An Interview with Syrian-American rapper Mona Haydar

Mona Promo Jeremy Robins
Credit: Jeremy Robins

Mona Haydar is a Syrian-American rapper and singer-songwriter who uses her powerful voice to call for justice. The activist, who is also a married mother of two sons, writes lyrics that sarcastically poke at the behavior encouraged by a society rooted in patriarchy and white supremacy. Haydar first gained traction with her single “Hijabi,” which calls out the prejudice Muslim women face. Billboard included the song in a list of the top 25 feminist anthems of all time. Haydar’s latest release, “Suicide Doors,” featuring Drea D’nur, opens up a conversation about mental health.

Haydar recently talked to The FBomb about her relationship with poetry and its relationship to rap music, her upcoming EP, the feeling of being a foreigner in her own country, and much more.

The FBomb: How did you first start writing?

Mona Haydar: I started out writing poetry, basically. Our local newspaper published kids’ poetry and [that encouraged me to begin] practicing at a really young age. I had really amazing teachers who inspired me to keep learning and pushing myself and my craft; they would enter my poetry into competitions. I started competing in slams, and that was a really good time. I am from Michigan, and transitioning from spoken words to hip-hop was sort of a no-brainer, a natural progression, if you will. It was all natural, organic, and a part of my story.

As I got older — I’m in my 30s now — I started the transformation of my art into a grand metaphor for my life. I try to keep growing and push myself and never let myself become too comfortable where I am. I keep pushing the envelope and turning myself into the best artist I can be.

The FBomb: In “Suicide Doors,” the latest song and video you have released, you talk about suicide from the perspective of someone who has lost a dear one to this problem. What inspired you to write this song and what do you hope your lyrics inspire in listeners?

Mona Haydar: My goal in writing this song was to remove the stigma in talking about suicide, especially within the immigrant community in America. In our communities, we unfortunately don’t have access to support [for] people to get the help that they need. I am more speaking to the people who are in leadership positions, especially in religious leadership, and saying that you don’t have to discuss whether the person is going to hell. We wouldn’t need to discuss [suicide] if the people in our communities felt supported, and loved. Instead, we are here trying to blame every other person. It is less about a single person, and more about what we can do as a community to love and support one another.

There’s a lot of stigma surrounding even talking about the reasons [that may lead to] suicide. I feel like that’s the message of this song: We have to start talking about these hard things, even if it’s uncomfortable, because that is what will make us a better society, and it’s going to help us learn how to support one another.

The FBomb: You’re close to releasing your first EP, entitled Barbarian. What has the journey of composing and recording this new work been like?

Mona Haydar: It has been really fun and really great, but there have been a lot of blocks on the way. After the first producer I was working with put my project to the side, I started working with JB and Corron Cole of Culture Shock Music in L.A., who really helped me feel comfortable in the studio, and helped me to produce music about never being considered fully human in America. It is a story about being other — about being neither fully Syrian nor fully American; not light or dark enough; not thin enough. This EP hopes to take on some of that identity.

I hope people enjoy the EP, but also take the time to think about the lyrics. At the end of the day, listening to music that’s healing and fulfilling on a deeper level is about bringing people together. It’s not just about having a good beat that you can dance to, but also letting the words really say something. I try hard to bring my poetry background into my music and use my path to relate to difficult messages.

The FBomb: The songs you released from the EP thus far are about political, feminist, and cultural issues. For instance, “Dog,” which features Orange Is The New Black star Jackie Cruz, you take on the emotional abuse practiced by men in positions of power, and “Barbarian” calls out white supremacy. What others kinds of issues does the EP address, and what others do you want to address in the future?

Mona Haydar: In my song “American,” I talk about ICE, the travel ban, and Trump calling certain countries “shithole[s].” If those countries are pieces of shit, what are we? America engages in all types of proxy wars and actual wars. The next song that is going to be released talks about postpartum depression and the stigma around that, the stages of grief.

The mass media often gives preference to what’s sexy, to what’s shiny, to what you can sell with sex. I’m really interested in telling a story of realness. This is a story for  the brown, black, and beige faces all over the world who kind of just get ignored. [Rap often] talks about Fendi-this or Prada-that, but a majority of the world will never have access to [those things], so how about we talk about something that people can really tap into and feel? Maybe that means making a political statement, but I really believe it shouldn’t be. Talking about the things that make us human — sadness, loneliness, joy, humor — I feel all of that should be what really sells. I understand [dreams of an expensive lifestyle] is a way that people get around their pain for a moment, but [rap] could help heal the parts of our life that hurt. I am just not interested in the hypocrisy that is prevalent in the musical industry. I am interested in talking from my own perspective, as a woman, as a feminist.

The Fbomb: You created a project called “Ask a Muslim” to open up a conversation about a religion that is still looked upon with prejudice in many places around the world. What is being a Muslim women in America like? How can we change people’s prejudice about Islam?

Mona Haydar: We have a lot of work ahead of us. Hate crimes still happen to Muslim women. People, typically white men, still tell me things like “Hey, this is America, you don’t have to wear that [the hijab].” I am a woman of intellect, and if I didn’t want this for my life you better believe this isn’t what I’d be doing. Our project was a very small step towards helping people understand [Muslim individuals]. At the end, I realized that it was naive to feel like that would really change anything. Ultimately I found that it is not my job to educate people as a public service. Nobody is going to pay me to make the world a better place.

As an artist, I use my gift and my work to speak the truth about the world and try to make people understand me by telling my story. I feel like standing outside and talking to people is not going to reach as many people as can a song, [in which] I can relay my message in a way that is beautiful and impactful. Malcolm X said that closed mouths don’t get fed, and here I am, with my mouth open, telling my story, hoping to make some kind of impact and dent in the world.

The FBomb: How has your Muslim community responded to your choice to speak out about these issues?

Mona Haydar: I have gotten all kinds of responses: people who are really supportive and people who are not. I expected that. Of course, the loudest people are the critics, the ones who have the nastiest things to say. But even when they criticize me, I can use what they say to make myself stronger and better. It’s just a matter of looking at what they say and not taking it to heart, but making sure that I am speaking my truth. The critics hold me accountable for myself, and for my heart, and to make sure that I’m on the path I want to be on. When someone sits with me and tells me the ways I can be a better artist, or how I can grow, I am going to take them seriously, I will listen, I will learn. But a critique of my appearance? I just don’t have time for that kind of garbage.

The FBomb: What’s your message for young feminists?

Mona Haydar: My message is to not be limited by labels, including what what we can or can’t be or do as “feminists.” Do not allow the world to dictate to you who and what you are. We’re all on a journey of self-discovery and I really believe that we’re in it for enlightenment and becoming more beautiful and no one can tell us what our journey is. The point is there’s a particular way for each of us to be beautiful. Let’s not let others tell us what beautiful looks like, what beautiful feels like. Beauty is up to us to create, and if we want to see a more beautiful world, is up to us to create it.

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Mafe Souza
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