Saba Nafees, a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) recipient and PhD candidate in mathematical biology at Texas Tech U., understands all too well what it’s like to live under the threat of deportation in Trump’s America. Born in Pakistan, Nafees immigrated to the States with her parents when she was 11 years-old, settling in Fort Worth, Texas where her grandparents, aunts and uncles already lived. Now, at age 26, Nafees’ DACA status expires in May, and her parents, both nearing 60, are facing deportation proceedings.
“It’s really stressful,” Nafees tells Variety. “It’s not a good situation, especially since my parents now have health problems. My older sister became a U.S. citizen last year and was sponsoring them. The challenge now is making sure ICE doesn’t get to them before they are able to secure their green cards.”
Nafees is one of 53 Dreamers from 17 States and 17 countries featured on “John Daversa Big Band: American Dreamers (Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom),” a new jazz album celebrating the diversity, talent, perseverance and patriotism of DACA recipients in America. Dropping today (Sept. 28), “American Dreamers” is not only rife with revamped recordings of iconic anthems ranging from Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” to “America the Beautiful” to James Brown’s funk-infused “Living in America,” but a clarion call to all citizens promoting the richness, beauty and critical importance of multiculturalism and its role in strengthening and emboldening our country’s ever-shifting societal fabric.
The brainchild of entertainment attorney and philanthropist Doug Davis, “American Dreamers” was sponsored by Troy Carter, former global head of creative services at Spotify, and relied on donated studio time at U. of Miami, NYU and the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. (Doug, Clive’s son, is a board member and his sister is a professor at the Institute.) There’s also a documentary in the works about the making of the record.
“It’s an experience that was hard to capture,” says Davis of what it was like to put the album together. “There was one dreamer, he was a dishwasher in Chicago, and he talked about the first time he lived in a house, with the eight other members of his family. His life didn’t exactly work out the way he wanted and he couldn’t afford guitar lessons. And then on [“American Dreamers”], for eight days he’s playing with this big band, living his dream and playing his music and there’s no way that’s not going to be a highlight of his life.”
Grammy Award-winning composer Kabir Sehgal, who produced “American Dreamers” with Davis (pictured below at right with Sehgal), is the child of immigrants, and sought with the album to create a work of art that was an antidote to the current climate of xenophobia, hatred and fear in America.
“My parents came from India many years ago, and while I was born and raised in America, I grew up knowing how important and integral immigrants were to the American experience,” says Sehgal. “I am deeply deeply about the rhetoric here in the States, and I thought we can get angry or we can create another vision of what we want America to be like. Music was a way to shed humanity of dreamers.”
The choice to make a jazz record (as opposed to, say, rock or R&B) was not only an aesthetic one, but symbolic, says Daversa, a Grammy-nominated composer, arranger and jazz trumpeter of international renown who chairs the studio music and jazz department at U. of Miami’s Frost School of Music.
“Jazz exists as the soundtrack of the downtrodden and persecuted and has been at the forefront of social justice,” he says. “Jazz lends itself to interpretative performances. Jazz allows the dreamers to be artists. I hope that people listening to this album understand that dreamers are patriotic Americans — just like we are. I hope the patriotism comes through and what, whatever a person’s preconceived notions were, that we can change them through music and shed a light on this [issue] in a way that people hadn’t looked at before.”
Not every Dreamer on the record — which includes spoken-word interstitials in which each one shares about his backstory — is a professional-caliber musician, but all of them have something to say to the American people about the nation’s current immigration crisis.
“I hope people can listen to it and forget about what people’s backgrounds are and just think about the music and the beauty in it,” says Nafees, who sings and plays piano on a couple of tracks. “Forget about immigration, forget about some people being undocumented. Listen to it as music, as humans do. That’s the goal, that people build a connection to the album and then, hopefully, it will help them understand this is a human issue.”
“The ‘American Dreamers’ project was more than just a recording session, it was an outlet for me to speak out as an undocumented immigrant through a medium that has carried my life,” adds Denzel Mendoza, who was born in Singapore and has been playing trombone since the sixth grade. “The project carries a message about the stark reality behind the lives of the undocumented youth, a community that I and hundreds of thousands of others have been a part of for most of our lives. We have been living in the shadows for too long. This project provides such an opportune moment to educate others about how difficult this reality is for us. The music on the album is incredible and the message behind the music is powerful. I want people to understand that wholeheartedly: love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.”
Senator Kamala D. Harris, who got an advance preview of the album, is already singing its praises, and plans to share its collective message of inclusion with her colleagues on the congressional floor.
“Music has always been tied to the fight for justice,” says Harris. “During the Civil Rights Movement, Nina Simone and John Coltrane performed what became anthems for freedom. ‘American Dreamers’ continues this tradition of using music to send an important message: Dreamers are Americans. You will hear these young Americans performing jazz at the highest level, speaking about their hopes, and affirming their love of the country they call home.”
U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was equally bowled over when she listened to the album, noting the enormous potential music has to unify Americans from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
“Music and the arts have always been at the heart of our nation and our identity,” says Pelosi. “The history of music in America is inseparable from the story of immigrants in America. Our brave young Dreamers embody this proud legacy, adding their vision and patriotism to make America more American. The remarkable talents and touching stories of all the Dreamers showcased in this exceptional album are a reminder of the universal power of music to transcend differences and illuminate our shared humanity.”
Abdou Doumbouya, who goes by the stage name Caliph, was born in Senegal and came to the States when he was seven with his parents, who moved to New Bedford, Mass. and exposed Caliph to musical acts “ranging from the Bees Gees to West African artists like Sekouba Bambino to Salsa artists like Celia Cruz to soul artists like Barry White and Isaac Hayes.” Davis connected with Caliph, a self-described “rapper/singer/songwriter,” over Twitter, and, soon after, he was rapping on “Immigrant Song,” adding two new verses to the original. He even has a track, “Caliph,” named after him.
For Caliph, the experience of making “American Dreamers” was not only one of musicianship and artistry but a chance to raise his voice against the bigotry and racism and hatred thrown the way of dreamers trying to carve out productive lives for themselves in America.
“As immigrants we are constantly in fear and hiding; I started making music to put an end to that and be the voice of immigration for my generation,” he says. “We have to be heard from our own perspectives. The media speaks of us in ways that are so harsh and heartbreaking that it is important for us to bring balance to America’s understanding of what being an immigrant is like and why we are just as crucial to the growth and prosperity of a country that we love as our own. I hope that this album will show the world and America how American we actually are. I’ve been here since the age of seven and have grown up American but with a chip on my shoulder full of fear and paranoia. I want America to hear our stories. I am an African-born American and am proud of that. We are humans with hopes and dreams. We deserve the opportunity to live out those dreams as we improve the country and lift it up to its highest degrees of grace and respect. This country was founded on the basis of immigration. If you ask me, what we’re doing is just as American as our forefathers who traveled here and became the foundation of what we call the United States Of America.”