Earlier this year, Fehdah was gearing up for a big move to London. The Irish-Sierra Leonean musician had spent much of the previous 12 months flying back and forth from her Dublin home for gigs, and she'd had enough of the costly and time-consuming travel.
"Walking around London with loads of bags is not fun," she says drily. But then the pandemic hit, the country shut down, and live music performances were put on indefinite hold. She ended up moving to Carlow with her older sister Sallay, a fellow artist known by her stage name Loah. Now, instead of rushing between gigs on the Tube, Fehdah is relishing life in the countryside and having her own garden to potter around in.
"Although I was born in London and I have quite a connection to London, generally speaking I like smaller towns - I enjoy the peace and quiet," she explains. "I've got a dog, I'm a bit more outdoorsy, I'm a big gardener and I've got loads of vegetables and flowers, so it was always going to be tough for me to leave Ireland. That's why my mum moved back to Ireland in the first place, she was like, 'My kids need to see the sky!'"
Fehdah (30), whose given name is Emma Garnett, is quick to laugh, chatty and animated in conversation, though she's also thoughtful when reflecting on the challenges creatives have faced during lockdown, the lack of role models for non-white students in education, and the racial reckoning ignited around the world following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by US police officers.
Fehdah is the middle child of five siblings. Her eldest brother, David, lives in Slovakia with his family, and her youngest sister, Victoria, just turned nine, while Sallay and younger brother Thomas are musicians too. The three of them occasionally join in on each other's projects, but she says they have yet to figure out a way to unite their talents.
"It's probably a sibling ego thing," she muses. "I'm sure it would lead to fights and discomfort but that's how it is for me collaborating with people anyway - I don't collaborate that much and usually when I do, there are very clear roles. I'm a vocalist, I can do production and I play guitar, but everyone in my family can do the same shit! I can see how it would lead to someone saying, 'I want to play guitar there' and someone else saying, 'But I want to play guitar there!'"
Fehdah is more often a one-person band, and since her debut EP Like No Other in 2017, she has released a string of singles, including her new track, Day In Shock, accompanied by a video featuring a vibrant tableau of women around a 1980s BMW.
Her multi-layered sound is informed by a life spent moving between the UK, Ireland and West Africa. Her family moved to Maynooth when she was two, before upping sticks again to Gambia when she was nine as part of her mother Anne's work with Apso, an Irish NGO.
"Moving anywhere when you're a kid is kind of a lot," Fehdah observes. "That drastic change in environment is intense, but it was even more intense because we were going to a different continent, with a different school system and languages that we didn't know how to speak, so it made it harder to integrate the way we felt integrated in Ireland." The family also spent time in Freetown in her father Tommy's native Sierra Leone, before Fehdah reluctantly returned to Maynooth aged 14. "I wasn't even sure if I wanted to come home," she says. "Moving back was weird. Getting used to being a teenager in Ireland... people are doing completely different stuff than teenagers in West Africa!"
Growing up on two continents meant that Fehdah's childhood enjoyed a rich soundtrack, spanning the classical music she learned to play on the violin and piano during her school years, and the Senegalese and Malian artists such as Youssou N'Dour, Oumou Sangaré and Ali Farka Touré that her mum listened to in West Africa.
"Living there actually put that sound in our ears, but we didn't explore it ourselves until we were a bit older," she recalls. "I didn't realise at the time how many amazing, influential artists I was being exposed to."
When she joined a band in college, Fehdah started to develop her own sound, fusing Afrofuturism, house and even traditional sean-nós, which she sees as closely linked to West African singing. At gigs, Fehdah often puts her own spin on the haunting lament Amhrán Mhuighinse.
"There's a book called The Atlantean Irish, it's by this historian [Bob Quinn] who believes there were North Africans in Ireland well before we think. He goes through this theory via old Irish art, but it does have a history in music as well," she explains.
"I've always noticed this - if you listen to traditional North African music, the way they sing, they're like cousins. In westernised music, you don't get that much lilting and ornamentation, the adding of grace notes and all that - that's a traditional Irish thing, and that's so prevalent all over Africa. I hear it straight away."
An upbringing on the move isn't the only part of her background that feeds into her music. So too does her work in astrophysics, which she studied and now teaches at NUI Maynooth. After a semester doing sociology, she decided to transfer to the sciences, which she recently wrote on Instagram was partly because she loved physics but also "so nobody could ever tell me that I was stupid, or lazy, or a troublemaker".
"I felt like the easiest way to go about my life without people stressing me out was to fit what their idea of intellect is," she says now. "If you slot yourself in there somehow, then you can get loads of other things done without being questioned. I wanted to be a musician, so I was like, if I have an astrophysics degree, it just silences people. It does have an effect, even though I don't necessarily buy into that any more - you hold a certain place in society when you excel in academics, especially in the scientific world. We kind of revere those types of jobs."
As well as being mentally stimulating and personally rewarding, her work has given her an education in problem-solving that comes in just as handy when writing songs.
"Working that part of your brain helps you solve problems in every part of life. You see the problem, you write down all the parameters, then combine those together to get the desired result. I feel that way of thinking has really helped me with writing," she notes.
"The first part is the creative part, which I still don't know how to explain where it comes from, but there has to be a part where you organise those ideas and present them in a way that makes sense to the rest of the world. I think science is all about that: taking phenomena that people find amazing and mysterious, and reducing them down to something that can be understood."
Working at a university, Fehdah has seen first-hand how Irish classrooms have evolved into much more diverse spaces than in her own schooldays. Yet that diversity is still under-represented in academia and mainstream culture.
"Ireland has work to do when it comes to representation in probably every field," she observes. "And I'm a teacher, so I can see how young people in Ireland are changing. Especially now coming into their 20s, there are going to be so many more Black Irish people than there were when I was a child. We have to make a decisive move to [reflect] that, but I'm not a politician so I don't know how to do that.
"All I do know is that if people don't have role models or people who they feel see them and their story, it's very unlikely they're going to want to be involved in certain things. The onus is on the person who is privileged to make a space that Black and brown people can then occupy.
"Most of the students I've had, they instantly want to vibe with me, especially if they're Black or brown, because for the most part, they haven't ever seen a Black teacher. I've never seen a Black teacher either, and though I'm sure there are others, it's not enough, considering how many Black students we have. It's frustrating."
The same goes for the Irish arts scene, which Fehdah describes as socially segregated - by race and by class. When she plays gigs in Ireland, much of her audience is white, and so are most of the team behind the scenes.
"That sometimes gets to me a little bit more," she says. "I'm not a promoter or a booker, I certainly wouldn't put anyone on blast over it, but I feel like if there's more representation behind the scenes, it will make for a more diverse audience naturally. When I'm in London, for example, the audiences are generally much more mixed. That will happen with Ireland eventually, but we do have to make a more concerted effort to put Black and brown people behind the scenes in places of power, especially because it's often hip-hop, rap and R&B - genres that Black Americans invented - that we are celebrating."
With in-person events called off, artists have been innovating ways to share their work digitally, and this year, the nationwide arts showcase, Culture Night, is reimagined in a socially distant form, with much of the programme moving online.
Fehdah is one of the Trailblazers, a group of ambassadors raising awareness about the events this Friday, which will include a pre-recorded acoustic performance of her song Don't You Lie.
It's the latest in a series of virtual gigs for Fehdah. "I was meant to play a gig in Albania this year, and I looked at one of the streams and there were loads of people from Albania watching. It was a nice little reminder like, you kind of did a gig in Albania!" she says, laughing.
"It gives you a bit of hope and encouragement, that there are people in places you would never imagine who are engaging with your art even though they can't be there in person.
"The disadvantages are [missing] the truly live element, where people are standing in front of you and anything can happen. I miss seeing the faces of the people that I perform to and having bants with them, especially with Irish crowds, because someone in the back will inevitably say something hilarious. Little moments like that, I definitely miss."
Like many performers, Fehdah is concerned about the future of gigs, which are typically the primary source of income for musicians, as royalties from streaming services pay so poorly.
"Festival season would basically be a person's wage," she points out. "That's money that most artists can't really do without. I'm worried about that, but I'm feeling hopeful at the same time, because I can see that some countries are pulling through."
She admits that she's been lucky to be able to continue teaching online, which provides another income stream. Otherwise, the time in lockdown has been useful for fixing and finishing her old songs. But as we speak, Fehdah is preparing to go to see her father, who works for an environmental NGO in Freetown.
"I'm one of those people who is from two places, so when Ireland locked down, I was basically locked out of one of my homes, because Sierra Leone weren't even letting citizens go back," she explains. "Now they've lifted that, so I and a lot of people I know are able to go back to see our families after so long."
Fehdah will be in Sierra Leone for Culture Night. Outside of coordinating events on the night, she'll be working with her dad on a project to plant 500,000 trees. Since the global uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, Fehdah says she's been looking for something tangible on which to concentrate her efforts.
"It's been rough for everybody, so I don't want to monopolise or individualise it too much because it's a pain that we're all feeling. I don't really know yet how I feel because we're still in it," she says with a sigh. "I and a lot of people in the world are still wondering how this is all gonna pan out and where we're gonna be this time next year, what kind of issues we'll have to be raising. I'm trying to monitor my expectation levels and focus this energy I have on things that are really fruitful.
"Being a gardener, I know one thing that makes me really happy is having my hands in the soil. I think, once I start doing things like that - that are for the betterment of the very place that I'm often talking about, Africa - that will genuinely make me feel good. I'm really excited to do that."
Fehdah is a Culture Night Trailblazer for 2020 and will take part in an online performance for Visual arts centre in Carlow this Friday; see culturenight.ie
Portrait by Abdullah Abe Neihum
Sunday Indo Life Magazine