Camellia Abou-Odah was three months old the first time she ever sang: her mother says she belted out an impromptu tune to accompany her father, who casually filled the kitchen with Islamic melodies. Though it was her father’s extraordinary voice that first inspired her to sing, that few minutes in the kitchen was the last time they would ever share a song.
Born and raised in Kansas City to a strict Muslim father from Gaza and a self-described liberal Muslim mother from Lebanon, Camellia has struggled to stay true to traditional values while at the same time nurturing her passion for singing, which her father prohibits.
She’s now in the middle of recording her first songs with Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Danny Sembello, and she smiles confidently as we talk over Thai iced coffee near the University of Southern California in South Central Los Angeles. It’s casual sweatpants and sandals this afternoon, but it’s hard not to notice her boisterous brown curls and big smile when she walks in. She looks like a slender, young, Arab Chaka Khan. The ease and grace with which she speaks betray the fact that the long, arduous road to this point has broken family bonds and challenged her sense of self and identity.
Camellia’s father is often chosen to lead prayers at his local Islamic center in Kansas City thanks to both his piety and mellifluous voice. Her mother, Dr. Basimah Khulusi, says her ex-husband had even entertained notions of becoming a singer himself, before dismissing the idea as “a childish notion.” He came to America from a prominent family in Palestine but was far from a religious fundamentalist, until his daughter was born.
“When I met him, he was different, and then he flipped,” says Camellia’s mother. “He went back to the old traditions that he grew up with. Having a daughter was a driving force because in the Muslim tradition his honor lies in what ends up happening with his daughter.”
A Singing Career in the Making
Camellia’s shot at the big time came to her by chance: she met Stevie Wonder after an awards show in 2009 and was invited back to the VIP room. There, an assistant to Wonder asked her to play her demos for Sembello, a longtime friend and collaborator of Wonder’s. The producer was impressed with the material, all of which Camellia wrote herself, but said she needed to come back later with more “undeniable” songs before he considered working with an unsigned artist.
Eight months later Camellia played new songs for Sembello that she’d written and recorded, and he agreed to produce her best work. Camellia has already finished recording the vocals on those tracks and Sembello’s team hopes to have them complete in the next few weeks, at which point they’ll also use them to generate interest in a record deal.
Like much popular music, her style defies a label. A dynamic blend of electronic beats with an R&B soul gives her dramatic voice — aspiring to Whitney Houston-like power — a solid foundation on which to hang her introspective lyrics.
“Rarely do I come across a young artist who can transcend the boundaries of musical genres,” says Sembello. “Her songs are raw, organic, and from the heart.”
A New Sense of Self in a New City
Camellia says she grew up a “daddy’s girl.”
“I was incredibly, incredibly attached to him, followed him even to the bathroom.”
But when she was eight, Camellia’s father came to see her sing at a school performance. He told her she did a good job but that she could never do it again.
As she grew older, their relationship deteriorated. Camellia began hiding her singing from her father, and he kept finding her out. But she harbors surprisingly little animosity.
“He’s a really great guy…he’s really charismatic, and he’s really charming,” she says. She described him as the “hub of the community,” the kind of guy that everyone loves to be around. But for his daughter, it was different: she felt controlled and constrained. Though her father’s more extreme restrictions eased over the years — by high school he no longer forbade her from laughing in public or wearing make up, and he let her put her hair down — Camellia knew she would not be allowed to be herself.
She says her father “felt a sense of betrayal” when she packed up and went to the University of Southern California for college. He wanted her to stay close to home and have an arranged marriage.
“I tried to do everything I could to not be disrespectful to him and not hurt his feelings,” she says, while at the same time knowing that she had to get out on her own; she knew she had to try to sing in Los Angeles.
Her new life at USC contrasted starkly with her parental turmoil. She says she was happy for the first time and realized that “not everything in life needs to be a calamity.” Camellia began to see her father’s conditions for love — no singing, marrying young, and wearing the hijab — as too much to bear. She soon slipped out of touch with him and they haven’t spoken in almost two years.
Camellia, now a senior at USC majoring in communications, has not completely rebelled against her father’s ways. After a period of wearing shorter skirts and dresses, she says she became “more conservative” on her own.
At parties, she often wants “to be wearing more clothes than everyone else.”
“That’s what I want, not because anyone told me,” she says. “I respect the values system that he’s [her father] an extreme of a lot. I think a lot of that stuff is positive for life and society and everything, but not anything at an extreme.”
While she doesn’t always dress conservatively and is by no means the “perfect” Muslim, the teachings of Islamic faith have influenced her art.
“I adhere to the principles I adopted as a result of learning that faith, the principles that I now lead my life by. Not Islam, but the lessons and morals I have pulled from it.”
As a singer, for example, Camellia has vowed to not become another scantily-clad sex symbol.
“I have so much respect for the things he [my father] taught me to have respect for, and that respect never went away, because those things became a part of me,” she says. “If I were to disrespect those things, it would be disrespecting part of myself.”
While recently recording vocals for another artist’s hip-hop track, she heard sacred Islamic words spoken in one of the verses:bismi-llahi r-ra?mani r-ra?im, or “In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful.”
But for Camellia, those holy words don’t belong in a commercial song. She apologized to the producers and her colleagues, saying that she couldn’t have her voice on the track.
The Roots of Her Islamic Faith
In her private life, Camellia still prays and goes to Eid prayer, though she doesn’t fast for Ramadan as much as she’d like to.
“Prayer still makes me feel better. I’m still very spiritual,” she says. “I believe there is a connecting flow, a connecting wavelength, and whatever the word is for it, it is God, and the Koran says God is that, not a person.”
Camellia’s mother knows how difficult her daughter’s chosen path will be both inside and outside the family.
“Her dad doesn’t want her to sing because he’s afraid society is going to think of her as a sex object,” she says. “He’s right, society is going to look at her as a sex object. So what do we do about this dilemma? In America, they don’t respect women in Hollywood either.”
Camellia says she still loves her father more than anything.
“Just because I felt I needed to do this doesn’t mean I don’t hurt about it or miss him or hope that he’s OK … I won’t sing on anything that I can’t hold my head high about to the people who raised me. If that means I won’t make it, then I won’t make it, because I will not sacrifice my integrity to be famous.”
Jon Dillingham is a graduate student at the University of Southern California and freelance journalist who has written from Vietnam for Reuters and Press Association.
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The headline of this post has been changed at the request of Camellia’s family on February 18, 2011.