It’s been said you can tell a lot about a person from the company they keep. When asking friends, fans, and fellow musicians about Sharifah Muhammad it became abundantly clear in two questions or less: that she was born into this world to sing. One of her friends, San Diego vocalist Missy Andersen, says she knew immediately. “As soon as Sharifah opened her mouth,” Missy said. “I was blown away. And as great as her voice is… she’s super humble.” Sue Palmer, Southern California’s reigning Queen of Boogie Woogie, says she learned of Sharifah and her gifts through her mother, Deejha Marie Pope, who sings in Palmer’s band. “I’ve known Sharifah since she was about nine years old.” Palmer said. “And she just got better and better. She is really coming into her own now and it’s a pleasure to watch and hear!!!” Yet, another musician, North County sax man Jonny Viau remembers hearing Sharifah almost 16 years ago. “I found out she was Deejha’s daughter,” Viau recalls. “She was singing that Margie Hendricks part on ‘Night Time Is the Right Time.’” Jonny instantly rips into song ‘Baby!’ She knocked me out, man.”
As these enlightened testimonials reflect, Sharifah Muhammad is much admired and greatly loved by both her peers and fans. Even more apparent, her present day “company” includes some of most amazing and musically gifted artists in San Diego. As a self-professed nurturer, Muhammad also works outside of the music arena, holding certifications in the field of health care with a focus on special needs. Her dedication and perseverance in overcoming challenges and an overwhelming desire to help others would ordinarily be enough to ask of anyone. But Sharifah’s aspirations continue to escalate, combining real world compassion with “old-soul” instinct. The results have been nothing short of phenomenal, producing a fresh, new, and exciting musical voice that is more than capable of generating its own unlimited healing qualities.
It seemed only fitting to start our conversation with how Sharifah describes the music she makes?
Sharifah Muhammad: My music… it’s hard to put into words but I like to incorporate all music. There isn’t any music I don’t like so I take from all genres and make it my own. I notice when I sing with Sue [Palmer], for instance, like the swing stuff or the blues stuff, it’s all back to soul for me. I don’t know how to explain it verbally; it’s all kind of a feeling, if you know what I mean?”
San Diego Troubadour: Being a native Californian is extremely rare; how did that happen?
SM: My mom was about eight months pregnant with me when she came from the East Coast. That’s how I came to be born here… so I’m a Cali girl. I love San Diego. I currently reside in Spring Valley, where I was raised and stayed in the same neighborhood. I went to school here at SCPA, a performing arts school, and that’s where I got my footing with the music and was able to express myself.
SDT: You literally grew up with music….
SM: From day one [laughing] I got it from my mom, Deejha Marie, and my step-father [Douglas Pope], who was also a musician. He played the bass and was a vocalist and they had an a cappella group with my stepdad’s uncle. And before that, they had a band. So they would always have the band over doing jam sessions and singing at the house, practicing, and I’d always be sitting there listening; it was like the best thing ever, so I always had music around. But I was really shy, I didn’t want to be heard but I always loved music. My mom would be cleaning on the weekends and be listening to Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughn, so it was just always there.”
SDT: What was it about the music that drew you in?
SM: I think it’s a feeling I always got, I think it was the excitement; I think about the music when I’m sad, when I’m happy, when I’m lonely–it’s always something that made me feel good. Whatever I was going through–it could be the words or the sound–it just always intrigued me. I didn’t really know that much about the different types of music, I just knew that whatever my mom or dad were listening to. I liked it. Later on in life is when I started to know about the different genres, but whatever I could get my hands on that I liked, that’s what I wanted to listen to.
SDT: With diversity being such a big part of your music–blues, gospel, and R&B, the one constant seems to be the soulfulness.
SM: It definitely comes from my soul. In high school I went to a school from 4th grade to 12th grade and that’s a really long time to be around the same peers. So before bullying was something people talked about, I experienced that. I was overweight in high school and had to deal with bullying and just not fitting in. Music was something I was able to excel in and feel good about myself. So, any pain or anything I was going through, I was able to express that through music. Just thinking about it makes me emotional.
SDT: Music became therapeutic for you?
SM: Absolutely! That’s a good way of putting it [laughing].
SDT: Can we talk a little more about your mom, Deejha Marie?
SM: She means everything to me. She has been such a big cheerleader for me. In high school I was in a choir, and in a choir you can sing and not have to be seen. You do your part and everybody sings together. So, with my mom, it was like she knew already what talent I had but wasn’t ready to step out, so there was a lot of push and pull. Like the a cappella group, for instance, my uncle left the band and they had a lot of gigs they needed to fulfill and they knew I could sing. But at the time I was only 17 and I wasn’t ready and they were like, you gotta do this. We got bills to pay, you know? You gotta do this. And I was scared! It was the scariest thing ever, but all of this has made me stronger. It definitely made me stronger with my vocals as well. When I first started with the a cappella group, they kept telling me to sing louder, sing louder. Now, it’s like uhhh, you’re gonna break something with your voice… calm down [laughing]. It’s crazy, “Back up off that mike!”
SDT: It’s amazing the number of performers who continue to experience stage fright.
SM: Some of the greatest vocalists and singers… people assume you like being out there, or that you don’t have a problem getting out there… or that’s where you want to be. There’s a lot of fear and you’re naked up there, almost. But I know at the end of the day, that the people out there are there to see you do your thing. You don’t want to half-ass it, you want to give it all you’ve got; you don’t want to hold back because people know when you’re not giving it. You’ve got to be real up there! And I’m still learning from my mom; every time I see her perform I’m in awe of how she can relate to an audience and pull people in and she’s one with it. I’m constantly learning from my mom.
SDT: When you work on a new song or new material, how do you approach it?
SM: I don’t see the barriers in music, really. When I’m with Sue or with a soul band or a blues band, however that song is moving you, I have to be moved by that song or I can’t really express it, you know? I’ve learned that, too… with the music and singing. If I don’t feel it or I’m not connecting with it, it’s hard to express it.
Having personally witnessed multiple shows and performances when Sharifah joins Missy Andersen and Mercedes Moore to harmonize on an a cappella or gospel song, whether it’s in the vineyards, a bar, or a club setting, each and every time the venue transitions from cacophonous noise and pandemonium to an astonished silence. In the literal sense, you can hear a pin drop. It’s quite surreal.
As mentioned earlier, you can tell a lot about a person when you talk with their friends and those closest to them. North County resident and acclaimed session saxman Jonny Viau remembers vividly when Sue Palmer brought Sharifah to one of their shows. “I always enjoyed it when she was invited to sing at some of our gigs.” Jonny says. “She was singing with her mom, Deejha, in the group Pieces and their voices blend really well together. She’s probably been singing since before she was walking, you know? I just kept saying, ‘I gotta put a band behind you and get you out there and get you featured.’ After about five years of procrastinating, I knew a few guys with similar interests in obscure old soul songs, the anti-”Mustang Sally” type of songs. We started rehearsing and after a few gigs in the Temecula wineries, one thing led to another and we went to Nathan’s [James] studio and cut 16 songs in two days, which is a studio record [laughing]. We knocked them out and came away with a pretty good album, I think.”
Sharifah, too, is smiling when she talks about Jonny Viau and the Good Thing project.
SM: Jonny said, “You know what? Let’s put a band together.” And I was like, okay…. We did a lot of practicing with Steve Wilcox, Troy Sandow, and Marty Dodson and we went up to Nathan’s [Sacred Cat Studios], which was a great experience. We got a bunch of songs, including some of the first songs we learned together, and we all performed them in the same room, which I love. I’ve been in studios where I’m in a room and they’re over there and it just didn’t feel authentic. I think that’s why the album felt really good because we were all looking at each other and vibing with each other, joking and laughing and all that. It was a great experience. And my mom came up to do some vocals and background–of course, I couldn’t do it without her–and Jonny did a lot of work on the sax. The track “Take Me” is one of my favorites because I feel my emotions a lot on that song. Every time I sing it, I can feel it. It really moves me every time I hear it.”
Local piano legend Sue Palmer has great memories of seeing Sharifah grow up and coming into her own. Palmer talked about getting to know Sharifah through Deejha Marie. “I met Deejha and her band Pieces in the late ’80s.” Palmer says. “They were a great a cappella trio and they used to sit in with my band at the time, Tobacco Road, at Croce’s. Sharifah was a little girl sitting in the car with her brother and sister listening to her parents singing doo-wop outside the restaurant. Sharifah eventually became part of Pieces after Carl left. That’s when I really heard her sing. About 10 years later Deejha joined our current band and the rest is history. Sharifah began sitting in with us and she just got better and better. Both she and her mom are like family to me.”
When pressed on her musical influences, Sharifah spoke lovingly about how her relationship began with Sue Palmer.
SM: I was just always hanging around [laughing], just hanging around. I didn’t want to be up there [on stage] but Sue did know I could sing, so some of the time she would have me come up and sing harmony with my mom because we have a really good blend. Sue, I can honestly say, gave me the stage to do, to grow, to test the waters. She was just so influential. I don’t think I would have my own band or be experiencing any of this if it wasn’t for Sue giving me that… “Hey, you’re here, you want to sit in? Here’s a mike!” Then she’d give me a few songs to learn and it kinda just built. Sue has definitely been my Godmother in music. She’s an amazing woman. Even with her band, she lets musicians do their thing and lets them shine. She is just a great leader.
Sharifah Muhammad performs in a variety of musical configurations, so the big question seems to be just how many?
SM: The Motel Swing Band with Sue and the Good Thing’…. I’ve recently been hanging out with Missy Andersen and Mercedes Moore and we’ve done the Gospel Review; that was really fun. They are the most amazing ladies and we’ve really started a great friendship from that project. We go and have dinner and hang out and talk. They have been really good support for me because they are women in the business. I learned a lot from them because they are leaders in their bands, the front person of their bands. And Missy’s a business woman [and former bank VP] and her passion took over. She’s hilarious; if this doesn’t work out she could be a comedian. She has us dying. But when we sang together at her house, the harmonies felt right and we got it right when we recorded it. I told her, “We could do this all day, it just made us all feel so good.”
Missy Andersen, as most of San Diego knows, is a shining star in the music community; she says Sharifah was exactly what she was looking for when she was working out the lineup for her gospel music project. “Originally, I was going to do a gospel show alone with backup singers,” Andersen says. “But gospel calls for big voices/personalities so I started approaching front people to share the stage in my production. I’d done some impromptu harmonizing with Sharifah before so I knew she’d be a great fit. As great as her voice is, Sharifah is super humble and doesn’t have the diva mentality that she could have. She’s interested in doing the best that she can and not just what will get her by. I love that about her.”
SDT: We’ve talked a lot about your singing, but you also pride yourself on the work you do outside of music. You are a health care provider and also work with kids that have special needs. That’s some seriously challenging work.
SM: I’m a nurturer. I’m like a fixer in my family, a good family, and we’re close knit. But the health care thing… I’ve always liked the health care field. In college I went to Concorde and got my certification. With home care, I can still do my music and the schedule worked out. I think about the future a lot. I’ll have gigs lined up and then I’ll have nothing for awhile. Music is my passion, but I need to have something where I can pay the bills and I’m stable.
SDT: Music is often considered a healer. Don’t you think your singing could be considered its own form of health care.
SM: Yeah, because I know what music does for me? It heals me. And it also depends on my mood and who I want to listen to. If I want to cry, I’ll listen to Donny Hathaway or Marvin Gaye, you know what I mean? What they’re talking about is still relevant today; it’s like nothing has really changed. People come out to see you and they want to get healed so I just try to put forth the best I can do. It’s a hard question to answer because honestly, it just comes from within. And my stepdad, I say stepdad but he raised me. He raised two of us that weren’t his, so he raised kids that weren’t his own and he loved us like we were his own. When he passed away four years ago he was like everything to me. Vocally, he taught me harmonies. His name was Douglas Pope and he was a bass player here in San Diego and very well known. He sang with Sue sometimes… but he was the best guy. When I had issues with giving it my all and the stage fright thing and days before a gig, my stomach would be going… but when he passed away something clicked in me. Live your life; you don’t know how long you’re going to be here, so what are you holding back for, what are you afraid of? I told my sister that ever since then I don’t have that fear, at all. I just think of him, and he’s here with me.
SDT: You’re writing more now. Do you have a process?
SM: I have a “car” process. When I’m in the car a lot of things come to me. I’m good at melodies, I can sing melodies. Words don’t really come to me but melodies do. A lot of people that hear me sing say, “Wow, you would have been a great horn player” because of the way I can harmonize with horns. But words escape me and I feel like I’ve been through a lot and sometimes it’s hard to express the pain. You feel it but it’s hard to express it. I’m getting better at it… I can always start a song, but finishing it has been the problem. I’m going to work more with my mom because of her knowledge base and experience. I want to bring some of the stuff that I’ve started and maybe she can help me finish it [laughing].
SDT: All performers have that weird venue occurrence or “funny thing happened” scenario. How about you?
SM: Well, I was singing with Sue at the Trolley Barn Park about two years ago. I was singing and I blew out the amp, and you couldn’t hear me anymore. I completely blew out the mike and they had to come and rewire the whole thing. So, now it’s an ongoing gag, “Hey, Sharifah, you gonna do it again, you gonna blow it out?” That was like one of the craziest things.
SDT: If you could choose from anyone that you would love to sing with or perform with, who would be the ultimate for you?
SM: I’ve always wanted to sing with Stevie Wonder. I don’t know what it is about harmonies, but when you hear Stevie sing… and he always has the most amazing backup vocalists. Just the fact that I really appreciate the old stuff; I can’t even express how much I do. It’s hard for me, because I’m so young… It’s hard because you want to express yourself, but people your age don’t really get that. My stepdad was born in Chicago and he was into the doo-wop groups, and on the corners it would be snowing and they’d have a fire and be singing around it. All the old stuff, the Chi-Lites and the harmonies and the instrumentation with the horns and the strings and just all of that. Honestly, being so young, I really want to influence young people by saying this stuff is cool. And I want to make it cool; maybe you don’t like the way it’s being expressed? It may feel dated, but maybe if I could put a fresh spin on it, you know like an Amy Winehouse?”
SDT: Can the same be said about your pursuit of the blues?
SM: I love Howlin’ Wolf, I love Big Mama Thornton! With Howlin’ Wolf it’s like soul… that feeling, it’s just so original. Big Mama, Etta, Big Maybelle, and all of them, it just touches me because I know where it’s coming from.