This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. For the complete interview, you can access here.
Kristine Dizon: Hello, my name is Kristine Dizon, and I'm the CEO and founder of the Modern Artist Project. Today, I'm with Natalie Fahseh, who works with communities of varying ages and lifestyles as a choir conductor, teaching artist, composer, writer, and arts administrator. She is a mezzo-soprano with a Bachelor of Music and Voice Performance as a Palestinian Jordanian. She also has the pleasure of sharing Arabic music as a guest singer, clinician, and coral arranger. Natalie works with organizations on equity-centered, innovative organizational development strategies and project creation. She leads engaging arts-based workshops and talks on matters of decolonization, leadership, and social justice. Thank you, Natalie, for joining us today.
Natalie Fasheh: Thank you.
KD: So I know I talked a lot about the things that you currently do. Would it be possible for you to explain a little bit more about what led you on the path to social justice?
NF: Um, I grew up in Jordan and I grew up loving music and being in ensembles. The first memory of me being in music is with 200 other kids playing on the drums, and it really made me feel a sense of unity and a sense of love of engagement in the community that I didn't have. Growing up with that and in choir, I saw how important that is for my own growth as a person and a leader. In high school, high schools can be pretty brutal, so it was great to be in a kind of environment where I felt like I could belong and find myself and really find my own voice. Through that, I found a love for social justice and responding to the world around me through music and art and in community. And so that's how I decided I want to be a musician and an artist, and that is inextricable from, for me, from responding to current social-political events.
KD: Oh wow, that's really inspiring to hear about how your own individual experiences as a child and being exposed to all of these other kids who are taking part in music, and how that also inspired you to be able to take those experiences and make it so that you can also use it for social justice. So what kinds of projects have you done recently in regards to that? And what has led you? Was it something in college or later on in your education that led you on this path?
NF: Um, I feel like, yeah, I've always been, since I was a teenager, very passionate about social change. And so what that means to me is looking at what's going on around me and being able to express what I feel needs to be expressed and also work with people on how that can be tangible in different spaces. And so when I am involved in different projects with communities, a lot of the projects that I do are artistic projects that involve community-engaged art elements and teaching artistry, even if they're performance or composition projects that I do. So I've been involved in commissioning projects as a composer where I could bring dialogue and reflection to different groups of people through compositions that are directly linked to social change.
I've also been lucky to work with organizations that have that as part of their mandates, like Jumblies Theatre, which is a community arts theater organization that allows me to explore my own projects through my culture that bring different kinds of art together. Even in the pandemic, where we have to do that digitally, really expanding what that means in the world that we are living in. And the more I work in community and the more I am able to relate to different people, the more I find myself on the path of trying to bring social justice through simply just responding to what's going on around me and being in tune with what matters to the people in the community.
KD: That's really great. I mean, when we think about this idea of community and being able to build that trust within those communities and also being able to not be afraid of certain dialogues that may make people feel uncomfortable because I know for a fact that sometimes, you know, when we have these ideas, have this fire, you know, to be able to want to make something happen, I feel like sometimes it's just a matter of how we approach those.
So, in regards to these ideas of social justice and the connection with music or we could even say its connection to art, what have you found benefits these communities?
NF: I found that what's important about art and communities is how it brings a sense of agency to people in being able to express their own voices. That, for me, is at the center of democracy and civic engagement. When I'm in the community, there is an element of empowering art-making where people can express themselves through their own authentic artistic voices, then it opens up that space for them to not only express themselves but also be open to listening to other people doing the same. This is a kind of openness and empathy that is hard to access without art.
So, in that sense, from what I've experienced, it allowed for difficult conversations and for people to grow beyond their own bubbles of knowledge. In our day and age, we are very narrowly focused, although we have the world at the tip of our fingers digitally. We're also in our own little knowledge bubbles because of the way that social media algorithms work. Therefore, to be able to break out of that in artistic spaces, explore different cultures, explore what it means to live and make music, and hear other people's struggles and stories through art, allows for a more compassionate environment. This, in turn, leads to people thinking about each other in their own decisions in democracy, civic engagement, and leadership when they're in a position where they have power to think of either themselves or other people.
KD: No, this is really great. And I think, you know, we have so much going on now with the idea of teaching artistry. You know, being able to make music or even art relevant to kids in a way that they can connect with it in their own way. When we think about different languages, being able to actually demonstrate the relevance now with the things that are happening with the arts, you know, funding being cut. And all of these things, how do you think we could somehow counteract those problems in regards to being able to really push for the arts and music?
NF: I feel like, because yes, it is an issue, funding is being cut on a governmental level, but also music and arts, in general, are being devalued in education systems where I am living at the moment. It is hard for society to feel like it is a necessity. And for me, the way to counteract that is to really put the responsibility on us as artists to really connect with what the community, what matters to the community. What is going on in our surroundings? What are people feeling really joined by? What is helping them get by in this world? What is frustrating them and hurting them? And taking that and involving the arts in responding to that, involving the arts in allowing people to feel like the art is a part of that life. Whether that's through performance or teaching artistry or education programs, I feel like this is our chance to innovate and make it so that art is a part of expressing the things that matter to us in our lives. And that way, there can be an undeniable itty about why it's important to us, and more people, audiences, and the community will start to advocate as well for the arts.
KD: Yes, and it's also, you know, with what you've mentioned, the idea of government, the idea of people being able to see the value, and how can we reinstate that value or actually communicate the importance of that value. And I feel like, in a sense, that's a struggle that we have. But yes, being able to do these things with the community, being able to reach out, and what I liked earlier was the fact that you mentioned that, through music, you were able to have your own voice. And how do you inspire that with the students that you work with?
NF: I feel like a lot of it has to do with relationship building and accepting that each person in the room has their own set of knowledge and their own set of experiences that they are going through, and that every person expresses themselves in a different way. I feel allowing a space for curiosity, experimentation, and making mistakes is vital for allowing us to authentically express ourselves in a world of perfectionism. These kids are growing up in a digital era where the idea of perfectionism is very much internalized in every aspect of their lives, not only within their academics and whatever expectations they feel they have on themselves artistically, but also with their social engagements and their sense of selves.
So it's important to understand all of that and make space for any artistic experience that they go through with me, that their own voices matter, and that what they bring that is unique is not being taken away from them. I feel like when I work, a lot of my work over the past two years has been online, so we've been going in-person now, and being online has really challenged me as a teaching artist to really have that in mind all the time as I facilitate. Not only were we all different, but we were all in different physical environments while we were engaging with each other through workshops and performances and arts making on Zoom and otherwise. So I have to keep in mind that whatever they have going on is not only in their head, but they are experiencing it at the moment, and we're there together. It's important to me that they can find a place to engage in a way where they feel empowered.
KD: I think that's really amazing. And also, the fact that it really shows a type of resiliency, being able to persevere through difficult situations. The pandemic was chaotic, with people losing jobs, having to shift curriculum online, and adapt to online. With all of those things in mind, it really shows that the kids or the students that we work with, that we communicate with, that we connect to were able to overcome that. I think that's really amazing.
NF: Yeah, it is for sure. It's amazing how much we all adapted in a very short period of time, going completely digital and into major social isolation. And now coming out of that, I'm realizing that we adapted completely and now we have to readapt to a different reality and it just shows our resilience as young people, especially and people in general.
KD: Yeah, no, and this is great. You know, with what you've mentioned with all of the different things that you do with your work and being able to reach out and really make the arts not just relevant for the students but also having them find their voice. Earlier, you mentioned the idea of decolonization and I'd like to learn more about your work in that field.
NF: Sure. Yeah, I'm a Palestinian and so I identify as an indigenous person in a global sense, as part of indigenous people globally and Palestinians are being colonized. I grew up with that kind of conversation. I grew up with my people around me just talking about that, and in school, it would be a major topic of conversation. And so I was never afraid of speaking politics and colonization. And so coming to Canada, I realized that I didn't know upon arrival that this is happening here, that there is settler colonialism here, and when I did find out, it felt to me that a lot of the issues that we deal with, like climate change, like racism, like food insecurity, a lot of the social issues that we're dealing with, homelessness, all have to do with colonization.
And because of that, I have then dedicated myself to decolonizing my own practices. What does it mean to be a musician outside of the Western European expectations of professionalism, and what kind of topics do I engage with with communities that allow for us to be more aware of indigenous practices and indigenous culture and music, and really value that and uphold that without uttering it, without making it as less than whatever European practice that we do within arts. And yeah, I think I've been engaging a lot online with that as an artist because there's so much out there beyond the arts that could allow me as an artist to make my work more meaningful. So learning from lawyers, from human rights activists, from business people who are changing their own policies, how does that affect my own art? Being able to engage with that online has been incredible, doing online activities and workshops that allow for dialogue on decolonization in Palestine from Canada here, which is amazing, and also connecting with people across the country about these topics that matter.
KD: I think that's really amazing, and I love the fact that this idea of being able to open up the possibilities, right? Not having this one perspective of, okay, this is how Western music works. This is what you're going to learn, this is how you're going to learn it. But instead, being able to say with decolonization, it's a matter of being able to expand the possibilities. You know, the idea of not learning about one way of doing something, but being able to see how music is taught in different parts of the world. And I think that's a very necessary thing that we need today, just because I feel like in a sense, I don’t know about you Natalie, but I feel like it encourages empathy for different cultures. Being able to also develop interpersonal skills and being more open and accepting. And I think that's a really beautiful project that you have in regards to your goals with decolonization within the arts.
NF: Yeah, for sure. It does encourage all of what you said. And I think it also makes us, I think for me at least and what I hope for other people engaging with me in arts, is it allows us to really face the problem, which is indigenous people have their lands being stolen and what are we doing about that? How can we take a step back from what we feel is important and look at what indigenous people on this land and beyond feel is important to them and how can we amplify that? So it brings empathy in the broader sense in the community and allows us to engage with what you were mentioning and also specifically with what is going on with indigenous people. So yeah, it's definitely something that is on my mind a lot.
KD: Yes, and also being able to encourage not only musicians who may identify as indigenous or artists or actors or what have you, but also to encourage composers who may not be indigenous or who would identify as indigenous but being able to say, okay, well, you know what if we have a grant that actually encourages composers to use melodies from indigenous cultures and being able to see what that looks like, being able to curate different projects. I think that could be something really interesting, Natalie.
NF: Yeah, it could be very interesting, and I think that is definitely on the rise, is composers thinking about their own arts beyond their role of just writing music because of the needs of composers just being expanded. And I think there is a fine line of utilizing indigenous music. I myself don't go into that, using other indigenous music rather than my own, because I feel like every person's culture and every song actually has its own nuanced way of expression and reason for existence. And so I think engaging with those projects would be beautiful, and it's also important to collaborate with people who hold that culture in order to do it in a way that's culturally sensitive and that really puts the empathy towards indigenous cultures and indigenous people to the forefront. And that's something that I, as a Palestinian always look for. So that's something that also is more accessible because of Instagram. There are so many people I met on Instagram that I would not have known about. There are many composers out there. And as a composer myself, it allows me to think, okay, I want to write a song, I want to include those elements of this music that I don't really know about. So how can I build more relationships? What more possibilities can there be for different curated experiences, as you were saying, that are different and also more relational?
KD: No, for sure. And I think also, when we think about decolonization, at least when I was in my undergraduate studies, I never really had a class. I don't know about you, Natalie, but I never really had classes that actually talked about that, especially within the arts. And I feel like it's more so like a recent thing, maybe just within the last couple of years, that we're becoming more aware and more vocal about it.
NF: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I don't remember any course like that, I have to take a history course, and even that was not led by an indigenous person. So it's definitely been a topic of conversation only in the past few years, and I think a big part of that is because of the pandemic and how much more social stress it put on indigenous people globally and Black people and Brown people and people of marginalized and oppressed communities that it just cannot be denied anymore. And so I feel like it's an opportunity for us to be compassionate with ourselves in terms of there are things that we have no idea about and there are things that we have been doing as artists and leaders that have possibly been harmful to different communities. And this is a space of learning for us through changing our actions and through changing our approaches to arts making and our approaches to curating programs. And a lot of that has to do with taking a step back sometimes and giving space to people who have been deprived of that space before.
KD: I agree, and I think this idea of space and being able to allow time to make these different types of causes more prevalent, in regards to teaching it in university settings, or even with high school. Maybe it's too early, but I feel like, in a sense, that's something that if we teach it within the curriculum, it'll make it so that students are able to anticipate when they go out into the real world the different types of communities that they will be working with.
NF: Yes, for sure. I mean, there are indigenous and black people, including kids, going through very difficult situations anyway. So, I don't think it's ever too early to talk about these things because they are being experienced by people of all ages. It's just about the censorship around the education system. How can we as artists bring what is censored and what is not being intentionally taught in schools? How can we actually engage with that in our own spaces so that these people who are experiencing it and being completely shoved aside have a space to express themselves. For us also to really know what is happening in our community and make change about that because, for me, as a Palestinian, I know there's a lot of miseducation happening about Palestine in schools. If I were growing up in Canada, my identity would have just been invisible as a Palestinian. Engaging in Palestinian arts making and topics about Palestine in the community with people of all ages is definitely an active social change.
KD: And I think when we think about those moments, because I know sometimes when we want something to happen and we have the fire and we have the desire to make it happen, and sometimes it's hard because it's like, "Oh, I'm one person," or "Oh, my friend also feels the same way too." But being able to incorporate that difference and making oneself be heard, I can only imagine how difficult it could be, especially with what you mentioned with miseducation.
NF: Yeah, it's very easy to feel like, "Oh my gosh, I'm this person who's trying to do all these things," really having that mentality of the world is on my shoulders, and I don't know what to do, and it's me against the world. And I've definitely felt that sometimes out of frustration. I know that it's very important now that I know how much of a struggle that can be. It's very important for me as an artist to find supportive spaces and spaces of rest and joy where I don't need to engage with the struggles of my own life and the changes that I want to make in society. Finding community, non-judgmental spaces of expression, and spaces where I could express things that make me feel unsafe as an artist engaging in these topics is very important. So, that's something that I hope artists who are engaging in this work can make an effort to find and build that kind of support network so that we're able to do the art and make changes without compromising our own sense of well-being.
KD: And I feel like that's something that, you know, with what you've mentioned, the idea of well-being, that we sometimes forget because we're either working so much, giving so much of ourselves to our students, wanting to become really top-notch performers, practicing hours and hours, and, you know, burnout is real. And with the idea of having a freelance career and being able to take on as many projects as you can, have you ever encountered those types of things?
NF: Oh my goodness, yes. As a freelancer, it's very hard to find a balance for my own well-being. And it's definitely been a struggle, especially since the pandemic. I feel like growing up as a performer, not really studying music in university, and growing as an artist as a performing artist in that way, there was a lot of pressure to practice a lot, and expectations were high. So there are many things that I feel I need to deal with as an artist, organization-wise, with my own time management and my own sense of boundaries around how much joy work and artistically that pose a challenge for my well-being. It's something that I wished people told me earlier, that your own pace of growing, your own pace of art-making is enough, and that each of us has our own paths toward growth and expression, and there's no one path that is better than the other. In an era of productivity being associated with self-worth, it's important to know that we are worthy enough just as we exist on our own, even if we're not as productive as it's expected for us to be. I know that's hard because sometimes it's about financial sustainability as well, and there could possibly be more financial support or help for artists to know how to build financially sustainable models with their well-being in mind for their own freelance experiences.
KD: Yes, and I think when we think about the idea of sustainability, we think about the cultural structures that our world has, this idea of perfectionism that you've mentioned, the idea of being able to do enough to be present, or as present as we can be, and at the same time, not sacrificing what actually brings us joy. I feel like that's a process, and people sometimes forget that we all learn differently, feel differently, and have different ideas about the world and how to approach it. One person's progress is naturally going to be different than another person's, and that's okay. By having those types of discussions, I feel like, at least what I try to do with my students, is to tell them it's okay to not be so perfect all the time, but that doesn't mean you can't grow as a person. In a sense, I don't know if you feel the same way, Natalie, we forget about that idea of individual growth, human growth, right in this idea of learning and the process.
NF: Yes, for sure. And that is so heartening that you remind your students that it's definitely something that needs to be told to everyone at all ages. I say that myself because it's a reminder for me that it's something to keep in mind as well. Having a growth mindset in an industry that art needs growth mindset and yet faces an industry that values perfectionism, so it's hard to navigate that. The more we find systems of support and find ourselves in organizations and working with communities and individuals that value the growth mindset, the more joyful I think our jobs can be. For me, I'm trying to make an effort to collaborate with people who I feel I connect with on that and who share those similar values. Even if I'm not equipped enough to face something that they would like me to face, they would help me get there. That kind of community-oriented approach to working with other people is something that I look for and I hope other people can look forward to and then start to do as well instead of a competitive perfectionist kind of approach to the industry.
KD: No, for sure, I definitely agree. When we think about young professionals who are graduating from their undergraduate, from their masters, from studies when they're going out into the real world, what types of advice would you give to someone if they want to continue their art, they want to have a life as an artist, but also in regards to social justice if they want to take that route or if they want to do things with leadership. What type of advice would you give that person?
NF: I would give the advice to find people you connect with, build relationships because I think for me, the most fulfilling and beautiful experiences that I've had and the experiences that I've had where I feel I've had the most growth were as a result of connecting with people who I really admired. That's advice that I would give them. I would also advise them that it’s important to know their legal rights as a freelancer, which is very important to know your worth. That is a big aspect for me of finding my own sense of well-being too, as I constantly remind myself of my self-worth and how it translates into my art and what I offer to people, and legal rights, copyright, contract negotiations are just an inevitable form of communication that we have to deal with as artists. That's something that wasn't focused on in my studies as a musician in performing arts. I would advise them to focus on that as well as they enter the working environment.
KD: This is really great advice on how you were able to shape all of the different things not only what you've done but what you've seen in regards to copyright and the issues that we have with mechanical licensing, and things like that when you want to record music.. I think this is really great advice, and I think we're going to leave it on that note. It was a great pleasure for me to speak to you about all the different things that you do and being able to see how we can build a community in a more meaningful way. Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts with us. We look forward to seeing the amazing things that you continue to do for the community, Natalie.
NF: Thank you so much. I look forward to following the Modern Artist Project and the really necessary things that you're doing. Thank you.
Kristine Dizon is a multi-faceted performer, teacher, writer, author, linguist, and entrepreneur. She is Founder & CEO of the Music & Language Learning Center, The Modern Artist Project and co-founder of the Gran Canaria International Clarinet Festival and American Single Reed Summit. She is an artist for Uebel Clarinets and Silverstein Works. Learn more at www.kristinedizon.com.