Mona Haydar Breaks The Mold For Muslim Rap: 'You Just Have To Do You'

Nov 4, 2018
Originally published on November 4, 2018 3:28 pm

Mona Haydar's music is simultaneously of the moment and rooted in tradition. Haydar's breakout song, 2017's "Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab)," a rap about women who choose to wear the traditional Muslim headscarf, was named one of the best protest anthems of the year by Billboard. Now, Haydar's latest EP Barbarican, redefines the meaning of barbarian.

The poet-turned-rapper is Syrian-American and grew up in Flint, Mich. "If I went to Syria, I was the American. In Flint, I was the little Arab girl," Haydar says. "So this identity that I'm speaking to is, 'We are whole in and of ourselves.'"

Haydar has a master's degree in Christian ethics, which she says informs both her historical and present day social location as a woman living in America. The EP's lead single, "Barbarian," sets that idea to music.

"When I was sitting in the class, we were studying what it is to be barbaric, a barbarian ... and at the same time, I'm studying The New Testament, I'm studying the words of Paul, I'm studying what it is to be 'other' inside of the Roman Empire," Haydar explains. "Doing all that work while the current sitting president was making comments about Mexicans, comments about Muslims, comments about trans people, I felt like if there was ever a moment to speak love into the universe, it was here."

Haydar's music can be deeply personal, too. On the song "Suicide Doors," Haydar raps about a friend who committed suicide to illustrate how the mental health of Muslim women is not properly prioritized or addressed. "We need to stop talking about mental wellness as if it's just something for white people," she says.

Haydar has drawn criticism before for being proudly pious while also being critical of religion. She has been called too Muslim by some and not Muslim enough by others. But she doesn't let those opinions sway her stance. "At the end of the day, I'm good no matter what people are saying or not saying about me," Haydar says.

Still, Haydar understands the concern from those in her community, especially when there are others attacking the Muslim faith from the outside. But Haydar wants to set an example for her family and show her community what a strong Muslim woman can accomplish.

"You can't be afraid of breaking out. You just have to do you and people will catch up," she says.

Haydar's EP Barbarican is available now via The Most.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIJABI")

MONA HAYDAR: (Rapping) What that hair look like? Bet that hair look nice. Don't that make you sweat? Don't that feel too tight?

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Mona Haydar first made her mark with the music video "Hijabi." Billboard magazine named the song, about women who choose to wear the traditional Muslim headscarf, one of the best protest anthems of 2017. Haydar is Syrian-American. And she raps about feminism, politics and identity.

HAYDAR: You know, I grew up in Flint, Mich., always other, never wholly human, never fully one thing or another. If I went to Syria, I was the American. In Flint, I was the little Arab girl. And so this identity that I'm speaking to is we are whole in and of ourselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her new album is called "Barbarican." And in it, Haydar redefines the meaning of barbaric.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARBARICAN")

HAYDAR: (Singing) We them barbarians - jasmine and frankincense - feminine invading them - beautiful barbarians.

I'm a Muslim woman who has her master's degree in Christian ethics. And that shocks a lot of people. But what it does for me is it informs my historical and present social location as an American woman. When I was sitting in a class, we were studying what it is to be barbaric, barbarian. And at the same time, I'm studying the New Testament. I'm studying the words of Paul. I'm studying what it is to be other inside of the Roman Empire. And doing all of that work while the current sitting president was making comments about Mexicans, comments about Muslims, comments about trans people, I felt like if there was ever a moment to speak love into the universe, it was here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARBARICAN")

HAYDAR: (Singing) Say it again - beautiful barbarians. Say it again - beautiful barbarians.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You also make this really personal, though, too. I want to talk about the song "Suicide Doors."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUICIDE DOORS")

HAYDAR: (Singing) Nobody wanna talk about it. She used to say I'm too dark - habibi. She used to say I'm too thick - habibi. But even then she was so thin - habibi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a song about a close friend of yours that committed suicide, right?

HAYDAR: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it also opens up a conversation not only about mental health but about some of the insecurities and anxieties that are faced by women in your community.

HAYDAR: So this song is definitely about bucking standards of beauty that create unhealth in our communities, that create a lack of access to deeply seated security inside of who we are, whether we choose to wear makeup or use our bodies in, you know, overtly sexual or nonsexual ways. You know, we can be healthy and whole and beautiful. And we need to stop talking about mental wellness as if it's just something for white people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUICIDE DOORS")

HAYDAR: (Singing) I pray that you're OK. Oh.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of your previous songs "Dog" is also about women who have been victimized and abused by those in positions of religious authority, as you put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOG")

HAYDAR: (Rapping in foreign language). (Rapping) Spiritually violent, deviant but hiding it - you can't sell enlightenment. Laugh at your entitlement. Panel on women - only dudes - um, excuse me? - really rude.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm thinking about "Suicide Doors" and "Dog" as part of a continuum because so often in minority groups that are under threat, people don't want to criticize themselves because it's seen as giving ammunition to those who are attacking it. Why do you want to speak out about these sensitive topics?

HAYDAR: I feel like I can speak to men in positions of religious authority without worrying because - guess what? Women across the board globally have no power in religious institutions. And that's just the reality of patriarchy. So I'm over here just like, what do I have to lose? I have nothing to lose. Let me speak truth to domination and see if it can help because it certainly can't hurt.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's been the reaction from within your community?

HAYDAR: You know, I've had people call me too Muslim. I've had people call me not Muslim and not for - that I'm not even Muslim because of some of my ideals and values and views. People can have their reactions. People can have their ideas and opinions. But at the end of the day, I'm good no matter what people are saying or not saying about me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It still must be hard. You tweeted recently, if I try to be what they want me to be, they will never be proud. And I will never be happy always chasing some false reality. Just be you. Just do you.

HAYDAR: Yeah. You know, I was at a Tyler Perry screening of his new movie, actually. And it was just this beautiful reflection because he was, like, you know, I'm breaking out of the mold. I'm breaking out of the box. This is my first PG-13 movie. And I was just like, well, here I am always concerned about what my community is going to feel because we are being targeted, because we are constantly feeling like we have to be defensive. Like, we have to defend ourselves from the onslaught of slander of just straight up untruths about us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN")

HAYDAR: (Rapping) They don't want to see me as American. The only ones who've been here are my Native friends. All I wanna do is have some fun by the beach, man. But here come I-C-E and the travel ban.

I definitely understand when my community is, like, you know, just, like, stay close. And don't ruffle feathers inside because we already have people trying to attack us from the outside. And I'm just, like, you know what? We have to be strong from the inside. And I'm trying to be that model for myself and my children and my family and for my fan base, for everybody. But you can't be afraid of breaking out. You just have to do you. And people will catch up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mona Haydar's new album "Barbarican" is out now. Thank you so much.

HAYDAR: Thanks so much. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN")

HAYDAR: (Rapping) They don't want to see me as American. The only ones who've been here are my Native friends. All I wanna do is have some fun by the beach, man. But here come I-C-E and the travel ban. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.