shesaid.so speaks to Mona Haydar
Following Mona’s takeover of the shesaid.so Spotify playlist, Annabel Ross speaks to Mona Haydar, whose first single was named by Billboard critics as one of the 25 top feminist anthems of all time.
Mona Haydar is a Muslim rapper, activist and artist. Growing up in Flint, Michigan as a Syrian American, Mona developed her sound which is deeply rooted in her intersectional identity and sensibilities. After the video for her first single “Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab)” went viral in 2017, Billboard critics named the track one of 2017’s top protest songs and then later named it one of the 25 top feminist anthems of all time. Her debut EP, Barbarican, drops on November 2nd.
AR: Tell us about growing up in Flint, Michigan. How multicultural was it? Did you encounter a lot of religious intolerance there?
MH: Growing up in Flint was amazing especially as far as the art scene goes. I was really blessed to get to come up around amazing artists who were constantly challenging themselves to be better and better artists. Going to Carman Ainsworth high school and the University of Michigan -Flint gave me a unique experience of being around all kinds of people. I have to say that it was black women (and a couple of men too) who really affirmed me in my path- bringing me in close and helping me see that my voice was important for the story of my future and the future of my people. They helped me see and understand that my art wasn’t just for me- that it was for my community. They gave me the tools and depth I needed to take this thing to the place where it is now.
AR: How did you get into music? What sort of music were you into as a teenager? Was music a big thing in your household growing up?
MH: I grew up in a culture which saw music as “haram” or impermissible. I used to sneak down to the basement and record from the radio onto little cassettes. It was such a thrill. As a young girl, I was really interested in the sounds of my culture. We were at the Arabic grocery store one day and they had these cds of Um Kulthoum concerts and I asked if I could get one. My mother agreed because there was one that was more religiously oriented. It was called “The heart desires all that is beautiful” and it’s about how we all crave closeness with the Oneness, the Divine. It was about 5 years ago when I really decided to make the transition from poetry to rap.
AR: It sounds like your parents were quite liberal and encouraging of you to make your own choices, is that right? What impact do you think that had on you?
MH: My parents were very loving and affirming, but also very deeply rooted in the discipline it takes to be a success no matter the industry. My parents raised me with a real devotion to service — they cultivated in me and all my siblings the need to go out and be someone doing beautiful work in the world. My parents got married in Damascus and then came to America. My mother was 19 and she didn’t speak English. She had 8 kids and then decided she wanted to go to college when I was around 4 years old. She got her degree and then helped to found a school and still works as a teacher at that school. No one else around her from her friend group was doing what she did. She was the trailblazer and now lots of women in her community are doing it and so whenever she’s like, “slow down” or “do something more normal,” I tell her that it’s all her fault because she taught me through her example how to be a badass.
AR: How hard has it been for you to forge the identity that you have — one that, as has been noted, does not sit well with either Islamophobes or conservative Muslims?
MH: I’m Barbarican. Never fully accepted and I’m not trying to fight for acceptance or tolerance. I’m just out here living my life, making art and enjoying my work. I think art is about creating culture and I hope that the culture I’m creating is healing and loving. To the extent that bigots put out hate and gross energy, I hope to put out love and affirmation.
AR: Tell us about transitioning from a poet into a rapper. Was it difficult for you? Did you have a teacher or mentor? Who did you look up to — anyone whose style you wanted to emulate?
MH: I first heard hip hop from my older sister who let me listen to Mos Def’s black on both sides album on her walkman while we were in Damascus one summer visiting our grandmother. That album helped to understand and see how rap was and could be prayer- how it could be spiritual. I was deeply moved by that album. The transition from poetry to rap wasn’t an easy one- but it feels natural — it feels like growth for me as an artist.
AR: How did you find the producers and collaborators with whom you’ve worked so far?
MH: A lot of my collaborative world has emerged organically. I haven’t worked with that many people but they’re all people I really respect. Tunde Olaniran and I have co-written a lot of my stuff that’s out. And my EP, Barbarican was produced by a duo from LA called Culture Shock. It’s Corron Cole and James Bunton and they’re amazing- so excited for the world to hear our collaboration.
AR: Can you talk a bit about your upcoming debut album — themes that you touch on, what we can expect from it musically?
MH: The EP is about a new identity we’ve forged that affirms us exactly as we are. If they’re civilized, I’d rather stay savage. If drones, proxy wars, extractionism, white supremacy and mass incarceration are civilized, then I’d rather be a savage. That’s what the EP is about. It’s a celebration of POC and our communities and our cultures- it’s about honoring our beauty, our ways of being as valid and valuable.
AR: Please describe each track in a sentence or two.
MH: Barbarian — This song is about decolonizing our hearts and minds.
Suicide Doors — This song was super close to my heart and I had to include it because I’m hoping to open up the conversation further in communities of color as we seek proper access to mental wellness and health. The song features Drea d’Nur who is incredible.
Lifted — This song is about my experience with Post partum depression and the video is about the grieving process of what it feels like when you’ve lost yourself.
American — This song is meant to be a fun and funny way to work out the problematic and racist politics of our current administration.
Miss me — This is probably my favorite track of all. It’s probably a proper representation of what’s to come from me. It features Omar Offendum who, like me is Syrian-American. He’s an amazing emcee.
Mona Haydar’s debut EP, Barbarican, drops on November 2nd.
M O N A ::: H A Y D A R - Love, Always
Billboard critics named Mona Haydar's debut song, Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab) one of 2017's top protest songs and then later…
Annabel Ross is an Australian freelance writer currently based in Paris. She writes about arts, entertainment and lifestyle but mainly music, for publications including Rolling Stone Australia, Billboard, Mixmag, Resident Advisor, GQ, Noisey and more. She is especially passionate about sharing inspiring stories and supporting talented female artists.