It was a hot summer afternoon and my 6-year-old daughter and I were getting picked up for an afternoon play date. We piled into a massive SUV, air conditioning blasting. The mother, a cool urban progressive American mom, slides in a CD and the song “Wrap My Hijab” starts to play. To both my daughter and my surprise, the mother and daughter know all the lyrics and moves. They’re singing and wrapping their invisible hijabs. We smile and join in. That’s the power Mona Haydar has on America.
In March 2017, Haydar posted a music video to YouTube. She rapped “So even if you hate it
I still wrap my hijab/Wrap my hijab/Wrap my hijab/wrap my hijab” while eight months pregnant and surrounded by other women. It's an exuberant intersectional feminist anthem.
The video went viral. "Hijabi" has now amassed over five million views on YouTube, and Billboard named it one of 2017's top protest songs.
Haydar is a Syrian-American artist and activist from Flint, Michigan. When I learned her story, I connected to her immediately. I’m also from the Middle East (Lebanon). I’m also a mom (we both have two kids). I'm also an activist (around sustainable literacy and accessibility in the fashion industry and beyond). And I know what it’s like to represent the “other”—to feel not American enough and to have to constantly justify, explain and reassure the majority about our motives. It can be an exhausting practice. But for Mona Haydar, it was also the inspiration behind the release of her debut EP Barbaricon, out November 2nd.
Below, Haydar and I discuss music, how to honor our roots while living abroad and being considered the “other.”
How did you get into music?
I got into music because I felt like as an artist and poet, I needed to challenge myself to elevate my art. I wanted to use my art as a way to reach more people and create something fun and full of meaning— it’s about healing together through art for me.
If I can reach more people, I have to. If I can be a better me, I have to do it.
"Wrap My Hijab" went viral. White people rap "wrap my hijab." How do you feel about it?
Representation matters. I love building bridges. It’s why I’m so passionate about music. Art connects and heals. Music connects and heals. I believe in making music that everyone can turn up to—something that celebrates our differences while also unifying us. I don’t believe in erasing difference, but instead honoring it.
What's your new album all about?
My EP is called Barbarican. The songs are fun and intense. I tried to talk about serious topics in a way that was light. It’s about being other. It’s about not belonging and not being considered fully human because of race, religion, class etc., and transcending that in favor of loving and honoring yourself no matter what.
My music is for people resisting racism. Speak truth to domination. My music is an introduction for people to see something new that redefines what a Muslim woman is. I am muslim, I am American, I am a Syrian, I am a rapper, I am a chaplain. Wholeness is a practice.
You’re also doing a masters in Colonialism & Christianity. Tell me about that.
As an American who is always “other” because of the scarf on my head, or my curly hair if I didn’t wear it, or my big lips or Arab nose and eyes, I had to learn to be comfortable in my own skin and that took a journey of searching for knowledge. I believe deeply in the work of resisting and subverting white supremacy, whether it’s in resisting western standards of beauty as the only kind of beauty or in resisting the cult of scientism as the only way of real knowing.
"I BELIEVE DEEPLY IN THE WORK OF RESISTING AND SUBVERTING WHITE SUPREMACY."
Knowledge is so important to be able to do that work in a way that doesn’t replicate the same problems we are resisting. As a Muslim Arab American woman, daughter of immigrants—understanding my social location was so important given the violent past of America—thinking about Native genocide and slavery. How do I reconcile being “American” while also never being considered fully “American” by white supremacist structures and systems. Understanding that my light skin gives me certain privileges, I felt the need to educate myself on the foundations of the injustices and inequities of our society so that I don’t replicate oppression in my life as best as I can. But also that my light skin is a product of rape and conquest of my people. Studying Christian Ethics gave me insight into the truth that problematic Christian theology is the root of problems like white supremacy, slavery, poverty, ecocide etc. Christianity converted to Empire and engaged in the work of colonization, slavery and conquest.
You traveled alone to live in Syria, to experience the country you come from and learn about your roots. How did that come about?
I felt disconnected from my roots as a young person. I wanted to be in the place where my ancestors lived, where they loved, where they resisted their French colonizers, where they lived with the Earth in harmony. Going to Syria when I was a kid, I was always called the “American.” And then here I was always considered “other,” not fully American, and I wanted at least one part of my identity to really crystallize. I wanted to study Arabic and Islamic studies in a traditional way.
Something we talk about often in our communities is how we are conditioned to think in favor of the colonial power. We are trained to side with the dominant power against our own people, or our own selves. How can we decolonize our brains?
Decolonizing is all about being intentional in resisting the Empire’s attempts at dividing and conquering—at making us feel less than, and never enough. It’s about loving ourselves unconditionally and showing up to do the work of healing our traumas to uplift our people for the sake of making the world a more beautiful place.