“I am human,” deadpans Sevdaliza on “Human”, the chilly centerpiece of the Tehran-born songstress’ debut album ISON (2017). And yet, as she first took the stage on an unsuspecting Wednesday night in New York City, she looked – and acted – anything but. With her sculptural leather bustier, plastic collar, and muscular build, Sevdaliza resembled a sort of 23rd century Michelangelo statue. She moved with dignified staccato prowess, an android predator stalking the tiny stage before a crowd of wide-eyed spectators.
Since 2014, Sevda “Sevdaliza” Alizadeh has been quietly redefining modern electronic music through her ambient brand of soulful, sensuous witch-pop. Before then, she lived many lives – as an Iranian refugee, as a professional basketball player, as a master’s student of communications. Her viral concept music videos – standout “That Other Girl” features a glossy 3D dreamscape created by Berlin art duo Pussykrew – have helped the songstress garner a considerable amount of acclaim and cult status throughout her relatively short career. Debut LP ISON, which was just released in April, is a strange and beautiful audiovisual project that was created in collaboration with experimental artists Hirad Sab and Sarah Sitkin. Its visuals explore the uncanny valley of Sevdaliza’s likeness; its lyrics explore Sevdaliza’s malleable relationship with what it means to be human. In support of ISON, Sevdaliza released a nine-stop headlining world tour, featuring three North American dates. Her New York City show (at The Studio @ Webster Hall) sold out weeks in advance, and two hours before doors opened, the line for entry wrapped around the block.
The New York show opened to a chorus of eager voices chanting “queen”, “goddess”, and the like. Disembodied hands in the crowd clenched tight against the stems of white and pink peony roses. Sevdaliza entered the room with cool indifference, responding to the crowd’s reaction as if it were an incantation and she were spellbound. She operated on another plane, swiveling her torso against a flower-covered mic stand and touching herself to the music with long, manicured hands. Her machine-like body moved as clockwork alongside a dancer, Naseem, whom she threw around the stage as both prop and lover. The choreography was intricate and severe, but it worked deliciously for the character Sevdaliza was playing – if, I wondered, it even were a character. Only later in the set did Sevdaliza betray this calculated stage persona to reveal an unquestionable humanity, the very humanity she battles throughout ISON: “Is this a dream?” the singer asked the crowd in soft monotone. “I hadn’t made music until three years ago. If you knew where I come from… you wouldn’t think this could be real.”
Born in Iran, Sevdaliza and her mother fled the country as refugees before relocating to the Netherlands. As an Iranian, she was directly affected by Trump’s unconstitutional travel ban – and responded to it with a reflective Farsi opus “Bebin” (which means “look”). She wrote and produced the track in a 48-hour period and released it immediately afterwards. “This feeling makes you feel grand,” she sings in her native Farsi. “Yet this same feeling makes me feel small. Don’t oblige me what to feel, if I don’t feel it at all.”
Sevdaliza explained how, the previous week, she had been invited to play a show in the country Georgia. When she approached the Georgian stage, Sevdaliza heard thousands of people chanting her first name, Sevda, coupled with thirty or forty Iranian flags. These people had travelled hundreds of miles from Iran just to see their very own Sevdaliza perform. It was glorious – so glorious, in fact, that when Sevdaliza saw them, she had a panic attack onstage.
One week later, Sevdaliza tweeted a request for white and pink peony roses in New York – which seemed to explain the garden of flowers growing from tonight’s fervent crowd. In Sevdaliza’s body of work, roses represent growth and power in the face of adversity and hate. The roses came from dozens of bodies at all directions, a living, breathing, dancing bouquet. Given their context, it seemed especially poignant that they come from an American crowd. Sevdaliza plucked a flower from each singular hand, nurturing every bud with a kiss before gently handing it back to its owner. She thanked each person a thousand times, likely for reasons no other person in the room will ever understand. Before an encore of “Sirens of the Caspian”, Sevdaliza thanked the crowd once more.
As a performer, Sevdaliza is raw power and sensuality – but it was moments like this during the set that she revealed Sevda, a woman marked by vulnerability, kindness, and humanity. If Sevdaliza is a force of the unnatural, then Sevda is a force of nature. Both women radiate with an aura too bright for the room they inhabit. Together, they create an entire universe in the shape of a girl. Like our own universe, Sevdaliza is full of otherworldly mystery, strangeness, and beauty – in her music, performance, and experience. It is our duty to listen and learn from the stars. They may just be human after all.
Words and photos by Megan.