An Interview With Activist and Rapper, MONA HAYDAR, On Her Latest Single ‘Suicide Doors’ and More!
Posted On 24 Oct 2018
Mona Haydar has taken conscious rap and flipped it on its head. She’s a fierce activist who channels that passion into songs that speak of acceptance and cultural issues, solidifying her as a unyielding force of compassion and community. She unapologetically shares her opinions and is outspoken on topics that hold personal meaning to her. Mona’s first three songs – “Hijabi”, “Dog”, and “Barbarian” – tackled issues including white supremacy, racism, colorism, violence against women, and the beauty industry’s complex inducing culture.
With her new song, “Suicide Doors”, Mona is opening up the important and deeply personal conversation of suicide and mental health. Suicide around the world is at an all time high and has touched her life in myriad of ways – seeing the issue within the Muslim community and in her own experience of losing her best friend. Mona teamed up with singer, songwriter, and activist Drea d’Nur who lent her soulful vocals to the emotionally charged chorus and appears in the powerful video.
“After losing one of my best friends to suicide, I felt like I had a choice to either make the same decision as her or to actually start living. That was when I radically changed my life- it’s one of the reasons I’m now doing music. ‘Suicide Doors’ is a tribute to my friend as well as one of the ways I’m mourning and grieving her. As an artist, I felt like I could use my music to speak on this topic in a way that didn’t glorify suicide but also didn’t vilify my friend. ‘Suicide Doors’ touches on the insecurities and anxieties so many of us struggle with. It also highlights the toxic culture which upholds impossible standards that no one can actually live up to in a healthy way. It’s a meta analysis on the shadow side of things that no one wants to talk about so here I am talking about it. In my work as a chaplain, and through my music I hope to share some of the love which makes life worth living.” – Mona Haydar
Watch “Suicide Doors” video:
Mona is a musician, poet, activist, public speaker, wife, mother, who recently got her Master’s in Christian Ethics and Theology? at Union Theological Seminary. Originally from Flint, MI, the Syrian-American rapper is a first generation American now residing in Harlem, NY with her husband and two sons. She first became known for her and her husband’s “Ask A Muslim“ booth in Cambridge, where she offered people an opportunity for conversation (with coffee and donuts).
Her fame hit critical mass in March 2017 with the release of her empowering debut single “Hijabi”. The song called out racism and colorism while celebrating culture and diversity of women around the world. Billboard named “Hijabi” one of 2017’s top protest songs and of the 25 top feminist anthems of all time. Mona’s second single, “Dog”, features Jackie Cruz from Orange is the New Black and takes on violence against women with lyrics which call out men in positions of religious authority who use their power to prey on people.
Mona appeared on Katie Couric’s podcast LIVE: The Muslim Next Door at SXSW 2018 and on the accompanying TV series on National Geographic. She and her work have also been featured on Marie Claire, Glamour, BBC, CNN, NPR, BuzzFeed, AJ+, Mic, Refinery 29, The Huffington Post, and many others. She is currently working on her debut EP, Barbarican, which is due out later this year. To keep up with Mona’s music, causes, speaking engagements and more, follow her online:
Connect With Mona Haydar Here:
Learn more about Mona Haydar in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time today! Where does this interview find you now? Is there music playing in the background?
So I’m at home with my kids, home is currently Brooklyn, NY. We have the Hamilton soundtrack playing. My 4.5 year old is currently really into it.
Now that we are on the back end of the year, how do you think 2018 has treated you and your career? What has been one goal that you have had this year and how close are you to reaching it? Or did you already reach it?
This year has been full of a lot of hard work. I set goals to finish my masters degree. Finish and put out my EP and I’m really excited because in May, I graduated and in my EP comes out Nov 2nd.
Growing up, how important was music to you? Can you recall the moment when you decided that you wanted to be a musician? Was it an easy or difficult choice to make?
I grew up being taught that the kind of music I make was forbidden and I didn’t have any women who looked or dressed like me to look up to. It was really challenging to imagine that I could do music because there was a huge lack of representation in media. I was really young, in first grade, walking home from my bus stop in Flint Michigan, where I grew up and I would be singing my own songs – composing music, if you will.
What has been the biggest surprise so far about making music your career? What has been an unexpected or welcome challenge to it all?
I didn’t expect the very first song I ever wrote and released to do as well as it did. I expected people to enjoy the song– but I think the visuals really struck people. The challenge is that my first video went viral and so now I feel pressure to match that on other releases.
How do you think you and your music have been influenced by your hometown and where you live today?
I am the artist I am today as a result of growing up in Flint. I had amazing mentors, many of whom were incredible black women who told me, “your voice is important.”I have this light skin and so I have to use that privilege to speak the things that are important for the very diverse and intersectional community I come from.
Let’s talk about your debut single “Hijabi.” What was that experience like for you writing it? Did you originally set out to write some kind of a feminist anthem?
Writing that song was a lot of fun and I definitely knew I was setting out to write an “anthem.” I even called it that in all my notes. My song writing style is pretty crazy. I put together a huge document and just say all the things that I hope to include- with photos, links, music and then I write the song. I co-wrote this with Tunde Olaniran, also from Flint, Michigan. I call him my rap-doula because he’s the one who helped me birth myself from poetry into rap.
Did the process of making your debut EP, “Barbarian” surprise you at all? Were there any unexpected challenges to it all?
I’m independent so the most shocking thing for me is how expensive everything is — there were times when I didn’t have the money to finish a song so it just sat there for a while. My timeline has been really held hostage by that but in some ways, I’m really free to do and say what I want so it’s trade off.
Suicides have been really in the news and our culture lately. So what was it like writing your new song, “Suicide Doors” that deals with suicide? Did it feel like your own personal therapy session?
Suicide Doors is a song that’s really close to my heart. My friend who took her own life was one of my biggest supporters. She came with me to gigs. In my phone she was “wifey.” I’m just so tired of the stigma surrounding getting access to proper mental health in communities of color. I was compelled to write this song because I felt like it was my obligation to open up the conversation if I possibly could.
How creatively involved were you with the making of the video for “Suicide Doors”?
I’ve been involved in the making, directing, producing, editing, design, styling and everything on all my videos. For suicide doors specifically, I basically did it all. I worked with a great team who helped me see my vision through, people like Nadia Azmy who is a dear friend who helped with art direction or Rami Kashou who let us borrow two of his couture dresses for the shoot. Zaineb Abdul-Nabi edited all the footage. I’m really passionate about working with other POC.
Since the beginning of music, people have turned to it for support and as an escape from their realities. How do you want your music received?
I hope my music is a means of healing for communities of color specifically. I hope that everyone can enjoy it and feel the vibration of love coming from it. I just want people to smile and enjoy a few minutes.
How do you find that time for your music when you are a busy mother, wife and recent Masters Graduate? How do you balance it all? How do you hope to use your Masters education now?
Balance is definitely hard but my partner, husband and co-parent, Sebastian is supportive of my dreams so that makes things a lot easier. My masters is infused in all my writing. I’m just really excited to know the truth of the history that is the racist theological foundations of this nation-state. It helps me to be a more conscious creator and spread the truth. The genocide of the native people of this land and the Africans who were stolen from their homes and forced to be enslaved and built this country, their lives were not honored by the theology of founders of this land. That karma is still present here. That’s why we see things like the Muslim Ban, like police brutality, mass incarceration etc. We have to heal that wound of incorrect and problematic theology. I’m using my music as a means to do that.
As a fan of Orange Is The New Black, I have to ask you about working with Jackie Cruz on your track, “Dog”? How did that happen in the first place?
Jackie is so amazing. When my song hijabi(wrap my hijab) first came out, she shared it with her millions of followers. Later, she and I clicked when we met at a fundraiser for the humanitarian crisis in Syria and she was like “yo, if you ever have a hook you need someone on, hit me up!!” and so I did!
What has it been like keeping up with your social media accounts and all of the different platforms? Is it hard to stay up to date on it all? What would you say is your favorite way to connect with your fans now?
I’ve always enjoyed Instagram and Youtube and so those have to be my fav ways to be in touch with fans. I’m the most active on Instagram but the recent shifts in algorithm have made it so much harder for me to keep track of people and for people to keep track of me and what I’m doing.
Who are some of your favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music? Who would you absolutely still love to work with in the future?
I really love a lot of what’s happening in the R&B scene right now. I’ve always been a big Hip Hop head and so I also really love all the young conscious artists coming up. There’s almost too much to mention but I’m def watching H.E.R, Dounia, Kehlani, SZA, Logic, J Cole and Chance.
If you were going to be stranded on a deserted island forever, what musical item would you take with you and why?
I would probably take a musical instrument of some kind because then maybe I’d finally have the time to learn!
If your music was going to be featured on any TV show that is currently on right now, which would you love it to be on? Or if you prefer, what is a movie that you love that you wish your music was featured in?
I love the scoring for Insecure! That is def goals.
At the end of the day, what do you hope your fans take away from your music? I’d like to know more about how you want your music to be timeless?
I want people to feel seen, loved and held through my music. I want them to feel like they are strong and are here to do the work that only they can to help usher us into our more beautiful world.