#Unboxed Vol. 15: Aneesa Strings' Social Media Stardom: Boosting Music Visibility and Originality
Aneesa Strings is ridiculously versatile and a prime example of someone who can put everything together.
The Oakland, California native is a double major, a classically-trained instrumentalist and a self-taught singer who can effectively combine all of those elements to present them on her social media. Born Aneesa Al-Musawwir, she’s done guitar and bass covers on Instagram of some of the most classic songs in the history of modern music, including Janet Jackson’s “That's the Way Love Goes,” D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar,” and Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison,” among others – all to hundreds of thousands of likes and comments from admirers (and yes, some haters).
But when she’s not using her social media platform to relay that set of skills, Aneesa is working on her own music. In 2019, she released her sophomore album WAYS – an ultimate display of not only her ability to play and sing, but compose and instruct an orchestra to carry out her original selections. She’s also been involved in the reverse of this, playing and touring with bands and outfits involving the likes of Duckworth, Jose James, Kandace Springs, UMI, Teyana Taylor, and others.
In 2023, Aneesa Strings continues to relay her talent and personality through her tried and true ways. Still, she is working on a new album that will be less traditional and more listenable to a general audience. She recently spoke with BET about that project, her come-up in music, experiences along the way and being a visual representation for young Black kids considering picking up a bow and strings.
BET: What about being from Oakland prepared you musically?
Aneesa Strings: I grew up in the not-so-nice parts of Oakland, but my family, like, we were always reading and studying philosophy, politics, religion, history, and music. Our family, [my] parents, have to give them credit. They said, “Okay, we are here, but that's not who we are. And they set a tone. We did so many enriching activities as a family – hunting, fishing, some things that you wouldn't think people in this place would be [doing]. We made all our food and bread and it was awesome. Regarding music, I had older sisters who are into music, and my parents. I wasn't a bad kid but was into things I shouldn't have been. So my parents were like take all that energy and study music. So they were like you gotta learn an instrument. And I was like, fine, I'll learn violin.
Randy Porter was my teacher and he put up with a lot because there were a lot of bad kids at school. I don't know what it was about him. To this day, he still teaches middle school music. But he was like, “Everyone wants to play the violin and everybody can't play it.” So they're like, here's this bass. And I was like, Okay, fine, I'll play it. Whatever, I don't care. I'm just here because my mom. And that's when I picked it up and knew what to do.
BET: Your 2019 album WAYS is excellent. Tell me a little about putting that together…
Aneesa Strings: So that process was awesome. That was made after I graduated from Michigan State and I came back home to Oakland. I was working full-time as a teacher, I was teaching mindfulness to kids in underserved and underrepresented communities. They specifically looked for people with a degree and artists because we just made a curriculum that kids use to help them express themselves. And so I funded that whole album.
What I did was I found a studio that was an artists-first studio. They allowed me to record there for free. I just needed one session per month. I paid the engineer but I didn't have to pay for the studio time. All the music was a combination of music written at Michigan State after my first album. So I finished arranging it all, I arranged everything. Then I found an orchestra for my song “Daddy’s Girl,” I found an orchestra called Awesome Orchestra, I called their conductor. I put an email blast out to whoever wants to come. I paid them all $100 A piece, which is a joke. I wish I could pay them more. It was like an 18-20 piece orchestra. I had saved up every month. It was probably like $2,000 per session and we put that out.
BET: One of the great things you do is you do covers of classic songs, whether it’s Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, etc. And many people in your comments seem to love that version just as much because it’s different in many ways. Where did that come from and kind of describe doing that?
Aneesa Strings: I could have been doing this long ago, but because I wanted my voice to where I’m like, I want to do my originals. I want people to like me for my music. And it's like, in the past couple of years I've just humbled myself. Idiot [laughs]. People like what they already know. How can they get to know you? Just think about literally every artist – Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross. They all came in singing covers, and Aaliyah came in doing it. But her most significant attribute was she had her take on it.
What I've also realized is that, especially coming from jazzy jazz, I always play jazz but didn't necessarily connect to those songs the way that I did. I always felt like there was this void in what I liked and what I played. I played jazz, so I played "Have You Met Miss Jones?", “Flying To the Moon” and all that stuff, which is cool, but I loved, like you said, Whitney Houston, Aaliyah and Sam Cooke. This is what I listen to on my spare time. So it just took me a while to learn how to sing, develop my playing and then putting together singing and playing. That didn't really start until 2016., I started really putting that together and then I got to the point where I feel like, yeah, I'm really f*****g good.
BET: How much does being Black and being a classically trained musician and excelling in those traditionally full of white people mean to you and your representation to other young Black girls and boys who may want to do something similar?
Aneesa Strings: If you're starting with classical music, that is European music, that's white people music, that's their culture. They made these instruments. Giving credence to their culture and the technique and elements and aspects of that is important. Going through that, being the minority in that genre of music – classical music is important because it's important to give credit to whoever's music you’re studying.
When it comes to jazz, it's like, this is weird. And that's why my experience at Michigan State was so much better, even for the white students there because they're learning from Black faculty members, they're learning from people who have suffered and been through the experiences that led to the making of this music. You know that because when you when you study Tchaikovsky, you learn about Russia and [him being] forbidden from making certain music and you hear that and it informs your playing.
I believe in all music, all cultures, we should all learn from each other. So I think to get anybody who is studying a genre of music that their ancestors didn't create, learn the history of the people who made the music – whether it's classical, whether it's jazz, whether it's Afro Cuban, whether it's traditional Chinese music, or Indian music, whatever music it is.
BET: Are you working on a new album, and if so, how’s that going?
Aneesa Strings: I'm working on a vast field of music, but all of it is in common because especially my last album was all live.This album is more like maybe we got some drums from a drum pack a lot of synthesized drums, synth keys, synth strings, maybe live bass, live guitar, and vocals. That's probably the most live elements we have. Obviously some real piano playing. But it's more like produced sounding, it's more going towards the future now. We brought it up from the past – jazz and soul and all that. It still has those elements.
I'm not trying to hold myself to a certain standard. I'm not trying to make sure it's jazzy or this classical sound or make sure it has these certain chords. I'm just writing from my heart, from my soul. And if it happens to be musically hip, then cool, but I'm not shooting for that. The main thing that's different about my new music is the vulnerability of my personal life, my personal story. I feel like I've written a lot from a philosophical standpoint, like this is how the world should be, these are my thoughts on the world. But this is more like heartbreak, sadness, insecurities, my own fears, just real vulnerability, my own love stories, sexuality, my really lived experience.