Although Deeyah released her debut album at the age of 14 her career has little parallels with other child stars. Taught by Ustad Sultan Khan, who is best known for his collaborations during the Beatles eastern period, her first album saw her adopted as Norway's mascot for multiculturalism. By the time her second album had been released at the age of 17 the tide had turned and saw her subject to constant attacks and death threats from religious extremists that prompted her to flea her native country. Now aged 26, as she prepares to release her debut UK single the threats have started again. Designer Magazine Editor caught up with The Muslim Madonna to discuss how this has affected her career and personal life.
Q: I think the video for "Plan Of My Own" must have been the first music video we saw of 2005 and bizarrely enough is was always played directly after "Soldier" by Destiny's Child. As one flame burns out another one is lit?
A: That is very true. I've always been a bit of a fan of theirs, but I have to agree. I miss the big super female empowerment songs. They seem to have gone and especially "Soldier", it's a bit strange cos it's all "I need some thug love" and you gotta have this and you gotta have that. What happened to the I have it all myself or I'll do it for myself attitude.
Q: Taking it way way back to your childhood growing up in Norway. Now Norway isn't a country you'd imagine having a huge Asian population.
A: No, not necessarily. People always laugh, or I laugh at them, because the minute people find out i'm from Norway they always go "I hope you don't think i'm being rude, but you don't look very Norwegian" (laughs). The entire population of Norway is about five and a half million. Out of that the Asian community is about 50000. That's actually considered a large community to Norwegians.
It's a bit of strange place to come from in terms of that because it's not necessarily known for being extremely multicultural. It's the Nordic people and you don't necessarily expect black, brown or all kinds of people coming out of there. I was born and raised in Oslo and over the past 10 years or so it has definitely become quite cosmopolitan. It's becoming a bit of melting pop, which is very cool to see.
Q: What was your experience like growing up with this in mind?
A: Growing up in every school that I went to and every area I lived I was either the only not blonde and blue eyed girl there or I would just be amongst 2 or 3 others that were foreigners. We were called foreigners there. Norwegian was my second language and I did have a handful of strange and bad experiences, but in general it was very good. I didn't have the problems that it sounds like a lot of people in the first and second generations here used to have.
Q: I guess in that sense you had a similar experience though in that you're bridging the gap between the traditional upbringing and living in a westernized world?
A: Absolutely. I'm part of the first Norwegian born Asian generation basically. As a whole it's been slightly difficult but better than expected in some ways. Our parents generation are very traditional and want to hold onto the culture and the language, which is great, but on the other hand in the outside world and the school world and work is obviously very western. And living in between those two, for me personally, I actually think it's been a very good thing. I think culturally it's made me a lot more mature and open and accepting. I also think it's given me the opportunity to learn a lot more, but also have the ability to fit in with in a lot of different situations and cultures. I see it as a bonus.
Q: Over the years growing up your first experience musically was being trained in the Asian classical vocal tradition
A: I did that for a long time. That's what i've done my entire life and I didn't start singing in English until I was about 15 or 16. I don't know how much you know about indian classical music but one of the reasons why I started in Indian classical music is it is very disciplined. It is about treating your voice as an instrument and working it and training it to the point where technically you're perfect. To me what's been great about that is it has gave me the foundation to be any kind of singer I wanted
Q: You were trained by Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and Ustad Sultan Khan. Could you fill in our readers with the story that these people play in modern music?
A: He is one of the most important and well respected singers out there of modern times. He hasn't done that much work in the West, which i'm surprised by. The other teacher I had, Ustad Sultan Khan, has actually played on a couple of the Beatles records. He was part of the very first burst of East meets West and was part of the whole Ravi Shanka breakthrough. As far as I'm aware nothing like that had ever happened until the Beatles basically. But he is a sarangi player and is considered one of the best at that. Basically Ustad means maestro and for people to earn that title it's very rare.
Q: But while you were training classically you always listened to pop music - the East meets West connection again.
A: I grew up with MTV and the radio so I grew up with artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince and moved on to acts like TLC, Boyz 2 Men, Faith No More, Metallica, Guns'n'Roses to listening to people like Kylie. As you say the very super-pop as well. My musical intake has been very diverse my entire life because I love music and it's always been part of my life.
I love music and I love listening to anything, for different reasons. I can appreciate very old school hip hop like Public Enemy to very polished R&B or cheesy pop or metal. I even had a little phase where I used to listen to Testament and Pantera. People always get very surprised. I've noticed some of the questions i've been getting from some of the more R&B magazines. It's like why would a girl like you listen to Metallica? I'm like why not? What's so strange about that?
Hip hop has always been to me, not so much now because it's become very pop, but it always used to be the lyrics and the rawness of the production. Rock music to me has always been about great musicianship and the band feeling, which is something being a solo artist that i've not necessarily been able to experience. And then obviously i've always been into the great singers like Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.
Different styles of music mean different things to me. I actually like them all as long as they're well done.
Q: You had the two albums out in Norway under your birth name Deepika. What did they sound like?
A: The first album I recorded when I was 14 and it came out when I was 15. It was a very strange album I think, because musically it was a mixture of folk music and jazz and indian classical. Lyrically it was mostly Norwegian and then some indian as well. I was working with some of the best musicians from India and Scandinavia and there was me a 14 year old dumbass. It was very strange album, but it got very well received by the public.
I would say the whole time around that album was very interesting in Norway in General. At that point it became very apparent that not just Oslo in particular, but Norway as a whole was becoming a very multicultural society. I think the arrival of an artist like me, even though I was very very young and didn't necessarily know what I was doing apart from "I love singing", ended up helping and was a sign of the time, moves and changes in society in general. As a result I sort of ended up becoming a bit of mascot - a very polite inoffensive little mascot for Multicultural Norway.
Q: And then the problems came as a result of you being adopted as this mascot?
A: That didn't happen until the second album. That came out in 1996 and that's when I actually started writing. The way I was dressing and the way I approached music was as a 17 year old girl and being like a 17 year old girl. And not getting dressed by your mum and not being that innocent, inoffensive mascot. It was just me being me and growing up.
Musically with the second album I was very excited about a lot of the stuff that was going on in the UK. It was the whole trip hop Bristol sound with Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky. I wanted to have elements of that in my album as well, so what it ended being was a cross between trip hop, electronica and asian influences. There was still quite a strong indian influence in there in that most of the songs would have lyrically an indian verse and an English chorus. Very similar to what's going on the UK with Jay Sean and Raghav now ...but that was 10 years ago I guess.
What ended up causing trouble there was I was becoming even bigger in Norway. I was on the frontcover of every single Newspaper, every single magazine, the video was all over the place and the song was on every single radio. The music video is what started some trouble. It started very small with a lot of talk ("this is very odd, we're not sure whether we like this....or if this is ok for a girl to be doing") into getting quite aggressive to the point where I could not step outside alone. I had phone calls non-stop about what was going to happen to me - how was going to get cut up, beaten, raped and everything you can imagine.
At one point a car pulled up at my school cos I was still trying to finish school as well. Apparently there was a group of people barging into every single classroom and saying where is she? And finding I was locked outside it was basically a matter of you're going to come in this car because we're going for a drive.
A lot of things like that. I got attacked on-stage. At one of the very last big shows I did in Norway in Oslo. I was headlining the whole thing and I put my hand out to the audience, someone ended up grabbing me and pulling me down, grabbed hold of my hair and put something in face. I didn't realize what it was. I just remember I couldn't see anything. It turned out it was pepper spray. Then instantly fights were breaking out in the audience and in the streets and I ended up getting taken away by the police. The ironic thing about that concert in particular was it was an Anti Violence concert and it ended up becoming very very violent.
Q: And that was the deciding factor which made you leave your native Norway for the UK?
A: Throughout my career i'd always wanted to come to the UK or the US and I remember telling my parents I think i'm gonna go now. Their faces dropped when I said I might be going to the States, so I booked a one way ticket to the UK as it was only 2 hours away. I didn't know anyone at all because I didn't really plan it and I ended up in a council estate in Peckham.
Q: At that age everything you'd been through and experienced gave you this wealth of knowledge. When you compare that to an 18 year old contestant on Pop Idol over here who'd left school, done nothing and then ended up being famous for 15 minutes
A: Exactly. I've kind of thought about that whole thing a lot. I've been trying to make up my mind about how I really feel about this? Do I hate this or is it ok? The thing is in one way these shows have been very helpful because they have given a platform to a lot of acts who would not necessarily know what to do or where to go. In terms of that it's been sort of a positive outlet for a lot of talent, but on the other hand the thing that upsets me the most and why i've decided i'm probably more negative about it is the way these artists get treated, not on screen because that's entertainment, but behind the scenes. The lack of loyalty from the labels and managers shocks me a lot. It's very much a matter of chewing them and spitting them out and not giving a shit at all. After Pop Idol 1, 2, 3 whatever I don't think people necessarily realize that these kids are not being treated very well by the people that they are working with. Like you say they are getting their 15 minutes, but I don't think they are getting the loyalty and respect from the people that they work with. People like Gareth Gates, who was huge, has just gone and been dropped.
Even if I was 14 now growing up in the UK I don't think i'd have took that route. I started singing when I was seven and sung then till the 1st album. I had tons of offers of will you come in and audition for this or that and I never did it. I think I end up making things a lot more difficult for myself. I've always ended up picking the harder direction and not going for the easy out. Things like will you front X dance record or we want you to be all the Spice Girls rolled into one. Some of the things i've been asked to do probably would have ended up doing well and made life a lot easier for me, but I just can't do something that I don't feel is me.
Q: The debut UK single and album came after quite a hard time personally where you lost your manager to cancer
A: When I came to the UK the first couple of years were quite difficult because I was lost and didn't really understand this country. I was moving from place to place and trying to barge in to writers conventions trying to find writers and studio time. So I started finding the people and ended up getting a ridiculous deal with Warners in the UK where I got signed by the President of the company. I was actually signed for 3 years or so and that's the time I started working with Steven, my old manager. Things kind of went pear shaped because after a while the guy that had signed me, after 23 years of running Warners got fired and so did his entire staff. But before everybody left I talked to a couple of people and also my lawyers as well and basically pulled out. I wanted out with my material back and got everything back and literally 2 months after I had left they started dropping acts left, right and centre.
Then Steven got really ill. He had a huge operation and then the doctors told him you should hopefully be ok, but if the cancer comes back then you have to start making plans. And it did come back. It was basically a year of watching him fade and disappear from this big strong, incredibly confident, extremely good and impressive man to just skin and bones. I'd already started working in the States with Darren Prindle (Destiny's Child producer) and Steven realized he was no longer to full capacity so asked for help. Darren started helping Steven out and that's how the whole work relationship started with Darren as well.
For me the first part of my career was a surprise. I had no clue what was going on. Really good things just happened to me and I was the right person at the right time. I had a lot of luck and ended up getting a lot of success. But the second part of my career I would basically say it's been like pulling teeth. Every single step of the way has been ridiculously hard and one brick wall after the other. I actually quit after Steven died because I just felt that it sucked. Everything had gone. Going from having absolutely everything you could ever possibly dream of to having everything snatched away, I just said f**k this.
Q: After you quit you must have relied on a lot of inner strength to come back to it all?
A: I couldn't quit. I tried quitting and didn't do any music for a few months. I would feel physically ill like something was missing. Like I didn't have an arm anymore or a part of me had gone. And because of everything that had gone on I just started writing. Lyrically it's very much about that time and realizing myself than in order for me to do what I need to do I had to do it my way and I have to pick myself back up. If it didn't work i'd still be happy because I did it on my own terms and didn't left anyone f**k up my life for me.
When bad things happen and you face loss, not just human loss, but you feel like you're losing yourself and losing everything that you stand for. I think most people have it in them that it'll either drag you down and that will be the end of it or you can just go the opposite and you get this unstoppable drive.
Q: What you've lived through over the past 12 years, your life story, must be is an inspiration to young women
A: I hope so. I hope it's not just an inspiration to young women, but also people in general. The stuff that i've been through is obviously music specific, but in general it's a feeling and a thing in life that we all at some point go through. Whether that's something to do with your career or a life partner or life in general. We all face disappointment, we all face loss, we all face very hard struggles and its a matter of finding the best way to deal with it yourself and to realize that the only help you really have has to come from yourself.
Q: Moving on to what's started happening over here in the UK. You've found yourself in a similar position to what happened back home in Norway
A: Yeah. The thing that disappointed me the most over what's happened over here. When it slowly started happening over here my parents sent me some of my old clippings from newspapers back home. I was actually flicking through some of them and I can't count how many pieces I was quoted as saying "What's happening to me here in Norway, would never happen to me in the UK". When I was 16 I was quoted for saying that and commenting that the UK is a multicultural place and in many ways is the centre of the universe. All cultures come in here and also go out of here. It really is a symbol of a functional melting pot, as functional as can be I guess.
I can't believe it's happening again. And not just the fact that it's happening in a completely different place, but it's happening nine and ten years on. That really upsets me and freaks me out. Is this thing going to follow me everywhere? Am I never going to get rid of this?
I thing that worries me is that everything that happened in Norway the exact same progression step by step is happening here. It's obviously not got to boiling point yet, as bad as it got in Norway to the point I just had to get out of there, but every single thing that's happening is exactly the same and moving in the same direction. That frightens the shit out of me, but i'm older now and i've been through it once. I'm not going to stop. I can't let it stop me again or push me. I have to continue and not get bullied or scared away.
Q: And for many readers in the UK it may surprise them to know that the police have been very supportive and helpful with what's been happening?
A: The police have been so helpful in London compared to what i'm used to. When it happened in Norway I was very much left alone. Everyone was saying "We don't understand this. This is some weird cultural thing so you deal with it. We don't want to know". I'm so pleased because the police understand. They're watching over me which i'm very happy about.
Q: Why do you feel personally that men, regardless of age, feel threatened by you?
A: There have been some younger, but also older. The consistent thing is that it's male. I don't know why they feel threatened because it would be one thing if I was waving a flag and I was running around saying "I am here to start a revolution" and disrespecting and attacking the religion then I might understand. It still wouldn't be ok, but I would at least understand where people are coming from.
Religion in general is a very sensitive issue, any religion, not just Islam, but any. We've seen a lot of examples recently of that. I have never advertised the fact that my parents background is Muslim. In most of the interviews i've done i've never said it, but then once people find out where my parents are from it goes without saying what religion I probably belong to.
But it seems to be the same spark, the music video and visually how I present myself is for some reason very offensive. I've had lectures given to me that i'm a bad example to their daughters and i'm making them think they can do whatever they want to. When I first came here I thought I was going to have so much competition just because of the size of the Muslim and Asian communities in the UK. I thought there was going to be four or five girls like me in already in the charts and I was going to have to work my ass off to make room for myself. I come and there's nobody and there still is nobody and i've always asked people how come? Maybe this is the reason why
Q: If you compare the video for "Plan Of My Own" it is extremely tame compared to 99.9% of other pop or R&B videos
A: I completely agree. What i'm wearing in this video, if you walk out on a the high street or clubs on any Friday night you would see that and then some. I don't understand what is so bad about it. Am I selling sex? Actually no I am not. I'm just dressing the way I like to dress. If I was selling sex I would really go for it. I'm not trying to advertise my ass or make a career out of my ass.
I don't think i'm pushing any boundaries in terms of that. I think Madonna definitely did. I think Britney has to an extent. Christina Aguilera has. I respect them for it, but I will only go as far as I feel comfortable with. To me the look and image is a secondary thing. It has to start with your personality and the music.
Q: What has the reaction been from the girls?
A: Some girls have been quite shocked as well and said that it's very dirty. The majority of girls, especially Muslim girls, have actually been extremely supportive. The schools that i've been touring around the country have just been regular schools, they haven't been Muslim schools in particular. The average white girl doesn't even flinch. I've never had a question there or from black girls.
Even the Muslim girls that have been extremely positive, the one point of curiosity has been what do you parents think? Have they been supportive? What does you dad think? The look on their faces when I say my dad was the person who got me into music in the first place - I wish I would have had cameras to have taken photos of them. It's not that common for a dad to be supportive of his daughter.
Q: If you could send out one message to the people threatening you what would it be?
A: The problem with what's happening here and what happened in Norway is that it is a small minority that are doing this. Unfortunately this small minority is very loud and also quite angry. If the majority could just speak up a little bit or make a stand I think it could be stomped out.
The thing that does really confuse me is I don't talk about politics and I don't talk about religion in any of my music. Unlike a lot of people I have not attacked or criticized the religion in any way, shape or forum. All I want to do is music. I just want the right to do that and to be myself. I'm not preaching or trying to convert people to be like me. I sort of expect the same respect in return. I'm not force-feeding people anything and I don't think I should be force-fed anything either.
Q: Was the reason you went over to the US to get that big sound?
A: Not really. It was finding people that I got on with and who understood what I was trying to do. That's not to say Americans are friendlier producers or anything like that. I just clicked with some of the people I worked with and what I really liked particularly about Darren, is the fact that even though he has done very well he did not say this is my sound and this is what I want you to do. Because that is quite an American thing to do and I was very pleased about that, that he didn't. What I expect from a producer is to help you develop your own sound and to make you as good as you can be.
Also when I lost Steve and I left Warners I did try calling some of the people that had been brought in, both UK and US people, but people wouldn't call me back when they realized there wasn't any money. A lot of R&B albums nowadays are designer or marketing albums where you look through Music Week and see what's hot right now and choose 2 tracks from each hit maker. Musically for me it was natural and making a few mistakes along the way, but at the end seeing what fits and what feels comfortable.
Q: Is the single representative of what we can expect on the album?
A: It is quite representative of the album, but the album to me is rock R&B. What i'm learning right now is you can have a certain style of song and then depending on what video accompanies that song people will perceive it a certain way and they will perceive it as a certain style whether it is or not. What's interesting to me is throughout the album is there's a lot of guitars actually and I find it quite interesting that most people don't hear the guitars. It's very odd to me because I just go but it's there and it's loud - how can you not hear it? I think that has a lot to do with the presentation of something.
We've got 2 or 3 possible choices for the next single and even though people are trying to throw me off the one i've got my heart set on is actually a lot more aggressive. It's called "What Will It Be" and a version of it was released to some of the Asian radio stations about a year and a half ago and did quite well. I've re-written it and changed it and the new version is more appropriate for what i'm going through now.
Q: You grew up wanting success in both the UK and the States. Are you just concentrating here first or you heading stateside in the next few months?
A: The States have always been in mind just because i've had a lot of interest and support there. To me the UK and the US has been very important. I understand that here a lot of the artists tend to focus a lot of attention and efforts into "must break America". I think in some ways that's a bit of a shame because people always underestimate and don't give enough love to the place that they're from.
Initially I was asked to go over to the US in June, but I was on Fox News a couple of days ago and apparently they've been running an interview of mine for the past 3 days now. In the US it's going a little bit nuts now because they all want to follow this up. The Bone Crusher Remix did really well last year, but politically what's going on now they keep repeating "Muslim Madonna, Muslim Madonna, Muslim Madonna". The media there are jumping on it right now, but I want it to work here. Ideally the UK first, but unless I don't get any love here then I won't have a choice.
Q: I remember when Jay Sean first started breaking through he got the Asian Craig David tag and now you with the Muslim Madonna. Do you feel it's appropriate?
A: It's really flattering in one way because people struggle to keep a two minute long career in this industry. For that lady to have had close to two decades and still be going on reasonable strong. It's incredibly flattering that people would even mention me and her in the same sentence is kinda bizarre.
On the other hand it's very strange with the Muslim Madonna because to me says that i'm going out of my way to push the same boundaries that she did with the Catholic Church. I'm not, but in reality I am. I'm just not intentionally doing it. She went out gunning for them wearing the crosses and having very strong visuals and being very open about it. She made it a part of what she does. I really respect her for having the balls to do a lot of the stuff that she's done and I truly respect the fact that she one of those female artists that is able to be very creative and be a big strong business woman as well.
"Plan Of My Own" is out now on Brainwash Records
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