Looking somewhat ethnically ambiguous has always been a bit of a trip. Especially for a woman or female-identifying person like myself, I’ve noticed that it always puts others on edge to not know how to make sense of me.
What I’ve found was that being Arab, or from the Gulf, can make people around you feel like you’re sensitive to everything. She lives in the co-ed dorms and wears crop tops, but she stays mostly to herself and is close friends with hijabi women. Can I crack a crude joke in front of her or will she be offended? Even though maybe they don’t mean to, they must wonder what ‘kind of woman’ I am. As if the binary is split evenly between a ‘sexual’ woman and a modest one; as if they are mutually exclusive.
First impressions must be confusing. I don’t neatly fit into any of their preconceived notions, so it’s difficult to make assumptions about me. When I go out with friends and pass someone that’s seen me in class, they’ll stop me and say with bewilderment, “I never thought I’d see you here.” The same goes when I put on an abaya the next day and it seems like I’ve become someone else by the way people address me. Suddenly it felt strange for me to slouch or make certain jokes.
At times, this becomes frustrating. Do I have to let go of a part of myself to be fully ‘understood’? Do I show more skin? Is that too much? Femininity, whatever that meant, seemed so abstract but, at the same time, I couldn’t find a place for me anywhere in it.
The way I approached love and sexuality depended on who I was as a woman, that’s the way I saw it. I could either be what I thought was traditional, swooning over someone I was interested in while remaining discreet and proper, or I could completely adopt a ‘men ain’t shit’ attitude and always look out for myself first, hence never letting anyone in. Needing someone terrified me as it felt like a threat to my independence, so I tended to go with the latter, which didn’t always work out well, as you can imagine. All of this combined took a devastating toll on my sense of self-worth.
That’s when Miraa May’s music came up as a recommended artist on Spotify. I decided why not, I’ll try out her top song ‘I Don’t Want Ya (Didi)’.
Just with the opening beats, I was hooked and I’ve had it on replay ever since. There was something about her music that put together puzzle pieces that were supposedly not meant to fit together. The song starts with traditionally Arab sounds, drumming and ululation, almost like it’s posing to be a ballad. Then it gives way to her voice crooning, “Ohh you lie. Tell me you care. But you don’t, don’t lie.” I felt my body thrumming, there was something about the music that made me feel alive.
As an artist, Miraa May is still relatively up-and-coming, but she has four albums under her belt and is still on the rise.
Born in Algeria but having spent most of her life in the UK, she infuses her music with Middle-Eastern type beats while weaving in her own edgy R&B style. But to put it that way would do it injustice, I think what draws me to her as an artist is that she doesn’t allow herself to be defined. In some tracks, Miraa May is defiant, not wanting to let anyone in, ‘I Don’t Want Ya (Didi)’ and ‘N15’ before turning over and showing a more vulnerable and warm side in ‘Travel Thoughts’ and ‘Benji’.
Her lyrics are short but in no way simple. Her use of slang itself becomes a character, reminding her audience that singing about love doesn’t mean she has to give up her hard edges. I particularly love how she explores the duality of being a woman and approaching romance in her own way in the song ‘Woman Like Me’.
She sings about falling in love, describing it as: “It’s a rush, I’m in love but I’m not no victim. I’m a thug, you G’d up.” There is no distress in ‘falling’, she’s no victim shot with Cupid’s arrow. She isn’t burdened by the love she feels and she is unashamed of saying that she needs them, ending the song with ‘I need you.’ I admire how she can both be powerful as a ‘thug’ and still dependent in a way and ‘in love’, something I’ve always approached as being mutually exclusive.
I realized that what I saw as ambiguity in terms of my cultural background or my femininity, her music turned into complexity. Miraa May allowed me to think in a completely different way about myself. This is also reinforced by the way she dresses, in a street-style that is both androgynous and feminine. It feels like she writes her songs and lives based on the way she feels, rather than trying to make herself understood by others. I feel that approach is so crucial because the weight of trying to boil myself down to something understandable is stifling.
All of this is to say that, in many ways, Mira May’s music redefines what it means to be an Arab woman. She brushes all of those labels off and does as she likes, as she should, like the lines in her song ‘Angles’, ‘Don’t fit in a box, I fit in a mansion’. There is nothing about Miraa May’s music that tries to cling to any convention. That makes me proud of myself for being unconventional. Her songs, particularly the album N15 has always stood out to me because of its cheek, that it is whimsical but also biting.
Needless to say, Miraa May is an artist to look out for. Her unconventional attitude towards femininity and love has made me comfortable in my own skin as well as encouraged a healthier outlook on relationships.
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