Black Mona Lisa: Lamya Al-Mugheiry #BlackFemMusic #BlackHistoryMonth

Sometime in the early to mid-2000s, I spent days in the grad school office listening to The Black Rock Coalition via Soul Patrol Times while I used the computers. I repeatedly listened to a two-part show dedicated to black artists performing cover versions of songs. I heard a few good things like Lenny Kravitz and Stevie Wonder covering Kiss’ “Deuce,” Nona Hendryx covering Prince’s “Baby Go Go,” Lenny Kravitz and Skunk Anansie covering Betty Davis’ “Anti-Love Song” and a cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” by a group I can’t remember.

I often listened to that show and for a while knew it by heart the same way I knew all my mixtapes by heart. After getting to know the set list, I patiently waited for a beautiful cover of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” that came near the end of the hour. The artist was Lamya. I’d never heard of her before but I was so struck by the beauty of the strings mixed with the percussion. The oud, mridangam and morching exist alongside the guitar, double bass, violin, viola and cello in this exquisite cover of the acoustic classic. And Lamya’s voice. That voice is a natural resource.

After a few Saturdays listening to the show, I looked for “Pink Moon” to download it. I didn’t find it, but I came across two other songs from Lamya: “Empires” and “Black Mona Lisa.” I’ll get to these later, but after finding these songs, I realized there were three songs I liked. I went to one of the local music stores to find the CD. (It was 2002/3). The CD wasn’t there, so I did a special order.

A few days later, I had Learning from Falling in my hot little hands. The ominous opening of “Empires” felt vibrant and thumped in the headphones from my discman. (Like I said, it was 2002/3.) I’d already been singing “Bring me men, men to match my mountains” for a few weeks now and recognized it as my theme song. Much to my surprise, I found that the entire album was more than just the three songs I already knew. Learning from Falling is one of the albums coming out around that time that is so perfect that it almost hurts to listen to it.

You see Learning from Falling primarily came from poetry that the Kenyan-born, Sheffield-raised Lamya Hafidh Sultan Al-Mugheiry had been writing since age 11. These songs come from the perspective of self-acceptance and assertion that this self has a right to exist as is in its form, in all its imperfections and flaws that makes the self a fully realized human. Born in 1973, Lamya began chasing her dreams at an early age. She first gained recognition at 16 when she sang the lead vocals for the Razette (aka DJ Vaughn Mason) track “Ready 4 Love.” The song charted in August 1989, reaching the no. 77 spot.

She continued working with others after this mild success, most prominently as the new lead vocalist for the UK favorite Soul II Soul. She worked with the group on its second album, Vol II: 1990-A New Decade, contributing to the tracks “Love Come Through” and “In the Heat of the Night.” However, in 1993, she toured with Duran Duran and spent the next two years with the group even appearing on MTV Unplugged. She also provided vocals for other luminaries including James Brown and David Bowie.

But 2002 was Lamya’s solo breakout year. She released the impossibly perfect Learning from Falling, leading with the single “Empires (Bring Me Men).” The album reached no. 16 on the Top Heatseekers chart while “Empires” reached no. 1 in Hot Club Dance Play. The next year, she would tour with Macy Gray as the opening act.

In the meantime, Learning from Falling showcased a composer and producer with an immeasurable talent for crafting the perfect song. Lamya had a five-octave range she could perfectly blend with a number of influences including her Omani heritage. The album both produces singles but also seamlessly comes together, particularly with “I Get Cravings” seguing into “Splitting Atoms” on tablas and a sitar. Interestingly, the use of live instruments like these coincide with the use of electronic instruments on tracks such as “Full Frontal Fridays” in ways that blend contemporary and long-standing music styles.

Although themes of insecurity and self-acceptance color much of the album, themes of heartbreak and self-discovery also pepper much of Lamya’s experience. “Never Enough” is just as raw as soul-bearing lyrics like “I would bare my naked throat to your blade of pain… I could rip my heart out and lay it on the ground before you” come through with a bleeding urgency. “Never’s Such a Long Time” also takes a no holds barred lyrical approach to heartbreak and lost love.

Then there are tracks like “Perfect Girl,” exploring the quest for perfection that lives inside but seems so unattainable. The heartbreaking part of this one is that Lamya’s vocals apologize for not being this perfect girl. Maybe in the end she accepts it… but still struggles with it. In a way, “Perfect Girl” works as a great companion piece to the track preceding it, “The Woman Who.” Using a gorgeous sample from Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleurs,” Lamya explores the effect of weight the world places on her during her journey through womanhood dealing with expectations of others and herself.

But for me, the anthem is “Black Mona Lisa.” I jokingly say Lamya wrote this for me (because I wish I’d written this one myself), but I know she wrote this about herself. How could I not fall in love with the opening lyrics “But oh I am not afraid to be a lone bohemian/I can paint a portrait of myself.” With one song, Lamya gave black girls and women everywhere a reason to be proud of who are and celebrate ourselves as beautiful works of art.

Unfortunately, like the reference “because you sacrificed” now refers to Lamya herself. On January 8, 2009, she suddenly passed away, a victim of a heart attack. She was 35.

I only found out about her death after an Internet search looking for information and came across a Facebook post with R.I.P. I couldn’t believe she was gone at such an early age and almost unknown.

Her second album Hidden in Plain Sight was set to be released that year, but this was never to be. Instead, we are only left with fantasies of what could have been and a life taken far too soon like singers such as Minnie Riperton. I personally lament that she could not have done more but celebrate what she did leave behind. She’s the one who reassured me that “I can call myself Mona Lisa.”