ZEADALA: Be you and be proud
A Thai and Arabic upbringing are just two ingredients of influence for south-west Sydney poet and musician Zeadala. A background in community work and her own experience of feeling on the outer are two more.
From this, Zeadala creates music and poetry that challenges normative narratives and encourages power in young people who find themselves on the outer as she did growing up.
While her sound is predominately hip hop, dig a little and you’ll find a musician who’s not afraid to move between genres and bend expectations.
ZEADALA. I’d say my first language is Thai, my mother’s language.
Both of my parents lived in Thailand, and my father who is Iraqi also spoke Thai. It was the language we all spoke at home. When I went to school I learned how to speak English. It wasn’t until I was about seven years-old and my Iraqi grandmother came to visit that I learned how to speak Arabic. I think the reason was because no one could communicate with her.
Can you still speak all of those languages?
Z. Yes, although my Arabic is quite broken because I don’t get to speak it a lot. I still speak Thai at home.
In terms of your parent’s cultures, they’re quite different. Growing up, did you notice some things in your household were predominately Arabic and other things, such as language, were Thai?
Z. In terms of culture and tradition, my family and I are Muslim, so there were overriding Islamic practices in the home. At the same time we celebrated Thai holidays and Thai New Year alongside aspects of Arabic culture. Even though they are so different, there were similarities such as respect for your elders and the passing on of knowledge and stories.
Were other families as multicultural as yours?
Z. Before moving to south-west Sydney at 11 years-old I grew up in Kogarah, a small suburb on the Southern Sydney side of New South Wales. When I moved I noticed there was quite a contrast in terms of multiculturalism. When I went to school in Kogarah I think some of my peers didn’t really understand that you could have parents from different countries, and I often felt left out of language classes. If I was to do an Arabic class and Muslim scripture, I felt like I didn’t fit in because my mother is Thai.
At what point did music start to become a big part of your life?
Z. When I was in primary school. I’d listen to the radio on my Walkman and immerse myself in that world because I felt there was no one else I could communicate with about how I was experiencing the world. Music was a really good escape that allowed me to reflect on different perspectives and ideas.
Do you remember any of the early songs you wrote?
Z. Oh my gosh! [laughs].
I started with poetry from what I remember…a lot of it was quite dark and sad. I was questioning why it was so hard to be understood, and to fit in. Why there’s so much labelling, and compartmentalising of people….but not in a very articulate way because I was still young!
In an angst-like youthful way?
Z. Yeah, exactly.
I’ve noticed that you move between beat-box and rap to acoustic. How does that movement between genres work musically?
Z. I was really lucky to have an older brother who introduced me to different genres of music. When I was in high-school he’d say, ‘you gotta check out Wu Tang Clan, this Tupac song, or Bone Thugs ‘n’ Harmony’. It was crazy, I wasn’t really aware, so that really helped. Later he introduced me to Linkin Park, System of a Down, and even some techno. I was exploring these genres of music and I felt connected to all of it.
I think music surpasses all of those barriers to language, and all of those intersections of gender, race and class, or religion. It connects to the human. All genres can do that.
You refer to yourself as a conscious rapper - what does it mean to be a conscious rapper?
Z. For me, it means to be present in what I am communicating in a way that reflects my experience, or the experiences of people around the world. There are social injustices that I feel need to be brought to the forefront and addressed. It’s about having an awareness that isn’t just about me as an individual, but also my friends’ experiences, my family’s, and the experiences of our external environment - the way it is being exploited and destroyed through capitalism, for example.
Do you feel that your Thai, Arabic and Australian upbringing feeds into the consciousness too?
Z. Very much so. When I was growing up I felt like I was always pushed to the outside and I was always looking in. The place I was meant to be at that time was just to be an observer and just listen, and I was able to do that.
I think I was really aware from a young age because my parents’ cultures are so different from one another. It meant I had to be open minded and open to different perspectives and experiences, and really have that empathy to try and understand people on a human level.
I’d love to talk about your newest track, it really feeds into the political rap part of your identity. What inspired it?
Z. I work in the community development sector with a lot of high school students as part of a storytelling and well-being program. Through the course of working with them they’d talk about identity and belonging. Some expressed that they actually had a fear of going out into the bigger, wider world because they are afraid of being judged. They felt their school was quite socially cohesive but were fearful of how they’d be received on the outside. Their suburb gets such a bad wrap in the media and people will judge them by how they look. I wanted to write a song that would reinforce the message that we all have inherent power to create the life that we want but to also acknowledge the structural and systemic frameworks that are in place to make one feel like they can’t do actually do that.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about how you wrote Your Hands for young people, were you trying to achieve something similar with BeatBox Jamm? Is reflection quite a big feature of your work?
Z. It might be cliche to say, ‘the youth are our future’, but they are. We are at a stage where things are moving forward and there are positive changes I can see. At the same time history is repeating itself. I’m trying to share all of the things I wish I’d known when I was younger with young people so they can feel more equipped, and have the tools they need to continue to do what they want to fulfil their own purpose in the world.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self once piece of advice about growing up in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
ZEADALA. I would tell myself to be grateful for the uniqueness that is you. Growing up you just want to fit in, but we’re made up from all of the experiences we have and the different people we have met in our lives. There is no standard of perfection, or standard of what it means to be successful. Who says that you fail? Who is the person that can say that? If you ‘fail’ you can try again.