Deeyah: The' Muslim Madonna'?
Recently stumbled across an artist that's being touted as the next big 'ethnic' pop-star sensation. Her name is Deeyah and she's been dubbed by many as the 'Muslim Madonna'. Deeyah is apparently a Muslim of 'Pakistani-Afghan-Persian' decent (I get the feeling she's trying to snatch up every ethnic label she get her hands on ;-)). You can watch her latest music video 'What Will It Be' here. Definitely not my cup of tea when it comes to music, even with all the 'exotic' samples I still find her music pretty unoriginal and dull. You can find more samples of her music and her videos on her webpage. To be fair, her stuff is probably not that much worse than most other girlie pop acts out there. I was amused by how the Deeyah video tries to throw in anything 'Eastern'. Her video mixes classical Indian percussive chanting, shisha smoking, burkas, Muslim feminist political messages, and clips from an Indian street. Now is that ethnic enough for ya?! But it looks like she's having some success. She's been working with Darrin Prindle (producer for Madonna, TLC), and one of her music videos hit the top of the charts in the UK recently.
Deeyah was raised in Norway, and became a pop-star in her teens. She ended up moving to the UK because of threats and disdain from offended Muslims who felt her 'provocative' act was somehow denigrating their religion. She's also received 'intimidating' phone calls in the UK. Here's some biographical bits from Freemuse.org, a website dedicated to free expression in music:
At the age of 16, Deeyah signed with BMG and released her second album the following year, a more pop-oriented offering of songs recorded in multiple languages - Deeyah speaks five. The album went Top 10 and yielded two Top 10 singles and music videos.
The award-winning music video for the second single from that album made Deeyah the target of conservative Muslims who were outraged that her uncovered back could be seen in the video. This led to harassment, threats against Deeyah and her family, physical assaults, and an attempted abduction at her school.
"I would get very abusive phone calls," she explains. "I would get abused as I walked down the street. I would have people spit at me."
At a concert in Norway, she was attacked on stage by angry Muslim men who thought she was degrading their culture.
By mid-1996, at just 18 years old, Deeyah was disillusioned and fearful and decided to leave the music business and move to London to escape the tension and dangers she faced in Norway and start a new life.
In 1998, Deeyah's need to make music had become too strong to ignore. Towards the end of 1999, she signed a deal with Warner Records and went back into the studio in early 2000 - wanting to break her silence and speak out about her struggle against it. But then her producer suddenly died of cancer, and it took another five years before her next album was completed and published.
The music video for the first single from the album reached #1 on The Box, the leading request music video channel in the UK. As was the case when Deeyah's last album came out, her video led to new threats from conservative Muslims who are angry that Deeyah appears in sexy clothes and dances with a black man. The video has been frequently shown on Indian tv channels.
She has received intimidating phone calls, aggressive emails and verbal threats from Asian youths warning her to "tone down and cover up".
And in the words of Deeyah herself:
"It is not going to make me go away. This is such a liberal, multicultural country and I never thought my background could become such an issue to some people. It does scare me but it also angers me and encourages me not to give up, and my parents encourage me. I do not flaunt my religious background, I never sing about it and compared to other pop stars I am not particularly risque."
She does have a point about not being particularly risque by contemporary pop vixen standards. In the arena of pop-girl combat, Deeya is easily outskanked by Mariah or Jessica Simpson or even J.Lo. I do not flaunt my religious background. Not to sure about that one considering her use of a burka a striptease prop in a controversial video she ended up pulling. Not to mention that the 'What Will It Be?' video showcases a variety of Muslim feminists (like Irshad Manji shown with Deeyah above) and features her? strolling around in a Burka. The lyrics to What Will It Be? also have a strong anti-Muslim-fundie message to them as well. Given her background, it's perfectly natural that she would have an interest in Muslim issues and culture. But, for her to claim she isn't flaunting her background is a little dishonest to say the least.
Is Deeyah really breaking down barriers or is she stirring up controversy for the sake of publicity? Well probably a bit of both. Almost any publicity is good publicity for a newbie pop celebrity, so stirring up controversy will benefit her career. On the other hand, given her past experiences, it isn't surprising that pro-feminist messages for Muslim women would be a big part of her music. The truth is, the treatment of women in many Muslim societies is pretty abysmal. So it is an important message and she's bringing attention to it- which is good. That said, at the present time it's an issue that already receives a great deal of attention in the Western media. What's really needed is some reasonable debate about the subject, and more importantly human rights laws in the 'offending' countries. Given that her message is wrapped up in the typical soft-porn imagery of a contemporary pop video, her music isn't going to get much play among the people who should arguably hear a Muslim feminist message. Seeing her 'provocative' videos get so much attention by 'Western' media, is far more likely to elicit knee-jerk defensiveness rather than any meaningful debate in the Muslim community.
Obviously there's plenty that can't tolerate the idea of a Muslim woman flaunting her sexuality in public. A Muslim organization in the UK even tried to claim she wasn't a Muslim because she has a Hindu name (on her website she denies this allegation and explains she was named after a family friend). I'm sure some young Muslim women will listen to her music and find it inspiring. And as for the thugs that are threatening her- get a grip. Threatening and trying to intimidate her is only going to end up giving her more media attention, and confirming every negative stereotype the West has about violent Muslims. If you don't like her music and message, you do have the right to 'preach' against it if you want. But there's absolutely no justification for threats and violence.
What about her chances to be the next big thing on the music scene? I think this article on altmuslim.com summed it up best:
However, once the threats subside (or not), there's the question of finding an audience for the message and music. "A lot of us are working for women's rights, particularly in the Muslim world. I think we have more self-respect than to dance around naked to make our point," said Hoda Fahmy, who works with an education group for Muslim women in Canada. "It's unfortunate that she has to use those means, because it's true - women are not able to speak up in a lot of these countries." Musically, it goes without saying that the Sami Yusuf crowd will give Deeyah a pass, though she may also find her song too sabre-rattling for the mainstream hip-hop/R&B crowd, too lacking in the Bollywood-inspired sentimentality of bhangra/Indo-pop, and missing the edgy innovation of artists such as M.I.A.
Well put. So far, the little music I've heard from her is kinda lame and her videos are the typical seductress pop vixen fluff. While she may get plenty of attention for being controversial, in the end she may end up having few devoted fans of her music. But hey, she is just starting out- she may eventually come up with something interesting. And one has to admit, if nothing else she is pretty easy on the eyes ;-)