INTERVIEW: Naaz

We’ve interviewed a lot of people in our time on PressPLAY OK but, when it comes to Naaz, never has a story felt more relatable.

Naaz is one of us. The child of immigrants in a western world (ours Pakistani, hers Kurdish), she not only has that familiar sense of what it’s like to make it in the arts, she has the extra pressure of doing so as a Muslim woman.

For that reason alone we couldn’t wait to meet her. The tunes are excellent, but our excitement at potentially finding a kindred spirit possibly may have led to an early overshare. Luckily for us, it proves to be just as refreshing to talk about for her too.

“It took a lot of struggle to get here,” says Naaz in tones that match her young years while giving a touch of the worldly-wise. “A lot of fights and periods of not speaking. It just never crossed my mind not to give up, as corny as it sounds.”

And, like us, she has the support of friends and siblings, people she believes to be instrumental in her musical freedom. “My manager is also Kurdish. I made a song when I was 15 called Grew Up, Grew Out. I produced it and recorded it because I wasn’t allowed to go outside to do music. So my brothers gave me a MIDI keyboard and a microphone. I downloaded Fruity Loops on my laptop and they said, Listen up. If this is your dream, do it on your own. You don’t need to go to the studio.

“Then I started self promoting it, sending it to everyone. And nobody responded of course. There was one girl who sent it to this manager saying hey, this girl’s Kurdish and you’re Kurdish too right? And he was like what, a Kurdish girl doing music? Is this even possible?”

For any second-generation kid, this incredulity is the norm. Maybe about a Muslim person being gay, or in this case a Muslim girl rebelling against everything her parents and community expect. Those morsels of love in the immediate vicinity are what keep people going.

If Naaz is living life on her own terms, then her new song Loving Love embodies that spirit of positivity she has gained with it. It’s something we can empathise with, as she relates how her thought process came to be.

“Sometimes I think about what if my parents did still not accept what I’m doing, what would I have done? Would I have moved out of my home and left them?”

“For our parents our normal is their total opposite, so it teaches you to become even stronger. All your life you don’t necessarily get the support that you’re ok the way you are. As much as they say they love you, they love you more if you are a certain way or you do certain things. This generation is very empowering, because everyone is trying to be who they are without being mentally bullied.”

She continues: “Things like this force you to change the way you think. And they force you to think a lot. If you can’t talk to anyone, you kind of start talking to yourself. But if you don’t get a response back you’re gonna talk more and more. Like sending a text till no one responds. Eventually you go into this black hole.”

Again, we verbalise the psychological game of bingo we’ve been playing along with her as she recalls every experience. Disillusionment, depression, self-doubt, all swell together at the dam of our own pathology. In some cases people drown. But Naaz? She surfed.

“One thing that I had to learn was that sometimes you have to accept that people are just not going to get you, and maybe you have to get them in order to find a middle way – even if they don’t try. A thing my manager told me the other day, and he quite emotional about it, he said, ‘I feel like we’ve had to live our lives compromising things. We’ve always been halfway happy. You’re never fully happy because you always have to adapt something to make people happy.

“Sometimes I think about what if my parents did still not accept what I’m doing, what would I have done? Would I have moved out of my home and left them? Because I don’t see myself ever doing that, I have so much respect for them, I’d never want to hurt them. But then I feel like they would hurt me even more if I had to be a certain way.”

What strikes us even more now is that in all the reams written about Naaz as an artist, no one truly knows the struggle. For those who know, her stage is a monumental achievement as a young Muslim woman. She wears it lightly, but her defiance in being herself is a victory that ought to resonate for a new generation which, luckily, is something she does realise.

“I’ve been getting quite a lot of messages from younger people with cultural backgrounds or very strict surroundings saying, ‘I have the life you used to have and it makes me feel like things are so possible’. I used to think it was impossible. I didn’t feel the sense of giving up, but I did feel a certain kind of acceptance like, ‘If it doesn’t happen, I kind of understand because this is really, really difficult’. To see someone who is still doing it, whether I’d be doing very well or very sucky, I’m still doing it. That’s already a huge thing. It’s not having success, because the success in this story is the fact that I’m doing it.”

And, like a lot of outsiders, Naaz’s homeland insecurity manifested in her teens at school. The constant feeling of not being good enough, being caught between two worlds that never truly feel like your own, would take a toll on anyone. To the point that her recent success is a

“It’s such a weird world. Sometimes, mentally, I’m still in a world of feeling not good enough for anyone and anything because of all those other years. Everyone can be so nice, but it’s like, I’m still mentally there, I’m not over that yet. It’s such a big switch.”

But of course, trauma informs art, and Naaz’s art seems so fully-formed that bigger and bigger stages beckon. That personal side remains, though. We remark how all her social media presence – and indeed her EP – refers to “Bits of Naaz”. As if she shares tokens of her soul as exactly that, rather than dressing it up as anything else.

She’s thrilled that her intention has shone through. “Something with songwriting which is very important to me is that my songs are conversations. I started to develop this thing where I didn’t tell people anything anymore. It’s really odd because now I just talk so much, but before I used to think that the paper is my best friend. It makes it very real for me to then take a few lines and insert that into the song.”

Talking about her first couple of releases, she continues: “The thing is, Words and Can’t are pretty similar with each other because I literally made Can’t the day after Words, that’s why it’s like almost the exact same structure. Even though the topics are very different, with Words it was a day where I wanted to write a song about people who make me see life in a different way, give me new perspectives and get me away from this television I grew up with. Can’t is then about how I can’t see life in a different way because I’ve got all these restrictions, and if I fall in love I can’t be with that person and if I have a dream, I can’t be with that dream.

“The reason I called myself ‘Bits of Naaz’ everywhere, and my EP is called Bits of Naaz as well, is because there is never just one version of myself I’m going to show to the world. I’m never going to make another Words or Can’t. But I’m always going to make a new song. My sound right now is what it is, but it’s always developing, so maybe in a year you’ll have a completely different sound. But that doesn’t mean I’ve lost myself. It doesn’t mean I sold myself to a label or something. I’m just doing me. I’m developing. I’m being healthy. I’m not staying in one spot.”

“[It’s] more about not explaining to people who I am or what I do, I know who I am and what I do. I don’t need to prove anything, I’m just up to something.”

You can’t fault her optimism, that’s for certain. It does come across as part-defence mechanism, a shield of sort, and partly just her genuine nature shining through a lot of industry bullshit. There’s also a lot of discovery left for her adolescence.

“I come across as a very, very positive person, but there’s a reason why all these thoughts are spinning around my head. I’m trying to find that optimism. In reality I see myself as quite a pessimistic person. I’m sad 99% of the time. I have a bubbly personality which makes it seem like I’m happy all the time. I could talk about how sad I am the entire time, it just wont do anyone any good.”

It’s a worrying thing to hear, but it’s also a place we’ve been in ourselves. Being pummelled from every angle, being told what to do and what not do at every stage of life, builds a wall of consequence. A wall that, as Naaz relates, is very hard to penetrate.

I have a hard time feeling things in general because I’ve become quite desensitised to a lot of emotions – t’s like a way of protecting yourself from disappointment, sadness and things like that – which makes even good things not seem good, because you’re like, ‘I don’t know if I can trust it’. But my songs are about these new perspectives. Can’t is about when you really want something and thinking that you can’t get it. You think you’re cool and can handle it but at night you only sleep through your blinks. You kind of accept that your upset about it which is a step towards healing. Up To Something is more about not explaining to people who I am or what I do, I know who I am and what I do. I don’t need to prove anything, I’m just up to something.”

We move on to happier topics. Now that her career and her emotions are out in the open, have her parents become more comfortable with things? Have they seen her perform?

“Well the performing thing was really odd. I’ve grown to become extremely quiet at home, I’m less quiet now, but before I never really spoke at home, I was super quiet, a rather super-depressed seeming person. My parents just thought I was like that everywhere. It was just this mechanism I created as a kid, like don’t say anything and you’ll be fine. It’s just something that happened. Everyone is different around their parents, right?

“My parents saw me on stage and I was dancing, jumping around and having fun and completely in the moment. My Dad was like, ‘Who is that girl?’. They really, really love the music and they listen to it all the time. It’s so cute. Also, the music videos, they love watching them so much. I think it’s because I bring a lot of culture back into it. I don’t do that for them, I do it because I genuinely really believe in that. I feel if I made really different music they’d be less supportive. The kind of music I’m making is also playing a role for them. If I was making super sexual songs…” She stops her sentence and bursts into incredulous laughter.

“I don’t mind sacrificing parts and bits of my life if it means that other people can have those without having to fight for it.”

It’s a fair point to pick up on though, and a reminder that in some ways she is still a good Muslim girl with a few more hurdles to cross. Would she ever write or sing about sex when the time comes? Does it not limit her as an artist to stay away from such territory?

“Maybe I would write it, but I wouldn’t sing it myself. I’d write it for someone else. Right now it’s not really bothering me because in that world I don’t really have much experience. If the world opens up… I’m someone who really wants to write about the things I feel and go through. In a case like this, I just think it’s more important to think about all the people that could benefit from me keeping a certain type of morals. A lot of morals that my culture has are not things I agree with, but there are certain things I don’t do because I know I already do something odd, which is music, and if I also do the other odd things in a case where I am showing myself to the world as an artist, I open the door for other girls and boys and then shut it immediately afterwards. I don’t mind sacrificing parts and bits of my life if it means that other people can have those without having to fight for it.”

It is an incredibly altruistic view that we hope remains, but not at the cost of being able to live her life the way she wants it. But then we remember who we’re talking to, and maybe believe that nominative determinism could really be a thing.

After all, Naaz means ‘pride’ in Arabic and Urdu. And there’s no doubt that she won’t rest until she’s made a generation – and herself – proud of her as a role model.

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