Meet Zhala, the Queer Kurdish Pop Singer Taking the Swedish Music Scene By Storm

Robyn’s protege is a human rights advocate who packs a powerful beat, giving the homogenous Scandi-dance genre a run for its money.

Zhala performs in Norway, image courtesy of Nadja Sayej.

Zhala is not your typical pop singer. Dubbed the “Kurdish Lady Gaga,” this Stockholm-born musician has strong ethnic ties. Her mother fought in Peshmerga, the Iraqi Kurdi military, before fleeing to Sweden in the 1980s. Zhala’s father lives in Iraqi Kurdistan. Every time she visits him she’s heard “some sort of gunshots going on.” For the 27-year-old artist, politics has always been an inherent force in her music and defending Kurdistan has been a survival instinct.

Zhala’s anthems have brought international acclaim for her first album, which was released May 25th on Swedish pop star Robyn’s Konichiwa Records. The struggle for freedom has been a force in Zhala’s cosmic pop songs, influenced by Kurdish dance music called “halparke.” She chants, “Holy mother, I just can’t be fighting,” in the track “Holy Bubbles,” to “You’re not the problem, I’m just waiting to get along” in “Prophet.”

Zhala, shot by Sonny Malhotra.

Known as Robyn’s protégé, she opened for her “Do It Again” tour and they now share the same manager. Onstage, she performs with Kurdish and Swedish flags draped behind her. Her shows are always an experience: before rolling into her first track, she sprays the audience with perfumed rose water. Her stage is often covered in tie-dye sheets, fake flowers and a hookah, remnants of her existence, as if it was an art installation.

Taken at Zhala's recent show in Moss, Norway. Image by Nadja Sayej.

Since Kurdistan claimed its own power and rights in the recent Turkish elections on the borders of Iraq and Syria, Zhala’s songs have acquired new meaning. Still, the politics of her background shouldn’t overshadow her cosmic pop sound, as Zhala just wants to speak as an artist, not as a pre-packaged political voice. She could be called the new pop miracle, as rarely is there a breakthrough in Scandinavian monoculture—Zhala wasn’t born with blue eyes and blonde hair, but she is Swedish.

Over a cup of tea, she opened up about her past, raised her voice when talking about injustices, and shared her thoughts on Russell Brand. Friendly to strangers, Zhala has a boisterous laughter that bellows throughout entire venues. Always willing to speak out, it’s something she has learned from her mother. We sat down with the upcoming star before she played at the 8th MOMENTUM Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art in the small town of Moss, Norway.

The installation set for Zhala's show, image courtesy of Nadja Sayej.

GOOD: Did you see the recent elections in Turkey? Your struggle for freedom songs have a totally different meaning now.

Things are happening. There was a crack in the Berlin Wall for the people to look through and see the other side. Right now, there is a crack for the Kurdish people. People are getting that. We need to get more people and get through everywhere.

Where are your parents from?

My parents are from north Iraq, it’s the most independent part of Kurdistan. The last time I was there was September 2013. My dad still lives there, but I’m not close to him. They’re so political. My mom is the most sensitive, sweet person but she has that drive. She lived on a mountain for five years fighting with Peshmerga. The times I’ve been there, three times, there have always been some sort of gunshots going on. For me, it’s such a huge thing. For them, it’s normal. It’s crazy. They were celebrating the election when I was there, it was wild. They were shooting guns out of cars. My dad said “Don’t go outside.” We heard gunshots coming into the garden. It’s so loud, I’ve never heard [anything like] it. My body panicked. I ran in the house, I didn’t know where I was going. I was really scared. My dad was walking calmly. He was laughing a bit. I don’t get it. That’s horribly dark.

Image by Nadja Sayij.

Your first single “Prophet” came out after that, what does the word ‘prophet’ mean to you?

I’m talking about someone who can’t identify themself. I did an interview in London and we were talking about Russell Brand. The journalist, said “He’s just trying to be Jesus.” And I asked her, “Why are you not trying to be Jesus?” Then she was open to his thoughts rather than judging him. There are so many stupid people doing nothing and making things worse than things already are. When someone is accusing someone who is trying, why is there this negativity around? I grew up believing in God until I was 20-years-old, I was Muslim.

Zhala with Robyn, courtesy of the artist.

You break a lot of Muslim rules.

I was a good girl, actually! I don’t connect myself to anything. I’m me. In America, they’re more open about spirituality. Sweden is atheist. That’s fine, but they only go as far as yoga and incense. There is more to it than that. Some people think you’re stuck in an acid trip but people need to be aware of the universe. That’s not something you find easily in Sweden. For me, I always consume spirituality. If I’m in a bad period, I go to a spiritual shop and get crystals and affirmation cards. I need this.

Zhala displays the Kurdish flag at her show.

How much are you up against the racism in homogenous Europe?

You feel the energy of it. I had a fight with a racist lady three weeks ago. I am not going to be quiet about this! At the end she said she was going to call the cops. I told her, “Call the fucking cops, if you call the cops they’ll believe you, not me. Congratulations!” That’s how it ended. If you’re not white, you always lose. There is a lot of racism and it is growing in Sweden. That’s really, really sad. I’ve seen it all my life. Most people are white. Not anymore, but that’s a big part of the history of Sweden. With that lady, she said “Go home!”

How does Sweden help refugees?

Sweden used to take a lot of immigrants, but not now. They think we live off the government; we don’t get jobs and take their money… Before that, there was right wing rule. They allow less and less immigrants into Sweden. If some people go back to Afghanistan, they’ll die. Sometimes they try to go to Germany. It’s depressing, really.

Holy Bubbles by Zhala

What is your new song ‘Holy Bubbles’ about? Instead of being a minimalist, you seem to be a maximalist.

I’ve maximalized a lot of things. The reason why is because I’m not white in a country like Sweden. To take the energy off me being Kurdish as an identity, I dress more extreme. It takes the pressure off of your nationality, which can be a nice break. I think when I use Kurdish flags and Swedish flags, it always comes down to: “I am not a nationality. I am a person.” I’m part of different cultures. I’m supposed to know everything about the politics? That’s fine, that’s something I have to embrace. I’m not against that, I just have to find a new perspective to express that or talk about it, which is not what’s expected of me.

How do people respond to nationalism in your art?

It’s anti-nationalism. I don’t even care about the nations. It’s simplifying something complicated, but it’s [also] about having no borders. That’s how I see it. Having a lot of flags is not making it nationalistic, other people are doing that. They think the world needs to be that. I’m not going to change my opinion, I’m not a nationalist. People mirror themselves when they look at someone when they perform. I am trying to be transparent when I perform. I’m trying to be me. Here I am, whether you like it or not.

Do people oppose you?

Some people don’t get the entertainment they want. They know their identity. I am a woman. I’ve been pushed into political corners whether I like it or not. It started years before I wanted to make music. Now people are starting to get my thing.

You flirt with politics in your music.

I do now. But once I started to hit the media, it becomes politics. I’m not white and I’m doing something different because I’m taking someone’s spot. I’m taking room. I’m getting in there. I’m forcing myself into these spaces. I want to do it myself and I’m also queer and a non-white woman? It becomes politics when I’m being myself.

For more info on Zhala, check out her website here.

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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