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Music Defying expectations: an interview with Muslim rapper and activist Mona Haydar

Nov. 28, 2018
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A while back, my coworker introduced me to Mona Haydar, a Syrian-American Muslim woman who is a rapper, mother, activist, and chaplain. At the time I wasn’t familiar with her work, so I got on the research train—watching one video after the other, listening to all her songs, and reading her interviews. After hours spent on the internet, I can say one thing: Mona is so powerful and unapologetically herself.

When I first moved to the U.S. on my own at seventeen, I often hid that I was Muslim—partly out of fear, but also due to my concern that people would instantly judge me because of the inaccuracies surrounding Islam in Western media.

I’m still struggling with that part of my identity, but after I saw the music video for “Wrap My Hijab,” Mona’s debut song, I couldn’t stop myself from smiling and snapping my fingers at the same time. It felt liberating. The diverse representation of Muslim women in that video made me feel seen and heard.

Luckily enough, I got to sit down with Mona just a few weeks before the release of her debut EP, "Barbarican," on a sunny Thursday morning by the water. We spent our time talking about our similar experiences as Muslim women of color, self-care, activism, and of course, her music.

Adolescent: What was it like growing up in Flint, and how do you navigate being a Syrian-American? 

Mona: I remember being in a gas station—I had really curly hair, and...this white woman put her hands on my head and was like, “Oh, wow.” [She was] touching my head, my hair. And it's really interesting because that memory didn't even come back until Solange’s song, “Don't Touch My Hair,” [came out]. I was listening to that song and I broke out crying. And I mean, growing up in Flint… My parents were some of the first Muslim Americans to come to Flint, so they were kind of forging their own way.

Adolescent: How do you build your narrative by yourself?

Mona: I'm really stubborn. I won't allow the world to tell me who I am. I think that identity comes from a place deep inside of myself—like, who I am at a soul level, at a spiritual level, that's been here and it's not going anywhere. It's not for the world to dictate… So all of those prescribed ideas of who we're supposed to be, especially as a Muslim woman, [have made me realize] I have to forge a new identity in some ways. The only time I ever saw a Muslim woman on television growing up was when there was some air strikes somewhere. So that's the only place my imagination could go! And I had to actively decide that wasn't going to be [me].

Adolescent: What caught your interest in hip-hop and rap?

Mona: I was in Damascus, Syria with my older sister. We were visiting our grandma there and...spending time with family and learning about our history, our culture, and just being with our people. [My grandma] had brought a bunch of different albums with her, and one of [them] was Mos Def’s "Black on Both Sides" and I just fell in love. 

Adolescent: When did you start writing and rapping?

Mona: I was really young. I mean, I remember walking to my school bus stop as a [first-grader] and writing hooks in my head. It's like writing little songs in my head. It was weird. I was kind of a weird kid. But ever since I can remember I've been doing poetry. I've been putting words together, trying to speak the language of my heart. [It’s definitely] hard to tell stories from this deep place…

Adolescent: That’s awesome. So, what inspired “Wrap My Hijab? How did the creative process come around for you? 

Mona: That song's really an anthem. I wanted it to be like a war cry—a rallying song [everyone could use to] just get together, turn up, have a good time, and enjoy life in spite of all the people telling us that we're not good enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, or strong enough… I wanted to look people in the eye in the video and say “All around the world, love women, every shade.” Like, no matter who you are, where you come from, what you do, what you don't do—I see you, and I love you.

We live in a global patriarchy, and I'm…[just] in a place where [I find] those systems and structures boring. Patriarchy, misogyny, capitalism, white supremacy—it's just boring. It's so much more fun to just be alive and to be in love then to be in a space of hatred and bigotry.

Adolescent: Yeah, that's a great way to see it, honestly. So on top of being a rapper and a mom, you also received your master's recently. I'm curious—why Christian Ethics for your degree?

Mona: I think a lot of people don't realize how instrumental Christian ethics are in holding up problematic systems like white supremacy… One of the reasons why the massacre and genocide of the Indigenous people of America happened is because of Christian theology. Bad Christian theology. A misuse of Christian theology. When you really understand that—like, if you're willing to look at the places that are not so happy and easy to look at—you can [make change]. 

Adolescent: How did you balance everything as a mom, rapper, activist, and a student? What do you do for self-care? 

Mona: I just had the hardest year and a half of my life. I had a baby, I released my first music video and song, and it went viral. My life got turned upside down and I finished my master's degree and I was working as a chaplain at NYU, so I had a lot going on. I really suffered, and I struggled with it all. I had really bad postpartum depression. I struggled to take care of myself, and I think this year I'm coming into a space of really having better boundaries. 

Adolescent: What inspired your “Ask a Muslim” project? How have people responded to your partner, a white man who converted to Islam?

Mona: It was actually his idea! I feel like only a blue-eyed, red-headed, heterosexual white man could come up with the idea to actually put a target on himself and invite people to take a shot. That kind of privilege is meant to be used that way, you know? So I really respect that he came up with the idea and carried it out. My husband's Sebastian, my partner and co-parent. He's this really amazing white man who is using his upper middle-class privilege, heterosexual, white dismantle the systems which make him privileged. And I just think that’s the job of all white people. 

When we started to do “Ask a Muslim,” I was scared. He was like, “Do you still want to wear hijab?” Because the world is really scary, and I've had people say crazy stuff to me. I've had a guy spit at me like. It’s like, do you want to put yourself in a position where you're vulnerable? I just [know that] I'm not going to give up what I love and what I believe because the world is messed up. The world can change. I don't need to change the parts of myself that I love and honor and the parts that make me a better person. This Hijab, for me, [is] about [me] working to be more generous, more kind, more loving, more affirming, and more honoring. 

Adolescent: How do you stay authentic?

Mona: I think [it’s] a constant negotiation. We live in a world where a certain kind of pretty—[the] Kardashian kind of pretty—is the only kind of pretty. Yes, they're beautiful, but that's not the only kind of beauty that I value. That stuff is great, but I'm more interested in the ways in which we are. We're connecting with one another and we're using our very short lives to make this space more loving for everyone, not just for people who we perceive to be physically attractive… Staying authentic is being really hard on myself and critical and never letting myself sort of hit a plateau where I'm just like, “I don't need to like work on myself anymore. I've learned enough. I know enough.” You know? [It’s] a constant inner struggle to be the best you possible. 

Adolescent: How can the younger generation combat prejudice and racism, and keep fighting in their own ways for social justice?

Mona: I don't think it's the job of people of color to take down the systems of injustice that oppressed them. I think it's the job of the dominant culture [which is] privileged [within] those systems to take down those structures. If you're a person of color, specifically a woman of color, and you're at the forefront of the justice movement, you gotta take care of yourself… You gotta take care of yourself as a person of color. Our job is to be the most beautiful versions of ourselves and leave that mess for the people who created it. Like, yeah, there is some work for us to do—we are here to make the world more beautiful—but at a certain point you just kinda have to...let it go. That's not my work to do in the world. I know what my work is. 

photos by Anissa Amalia