Mozhdah Jamalzadah is finding ways to insert politics into the commercial world of Afghan pop.
Jamalzadah writes lyrics with her father, an Afghan refugee in Vancouver who is working with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. He helps her craft strongly political messages in Farsi that tackle topics from violence against women to Afghan patriotism.
“My music is mainly political,” she says. “Every aspect of it, every song that’s been released, I try to make the lyrics have meaning. The songs are not the typical love songs you get on everybody’s CD.”
“She represents a new breed of Afghan woman,” says Qasim Rasi, a Vancouver-based web developer. “It’s not that Afghan women have never sung before – we have had some grand masters. But she is the new voice of the younger movement. A lot of people have embraced her, and she also has been met with opposition from conservative Afghans.”
A family affair
Jamalzadah is one of few Afghan musicians coming out of Vancouver. The community is small, with about 7,000 members of Afghan descent, compared to 60,000 in Toronto. Jamalzadah knows her background and song content create tensions within her own community.
She moved to Canada with her family as a political refugee from Afghanistan at five years of age. Her family settled in Vancouver where she studied voice at the BC Conservatory of Music and once made a failed attempt at Canadian Idol.
But it wasn’t until a chance meeting with Rasi, developer of a Vancouver-based entertainment website, AfghanBuzz.com, that she decided to take singing seriously. Rasi created a MySpace page and promoted her on his website.
“I didn’t know that anybody would even be interested in listening to my stuff and all of a sudden I got 200 hits a day on Myspace,” says Jamalzadah.
Her career is now operated as an independent family-run business. Her father offers creative input while her mother and brothers handle management and promotions. So far she has released a number of singles and has just completed her debut album, which will be available through iTunes later this month.
They are still deeply affected by the turmoil in Afghanistan. Her father joined the Canadian Forces following Canada’s invasion of Afghanistan because he still feels a profound connection to his homeland. He is a cultural adviser and is stationed there another six months. She says he feels that he has a duty to go back there and make a difference.
Challenging the status quo
Jamalzadah is also trying to make a difference, with music as her platform. Her most political song is Dukhtare Afghan, which is about influential women poets and freedom fighters. During a Persian New Year’s concert last month in Los Angeles, she dedicated the song to women’s rights in Afghanistan, addressing 10,000 people.
“I dedicated that song to those girls who were attacked by acid while going to school in Khandahar,” she says. “It actually says I’m a girl, I’m an Afghan girl, don’t break my honour, don’t break my wings. Leave me be.”
She is particularly frustrated by proposed restrictions on women’s rights in Afghanistan’s that would force women to submit to sex with their husbands and require permission to leave the home.
“I am beyond furious. I’m just – I’m so angered by it,” she said. “For our own President to not even feel anything towards his own Afghan females, I feel like in their eyes, a female is like a piece of trash. If she has no say, if her husband is allowed to rape her anytime he wants, who do they go to?”
Her other resistance involves a video with a popular Iranian singer that shows the fully clothed duet holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes. It is tame by western top-forty standards, and quite popular with young Iranians and Afghans.
However it has generated criticism, prompting a video defence from the two. Jamalzadah says one person even wrote her through Facebook and told her she should be shot for what she’s doing.
“So when I threatened to report him to CSIS he replied ‘Please please please don’t report me. I apologize.’”
Rasi says she faces opposition because, “she wears normal clothes, like Western style clothes. She’s a bit liberal in her beliefs, so for a lot of Afghans it’s fine, but there are some individuals who are conservatives. Afghan culture has been a conservative culture, and people have been unwilling to change for a long time.”
When Afghan male singers have provocatively dressed female dancers in the background of their videos, it does not generate much controversy. Jamalzadah attributes the different standard to the fact that the girls are not Afghan.
“To these people that’s fine because they’re not Afghan. But for me as an Afghan girl to do that and sing at the same time, it’s really freaky for some people,” she says.
Jamalzadah says she wants to play in Afghanistan, but that may be difficult to achieve anytime soon. Her former producer, Wahid Omid, was a celebrity in Afghanistan before the Taliban came to power. He left his Vancouver home to play some shows there about five years ago, but returned early.
“I didn’t feel safe so I came back,” he says.
While she waits for the opportunity to play in her home country, Jamalzadah says her main goal is to use her music to push for women’s rights.
“My speeches are becoming more political,” she says. ”If I’m standing in front of 10,000 people with a mic in my hand I have the power to at least bring up the issue.”
Jamalzadah and Kami have announced plans to tour Europe and Dubai following the release of their new albums.