Fatimah Rashida Shabazz: Music and Movement “Stir My Soul”

From many years of knowing Fatimah, I can say she consistently moves with grace and style. Her colorful, sometimes tribal clothing dances with the rhythm she feels within. She invites you into her world at each meeting and time stands still as she expresses her creations in movement and music. She says, “Music is the seed of creation and self expression.”

Fatimah Rashida Shabazz

Fatimah Rashida Shabazz

Born in Knoxville TN and raised in Asheville from the age of 18 months, she lived in Los Angeles in her mid-twenties … pursuing fashion design and later studying music in Berkeley during college; she returned to Asheville in 1975. Fatimah feels honored to have trained with Baba Olatunji in Oakland in the early 70s. She felt a strong connection between the movement of his music and the movement of her clothing and soon both languages were joined in her work. She recounts her feelings about 60s music and says that it is, and was, “truly evolution and revolution music” that “makes me remember that I remember!” Funk music affects her similarly, and she also connects deeply with jazz, rhythm and blues, and reggae music, calling them all “outside of the box.”

Although Fatimah Rashida Shabazz is not the name she was given at birth, it is truly her ‘given’ name, inspired by a friend many years ago who was a member of the Nation of Islam. They were both seeking knowledge and awareness of the truth, particularly for people of color. He shared a story about the name Fatimah that resonated with her and she soon adopted it as her own.

Fatimah’s Dad, Levi Wilson — whom she refers to as Pape (see his profile here) — often gave her a dollar when she was a young girl to buy an album at Woolworth or Kress. He didn’t necessarily understand her passion for music, but supported her in ways that mattered, like taking her to see James Brown when he played in Asheville. She recalls the concert as incredible, even though she got in trouble with her Mom for enjoying artists like James Brown.

Her Mom’s church influence was strong and present. And Mom, Mary H. Wilson, was probably her biggest influence musically. “Mama’s instrument was the keyboard.” Fatimah remembers her Mom as an extremely brilliant and creative musician who had a Master’s Degree in Music, which was very unusual for women of color at the time… she was passionate about the arts for sure. Mary played for the choir at the Hill Street Church and for weddings, church events, celebrations, and many funerals. She could read music and play by ear. Fatimah says, “She was definitely a powerful influence in my life as she created programs, plays and outrageous anthems.”

Back in the day, Mary taught at the ‘colored school’ in Mars Hill, now called the Anderson School or the Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School. (More historical info on African American Education in Madison County, NC and Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School here.) The school served children of color in grades 1-8. Pape made sure that the 40-something black Dodge was running every day so Mary could go to work. Fatimah remembers it smelled badly of gas fumes, but it got them there and back. And today, Fatimah works passionately to support the museum project for the Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School as an important part of Mars Hill history, and her own.

Each morning the day started with breakfast “no matter what” and then Mary and Fatimah went to pick up Ms. Owens, another teacher at the school, and they made the trip on back roads from Asheville to Mars Hill well before the Interstate existed. Each school day began with Mary practicing for upcoming holiday and seasonal plays that included songs and handmade props. Fatimah remembers at a young age acting out the words from Shakespeare plays, sometimes writing stories and putting music to them. The community in Mars Hill was supportive and their shows were well attended.

Fatimah says it’s really true that “Sunday goin’ to meetin’” was very important for black women in those days and recounts the many Sundays her Mom played piano in church. She remembers watching how people reacted to Mary’s music. “We were tapping our feet when we didn’t realize it. Music creates the right to be free and it [freedom] comes out through music and dance.” Mary had a quartet called Queens of Harmony. There were two other women who greatly impacted Fatimah and Mary’s lives: Mary Lou Holloway and her sister, Rebecca. Fatimah says, “I got all holy when they would sing” at the TriStone Missionary Baptist Church.

In her early years, Fatimah played in bands at the Livingston Street and Hill Street Schools in Asheville. She wanted to play xylophone very badly, but it was taken each time she tried, so she took the saxophone. Although Fatima says she didn’t really ‘gel’ with the saxophone, or the piano for that matter, she went on to play sax at Steven’s Lee High School. Today she loves the way R&B, rap music and others are now blending their sounds with country music. She says country music has always been the biggest and most powerful on the airways, and recalls playing African drums with country musicians years ago.

The music comes full circle for her as she sometimes enjoys the drum circles in downtown Asheville, people-watching to see how some people are “still and stiff, and some not.” She reminds us that it’s okay to dance when no one is watching, if you can’t do it in public. Fatima remembers feeling shy in public and the day she got over it. She was walking down the street and really “got her groove on” after stumbling on the sidewalk. From that day on, she laughed at herself and broke free from her shyness!

Back a few years, I was personally a roadie for her band, “Whirled Rhythm Nation United” and I picked up, delivered and helped to unload equipment for the band. I remember hearing not just a count of 1, 2, 3 and 4 but, as she says, the “broad sound” of 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. Fatimah shares how the band started out at friends’ gatherings where they would “rock” to recorded music with the addition of drums and noisemakers. She believes you can always add more sound to existing music! Then they moved on to play at the Center for Creative Living and that got the word out so new gigs appeared. They played at the Black Mountain Music Festival and Bele Chere. Then they created a “shut up and dance” party in Black Mountain with prerecorded danceable music, mostly tribal!

As owner of Native Expressions on North Lexington many years ago, I remember “Whirled Rhythm Nations United” drumming up business during Bele Chere in front of my booth at the old Beanstreets (now Green Sage). It was awesome and memorable! Fatimah was also on air for WCQS when it was part of UNCA. She chuckles as she recalls that she probably had “one or two listeners” for her Tuesday night show. She also worked in advertising and on air for two other radio stations.

When asked about the recent controversy with Marvin Gaye’s family over the song called “Blurred Lines” by Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, Fatimah says that Marvin’s family surely can acknowledge the gift that Marvin shared with all, but adds that “no one owns creativity.” When Fatimah was living in LA doing fashion design by creating women’s after-five clothing, she experienced something similar when Vogue created a pattern using one of Fatimah’s designs. She still wonders where Vogue’s idea came from.

Today Fatimah is a proud member of “Womansong” and feels she has come full circle from those early days. Her Mom’s musical guidance has given her the ability to sing and read notes during rehearsals as a “high middle” in their powerful harmonies. Her enjoyment is evident when she speaks of “Womansong,” a 501c3 that donates 100% of its proceeds to New Start, a program that provides one-time grants to women in need.

Fatimah is also quite proud of her Internet TV station called WRNU. She broadcasts from her home six days a week with live TV until around midnight and then music follows. She looks for a positive future for WRNU and Internet TV in general. Music truly lives in her soul and we are blessed that she shares it with us!


Sandy McCall’s day job is working as the Broker/Owner of Southern Life Realty. When she’s not being the “mad scientist” in the kitchen or loving-up her cat and dogs, she enjoys being the Food Editor for WNC Woman Magazine and volunteering in the community. [email protected].

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