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Nadirah Shakoor talks life, music, and her upcoming performance at the Krannert Center

Nadirah Shakoor in front of a wall

Nadirah Shakoor is best known as the former lead female vocalist of the hip hop group Arrested Development. She’s had a long career, working with big names like Madonna and Quincy Jones, she also spent nearly three decades as the featured female vocalist of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band.

Shakoor is coming to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana on Thursday, February 29, at 5pm. Morning Edition host Kimberly Schofield recently spoke with Shakoor about her career.

Kimberly Schofield: What initially got you interested in music? Did you always know that you were going to become a performer or an artist?

Nadirah Shakoor: I decided when I was about five years old. My dad would have his doo-wop group rehearsing in the living room and if they had company, they asked me to come into the living room and sing for somebody for 25 cents or something. And I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s with my aunt who loved music. And she sang also. She’d be doing the dishes and have the radio on the window, the little transistor radio, singing along…and I’d be listening and singing, and she’d have me sing things and record them. So it’s just something that I always wanted to do. Diana Ross was one of my early influences. And I remember saying, “I want to be like Diana Ross.”

Courtesy of Nadirah Shakoor's Facebook Page

KS: You said that your dad did doo-wop and you listened to Diana Ross. Did you have any sort of theme or genre in mind that you wanted to pursue or did you just know that you loved music? 

NS: I was a little girl like 5, 6, or 7. So mostly at our house, we listened to a lot of Motown. I didn’t know anything about any other styles of music at that point in my life, but as I got older, I started wanting to do house music because I love to dance and I started sneaking into these house clubs and I realized the freedom in house music for writers. You can talk about whatever you want and nobody’s looking down on it, on you. I never sang gospel, but I don’t mind mentioning that in a song. And in house music, you have the freedom to do that.

KS: How did you then get into Arrested Development?

NS: In the early 90s, I’m still living in Los Angeles and I had a little group with my two brothers, Omar, who was a rapper, and Rasheed, who was a drummer. We were doing writing and our dad went to work one day-he was a carpenter-and they were building a new school…and some people were driving down the street shooting at each other and a straight bullet killed my father. So that kind of put a damper on what we were doing for a while. And one day I was watching television, and I saw this hip-hop group on and there was a girl singing up in a tree.

And something about it really moved me. It was Arrested Development.  At the time, they were really really popular. The girl that was singing in the trees was Dionne Farris and she was not a member, she was more of a guest. So I figured that I needed to be in that group. So I wrote them a letter and sent them some music and a picture. I didn’t hear back and then a friend of mine, who was also in the business, called me and said he heard Arrested Development was looking for a singer. So then I got back on my research and found out that En Vogue was opening for them and En Vogue happened to be Janet Jackson’s previous band from the Rhythm Nation tour, which I was a part of. So I called the keyboard player and told him that I wanted to come to the show. And I needed an all-access pass because I wanted to meet Arrested Development. So I got that, went to the show. It was beautiful. I’m sitting in the audience, like, “Yes, this is for me.” I had already told everybody that I’m gonna be in that. I went backstage and I met Speech and he was familiar with me based on the package that I had sent. And I auditioned right there and then we went to the dressing room and talked, and a couple of weeks later, I was in the group and on my way to London to the Top of the Pops.

KS: You’ve toured with a variety of artists. Are there any artists or acts that were your favorite over your career?

NS: I got a chance to tour with Al Jarreau. That was really awesome. I felt like I was grown because, you know, it was more jazzy. I would have to say though…my favorite…I don’t know. I don’t have a favorite. I loved being a part of the Rhythm Nation. That was huge for me. Arrested Development was major also because it was something I really wanted. I really loved the message. I love the fact that Speech…it was important to him to have women and men working

Nadirah Shakoor performs with Jimmy Buffett Curt Fletcher (Courtesy of Nadirah Shakoor's Facebook Page)

together in hip-hop. I love the fact that they had a little country vibe with a African flair. All of that was really good. I never would have thought I would be with somebody like Jimmy Buffett for 28 years.

KS: I was wondering how that got in there. 28 years?

NS: 28 years. How that got in there was…Arrested Development ended up breaking up at one point. So I just started making calls and ended up with three different opportunities. One was a hip-hop group with Michael Franti that I really liked, but wouldn’t have paid enough. The other was Yanni. And the third was Jimmy Buffett, who I had never heard of. Yanni paid the most. But when they sent me the song, I realized there was only one song in his whole show that had vocals. And I think I would have been just bored out of my mind. Jimmy Buffett, I thought was a jazz group. I don’t know why, in my mind, I thought it would be like Jimmy Buffett and his jazz trio. So I took that gig. And then they sent me a bunch of CDs and some albums. And I started playing them and realized it was not jazz. I started crying because it was so country. Some of the oldest stuff from the 70s and I’d never done country, and I didn’t think that would fit. I mean, I’m straight out of Arrested Development, locks in my hair, two rings in my nose. So I called my mother crying, and I’m like, “It’s country. I don’t think I can do it. I’m not gonna fit in.” And she said, “Do you need a job or don’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” So she said, “Do it for a year. And if you don’t like it, do something else.” So as I’m listening to the music, I hear a song called “Why Don’t We Get Drunk,” and I realized I had heard that song about two weeks ago. I’m driving in my car, and it came on the radio and my first thought was, “They’ll play anything on the radio these days.”  Little did I know that a couple weeks later, I would be on stage with that man and I would be there for 28 years because there was something about the joy that Jimmy’s music brought to the people that just kept all of us there.

KS: It’s clear that you love what you do. And it’s great that you continue doing it. Are you still writing music?

NS: I am. I have four CDs, some house music, and some more I call soul. And then the last album I did was my tribute to Jimmy. And it’s called not to the storyteller. And that’s the album I’m going to be doing in its entirety when I get to the credit center. And I’m also going to be doing some of my original material.

KS: Can you name your top five R&B artists or other genres if you like any?

Nadirah Shakoor performs with Coral Reefer Band alchetron.com

NS: Okay, so I’m not a young girl. My favorites are old school. Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway. I love Ella Fitzgerald. I love Jill Scott. And I’ve recently fallen in love with Beyoncé, believe it or not, in that last couple of years. I have a cousin who is big Beyoncé fan, a member of the BeyHive, and she’s taken me to three Beyoncé concerts. And I really, really love the way people leave her concerts feeling. So I would have to throw her in there too. I like CeeLo. And I love A Tribe Called Quest. And my favorite house DJ is Osunlade. And he’s also my best friend and he produces most of my house music. And I like him because he takes us on a musical journey throughout Africa and the world. He’s traveled a lot and his house music is…I label it ancestral house. The drums and…it’s just the journey he takes us on is wonderful. So yeah, those would be my favorites.

KS: I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. This was so fun.

NS: Thank you so much, Kim. I enjoyed it too.

KS: The final two pieces of music in this interview, Grief Interrupted, which was written after Jimmy Buffett’s passing, and Chocolate Star were previously unreleased by Nadirah Shakoor and Osunlade.

Krannert Center Uncorked with Nadirah Shakoor is presented in collaboration with Illinois Soul 101.1 FM in celebration of Black History Month. Krannert Center for the Performing Arts is an underwriter of Illinois Public Media.

Kimberly Schofield

Kimberly Schofield

Kimberly Schofield is the host of Morning Edition and covers arts and entertainment for Illinois Newsroom. When she is not covering the arts, she is performing in plays and musicals or running the streets of CU.

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