By Guest Contributor Marwa Hamad
I’ll admit it: I am a 22 year old part-time music journalist and full-time social-justice activist who gets relentlessly mocked on a daily basis for my immense and unwavering love for a little boy band sensation known as One Direction. If the glossy poster plastered by my work station of five UK boys grinning goofily at me is any indication, my loyalty as an over-aged fan of these kids is a truth that I’ve come to embrace.
The biggest chunk of this appreciation can be attributed to the fact that, for the first time in a long time, I actually feel represented in popular culture as an Arab, Muslim, and “brown” woman. Zayn Malik, the only Muslim person of colour in the band, is someone I can look to and think, you and I might have a thing or two in common. From reading his bandmates’ tweets about taking him out to Eid dinner, to seeing the Arabic script inked across the 19-year-old’s collarbone, I’ve found somewhat of a happy place in Zayn’s presence within the white-dominated world of mainstream pop music. I am now able to watch TV, listen to the radio, and open magazines to find something I can relate to for a change.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, or at least be horrendously tainted by the obvious fact that the inclusion of a Muslim person of colour in a boy band doesn’t mean the exclusion of racist undertones in the way that the media, the public, and his management choose to pigeonhole him.
In one of Zayn’s most recent interviews with the English magazine Fabulous, he talked about his decision to temporarily deactivate his Twitter in August stemming from Islamophobic comments he’d been receiving.
“Nasty things [were being said on Twitter] like I was a terrorist. How can you justify that? How can you call me that and get away with it?” Zayn said. “We live in 2012 and I thought we’d moved forward.”
I can’t speak on behalf of Zayn with regards to his experiences and wouldn’t dream to, but I can speak of the way that the past few months of being a racialized fan have left me feeling upset, queasy and, quite frankly, more than a little angry. I will even attempt to do so without talking about that one time an extreme right-wing columnist said Zayn was pimping Islam on people’s children through his “boy band Jihad” and that the only direction he was facing was Mecca–because I’m still not entirely sure what in the sweet heavens the author meant and if she was even sober when she wrote the piece.
Money-Making Move: The Mysterious Bad Boy
Since the start of One Direction, it was clear that Zayn’s keepers had hand-picked him to be the mysterious, brooding bad boy with an unpredictable streak. He was the group’s A.J. McLean, the Donnie Wahlberg. After all, Malik had tattoos (gasp!), smoked cigarettes (oh my!), and was caught flipping the bird to a pap one night (sound the alarms–this guy is on the loose!).
At first, I went along with it. As someone who enjoys wearing the occasional pair of combat boots and a good leather jacket that screams “I’m a rebel, fear my wrath,” I enjoyed seeing someone that I could relate to on a cultural level also rocking a pair of Doc Martins, skintight black jeans, and a perma-scowl to make clear his zero-tolerance attitude for any funny business.
Slowly but surely, however, it all became a bit…uncomfortable. I started to wonder why it had to be Zayn that was labeled the mysterious, and even worse, bad one. Why couldn’t any of the other quiet boys be mysterious? Heartthrob Harry Styles, for instance, seemed to speak just as sparingly in interviews and was infamous for his slow, languid drawl that most people attributed to–well, nothing. He wasn’t mysterious. He wasn’t intriguing. He was just Harry: irresistible, charming, and endearing because he was likely to be the last of them to get a joke or crack one successfully.
And then it hit me. Zayn being a half-Pakistani Muslim was what counted as mysterious these days. He was exotic. He was dark. He was different. He was the other. He wasn’t plain and boring like the rest of his pale-skinned, bright-eyed bandmates, all of whom could’ve been the good ol’ boys next door. His name was Zayn Malik, for heaven’s sake. When was the last time you met someone named Zayn Malik at your nondescript local Starbucks on a bland Sunday afternoon ordering a vanilla frap? (Please note: this paragraph is best-read while wearing a pair of sarcasm goggles, preferably with a built-in ‘Long-Suffering Recipient of Racist Stereotypes’ filter.)
Of course, this marketing scheme was never an accident. Somewhere within the hierarchy of people who work to shape boy-band images and mold them into compartmentalized products for easy consumption, it was decided that Zayn, the half-Pakistani Muslim, would play the distinct role of the slightly foreign one. He would be wrapped up in an enigma so fans could get that unique pleasure of trying to understand him, but in the end, the public would be ultimately and perpetually mystified. This plays into the racism faced by South Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American communities and other people of colour in the West, in which they are not perceived as the standard, plain, ‘normal’ folks, but something else — something strange and out of the ordinary. This process is known as Othering, and on the most basic level, it works to alienate people of colour and standardize whiteness.
Danger, Danger: Fan Perception
But all of that wasn’t the worst of it, really. Neither was the now-deleted (but screencapped) Oh No They Didn’t! comment that fetishized Zayn’s race, claiming that his mixed heritage was a) the most attractive thing about him and b) meant he couldn’t be brought home to meet the commenter’s mother. In fact, the YouTube and Twitter users who repeatedly called Zayn a terrorist, along with the Tumblr users who jokingly referred to him as “Mexican Zayn” (hint: Pakistan is not in Mexico, and people of colour are not a monolithic tribe that come from interchangeable countries) weren’t even the worst of it.
For me, the worst of it were the more covert instances of racism that surfaced in the period of time following the band’s first headlining tour.
Zayn, like any pop star who’d gone through three legs of extensive touring and performed over sixty shows in less than a year, was photographed looking out of sorts, worn thin, and under-rested. Nothing out of the ordinary, Zayn was caught with a messy mane of hair, barely darkened circles beneath his eyes, and a pair of slouched shoulders.
The logical explanation would be that he was, perhaps, tired. He was tired from touring. He was tired from beginning to record a second album under the pressure of their unbelievably successful and chart-topping platinum debut. He was tired from doing press and, at the time that some of the photos surfaced, preparing for the band’s massive Olympics performance and their upcoming gig at the VMAs. He was tired from running around doing three photo shoots a day, all the while getting chastised over his choice of tattoos, the way he carries himself, and the unfounded rumours that he cheated on his girlfriend (which emerged after two fans disturbingly got away with filming him talking to a girl through a hotel peephole, but I digress).
Instead of thinking he was tired, though, a portion of his fans took to popular blogging platform Tumblr to call him a “homeless drug-addict,” quick to cite weed and cocaine as plausible choices of pop star poison.
This is especially disturbing when looked at in contrast to the way that fans were reacting to the other boys looking tired: the funny one, Louis Tomlinson, is just a little hungover. The cute one and the sensible one, Niall Horan and Liam Payne, are blessed enough to not show outwards signs of wear and tear. The heartthrob, Harry Styles, with his oversized shirts, low-hanging jeans, dishevelled hair, and dark sunglasses is just a harmless hipster.
In the end, it became sadly apparent that the lens through which a startling number of people viewed ‘bad boy’ Zayn seemed to paint him as the most likely to get in trouble, do drugs, and wind up on the street. For me, an Arab, Muslim, ‘brown’ woman who has gone out with my messy head of curls, an oversized Radiohead t-shirt, skinny jeans, and a pair of scuffed boots, only to be followed around by a security guard as a I browsed through racks of accessories at a local store, I find this kind of subconscious internalized racism to hit too close to home.
I have no doubt that Zayn has agency over his own actions, words, clothing choices, and other aspects of his public persona. They are some of the things I love about him the most, and they are the things that remind me so much of myself. But I also have no doubt that marketing schemes shape the way in which young celebrities grow in the public eye, how they choose to present and protect themselves, and how they are ultimately consumed by their audiences. There is no room for mistakes when it comes to multi-million dollar pop-star contracts, and any attempt to market Zayn as the dangerous loose canon of the band is a very calculated effort to keep things ‘interesting’ at the cost of feeding into incredibly problematic racist and Islamophobic ideologies.
Cyberbullying And Beyond
Ultimately, it was no casual matter that Zayn deleted his Twitter of 5 million followers a month ago due to the ‘useless opinions and hate’ he’d been receiving from the public. At the time, Zayn sent out two tweets that have since been deleted.
“The reason i don’t tweet as much as i use to, is because I’m sick of all the useless opinions and hate that i get daily goodbye twitter,” he wrote. “My fans that have something nice to say can tweet me on the one direction account.”
Whether or not it was his own decision to reactivate his Twitter account a day later despite the attacks, we may never know. But through it all, I can’t ignore my own experiences of discomfort in seeing how the public regards him–and how it’s reminiscent of how society regards me–and most importantly, I can’t ignore what he himself has now spoken up about.
“You can say whatever you want about me, I’m not really that bothered. But when it starts to upset people I care about, or when I hear about it from my mum, then that’s a problem,” he told Fabulous with regards to racist attacks on Twitter. “My little cousin put up a family picture at Eid [a Muslim festival] because she got a photo with [my girlfriend] Perrie and she was so happy about it. But then everybody just gave it to me double barrel.”
Zayn doesn’t owe it to anyone to speak of his experiences with Islamophobia and racism, but I’m grateful that he has. There are many problems that come with young superstardom: obsessive and entitled fan attention, controlling management teams, and growing up in the harsh and unrelenting spotlight. However, racism is a major One Direction problem that isn’t talked about nearly enough, along with the unfortunate fact that “Zayn Malik, the mysterious bad boy” reads too much like “Zayn Malik, the exotic, different, and dangerous troublemaker.”
One Direction will undoubtedly continue to make me dance, smile, and revel in a genre of music that reminds me of my youth. I will continue to look to Zayn with a vast fondness and appreciation, but not because he’s the “mysterious bad boy” with a so-called edge–but rather for his kind-hearted, family-oriented, unapologetic, and young-spirited self, all of which are traits that are oft-ignored about Muslim folks of colour in favour of demonizing them. I hope that next time someone wants to make a comment about Zayn’s appearance or his behaviour, they stop first to think about whether it comes from a place of damaging ignorance, unchecked privilege, and outright racism.