Abir Has A Voice, And She’s Not Shy About Using It

By Teta Alim

"Some artists... they're just riding the music,” says Arlington-reared singer Abir. "I like to show my vocals off."
"Some artists... they're just riding the music,” says Arlington-reared singer Abir. "I like to show my vocals off." Cheril Sanchez

Abir Haronni grew up in Arlington, Virginia. But the D.C. suburbs didn’t offer enough hustle for her.

“New York is a lot more inspiring, to be honest,” says the 21-year-old vocalist, who relocated to Astoria, Queens, last July. “Being here, everyone is out to get it, so you’re either inspired by it or you’re intimidated by it.”

It doesn’t seem like Abir is intimidated by much, especially when it comes to singing.

“Some artists, and I don’t mean to throw any shade, but they don’t really sing, they’re just riding the music,” Abir says, politely. “Me, I’m the complete opposite. I like to blow. I like to show my vocals off.”

That’s precisely what she does on “Wave,” her latest song, which debuted on the Fader‘s website in January. A sleek dance-pop track with accents of R&B and house music, it captures the gravitational pull of her vocals — she pushes and pulls, commanding a rolling tide of beats and bass. Fellow Virginian Masego wades in alongside her, bearing speedy verses and drags from his saxophone.

But Abir doesn’t need studio enhancements to sound this magnetic. She summons the same power over a simple backdrop of piano and strings.

That’s because the singer — who returns to the D.C. area Feb. 26 to open for The-Dream at Howard Theatre — moves with polished ease between genres.

When she began recording music at age 14, she focused on a more soulful sound. Now she’s working across styles. “I don’t like putting [my music] in a box,” she says, “but I’m kind of mixing jazz, a little bit of R&B and even a little bit of pop. So it’s like all three things that I grew up on.”

Though she was raised in the D.C. area, Abir moved to the U.S. from Fez, Morocco, at age 5. When Abir turned 6, her father introduced her to the music of Etta James.

“Her songwriting is, like, impeccable,” the vocalist says, a smile in her voice. “I would listen and literally try to mimic her. I would write out like, ‘She’s talking about this, she’s using this many syllables, she’s using this and this line’ — and I would go through and try to figure out ways on how to create a good song.”

She mingled her American influences with music from her home continent — particularly Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, whom she describes as the “Aretha Franklin of Arabic music.”

“I could listen to Umm Kulthum all day long,” Abir says. “She doesn’t miss a note. I drew inspiration from that and I actually sampled one of her songs.”

Classic tastes notwithstanding, Abir has always turned an ear toward pop, hip-hop and R&B. In fact, she says, at an early public performance — her fourth grade talent show — she sang Jennifer Lopez’s “All I Have.” She even rapped LL Cool J’s verses.

Not that she foresees a future as a rapper. “Hell, no,” she says.

But Abir still keeps one foot in the hip-hop world — she cropped up on a song by Brooklyn rapper Fabolous in 2014 — and the stylish singer has dipped her toe into fashion, performing during New York Fashion Week in 2015. She gave her personal twist to ‘90s hits as models dressed in breezy Baja East designs walked the runway.

Breezy may also describe Abir’s current approach to releasing music. She came close to dropping an EP two years ago — she says it was finished and ready to go — but scrapped it. After playing some shows, she felt she’d progressed beyond the work on those recordings. She doesn’t have immediate plans for another EP or album; she says for now, she just wants to unveil new songs periodically.

Ultimately, it’s live performance — not long sessions in the studio — that keeps Abir infatuated with music.

“When I do a show, I’m singing to people and feeling their reactions, and that’s the best part about it,” she says. “In the studio, you’re thinking the worst — like, ‘When do we finish? How many more hours?’”

Abir performs Feb. 26 at Howard Theatre.