Deeyah: From pop star to activist

Deeyah: Pop Star to Activist

The Challenges of a Muslim Singer-Songwriter

Interview by Chris Crowstaff

source: A Safe world for women

Deeyah is a critically acclaimed singer and composer from Norway - first hitting the headlines as a child - and is now a prize winning human rights activist.

Deeyah was born in Norway to Muslim immigrant parents of Punjabi and Pashtun descent. Her success was a mixed blessing. The Norwegian media initially heralded Deeyah as an example of their new multi-cultural society. However, many in the Muslim community did not view her success in a positive light. Deeyah became the subject of threats, controversy and abuse.

After experiencing a similar negative reaction in the UK, Deeyah eventually moved to the USA, where she works today as a music producer, composer, filmmaker and human rights activist and is well known for her outspoken support of women's rights, freedom of expression and peace. While Deeyah no longer performs herself due to threats and dangerous pressure on her, she now produces projects that give a voice to others.

Through the organisation, Freemuse, a non-profit that supports freedom of expression for music artists, Deeyah began connecting with other musicians all over the world who had been through similar experiences.

Deeyah and Freemuse's program manager, Ole Reitov, co-produced the CD,'Listen to the Banned', which features artists who have suffered persecution, censorship and sometimes even imprisonment for their artistic expression.

The CD has been very well received by European Broadcasters. Special radio programmes were presented in Switzerland, Czech Republic, Norway, Spain, Germany, Holland, Sweden and Denmark, and half a year after its initial release ‘Listen to the banned’ was still a favourite amongst European world music DJs and highlighted month after month on the Top 20 of the World Music Charts Europe.

In 2010, Deeyah created FUUSE, a social purpose company that acts as an umbrella organisation for her music, film and human rights awareness projects. All are rooted in her dedication to human rights and cross-cultural awareness and dialogue through artistic articulation.

Deeyah talked to Chris Crowstaff about how her music and activism have come together, as a result of her own experiences:


Can you talk a bit about your family? 

Deeyah-photoI'm from a Muslim family. My mother is strong, positive, loving and compassionate. My family are very liberal.

My dad went to Norway from Pakistan.

When my mother arrived in Norway, my father encouraged her to get a job, not for money but for her self worth and dignity.  My younger brother and I were always treated equally.

Is that one reason your father left Pakistan, for a more liberal life-style?

Yes, initially he was going to go to the UK or Denmark. But my grandfather told him about Norway.

What was it like for them in Norway?

In Norway, at that time, there were not many dark-skinned people from ethnic backgrounds - that was quite rare. There was a lot of victimisation of non-whites.

Scandinavia is often thought of as very liberal, open-minded and respectable. But the far right has some constituencies of neo-nazis and racist elements within society there.

My dad's highly educated friends had a hard time finding a job.

I was born in Norway, so I'm Norwegian and I was treated better than my parents had been, especially because I spoke Norwegian like a white Norwegian would.

Did your parents influence your activism?

Activism has always been there with me. If someone was being bullied, I stuck up for them. It's impossible not to do something.

My parents were certainly a huge influence. My father took me to anti-racist protests and marches.

My mother worked with women, children and youth. She was a teacher, but she went above and beyond. I was very aware of this.

She taught at a school where there were a lot of Muslim children. Many couldn't participate in school trips. So my mother set up separate excursions for them so they could experience at least some sense of inclusion.

And she helped at women's shelters.

When did music start to become a big part of your life?

When I was seven years old, my dad encouraged me to develop my musical ability.

Dad told me from a young age, that - for a person - there are really only two professions where you are judged on your skill and not on your race or sex - music and sport.

He said that it would take a long time, but in both music and sport, if you are really good and work hard, you eventually just be judged on your skill.

Whereas, if you are a Pakistani lawyer for example, however good you are, you might be turned away.

He didn't know anything about sport so that left me with only one choice - music!

So I was taught singing. My father chose it as my profession from age seven!

I hated the practice. My dad was quite a strict man, although he was progressive and liberal. I still remember he got all my precious toys, put them in a black bag and into the chute which led to the rubbish. He said, 'Say bye bye' and threw the bag of toys away. I hoped he'd get it back before I went to bed. But he didn't bring it back.

He gave me a keyboard instead. The intention was nice. But it was a terrible shock for me.

I would have to practice and study music when other children were out playing. So I resented music for a while in the beginning. I resented my father keeping me in. But he was unwavering!

When did you start to enjoy music?

It turned around for me quite quickly. Really, when I started performing and seeing what it did to other people.

And right then I fell in love with music and became obsessed. I did traditional Indian and Pakistani classical music.

And also there was a sense of escape in music - keeping me away from other struggles. Protecting me.

In Norway, I was always different. I was told to "go back where you came from". I didn't feel accepted. I didn't look like the white Norwegians. I was called a foreigner. It was "we and us" - those were my parents' terms. But I didn't belong to either fully.

I was constantly reminded that I was different. Grown white men would spit in my face.

Music became home. I found acceptance in music. Music didn't discriminate. Music was home.

How old were you when you started to hit the headlines?

I was successful at quite an early age.

I started to get media attention when I was 10 and 11 - a lot of media attention! National newspapers started to use me as an example of Norway's 'new multicultural society'.

Before that, foreigners had been portrayed in a negative light. I felt excited and proud. Suddenly, Pakistani and Muslim stood for positive things!

I was happy that I was making my family's community proud - that they were getting positive attention!

But I started to realise that also the complete opposite was happening.

When you started to get abuse as a musician, who was that from?

Many from my own community were pissed off.

I had started hitting the headlines before my teens, so it was nothing to do with my clothes etc. I was wearing traditional Pakistani clothes at the beginning.

By the time I was 15 or 16, I was experiencing abuse and harassment from the Muslim community. Again, people spat in my face. But my own community this time.

I thought, "What have I done? I would never intentionally hurt anyone. I know how easy it would be to hurt people. I don't do that".

For the first few years, the abuse was directed at my dad - "How you could you allow her?" Music and entertainment were not considered a respectable profession. "We wouldn't even allow our sons to do this".

Was your dad surprised?

Yes, Dad was surprised - surprised by the severity - even within a religiously moderate, liberated, extended family. But he remained defiant. He answered that, "It's my business, my daughter, my responsibility".

My dad thought of music as a beautiful, pure, positive, art form - not entertainment. Music pays a tremendous part in our history, tradition, identity.

But they were insulting my mother who is a Pasthun, calling her a prostitute.

So I had a strong career, but also opposition.

So your mum and dad were always supportive of your career?

I always had dad and mum's support. But it got scary quickly. I had to have a private phone number. I felt isolated.

People said I'd chosen this horrible, immoral lifestyle.

I was exposed to racism from the white communities too. Some Norwegians started to complain about the 'Paki'. But that almost didn't bother me as much.

I felt betrayed and hurt by my "own." I felt they should be proud of me - be on my side. It was really confusing and really hurtful. It made no sense.

Did you have any other support?

Many within the Pakistani and broader Muslim community did support me, it was not all just negative.

For example, I went into a small shop and there was a girl behind the counter wearing a Hijab. I expected to get more abuse.

But she said to me, "I want to say thank you. Someone has to put their neck out to do singing, dancing, acting. I am sorry for you. You are like the 'first child'. They are much stricter with you".

She brought tears to my eyes.

But I didn't really want to be the first child. If I'd known, I probably wouldn't have done it. It was too hard on my parents.

And I thought, 'Now I have a choice. Why do I do this?'.

Was the abuse mostly from the older people or was it the younger generations too? Was it from women as much as men?

Actually, it was mostly the older generation and younger men.

Young kids and the majority of young women were mostly supportive. In fact, young women and older women and very liberal men and gay men were mostly supportive.

But I couldn't go out without an incident.

I couldn't get taxis or buses.

I'd be lectured or threatened in the street: "You'll be f-cked till you bleed - you deserve it."

This was mostly from the Pakistanis. There were other pockets of Muslim communities, for example Turkish, where both women and men were more supportive.

But friends were taking a risk if they went out with me. And I couldn't afford body guards. So I didn't have a normal, safe life.

When did you decide to leave Norway?

I felt I had to leave Norway. I wasn't known outside Norway. But where to go?

I had always remembered a short holiday Mum had taken me on, at age 12. I remembered that there were more people who looked like me. I had felt like I fitted in.

So I had a romantic notion of London. In London, there had been immigrants for a lot longer. Whereas I was really among the first Norwegian generation of immigrants.

In April 1996, when I was eighteen, I left Norway for London.

I was leaving behind a successful career and a family. I went to stay with a distant family friend in London, the only person I knew there.

I thought that London would have a 'centre', like the cities in Norway have. I imagined that was Oxford Street. So I went every day to sit in a cafe in Oxford Street, not knowing what to do.

I asked someone how I could find a flat to rent. They suggested Peckham, so I found somewhere there. I didn't know London. I didn't know that Peckham was a high crime area.

I felt really, really lonely, in a tough city with no job or school to meet friends.

I actually went and asked to work for no money, which I did, just to meet friends and have a social life.

Then mum came to visit and we went for a cup of coffee. She saw how I was still in shock and nervous.  She told me to get a grip.  She said, 'You flinch every time there's a brown man behind you'.  It was subconscious.  I had no idea I was doing that.

When did music appear again in your life?

My new friends started asking me why I wasn't going into music again.  I asked them, "Would the same thing happen here in London?".

And they all said, "No, don't be stupid. England has progressed further".

I said, "I want to believe you. But how come there's no Muslim women in the pop culture here?".

"There's no-one appeared who's good enough. It could be you".

But there were no really useful answers. And I couldn't help wondering why there was no competition. It nagged me.

I wanted to believe them and so I continued with my music.

By 2003/4, I started to get attention from the UK media and the national press.

And I got exactly the same reaction as before!

This wasn't acceptable for a Muslim. The lectures and threats started. And I was getting phone calls from Norway.

My brother was by now a successful, famous public figure - an actor - and I didn't want to bring trouble to him.

I was filled with horror and sadness. I thought, "I don't want to do this any more".

I felt sad, angry, frustrated. I was not doing anything politically outrageous.

I was getting a positive reaction from Asian women and white women. But I was fed up. I hit a crisis.

By 2006, I thought, "I'm going to do one last song and video". I recorded my song,  "What Will it Be?".

I did it out of anger, sadness and frustration. It was a 'Thank you and good night'.

Is that when you moved to the United States?

In 2005 I moved to the States. I felt that was truly the end of my career as a performer and singer. I wanted to bury it.

Metaphorically, I dug a hole in the ground and buried myself. I needed time to breathe. I felt that there was a curse which followed me.

I thought, "You have to want success - and I don't want it. I am tired, burnt out. I hate music. Music is a source of pain and danger". But music was the only thing that had kept me sane.  So I was pissed off.  My one home had gone.  Music was the only thing I'd ever wanted to do.  I had no other options.

I did one last album called Ataraxis with Andy Summers (from the band The Police) and pianist Bob James in 2007. I did it just for my own peace of mind and not for public release, but a Norwegian record company insisted I allow them to give it a small, understated release. I could care less at the time so I gave them the album to release.

What about your activism?

Except activism, yes. Women's issues and youth issues.

I had always tried to be of service. Not charity balls - not that type of thing.

One on one. Kids would write to me through the music years.  I'd been writing to some for years.  So I stayed n touch.  And helping at women's shelters.  That had been with me since a child.  It was a given that I would always do that.

It was the only other thing where I felt useful and helpful.  So I dedicated more and more of my time to activism.

In 2007, I set up the  Sisterhood for Young Muslim Women Network. An online network.

I started getting emails from young girls who wanted to go into music but weren't allowed to.

So I started to build a platform, to bring together young girls and women - to give advice and provide support and a sense of belonging and community that I wish I'd had.

It is a really nice thing.  I want to extend it beyond music to other creative expression - journalism, art etc.

It can be positive and wonderful.

Women are programmed to compromise.  Our expectations are decided by men in every society. The breaching of codes and lines of behaviour vary, but the enforcers are men - and some women who go along with it.

We compromise. If we break the boundaries we are called immoral, slut, prostitute. And threatened with sexual violence.

For men to say that this is because they are being righteous and pure is entirely the wrong language. To also say that they would get an obscene pleasure out of raping me! These thoughts don't even occur to me - to react with such violence.

Why do they think like that?

The only thing I can say is that it's made me much stronger.

But I think I can be of better service helping others than being at the forefront. Working from a different seat - one with a bit of padding.

I can't over-emphasise how hard it's been.

For some time, in the US, I looked like a bag lady. I didn't eat and sleep. Wouldn't bother dressing up, doing my hair or makeup at all, was just so sick of it all - having been in front of the camera since age seven.

I had neglected the emotional impact. It was wearing me down. I needed friends, people and just some peace.

But I can also say completely from my heart and gut that I have never considered myself a victim. I am very fortunate to have done what I've done and to do what I do.

And you won the Freedom to Create Award?

Yes that was in 2008. It meant so much to me to receive the Freedom Award - and it felt like a great privilege. It happened at the right time!

I was nominated by the organisation, Freemuse.

I came across Freemuse, during my worst time - from 2004 to 2006. They were understanding and supportive and used to musicians who were getting negative reactions. It was very, very, very meaningful and desperately welcome.

I was very appreciative. And to be learning what other musicians were going through. People everywhere. For all different reasons.

I wanted to support Freemuse, in any way possible.

In 2008, I asked if they'd considered doing an album. I wanted people to hear the music from these people. They said they loved the idea, but they had no resources or means.

I thought, "This I can help with. I can't do the academic organising, the reports, the research. But this is music, my language. I'll do this".

I was ready to reconnect.

This was a huge part in reintroducing me to my first love. I felt, "this is where I belong."

I didn't want to do the music any more. I was getting more satisfaction doing something for someone else.

The result is the CD - Listen to the Banned - which features artists who have suffered censorship and persecution.



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