Why I Wrote a Song About My Arab Muslim Family

"I wanted to remind people that those involved in the Syrian refugee crisis are human."

For the first 16 years of my life, I wanted to be invisible. I wanted a “normal” name—something that wouldn’t attract itself any attention when attendance was called in class, the way “Wafia” did. I decided that my life would have been easier if I were born a “Sarah.” (Bonus points if I had dirty blond hair that shone in the right light, making it impossible for my crushes not to like me back.) I’d spent so much time daydreaming about my White Name that, when other girls named Sarah were called for, I’d turn in response.

My childhood was really nomadic. My parents moved around a lot in predominantly white countries, but always managed to find the most ethnic suburbs possible for us to live in. Still, my classmates were mostly white. Growing up, I went to 13 different schools. You know that ethnically ambiguous girl that would come join the class at weird times of the school year? That was me. If I were “normal,” I’d stand up in front of the class, say my name was Sarah, and blend right in. But, with trembling knees and zero eye contact, I introduced myself as Wafia, and kids snickered. Over time, every variation of a dog bark that you can imagine developed into a nickname.

I became good at hiding and consciously trying to be forgotten, both in my physical presence and emotionally. As a songwriter, I’ve had to work on actively not keeping things to myself. Given the widespread current discussions about the rights of marginalized groups, it’s the first time I want to be visible: I’m Arab. I’m Syrian. I’m Iraqi. I’m a Shia Muslim. Both sides of my family have been in conflict zones since the invasion of Iraq and Syria’s civil war, which my family and I have been dealing with privately for over a decade. I can’t remember a day going by where I haven’t heard my father discuss trying to get his family out of Baghdad, or my mum on the phone with the immigration department on behalf of her siblings in Al-Salamiyah, day in and day out. Both of my parents are the only ones in their immediate families to have left their countries. As a young married couple, they had the incredible foresight 25 years ago to leave everything they knew in Syria and move to the West for a chance at a better life for their children. I love them for this, and it’s the thing they resent most about themselves. Call it guilt.

Being an Arab Muslim is nuanced and heavily political, so talking about it with people outside of my family wasn’t ever something I sought out. Some Muslims will ask you about your sect, only to judge you for it. Some Arabs will question you about your political alliances, only to undermine them. We have a history of knocking our own kind down, but, right now, so is everyone else. The turning point for me was realizing that no one else was writing songs about the things that impacted me most, like the Muslim ban. Despite all of its amendments, it still affects my mother’s ability to come to the US to see my shows. Had I been born in Syria, like her, I wouldn’t be allowed into the US either, and I still struggle with whether I want to return to the US if my family isn’t welcome. I can’t expect others to write songs about this, because there aren’t many people in my industry that are impacted by it in the same way that I am. I’m in a position to make the music I want to hear, and to be the voice and storyteller that is the most honest and open version of me. I don’t need to wait around for someone else to do it. I made the song I thought needed to exist.

I love pop music, and I love accessibility, but I also love songs that are made to sound like something else at their surface level. With that, the concept for my song “Bodies” was born. This song was written as my extended family back in Syria got news that their refugee status to enter Australia was denied after a year of work put in by my mother. “Bodies” is a painfully aware pop song: I wanted “Bodies” to sound like a song about people out dancing, but carry undertones about the current political climate. I wanted the song to be as inclusive as possible, and live in a sonically accessible world, because enough things in the world divide us. It’s about realizing the strength that comes in numbers. I wanted to simplify and remind people that those involved in the Syrian refugee crisis are human, not alien. I wanted to draw similarities to groups of people walking/running/protesting/dancing/coming together. You teach people big concepts with smaller ideas that, when put together, make up the bigger idea. I’m not trying to alienate anyone.

My story isn’t unique—neither is my family. It’s really important to highlight that millions are displaced with no homes or job. Living in first-world countries, we have no way of truly fathoming the refugee experience. My song is an attempt to bridge two different worlds together by their similarities, but, above all, I’m just writing about my family, because that’s all I know.

One of my concerns that arose before putting out “Bodies” was the fear that I’d be pigeonholed as an artist. My family’s story isn’t the only one I have to tell, and I’m not trying to be the voice of all Middle Eastern immigrants. I am one voice of many, and life doesn’t just stop when your country, people, or family are in turmoil. People in crisis are still people, with loved ones, daily routines, and other normal aspects of the everyday. Their lives don’t stop, and neither does mine. Every story on this EP is an extension of me: Songs about the refugee crisis can co-exist on a record with songs about falling in love with a woman, and falling out of love with a man. I need to share “Bodies” because it’s part of my story, but it’s not all of it. I was born a Wafia, with dark brown hair that shines kind of red in the sunlight, and I don’t care if people don’t like me back but I just don’t want to be invisible anymore.

Wafia is 24-year-old Syrian-Iraqi vocalist and songwriter Wafia Al-Rikabi. Her EP, VIII, is set for release January 19, 2018 and follows her debut release XXIX, which featured the viral hit “Heartburn.”  In 2016 she released (m)edian, a collaborative EP with Future Classic labelmate Ta-ku.