still did it. Wow. Reckless printing out song lyrics. I would come home from school, get in the bathroom and just sing for like an hour and a half. And almost every, it was like my joy time every day it drove my dad nuts. Like my dad does not listen to music. He does not like music. He doesn't listen to it though. I have a speculation that maybe it's his side of the family that I got my voice from because my sister heard him, uh, reciting the Quran like at the mosque. And I don't know if you've ever heard people reciting the Quran over speakers or anything like that. It's very beautiful. It sounds like singing, but you would never call it singing and you wouldn't call it music, but there are a lot of melismas and it's just a very beautiful sound. You, you have to have like a clear kind of voice to be able to do it. And yeah, my sister said that she had heard my dad's and she was like, oh my God, it was so beautiful. And I was like, could you imagine if all this time I got my voice or my dad <laugh> 

If he didn't, he didn't listen to music growing up when you were growing up or I guess at all—was there music in the house or because he wasn't really into it. It just, there wasn't

No, no. Like my mom would listen to like Mbalax music, which is like Senegalese Gambian music. My mom and my aunt, uh, my older siblings. I mostly got my musical stuff from my older siblings because they were like seven and eight when they moved to America. So they grew up as well in that time. And so a lot of hip hop, rap, R and B like old school Destiny's Child, Aaliyah, Outcast. Like those were musical influences that I grew up because of my older siblings. 

So how did you get from singing in the bathroom to classical training? 

Right. I actually auditioned for a, a high school performance arts program and I was gonna do acting actually. And at the very last minute I decided to do singing cause I hadn't ever had a voice teacher or anything. So I was like, I don't really know anyway.

And I'd always thought that I would be an actor more than anything, cuz I was just always cracking yuck-yucks for people and making people listen to speeches that I was fake doing. I don't know, gosh, so much attention, middle child syndrome, but I, um, auditioned for the school and I got in. It was pretty competitive apparently. So it was interesting. It was the first time I was like learning how to sight sing and traveling for singing and doing vocal, jazz. Like they were like, it was like really serious. I was in choir. Like when I was, my parents were like, oh you're always out of the house. And I'm like, I'm literally always at rehearsal. <laugh> I'm like, girl, I don't, I go to work and I go to rehearsal. I don't do anything else. But yeah, most of that time my parents didn't come to any of my performances or anything like that.

And uh, my teacher, I remember <laugh>, this is such a like movie white savior trope, but she was my teacher, Ms. Garter was great. Fantastic. She, I remember one time talked to my mom and she was like, you know, your daughter has a pretty good voice. Like she's pretty talented this and you should try and support a little more ‘cause like even when we go to choir trips, like we went to Germany and Czech Republic when I was in the 12th grade and then Scotland and England, I got the trip subsidized ‘cause they had a program to help for some of us ‘cause it was expensive too. But I was also working then. So I had to pay for the rest of it. So yeah, it was very like my friend's parents would be the ones that would pick me up when we'd have choir concerts.

And we had like these really perceived uniforms we had to wear and all that. So they'd like pick me up and drop me off or I'd just catch the bus after performances. Like it was just very like I remember I cried at choir camp about it like pretty early on. So everybody in choir knew that like, oh yeah, Khadija’s dad just like, doesn't want her to be here. And like even when I was applying for the school, he was being very difficult about it. I remember there was like a day I had to get forms signed ‘cause it wasn't like the school I was supposed to go to. So I had to get permission slips and stuff and he was just being so annoying and I was like, oh my God, just sign the form. I need to take this in. And I'm like 14. I'm like just sign the form. <laugh>

Did, did they articulate an objection? 

It was like, music's not gonna get you anywhere. It was also like, you know, I said they worked so hard. They came here and like had to work super hard. They lived in America for over 17 years and didn't get citizenship and then eventually moved to Canada and like, I don't know, but I always knew that like I think I always knew I was gonna be a performer of some sort or like in public in some way. I don't know how, but I think I, I always knew that. So I think even when they were being annoyed about it or weren't supporting me, I was just like, y'all are gonna fall in line eventually. And eventually they did because when I was 19, my mom did get involved in my singing, but she got a little too involved, very helicopter parenting, very, uh, way too into it.

It's the yep. You're yes, yes, yes. Tori. This is how LookBook happened and I am okay. I'm not ashamed of LookBook but it's embarrassing. It's fine. I was 19. It was cringy. It was embarrassing. It's whatever. So she got a little too involved, her and my older brother and it just ruined it for me. I just like didn't wanna sing. I didn't sing for a couple years after that and thought, okay, I'm just gonna go do sociology. I'm done with music. It's over. But when I moved to Toronto after like six months, I missed it. So I decided to audition for music, a music school. Cause I was like, ah, I don't really care about academia anymore. This is terrible. So I went to another elitist institution and <laugh> and yeah, I, I thought I was gonna do jazz cuz that was always like my first love, especially in high school, but I ended up only getting into the classical music program and I was like, okay.

And I should say, sorry to correct myself. When I was in high school, when I was 17, after my teacher had that conversation with my mom, she did get me voice lessons for a little while. And the voice teacher that I had is the one who introduced me to Jesse Norman. She played Jesse Norman singing <inaudible> and I was like, oh my God, what is this? I didn't know, black people's on opera. So I should be fair and say that that happened and that, but I just couldn't have consistent lessons and all that. But yeah. Anyway, I auditioned and got into school and was like, I guess I'm doing opera for a few years. This is interesting and university of Toronto was an interesting experience in general because I went when I was 24. So most of these people are younger than me. All they think and talk and care about is music.

The other part of it, and I would complain to my voice at the time, a lot about it when I was just like every teacher in this building is white. I, I met with the head of voice at the time in second year cuz I talked to other students and I was like, we need to get clinicians in here. We need to get teachers that are not just white. Like we, this is what is going on here. I was purposely finding music by black composers when I was at UT cuz U of T actually has a fantastic music library. Um, and like I was, I was very aware of like the fact that I didn't necessarily fit with the classical style for the first couple of years, but I was still willing to like try and just test it out and see what's up. It just as the years went on, it became even more frustrating though, because I found that and it was very difficult to find teachers that I felt like I could speak to that I felt comfortable around that.

I felt like, I don't know. Weren't like there was just a lot of like, I've talked about this in a video, this double standard or higher standard because when you think of black opera singers, you think they have to be amazing like Leotyne Price isn't okay. Nobody says Shirley Verret is fine. Nobody says Jesse Norman is she, I, nobody says stuff like that. Even someone like angel blue now nobody says, ah she's okay. And so I would get compared to other black singers, but I'm like, y'all are comparing me to like these white singers that I'm around these non-black singers that I'm around can just be singers. They're university students, but I'm an older student and I'm visible minority I'm black. And so the other singers that y'all would have to compare me to, even if there may, might not exactly be my voice type, but who I remind you of maybe because of my vocal quality.

Cool fair are someone like a Jessye Norman and I'm like, Jessye Norman is a legend. I cannot be a university student. And having that comparison, like I just, I don't know. There was just, I just never felt like I was ever gonna be good enough. And it was very frustrating. And then on top of that, I would meet so many musicians that I thought were talented musicians, 100%. But I was used to being able to riff with other musicians, telling them this is how this thing kind of sounds us playing by ear, us just listening and being very present. And everyone was so rigid that like when I'd wanna just make music and have fun, it was difficult at times to find people that could, because I'd be like, I'd know some people that like couldn't harmonize and I'd be like, wait, what? You can't just hear something and har-- what very like able to read music and do that, but not able to like feel music and hear it. And it's also, I learned very early on there that like people would say, what do you have to say? What do you have to say? And then you say something and they'd be like, don't say it like that. And I was like, all right,

Khadija is correct to say that being compared to the likes of Jesse Norman was way too much pressure. If you're not familiar, Jesse Norman was one of the foremost operatic voices of the late 20th century. Her career took off in 1968 when she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich. From there, she dominated Europe. Then north America, singing recitals and leading opera roles, winning a mountain of honors along the way. By the time of her death in 2019, she'd won dozens of awards among them, five Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, a National Medal of Arts presented by President Barack Obama, not to mention the honorary doctorate degrees, Yale Juilliard, Harvard Howard, Boston Conservatory of Music, New England Conservatory of Music and Oxford were just some of the institutions clamoring to recognize her colossal talent. Here's a taste of that talent from her 1990 recording of Brahm’s Alto Rhapsody with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti.

Do you have any ambitions to be in the kind of traditional opera world at this point having gone through school?

No. No. I used to think that I wanted to be, but no, ‘cause so many of these companies and programs are just showing us that they don't really care about young singers and they're tired of young singers standing up for themselves and trying to change opera so that more people are interested in it. A lot of these companies and programs are just interested in the status quo and want to remain fixed. And that's not a value that I hold. So it's also just a thing of like, I don't have the same values as a lot of these places, so I just wouldn't wanna work them.

Gotcha. Uh, I think that's a great transition to talk about the Marigold music program if you're down. Sure. What is that?

laugh> Marigold Music Program came out, uh, a couple years ago. It was just me and two other friends of mine, Kevin Mulligan and Charlotte Siegel. Like I was in talks with the, uh, Regent Park School of Music in Toronto and was just kind of like figuring out what I wanted to do, ‘cause I just felt like people were talking about racism and classical music and I was like, but none of y'all doing anything. So stop having conversations. Yes. Those are great to start with. But if that's all you're doing, I don't understand. So I just was really annoyed about that. And eventually the idea came up with like, well, it sounds like you wanna start your own music program. And I was like, ah, I don't know. I've never started one before. But a schoolmate had sent me Yale's music program that they do and the community work that they do with that and having like a biannual, like meeting with teachers from the community and uh, music teachers there and stuff.

And I just really liked the outline of that. It felt like direct action. So I was like, you know, all right, sure. Maybe I wanna start one. So we had a lot of help from what I like to joke in the call, adults in the room. Um, a couple of teachers and a couple of faculty at UT actually and Richard Marcella and who's the executive director of Regent Park School of Music. Um, and yeah, we just, I was like, okay. And I should also preface this, sorry by saying I am. As of this year, I haven't been in the day-to-day operations. I kind of just am like part of the board and just hang out and I'm like, Hey girlies, let me promote, let me help out. What's up. Um, so Charlotte and Kevin are the ones who are spearheading it now, but the initial idea of like the programs, my first thing was barriers to access are really, uh, a thing.

And so when we were initially planning what we wanted to do, I was like, we have to make it free. It has to all be free. And that's a shitty thing to do because it's hard for the people it's, you're essentially volunteering. Like we were volunteering the whole time, but it's also necessary. And for me, that's the thing I wanna get across to people. I'm like a lot of y'all say you wanna help and do stuff, but what can you do when money isn't involved in terms of you making money and giving it to other people? Like what can you actually do? And a lot of people don't wanna admit that they'd have to give up their time, energy and all of that. Because for me it was difficult too. Like I did it for a year and I was just like, I was doing YouTube stuff on top of it.

And it was just so many things that I was like, "oh my God, I actually can't do all of this." And that was a terrible thing to realize as well. But the good thing about working with people that share similar values to you is that like with Kevin and Charlotte, like they were even able to keep it going into this year. Yeah. It's just, it's the whole point of mayor gold is to break down barriers to access and just let the teens, the youth, let them discover who they are with the music. Like when we do, when we did the summer music intensive, the first time they interviewed all of the students first so that we could build the faculty around them, around their interest. And then Charlotte was running, spearheading the mentorship program, which was gear around. It was like once a month outings. And some of the people that were in the faculty of the summer music intensive were also there with the same students that were in the summer music intensive.

So we know them. It's not just a passive, you do a summer program and bye. And then the kind of separate thing that I was able to, and this was more my speed, ‘cause I'm the let's talk about and analyze was the course that we were able to do radical music dialogues. And it's not like I've ever written a university course <laugh> but we made a syllabus and you know, I say all of this because it's like, it's not like it was, I don't know. It, it, it's not like I knew what I was doing the whole time, the whole time. I was like, I have no idea what I'm doing. Why am I writing a course curriculum? What is going on here? But we were able to figure it out.

We've talked about the messiness of doing anything new. Just even a basic yeah. Oh, we're starting something new. Oh there's new, new people are in the mix. We're trying something different. We're trying to make change that there's such a rosy Glint of hope around that. But what actually needs to be prepared for is the mess mm-hmm <affirmative> and we have to go through, instead of around it

Exactement <laugh> because honestly that's all you can do. I try to let myself put disclaimers from jump and that's something I kind of get from my dad ‘cause he is like, I'm not gonna promise someone anything I can't back up. Like he's a, he has a lot of integrity. And so for me, I really try to hold myself to that standard of like, okay, I'm gonna make mistakes. And there have been times where I've made mistakes and said stuff and I'm like, oh my God. I'm like, no, I suck. I suck. I'm really hard on myself when I do ‘cause I try to take every measure. But then I just realize you can't control everything. And I think that's just part of turning 30 genuinely. I really do think that I had friends that would tell me this was the case and I didn't believe them, but I believe them now. ‘cause I don't know. Yeah.

There's a magic with having survived this long where you're just like, oh probably I be alright.

That's literally it I'm like at this point, what until, unless the sun explodes, I don't really know what else y'all could do to me. Cause like

<laugh> we got through the twenties, my twenties were chaos. So like I'm so grateful. This was such a wonderful conversation. I'm so excited for you to take this podcast over. You're gonna take it by storm <laugh>. Is there anything that you wanna say to the people?

Um, Hey, so, um, I know change is difficult. I know change is uncomfortable. I get it. But give me a chance. I promise I will do my best to be nice, to be open minded, to be lovingly firm, you know, I'm gonna do my best and I promise y'all I will also do my best to be as honest as possible because I think that's really important. And I like to think of myself as somebody that has integrity and cares about people. So yeah, just let this happen. Okay. It's okay. It's okay. I'm Khadija

And with that, I bid you farewell with warm thanks for listening and supporting this important work from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, Inc. Remember to tune back in next month for Khadija's HearTOGETHER hosting debut chatting with opera singer and Philly native Karen Slack. I hope you'll enjoy some more of Khadija singing A Complaint by Robert Owens as we close.


Khadija's cross-continental upbringing
Khadija's journey into music
Facing impossible comparisons
Marigold Music Program
The messiness of newness