Hijabi Artist Channels Beyoncé For Debut Of Her 'Resistance Music' And Video

Apr 23, 2017
Originally published on April 24, 2017 4:27 pm

Mona Haydar is a Syrian-American artist from Flint, Mich. She wears a hijab with pride. She's been a performance poet for 13 years, writing about love, trauma, loss and joy.

Earlier this month, she did something different. She released her first rap song, "Hijabi," along with an accompanying video. In just a few days, the music video went viral, with more than 1 million views on Facebook. Produced by Tunde Olaniran, it's reminiscent of Beyoncé's Lemonade visual album. It has a diverse female cast, vibrant modern choreography and camera work that creates intimacy with the viewer.

Then there's the fact that Haydar is eight months pregnant in the video. About 25 seconds in, the camera zooms out to reveal her full belly.

"It's actually really powerful that there's a pregnant woman in the video in a song that's all about women's bodies," she says. "It was just very important to challenge that narrative and to challenge that story — that not all women's bodies look the same, and women's bodies should not look the same."

Artists like Beyoncé and MIA have brought pregnant bodies into the mainstream, but Haydar says the negative views of pregnancy are still very apparent.

"The fact that a pregnant woman is in a music video was just shocking for a lot of people," she says. "And I found it really disturbing that people were so shocked. Often, people had more to say about me rubbing my belly than about the actual content."

Haydar's lyrics also comment on the notion held, even by some feminists, that the hijab is an oppressive tradition. She raps:

"What that hair look like?

Bet that hair look nice.

Don't that make you sweat?

Don't that feel too tight?

Yo what your hair look like?

Bet your hair look nice.

How long your hair is?

You need to get yo life."

Muslim women who wear the hijab have been increasingly targeted in the U.S. as Islamophobia has risen over the past few years. The number of physical assaults against Muslims in the United States reached Sept. 11-era levels last year, according to the Pew Research Center. The FBI reported 257 incidents of anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2015, a 67 percent increase from the previous year.

As a Muslim woman, breaking into the music industry has been difficult. Haydar says much of the pushback has come from the Muslim community. Some view music as haram, or "not permissible," a term used to describe things that go against religious practice. But Haydar doesn't see it that way.

"You know, I'm not a young person. I'm not this thoughtless person who's just jumping into something. Music being forbidden, I'm not interested in this conversation. Because something that promotes love and light is positive and is permissible. And not only permissible but necessary, especially in the world we live in right now," Haydar says.

She calls her music "resistance music" because it celebrates diversity and calls for women to be "unapologetic about who they are" with lyrics like: "Make a feminist planet / Women haters get banished / Covered up or not, don't ever take us for granted."

Haydar will release an album this year with more songs that focus on love and inclusiveness.

NPR's Noor Wazwaz produced this story for broadcast. Follow her @nfwazwaz.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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The head covering some Muslim women wear called a hijab often leads to heated debates. In her new song, "Hijabi," artist Mona Haydar, who chooses to wear one, talks about some of the misconceptions. Noor Wazwaz spoke to her for NPR's Code Switch.

NOOR WAZWAZ, BYLINE: Mona Haydar is a Syrian-American artist from Flint, Mich. She wears a hijab, and she wears it with pride.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIJABI")

MONA HAYDAR: (Rapping) I still wrap my hijab, wrap my hijab, wrap my hijab, wrap, wrap my hijab.

WAZWAZ: Earlier this month, she released her debut song and its music video. In just a couple of days, it went viral. Over Middle Eastern inspired beats, Haydar raps about diversity and calls for solidarity among all women.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIJABI")

HAYDAR: (Singing) All around the world love women every shade...

Women should feel empowered to speak for themselves wherever a woman is from, whatever she looks like, you know, she should have the freedom and agency to do what she wishes with her life, with her body, with everything.

WAZWAZ: Her lyrics also comment on the notion that the hijab is an oppressive tradition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIJABI")

HAYDAR: (Rapping) What that hair look like, bet that hair look nice, don't that make you sweat? Don't that feel too tight? Yo, what your hair look like? Bet your hair look nice.

WAZWAZ: Haydar says women of any religion can be feminists and deserve to be viewed as equals to white women who are often at the forefront of the feminism movement.

HAYDAR: Would I describe myself as a feminist? Yeah, I mean, I would in light of the fact that we live in a patriarchal misogynistic world. If we lived in a world that was harmonious and balanced, there would be no need for feminism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIJABI")

HAYDAR: (Rapping) Make a feminist planet. Women haters get banished. Covered up or not don't ever take us for granted.

You know, as a Muslim woman people project two identities on to me. Either I'm a belly dancer or I'm this, like, oppressed woman without agency. That's such affection for who I am and for who all of the amazing Muslim women are.

WAZWAZ: The music video has these Beyonce-esque elements like an all female cast, vibrant choreography and camera work that creates intimacy for the viewer. It also features Haydar and a group of women in hijab posing in front of minimalist backgrounds and sitting on a staircase with focused expressions. The idea for the song, well, it came to her while she was sitting on an airplane.

HAYDAR: Funny a Muslim should have an idea on an airplane, right? Don't write anything in Arabic. People might think you're doing something else. We're so starved for positive representation of Muslims, we're so starved for narratives that are meaningful and not just like the hijacker or the terrorists or the oppressed woman or the belly dancer.

WAZWAZ: That might be why her video has received more than 1 million views. But for Haydar, she doesn't really think what she did was that big of a deal.

HAYDAR: The idea that a Muslim woman should be in the headlines for doing something, I actually kind of find it leeway offensive because it's so unexpected that a Muslim woman should be doing something remarkable or something cool or exciting.

WAZWAZ: But not everyone has been receptive. Some people on social media have called the song and video cringe worthy.

HAYDAR: You know, when the haters comment on the videos, I'm like tag your hater friends because it brings more views to me. (Laughter) I'm good with that, you know? Controversy is not my enemy at this point. It's actually one of the things that has made the video do as well as it's doing.

WAZWAZ: Haydar says she's also had pushback from Muslims. Some consider music as haram, meaning not permissible. That's a term used to describe things that go against religious practice.

HAYDAR: I'm not like this thoughtless person who's just jumping into something. I've done my research. So in terms of music being forbidden, I'm just not interested in that conversation because I've looked into it myself. And I've come to the conclusion that, you know, something that promotes love and light is not only permissible, it's necessary.

WAZWAZ: Haydar expects to release an album this year with more songs focusing on love and inclusively. Noor Wazwaz, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIJABI")

HAYDAR: (Singing) All around the world love women every shade. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.