Music Pop Culture

Meet Rajae: Multi-talented Muslim artist challenging society’s stereotypes, one masterpiece at a time

Rajae is a Moroccan/Algerian/Dutch singer, recording artist, composer, producer, art director, and theater maker. The Tempest spoke to her about her music, inspiration and about what the music scene is like for young Muslim women artists.

The Tempest: What is your background in music and how did you get started?

Rajae: I started with ballet at age 4, classical music at age 7. Age 15 I left home to take care of myself and to dare to live my dreams. One year later at 16, I was admitted into a music conservatory. From age 20 I started recording in The Netherlands, London, California, Ibiza, Hollywood, everywhere. At 25, I started my own label, because mainstream labels couldn’t deal with a Muslim female artist and Muslim labels wouldn’t promote women. I released albums, performed a lot and built a skill set in the studio, on stage, and behind the scenes.

I recently started my own production company to build a larger platform and create a ripple effect, we’re building a bridge between the Maghreb region and the West.

What inspires the music and initiatives you create?

Rajae: Life, emotions, love, friendship, faith, roots and social justice. Music to me is a vehicle for emotion. Art is capable of uniting worlds and people in a universal manner that transcends differences. In a world where society is pushing people into camps, I place myself in the role of the outsider and observe, then paint a broader narrative and remind people of their humanity and love. Old music legends also inspire me, as well as old traditions and because I am North-African and European, I mix rhythms, melodies, styles create a new iconography.

I love pop, soul, jazz, world and decent deep house music. Love, relationships also affect my music. Longing, missing, wanting, all of that romantic stuff… I can express it in songs. Other initiatives, like my theatre projects, are often inspired by issues in society I want to discuss. I am for social justice and access to art for all people, not just for the elite. Art/music without that element is also beautiful, but aesthetics without purpose doesn’t make art appealing to me. I love art and music that triggers emotion, intellect, spirit and when it’s time to celebrate makes me dance and be joyful.

You have a huge tour coming up – how did you get to where you are now, and what’s something people should be on the lookout for with your music?

Rajae: I’ve been building for quite some years… Building a skill set on stage and behind the scenes + a local and international network. I was indie from day one because I didn’t fit in mainstream categories. I’m glad I took that path because unlike many I am in charge of my message, image, and sound.

Being a woman with my roots and faith means I can be free to be me and allow others to do the same. The professionals around me and the media that support me really dig my style and message. They are my partners, no one owns me. I have already released 2 albums.

Recently, I released an EP titled ‘Watani’ (My Homeland), which has 4 songs about my Maghreb roots, my grandfathers, the power of women and grace (in love and friendship) which are also the songs I will use in my theater production (music, visuals, and storytelling). It’s crazy to see that all my dreams are actually coming true. I’m a bit nervous…. people who know me, know that I am quite shy and an introvert.

How did your childhood influence your life decisions, and is there anything you wish you could have done differently?

Rajae: My childhood was quite hard. We moved to Amsterdam when I was a baby. I grew up without a father, in a new country and had to break with my family at the tender age of 15 in order to pursue this path. It has been lonely and painful, but I never became bitter. In fact, I worked 20x as hard as my peers to not show I was weaker and to show that I was able, worthy and capable of excelling and performing well. On the outside people don’t know what pain or fear you carry. Artists learn at an early age to impress with their artistic talent. Juries and the judgment of the industry can be hard, so you have to develop a thick skin.

I never had the luxury to be a kid and make mistakes. I think my childhood has grounded me and confronted me that reality is hard and it is up to you how you react to failure and loss and what you make of life. No one promises us an easy life. It is what it is. Growth comes with growing pains I guess…. If anything I wish my mother and I could have found a way to understand each other and for her to have had a better support system to make it easier.

TT: What’s the importance of having more women like you in the work that you’re doing? Do you see women like you in the people you look up to?

Rajae: In music, we see a lot of beautiful, talented women creating music and narratives from a dominant Western perspective. Often entertaining yet highly sexualised. What I hope for is that we also see more women who shape a broader narrative, of contemporary (North)Africa or Asia and their diaspora, of contemporary Islam (and other faiths) of immigrants in the world defining their new hybrid identities. Of vulnerability. You have to keep it real as an artist who records.

Music influences kids, the sounds, words, and images. Pop culture is important to kids, so we have to make it relatable, without it being fake or restrictive. If anything, I hope I can foster an energy that allows youth and my audience to be their authentic selves. Whether you are religious or not, whether you are a kid or of an older generation.

I hope that women like me can show that where you come from, what you believe in or what childhood you’ve had does not have to impact you in a negative way. Other artists like Hindi Zahra, Yuna, Malika Zarra, Oum and a couple of others are all extremely gifted, beautiful souls and making amazing music that brings joy and inspiration to the world.

Attribution: Afagh Morrowatian

What’s some advice that young diverse women should keep in mind as they go through life?

Rajae: Be patient, educate yourself, study and work hard, be humble… but perform, strive to be excellent, be kind and show solidarity to other women. Don’t be gullible. Understand it still is a man’s world, so be a boss, be professional and take your space. Be patient with love, be picky with whom you allow in your inner circle. Travel the world if you can.

Be your own best friend when life or people disappoint you. Be joyful and celebrate this miracle called life… It truly is a miracle. Be a kind human being without being a doormat, be kind to yourself and no matter how hard life can be: make sure you look great, put on beautiful perfume and wear your smile.

More info:  Facebook: /  Twitter: @rajae  Instagram: @rajae  Snapchat: Check out Rajae’s music on iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, and Amazon. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Politics The World Interviews

From CPA to Badass Policy Analyst Now: An Interview with Wardah Khalid

Wardah Khalid, for lack of better words, absolutely kicks ass in all she does. She is a writer, speaker, and analyst on U.S. foreign policy and Islam. Based on her analytics, she has offered her consulting to Congress and the White House’s National Security Council. It’s with that in mind that The Tempest sat down for an interview with her.

The Tempest: Who are you, and what’s one thing people wouldn’t immediately know about you?

Wardah Khalid: I’m a writer, speaker, and analyst on Middle East policy and Islam. I love traveling, am a dessert aficionado, and proud Texan. People would probably be surprised to know that I’m a CPA and use to work as a corporate tax accountant!

You’ve had an unconventional path to where you are today – can you tell us a bit more about that, and why you decided to get out of accounting?

During my senior year in high school, I joined the school newspaper staff and loved it. That was the same year I took U.S. government and it quickly became my favorite class. I thought about pursuing a career working in government or policy in DC where I could continue to write, but I didn’t know anyone who was doing it or how to get there, so I set my mind on law school. And since law schools don’t care what your undergraduate major is, I decided to use my time in college to study business and accounting, which would be a good skill set to have. (I still kept up with my writing as a news writer and opinion columnist for the campus paper, though)!

Fast forward a few years and I was a CPA working in the number one accounting firm in the nation. On the side, I was writing my “Young American Muslim” blog for the Houston Chronicle, organizing youth civic engagement programs, teaching a current affairs class at my mosque, and serving as a MYNA camp counselor. It got to the point where it became clear these activities were truly my passion and I knew I had to pursue my original goals full time. So I enrolled in a Masters in International Affairs program at Columbia University and here we are!

You also write regularly. What’s a typical schedule for you like these days?

These days, I’m doing independent consulting work, so I don’t have a typical schedule. I may be traveling across the country to a speaking engagement, providing Middle East policy analysis on television, researching and writing op-eds and news pieces, working on side projects, attending lectures and conferences, or volunteering. One thing remains constant, though: I’m almost always tweeting!

How did your childhood influence your career decisions, and is there anything you wish you could have done differently?

Seeing my father, as an immigrant to this country, work so hard to establish himself and provide for his family made me realistic in my approach. I had lofty goals of working in policy, but I also wanted to be practical as well. I don’t regret pursuing accounting, because it allowed me to experience the corporate world and provided a valuable skill set that will serve me in the future. But I do wish I had taken more world affairs classes in college and been more civically engaged then.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

In five years, I see myself working in DC to create positive policy change in the field of international peace and security. I also hope to be using my knowledge and experience to help the Muslim American community become more involved in the policy-making process here at home.

What’s the importance of having more women like you in the work that you’re doing? Do you see women like you in the people you look up to?

It is SO important to have more women like me in my field. While there are several Muslim American female activists and policy professionals that I admire, I do feel like I’m charting my own path. When I’m in meetings at the White House, State Department, or on Capitol Hill, I’m often one of just a few women in the room (if any) and always the only hijabi.

And while all the issues I work on are not explicitly religious, it does help to have someone who is familiar with the region or culture that is being discussed to help provide a more nuanced perspective that could be overlooked otherwise. Muslims often complain that US policy marginalizes them at home and abroad. To that I would ask – so what are you doing about it? Protesting on the street is important, but it will only get you so far. You also have to be involved in those meetings where policies are being determined.

What’s some advice that young diverse women should keep in mind as they go through life?

You’re different. Own it. Don’t waste your time and energy trying to be like everyone else. Your diversity is a gift. Let your knowledge and experiences serve as inspiration for you to contribute to the world in your own unique way. Find supportive allies and ask for their guidance and assistance in accomplishing your goals. And keep pushing. Yes, it’s a lot harder for us, but every day, diverse women are breaking down walls and shattering glass ceilings. So go ahead and follow your passions and dreams and see how far they can take you.

Check out her website here and follow her on Twitter (@YAmericanMuslim) to stay up to date on her work! Interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.

BRB Gone Viral Pop Culture

YouTube sensation Tazzy Phe talks media, community backlash, and moving forward

Tasneem, who is also known as Tazzy Phe, is a business school graduate with a passion for filmmaking and media. However, she is most notably known for her YouTube Channel. Her popularity has grown due to her unique sense of humor and discussions on various taboo subjects through comedy and lightheartedness.

As she now boasts over 40k subscribers, the Tempest had the opportunity to sit down with Tazzy Phe to pick her mind about creating media, being a woman of color on YouTube, and what it takes to keep moving forward.

The Tempest: Give it to us straight: who you are and one thing people usually assume about you that isn’t true.

Tasneem: I am an aspiring filmmaker with a Youtube channel, a business school graduate, and am passionate about filmmaking and media. People often assume from my videos that I’m outgoing and friendly, but in real life, I’m quiet and reserved.

What got you started on Youtube? Have you always enjoyed standup comedy?

When I was a little kid, I used to use my parents’ camcorder all the time. Every time my friends would come over, we would put on a show and record it, and now I have all these old shows of people coming over and dressing up. When I went to college, there was one winter break when I was bored and my friends were traveling. I saw JusReign doing it [making videos], so I thought I could do it. So, I made a video and tweeted [him], and he liked it and shared it. It took off! I was still in college, so it remained on the backburner. Now I’m just trying to grow my channel.

Also, after he saw my first video, he messaged to try and see if we could collaborate. It wasn’t until three years later that we were connected through people at YouTube Space. Somehow, they got us out there on a grant, and we spent a week sharing the same production team. It was really cool, and it was all because of YouTube Space.

What kind of response have you gotten from your audience? How has it developed over time?

Many parents got offended by my Brown Parents video. There were a lot of people who say [negative] stuff, but not to my face. I get a lot of feedback from videos, and a lot of it has been mixed. It’s so visible that I’m Muslim – it’s not something I want to hide. Sometimes, the feedback is “oh, it’s because she’s a girl.” Just like any other YouTuber, the feedback is more positive than negative, but it’s easier to focus on negative when you’re reading the positive feedback and one negative comment stands out.

In my community, aunties come up to me and tell me they love it. Some uncles joke with me. A lot of people don’t think it’s proper that I’m 24 and putting on wigs. There are people who are extreme, calling it an issue when your neck and hair is showing.

What have been some of your biggest obstacles?

As an artist, as content creator, there’s a constant issue of what you want your channel to be. Sometimes, you overthink it, sometimes your creativity is stumped – so that’s definitely a challenge that anyone who makes any content has. [There are] lots of other challenges: I’ve had a hard time growing the channel. I have done things others have done, but don’t see the same kind of success – sometimes I do feel it’s because I look the way I do or because I’m a girl. Sometimes I think my stuff is shit – there’re a lot of challenges. I also think that since my family isn’t super about me doing this, navigating that [aspect] is a challenge.

 What are you working on right now?

I’m currently trying to keep up the momentum. I’ve been doing an old style of videos [where I] tell a story and add sketches in. The biggest thing with my YouTube channel is that it’s experimental – I find out if people like [my material] or not. This changed a lot about [my concept of] self – I can post whatever I want. If I want to post a video that’s a documentary type video, I can do it. I don’t have to limit myself.

What’s your advice to young women of color looking to get into this field?

You really have to be persistent and tenacious. The thing about YouTube is that people think it’s about uploading funny videos and getting results. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and tell me that they want to do so-and-so project and [think that] it’ll go viral. There are so many things against you, and you have to work harder than everyone else as a person of color. I know there are Muslim guy YouTubers, if I posted the [same type of] photos, it wouldn’t be the same [because I am a female]. Superwoman [Lilly Singh] had to work consecutively for a long time, but there are a number of videos she’s put up versus a guy [who has fewer videos, but the same success]. This doesn’t mean you can’t get there, but you do have to work harder.

You can follow Tasneem on Twitter: @TazzyPhe, Facebook: TazzyPhe, and YouTube: Tazzy Phe

This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Love Life Stories Interviews

Never compromise for success: An interview with Dalia Mogahed

Dalia Mogahed is an American Muslim scholar. Currently, she is the Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) and the President and CEO of Mogahed Consulting, a consulting and executive coaching firm that specializes in Muslim societies in the Middle East. Formerly, Mogahed served as the Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies – which provided data and analysis to reflect the views and beliefs of Muslims across the globe. She also helped co-write “Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims really Think” with Professor John Esposito (Georgetown University).  Most notably, Mogahed served as an advisor for U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood  Partnerships.

The Tempest had the opportunity to speak to Mogahed about her work, projects, upbringing, and more.

The Tempest: Tell us about yourself in your own words and one thing people assume about you that isn’t true.

Dalia Mogahed: I am someone driven by the way my life has unfolded, rather than someone who has driven my own life. I really do feel that I have been responding to the terrain and how it changes, and I’m doing my best to reach my goal. I don’t feel like I set out to be where I am now – I didn’t set out a plan and execute it. I admire people who do and know how to do it, but I am grateful for the series of serendipitous events [that have led me here]. The thing that people think about me that isn’t true is that I’m focused, driven, and had it all planned out from the beginning – that it’s all a grand strategy, from the beginning. That isn’t the truth.

Your work has focused around the American Muslim community throughout your career. How has your experience with the community evolved and grown throughout the years? With your recent growth in the greater media space, how do you think that will change the work you’re doing?

dalia mogahed

The way that the community has evolved has been inspirational: we’re not debating moon sightings and halal meat anymore. We’re debating government on countering violent extremism (CVE). The debates have changed, and that’s a sign of a more sophisticated community. I can’t predict very easily where others land on those debates, [but they have] become more subtle and realistic – tactical. We have similar goals and different strategies for how to get there, and that’s the debate – rather than debating the actual goals. We’re speaking about things that we should be debating, rather than debating things we should have debated a thousand years ago. I don’t think it will change my role a lot – or at least I hope it won’t. I hope it’ll give me the opportunity to do more [of] what I have been doing, which is to research and share the viewpoints of ordinary Muslims. The more I can reach ordinary people about Muslims with the message, I don’t see my work slowing down.

What’s the importance of having more women like you in the work that you’re doing? Do you see women like you in the people you look up to?

If it means women working in the public space, then yes, there should be a lot more women in the public space. If it means Muslim women working on issues in the public space and engaging in national conversations, absolutely, we need more people doing that.

Are there people I admire in the space? Yes – people like Linda Sarsour, who is so sincere and dedicated to her work and really walks the walk. And I think that’s such an important trait that everyone should learn from women like [her and] Suzanne Barakat, who was put in the place [of] being a public spokesperson from [being a] private person during a difficult time in her life. Suzanne finds the strength to continue to do this, even though this wasn’t the role she asked for. She does it completely out of the will to serve, and I think that’s incredibly admirable. It’s something I really look up to and respect.

Dalia Mogahd's speech

There are so many more women I can’t even begin to name. I am really inspired because I feel like, at no time in my life, did I have so many amazing women to call my peers and my role models, or people I would be honored to mentor. It’s never been this rich of a landscape of up-and-coming leaders and [current] leaders who are doing amazing things. I believe it’s a trend that continues to grow and I’m hopeful about the role of Muslim women in America.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a project about American Muslims in the elections, and I’m also working on a very exciting poll on American Muslims that came out on March 15. I’m [also] working on a project that is tagging American Muslim contributions in Michigan. The final project I’m excited about is focused on reimagining American Muslim space, which is within the portfolio of ISPU. It is really hitting on what American Muslims are facing on right now when it comes from public policy issues that affect us disproportionately to issues that face us at home.

How did your childhood influence your career decisions, and is there anything you wish you could have done differently?


My career decisions were in spite of my childhood. I had a very traditional upbringing as an immigrant, and I was encouraged heavily to do engineering. I was very discouraged from public policy work that was deemed risky or dangerous – my parents just wanted good students. My sisters and I were very good students in school. But, for me. it was activism, and I’ve been working on Muslim issues since I was 17 years old or younger. In college, I did a lot of activism outside of my engineering degree by writing in the college newspaper and starting organizations and other things. I always did it in parallel with typical Egyptian expectations of girl. Then I was able to marry the two sides – the research skills, the hard science, the solutions science – and marry it to the topic area of which I’m passionate abut. My background in the hard sciences is helpful to me right now. Even if you start out in one area, it doesn’t mean you’re going to stay in that field forever. You can transfer that into whatever you’re passionate about.

What’s your advice to young women like you looking to get into the work that you do?

My advice is do a lot of writing. Read and write, read a lot – about this topic – and then develop an original voice. Be a critical thinker, an independent thinker. Don’t ever think you have to compromise your identity to succeed. Success will find you. You don’t have to bend over backwards to succeed. Set your sights on the destination of where you want to go – and that destination will be to serve God. It won’t be a path you necessarily imagine, but you will find it and you will get there.

You can follow Dalia Mogahed on Twitter: @DMogahed, Facebook: Dalia Mogahed, and her websiteThis interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Tech Now + Beyond Interviews

The Tempest Interview: Software engineer Angie Jones talks technology, Black culture, and Diva Chix

Angie Jones is a software engineer and inventor of more than 20 patents on innovations that include collaboration software, social networking, virtual worlds, smarter planet, and software development processes. Jones has been featured in Ebony Magazine as one of the 30 young leaders under the age of 30, Women of Color magazine as a “Technology Rising Star”, and Triangle Times as a “mover and shaker in the technology industry”.

Most notably, Jones is the founder, owner, and operator of Diva Chix, which is “a platform where teenage girls and women learn to excel in technological areas as well as learn other key life lessons such as running a business, managing finances, and working as a team… all within the realm of a fashion game.”

The Tempest had the opportunity to speak to Jones about her career, motivation, and where she stands in the technology world.

The Tempest: Tell us about yourself, your origins with technology and mentorship, and how it has impacted your life.

Angie Jones: I never considered technology as a career path at all. I didn’t know any technologists growing up, so that wasn’t something that was on my radar. I enrolled in college very unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. My father insisted that I take at least one computer class because he knew this was an emerging space. I took a computer programming course my freshman year and absolutely fell in love. My professors at Tennessee State University saw my potential and mentored me beyond the class assignments.

I’m now a Technology guru and Master angie_jones_blackgirlscode_1Inventor, holding 20 issued patents in the US and China. I am a Consulting Automation Engineer at Lexis Nexis in Raleigh, NC, and also the creator of Diva Chix, an online fashion game.

I’ve had a lot of great mentors over the years, both male and female, who have been a tremendous help to me. I do my best to pay it forward by mentoring others, particularly young women, and exposing them to technology.


What’s the importance of having more women like you in the work that you’re doing? Do you see women like you in the people you look up to?

It’s natural to be drawn to others who you identify with. I see it all the time when I teach workshops or work vendor booths at conferences. The girls and women, especially Black ones, flock to me because it’s inspiring to see someone you identify with doing something that your demographic is not typically known for.

Unfortunately, I don’t see many black women in my field. The first time I had the opportunity to writeangie_jones_acend code with another black woman was 12 years into my career. Imagine going 12 years of your life without working with someone who is the same gender and ethnicity as you are. That does something to your psyche. That causes you to feel like an intruder… someone who doesn’t belong. This self-doubt can affect your work performance and overall satisfaction with your career. This was something I battled with and had to learn to overcome.

What kind of frustrations do you deal with, and how do you navigate them?

While the technology industry definitely has a diversity shortage that can be frustrating and discouraging, I have also experienced the bright side of being a black female in a field dominated by white males: I’m different! Like all technologists, the world is literally at my fingertips. I feel like I have super powers and the ability to magically create anything that I can dream of. What’s made me successful, however, is that the things that I dream of are new and innovative, because as a black woman, I bring a unique perspective to the world of technology. My background is different, my culture is different, my interests and hobbies are different, and therefore, my thought process is different.  This different world-view is what has led to unique solutions to business problems and the creation of my 20 patented inventions

How did Diva Chix come about – and what kind of impact have you seen it making?

I’ve loved games for as long as I can remember. Playing games is a favorite pastime for my family, so I grew up playing things like Scrabble, Scattegories, UNO, LIFE, etc. My favorite games are ones that aren’t strictly luck-based but require strategic thinking.

As a young adult, I played dress up games online, but quickly grew bored because there was no strategy involved. There were plenty of MMORPG’s online that catered to males, but I couldn’t find a fashion-related one that targeted females. So, I decided to create my own: Diva Chix!  It’s a competitive fashion game that’s all about strategy. Players battle it out to see who’s the best dressed, they compete as teams to complete tasks, and they create and sell virtual clothing in shops in an attempt to be a top fashion designer within the game.

The impact has been phenomenal. The quarter of a million teenage girls and women who play the game learn to excel in technological areas as well as learn other key life lessons such as running a business and working as a team… all within the realm of a game. Many of them have gone on to become graphic and fashion designers in real life because of their experience with Diva Chix. It’s definitely a community of empowerment.

What’s one piece of advice you wish you’d known growing up, that you’d tell women now?

Be true to who you are. Being a woman in technology means that sometimes there won’t be anyone in the room who looks and thinks like you. That is perfectly okay! Do not try to change who you are to fit in with the culture. Bring your own culture. Your products will be all the more better for it.

You can view Jones’ website here.  You can find Diva Chix here. This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Comics Books Pop Culture

Meet G. Willow Wilson: American comics writer, journalist and creator of Ms. Marvel

G. Willow Wilson is an Muslim American comics writer as well as prose author, essayist, and journalist. Her first graphic novel, “Cairo” (2007), was based on the city in Egypt – where Wilson lived in her early 20’s. “Cairo” has been listed as the top graphic novel for teens by the American Library Association and School Library Journal. Following this successful endeavor, her comic series, “Air” was nominated for the Eisner Award, and her first novel, “Alif the Unseen”, won the 2013 World Fantasy Award.

Most notably, Wilson writes “Ms. Marvel”, a comic series depicting the life of 16-year-old Pakistani, American, Muslim, superhero Kamala Khan. The Tempest had the opportunity to sit down with Wilson and pick her mind about comics, diversity, Muslims, and more.

The Tempest: Give it to us straight: tell us your bio and one thing people usually assume about you that isn’t true.

I would call myself a novelist and comic book writer, [and a] genre bender in that I like to put together different storytelling methods and different types of stories in unexpected ways. [As for] people assuming, [it’s] kind of a story. For a while, there was an expectation that new readers coming into the work would think I was rigid or evangelical, promoting a certain type of view or conversion. But the nice thing that I do in working with comics or literature, the very nature of [the] kind of stories I tell is that it undermines that. Now, I see that readers who come to me feel there’s an immediate intimacy, speaking from margins even though the story might be different.

Did you grow up reading comics? When did you start to notice that women and minorities were underrepresented in the superhero comics you loved so much?

When I started reading comics, [I was] 8 or 10. There was a public service announcement, an anti smoking X-Men announcement they handed out to us in fifth grade. I looked for it recently online, it’s got Storm and other X-Men trying to help this high school athlete taking up smoking with some bad kids behind the school. It must’ve helped, I never took up smoking!

What really stood out to me was the characters – they have these costumes and this nebulous job of fighting for good. Storm was my comic book icon – a strong female, [and the] first woman of color I saw in a prominent leadership role in pop culture. On my desk I have a Funko Pop bobble head of Storm sitting there, looking over me. X-Men had racial and gender diversity long before those topics [were] discussed in comics. When I got older and started reading those books that didnt directly address social issues, I noticed that hey, one of those things is not like the other.

There was some backsliding in the 90’s when people thought, “hey, we fixed racism and sexism so we can have a book with all white men or not include minorities or [display] derogatory sexual remarks towards women.” This was surprising to me, coming from a childhood X-Men obsession, [for they are] metaphors for those issues. All of these things are very familiar to those following presidential elections these years. Ironically, comics gave me the sense of what it means to fight for justice and, at the same time, frustrated me when they failed to live up to that high bar that was set for me for justice when I was a kid with the X-Men.

How do you think the current conversation around diversity and inclusion will play out in the comic industry? Do you believe it’ll have long lasting effects?

I think the conversations we’ve been having in comic book industry in past few years will change the future, reflect the zeitgeist – the culture as a whole. As you pointed out, ethnic diversity, gender diversity, and representation has become a big deal. That’s equally true in comics, [there’s] lot of vigorous discussion in social media [about] why we need to hear from broader spectrum of media and why that’s important. Then you have pushback from people in the media about why things have to change and why are you making trouble.

I’ve been very, very lucky to be a part of the conversation and [be able] watch progress unfold in real time. Hearing firsthand from readers, many of whom are young millennial activists that are a part of the Black Lives Matter movement or Third Wave Feminism, telling me that these types of stories aren’t being done, and they’re picking up the baton of civil rights – that’s extremely important. The stories that we tell, whether on TV or in comic books, are very important, because they shape the national dialogue.

The phrases and philosophies that we pick up aren’t from CNN, they’re from stories like Lord of The Rings or the first movie that really made us think. I don’t believe that millennial activists are wrong in saying that we have to have possibly uncomfortable discussions on the sorts of messages we’re sending through comics – and that’s incredibly exciting.

What are you working on right now?

It’s full steam ahead for Ms. Marvel and gearing up for Civil War 2. [This] will affect all of the books in the lineup –  Ms. Marvel will be affected. I’m also close to finishing my novel, which is set in the universe of “Alif the Unseen”. Those of you who’ve read that will see one fan favorite character that you’ll be happy to met again.​ I have those two things on my plate so they keep me plenty busy, which is great.

What has the response been from those both inside and outside the American Muslim community in regards to Ms. Marvel? Have you been pressured to fit Kamala into specific parameters in terms of her faith? How do you believe faith plays a role in her identity?

So before the series debuted, there was a lot of understandable anxiety from the Muslim community about what this was going to be. A lot of us have become really skeptical about what it means to have a Muslim character in a movie or TV show. Oftentimes, what we consider positive depictions [are not] what a movie considers positive depictions. I don’t blame anyone who had that hesitation with the good versus bad Muslims – the good Muslims who grovel at the feet of the government and are ‘yes men’, [and the] bad muslims [who] are the terrorists.

Once the book came out, all of that went away. Twice bitten, once shy. Everyone thought it was going to be politically correct, going to be some kind of stunt, [which went] away after seven issues. When me and the two others sat down to make the issues, we knew the bar was set very high, but were not beholden to any tropes, [so we] could kind of play in our own little sandbox because of the Marvel Universe. We wanted something that felt authentic, reflected experiences of Muslim Girls in the United States – this was important to all three of us. This artist isn’t afriaid to make people look not always pretty with 36D boobs, plastic surgery – you can see there’s this kind of theme if you read comics.

For that reason, we knew that we didn’t want to put Kamala in the hijab, because the majority of Muslim women and South Asian women dont wear hijab as young women. Faith is an important part of her life, she takes grief from her peers, but she’s not a cookie cutter character that always does as she’s told – thats not the story we wanted to tell. We wanted to give young people in general something they could hang on to. If you show people that it’s all or nothing, you make perfect the enemy of the good. Most important to me was authenticity, to show to the best of my ability, what it would be like for a young Pakistani girl who loves her parents and faith, [but also] wants to fit in with peers.

Friends can often be cruelest ones, and we show that in the very first issue of the book – we show that in how she tried to be cool and snuck out to a party. We showed that she was vulnerable when she was made fun of and showed the good, bad, and ugly. We showed love. At the end of the day, it’s about a family, [and] love is what connects them. Love is very important to us [as well as] strong, supportive muslim men! It’s so important. We get so caught up on ‘concerns’ – politically convenient concerns about honor killings or whatever issue of the day is for muslim women, so it was important for me to show a loving muslim father. There’s a Sheik who’s not a jerk, and a brother who’s a conservative Salafi, [and] he might be annoying and make choices we don’t agree with.

It’s so rare to get invited by a large entertainment company to destroy stereotypes all at once. We’re going to go for broke. Nowadays we get issues like “why isn’t she wearing hijab?” Go to public high school in New Jersey and see that there, we don’t require everyone else to look like me to tell the story.

What’s your advice to young women  looking to get into this field?

I think the most important piece of advice from anyone trying to write came from Neil Gaiman a decade ago – number one: write, number two: finish things. If you can do that, you’re ahead of 90 percent of people who do write. It’s hard to sit your butt in the seat, have the fatigue. It’s tough to push through that, write ’til the end of sentence.

Once you’ve done that, [when] the story is on paper, on your computer, that’s when it gets a little bit trickier. The nice thing about the time we live in right now is that publishers are looking for new voices because the audience is asking for them. We have a good time right now. It used to be women from minority backgrounds don’t sell, etc., but the math is really changing. When you set up to start querying agents, editors, this will work in your favor. It’s an opportunity to change the balance – if there was a time, it’s now.

In comics, it’s a little bit trickier. If you want to publish a book, you send off query letters – you send off ten and get back three, it’s like applying to college.  Put your butt in the chair and do the writing, market research and what publishers are looking for. Then submit until you can’t anymore, until everyone has said no or one person has said yes. You only need one person to say yes. When I was first querying agents, I sent out five queries – this is unusual, as most have to do 10 to 15 – two said never, one said no, one said maybe and never wrote back, one said yes and has been my agent for the past decade.

Ultimately, don’t be discouraged by the no’s.

You can view Wilson’s website here. You can also follow her on Twitter: @GWillowWilson or Facebook: G. Willow Wilson. This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

The Internet BRB Gone Viral Pop Culture Interviews

The viral queen of Muslim Twitter, @LibyaLiberty, shares the real reason why she speaks out

When it comes to Hend, it’s a fact pretty universally known: once you meet her – online or in person! – you’ll never forget her.

She isn’t your ordinary Twitter user – her sardonic humor and quick wit have made her the go-to account to check out in the wake of social justice issues.

As a Libyan-American writer and artist living in Doha, Qatar, Hend’s writing has appeared on Voices of Africa and her tweets have been featured on Wired, Buzzfeed, Vox, and the Washington Post. She spoke candidly about how her work today is influenced strongly by being boxed in, growing up Muslim, dealing with trolls and her life in the real world.

How do you deal with people who try to fit you into a box on Twitter?

“The best way to break out of a box someone tries to put you in is to demonstrate how untrue that label or characterization is. This is why I use a lot of humor in my social media commentary – it’s the quickest and most entertaining way to upend and upset the well-trodden tropes and stereotypes that are constantly bubbling up to the surface.”

You have a penchant for bringing awareness to serious social justice issues with witty hashtags and conversations on Twitter. How did you first realize you had a knack for that?

“First off, from a cultural standpoint, Libyans generally have a very developed, albeit dark, sense of humor.

I don’t know if this coping mechanism only emerged as a result of decades of dictatorial rule and economic hardship, or if it has been a social attribute well before, but I’m thankful that social engagement was just the norm in my family and community.

Secondly, growing up a Muslim Arab American, the child of an economically struggling foreign university student-turned-political activist and refugee, I have never been anything other than a minority. It’s difficult enough to look different or to have a funny sounding name, but you throw in poverty, and you have a social outcast home run.

The only way I could turn the tide on those overwhelming feelings of awkward inadequacy and dis-empowerment was by acting the opposite of how I felt. Fake it till you make it was a phrase I learned later in life, but I think I had already come to that conclusion on my own.

I have never been anything other than a minority. It’s difficult enough to look different or to have a funny sounding name, but you throw in poverty, and you have a social outcast home run.

As an adult, I realize now that being in that dis-empowered position isn’t the tragedy I felt it was in my youth. Rather, it was a hidden gift, allowing me to develop a natural tendency, if not need, to empathize with anyone who was hurt, or judged, or oppressed. Today, in a far more comfortable life than what I had growing up, I feel it is absolutely my responsibility to shed light on social injustice, to be a voice for those who need it, and to find ways of shedding that light that is humble, equitable, doesn’t dehumanize or place me in a savior position.”

Trolls are a real thing online. What’s your best strategy for dealing and coping with people who vehemently disagree with you?

First and foremost, you have to really believe with all your heart that your voice is one of a multitude and that no matter what you say or do, there will always be people who do everything from mildly disagreeing with you to wishing a terrible death for you. So when I am attacked by abusive people, I see them through this lens and am able to avoid, for the most part, falling into the trap of victimization.

As an adult, I realize now that being in that dis-empowered position isn’t the tragedy I felt it was in my youth.

Instead, I pounce on the chance to take that person’s words, position, stereotype, and re-present it, on my own terms, to my audience, to say, look. This is what I’m talking about. This is one of the problems we are facing. And this is what we can and should do about it. In this way, I’ve accomplished two things: hopefully spread some awareness, and flipped the power dynamics around, diffusing any negative influence that troll had hoped to inflict.”

Of course, there’s more to life than Twitter. What’s your life offline – and how do you keep things separate (if at all)?

“What is this life offline of which you speak? *waits for laughter to finish*

There will always be people who do everything from mildly disagreeing with you to wishing a terrible death for you.

So while I am truly my authentic self on Twitter, I have other authentic selves that I don’t share online, like my professional career, family, and social life. (Though I can’t help but share the occasional hilarious thing one of my kids say because funny kids are almost as good as cat pics.) I have always worked in the communication field and currently work as a freelance writer.”

What’s your advice for young women like you looking to make ripples when it comes to social justice online?

“First, believe in your cause. Take the time to reevaluate what the issues are to you, what the boundaries are, and why you’ve made the decision to stand for something. Then you always have to make sure you stay humble. You are one person. Maybe you’ll find wild success, maybe your voice will remain a flickering candle in a sea of darkness. Embrace your role, no matter how small.

And last thing? No matter how dark it gets, find the light. There is goodness in all people and in all places and in all situations. Look for the good. This is where humanity lives.”

Notes from the Editor

The Story Behind The Tempest

When I first pitched what would eventually become The Tempest to a friend of mine, her response was a mixture of disbelief and tentative joy. “So – you’re saying that this would be a media platform – for my stories?” It was a reaction that quickly turned to doubt: “But are my stories good enough?”

Two years ago, we started as Coming of Faith, a media platform for American Muslim women, fueled by my own experiences of feeling left out and silenced from conversations about women in the mainstream media and within my own faith community, I found women who felt the same, women who shared my experiences and who were empowered to take a stand, to walk the walk and to show the world our true multifaceted lives. Together, we decided it was time to flip traditional media on its head, time to breathe our voices into the mainstream landscape, and, within five weeks, Coming of Faith was born. We weren’t here to break stereotypes by featuring reactive commentary, we were here to change perceptions through the radical decision of vulnerable, honest storytelling and multimedia content.

In a matter of months, Coming of Faith became nationally known for its distinct brand of raw reportage. Unafraid to discuss issues ranging from late periods, sexuality, anti-blackness in minority communities and the intricacies of our intersecting cultures and religions in a fresh and appealing way, we managed to ruffle feathers while simultaneously attracting a unique fan base: Millennial women who both vehemently agreed and disagreed with our stories, but kept coming back, craving the voices they couldn’t find elsewhere. We had created a community that spanned across the globe.

With rapid growth came pressing questions, and with questions came decisions and room for experimentation. Our team had always aimed to create a space for the unfettered, full-disclosure-only scoops and confessionals, but, in creating a space for Muslim women, we were not amplifying the full range of voices that were begging to be heard. Backed with data on our audience and their interests, with each new visitor, we asked ourselves: Why is this a space that only covers a slice of the marginalized community? What about other underrepresented women? Where is their biting and accessible relevant space? How could we claim to push a media revolution, when we represented only one group of marginalized women?

Meet the Founder


Laila Alawa

Founder & CEO

Check out Laila’s origin story >

In early 2015, we ran the radical experiment that allowed us to quietly pivot our mission and goals. Rather than creating a space that heightened only American Muslim women’s voices, we began to aggressively recruit and magnify the voices of millennial women from all diverse backgrounds–ethnicities, sexualities, faiths and upbringings that weren’t reflected in mainstream media outlets. In a move that allowed us to grow organically and powerfully, we worked closely and tirelessly with our 400+ writers, recognizing them as the life and meaning of our company, prioritizing their insights, experiences and perspectives above all else. The articles, essays, and multimedia narratives of our writers continually reflected a raw freedom, strength, and dismissal of society’s expectations and stereotypes. We continued to grow our reach by engaging our audience with different mediums, including a popular and unfiltered podcast, quick humorous videos, and user curated mixtapes.

Consider this: 88% of traditional newsrooms are white men. While digital media outlets are boasting diverse figures, those diverse staff numbers still fluctuate between a whopping 8-27%. The current media climate is broken, and people are searching for narratives they identify with. The Tempest was the solution everyone was aching for: a forward-thinking, biting, sometimes-irreverent media platform, but run by women of marginalized voices. Our tone has mass appeal, but we are quite literally run by voices who normally wouldn’t have mass appeal.

Our experiment’s results were surprising in how unsurprising they were: We found that we’d captured a deep-rooted demand for stories that were simply not on the mainstream market. Stories about dealing with bigoted relatives, coming to terms with one’s sexuality from a faith perspective, and the hottest eyeliner looks for every kind of eye. Perspectives were relayed through audio, visual, and written mediums, varying from listicles to intimately agonized essays. Within several months, we’d grown from less than 50,000 users monthly, to hundreds of thousands of readers –all while running on less than $500 a month. People had been craving these perspectives, and our writers and team were helping to quench them.

The Tempest Explainer Press Graphic

We’d hit upon the mother lode. Instead of discussing the lack of diverse women’s voices in the media, we were the platform for diverse millennial women to speak out on anything – from catfishing to cultural appropriation, family struggles around interracial dating to death. It’s one thing for writers to cover how black fashion bloggers are changing the game for African American fashion – but few outlets actually include them as part of the mainstream fashion landscape. The Tempest moves past the conversation of representation as an anomaly, and instead emphasizes our differences as a reality. Our writers were producing their own stories – real, raw, and unfettered – in a market that was never friendly to them to begin with – and quite frankly, there is no substitute for their experiences.

It only made sense, then, that we shift publicly into the larger media space, and with that growth and pivot came the shedding of an identity that once fit us so well, for one that reflected our purpose and audience. The Tempest rises from the ashes of Coming of Faith, promising a storm of voices and stories, lives and opinions from diverse millennial women, for the world. We aren’t here to fade away into the distance; we’re here to change the media landscape, entrenched in years of static storytelling, for the better. Rather than tokenizing women and minorities, we’re normalizing the media landscape.

People are itching for the content we provide, and it’s time to give the world what it wants. The Tempest is here to whip up a storm for the better – the question is, will you be here for it?

Gender Love Inequality Interviews

Meet Alexis Isabel, the teen feminist taking Twitter by storm

Alexis Isabel proved to be more than your average teen when, at the age of 16, she founded Feminist Culture, a Twitter account created to spread awareness and educate the world about feminism. The overwhelming success of her Twitter account led to the creation of her site Feminist Culture, bringing in a diverse group of writers and editors to discuss hot-button issues. Alexis Isabel (also known as @lexi4prez), was recently recognized as MTV’s Social Star of 2016, and has been featured on multiple publications including The New York Times and International Business Times.

The Tempest: So, what inspired you to start Feminist Culture?

Alexis Isabel: One of my friends texted me and told me to watch the documentary, Half the Sky. It moved me, and I felt like I had to do something to help. I tried to find a way to help others, to help women globally. At one o’clock in the morning, I decided to make a Twitter account and talk about women’s issues and feminism. It took off from there.

The Tempest: How do you balance your online and personal life? Do you keep them separate, or have the boundaries been more fluid?

I have my ideas and feminist ideology, and when I talk about it, it’s like my social media persona, but these values carry over into my personal life.

How do the opinions of others influence the work you’re doing, and is there anything you’d tell them in the process of your work?

There are a lot of people online and in person that don’t agree with feminism and don’t react well to my ideas. There are people online who threaten me. I’ve posted screenshots before of people who have said they want to dox me, people at my school, guys who say that what I do is wrong and annoying. Sometimes it makes me want to stop, because I don’t want to deal with people threatening me, but at the end of the day it’s the exact reason why I’m doing what I do. The people who say these things look down on women, so why would I stop what I’m doing? It motivates me even more. It’s bad at times and hard to deal with, but at the end of the day, it’s why I do it.

What’s next in the cards for you?

Well at the moment, I’m writing for multiple organizations, and I’ll be starting summer term at FSU in two or three months. Once that gets started, I’m going to pursue pre-law and a poli-sci minor, and hopefully continue writing.

What’s your advice to young women like you, looking to take on social justice efforts?

There are two basic things when you’re trying to get a large audience or get people to listen to you:  1) Make sure you take into account the variety of issues your topic encompasses, if you’re talking about the same thing over and over again, When it comes to social activism, there are variety of issues to discuss. 2) Even if you don’t have the direct capability to do something for your cause, you might have followers who do, whether it’s money to donate, or inspiring them to join a club at their school. Use your following wisely. You’re going to get a lot of hate, so keep in mind why you’re doing what you’re doing, then just block out the horrible people. You have to learn to ignore people, especially when it’s coming from someone who isn’t willing to learn.

Find Alexis Isabel on Twitter and Youtube. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Going beyond conventional humor: An interview with Aparna Nancherla

Aparna Nancherla is a multi-talented comedic writer and performer based in New York City,  with an impressive resume that includes writing for Late Night with Seth Meyers, being featured as one of Marie Claire’s “Funniest Women of 2015”, and Vulture’s “50 Comics You Should Know in 2015”. Her humor is dry and witty, and she leaves the crowds with side stitches from laughter. We had a chance to sit with her for a closer look into her comedic genius.

The Tempest: How did you get started in comedy? Did you grow up thinking you’d enter the space?

I actually started comedy on a whim. It was something I tried very gradually, dipping a toe into the water, then a foot, then a knee, until I was entirely submerged in a lukewarm pool and had to come back up for air. I grew up with very little exposure to comedy, and definitely not knowing it was a career path open to anyone. I ended up first finding interest via the parental-enforced public speaking classes method, which soon parlayed into winning a speech competition, and then eventually years later, stand up.

The Tempest:  Your Twitter is absolutely amazing. How did you develop your persona there?

I think my comedic persona is very much close to my own inner monologue. It’s sort of an overly cerebral goofball. I think I’ve stayed true to that but honed ways to be more concise with it and to move closer to topics I enjoy shedding light on such as introversion, depression, feminism, and digitally-driven living, to name a few.


The Tempest: What have been some of your biggest obstacles in pursuing comedy? You’ve done both stand-up and behind the scenes comedy writing – how have those differed and do you prefer one over the other?

I think the hardest thing in comedy is sometimes translating “your voice” to someone else’s vision. This happens less in pure stand up as you are allowed to do whatever you want with your time onstage and that full creative control can be exhilarating because once you have a comedy job, whether it’s writing or acting, you are more likely under someone else’s dictum and hence need to figure out how to translate what you’re doing through what they have in mind or write for someone else’s voice. I think at the end of the day, the freedom of writing for yourself is my favorite but learning how to work with others and create something together is such an invaluable and useful process to have under your belt.

The Tempest: Who are some rising stars in your field we should keep an eye on?

There are so many people who inspire me constantly but some women whose work I love so much and know are destined for huge things are: Jo Firestone, Naomi Ekperigin, Ana Fabrega, and Ashley Brooke Roberts.

The Tempest: What’s your advice to young women of color looking to get into comedy?

I would say, don’t be afraid to carve your own path. Yes, there are plenty of existing spaces that are wonderful for women of color to perform and grow, but some of the coolest things have come from women just making projects and developing ideas on their own. For example, I was interviewed for the Another Round podcast co-hosted and created by Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton, and they have developed something amazing and unique together and have unsurprisingly found it’s really struck a chord with people.

You can find Aparna at her website, on Twitter, and on her podcast on depression. Her Stand Up Album is forthcoming in July 2016. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Press Love Life Stories

Why I really started The Tempest

I’ve been asked the question a time too many: what made you decide to start The Tempest? It’s an answer that still takes me back for a brief second, causes me to flip back through my Rolodex of memories, fitting the right one into place.  

There’s always a pause before I answer – but the funny thing is, my decision to start the company came without a second thought – it just was, and it began. The inception came with a question: why weren’t we hearing about the world and all of its intricacies from the vibrant, authentic and varied women from underrepresented backgrounds? Why is it so hard to push beyond what we’re expected to talk about, to what we truly want to discuss?

Figuring out what led me to that decision, though, always takes me back to being that awkward, slightly pudgy, verbose self that I was at fourteen years old. Always on the fringe of the social circle, I spent much of my childhood moving around the Northeast and struggling to find friends who accepted me for what I was: homeschooled, feminist, independent, and always coming up with the next idea to change the world.

I remember reading about the once-elegant and internationally renowned World Fairs that took place all over the world, bringing in the latest in progress and innovation to the fair-goers. So I decided to start my own in my family’s garage. I had a fire for figuring out the gaps in the market, which led to my starting a multi-location operation at my local faith centers, selling craft supplies to the bored but voracious consumers while the adults attended spiritual lectures.  

It was with that kind of “what if?” attitude that I approached every initiative I undertook. There were no limits, as long as I believed in the potential impact and had the fire underneath me.

Yet there was a constant current running throughout: where would I find those who accepted me for who I was, quirks and all? As a teenager, I vowed never to allow those who felt out of place to sit alone once I was older.  Too often growing up, I found my heart speeding up entering a center where I didn’t know if I would find someone who I could call a friend, a feeling I learned later in life simply to embrace.

But it wasn’t a feeling I ever wished upon anyone else. That lack of community, people who understood you, empathized with where you were coming from – if not with where you were going – all of those factors influenced the decisions I made in life. As a visible minority, an American Muslim woman who had chosen to cover from ten years old as a bet with my mom, I found that there were layers to my identity and life experience that took years to begin unpacking. On top of that were the boxes those around me put me in: boxes that were difficult to break out of, but boxes that I simply refused to operate within.

It all led back to the question: why did I begin a media company that had now morphed into an international movement for diverse millennial women to be exactly who they wanted to be – themselves? Crazy as it sounds, I did it because it needed to be done. The Tempest – formerly known as Coming of Faith – began out of a lifetime of personal experiences, experiences that I saw reflected too often in those around me, time and time again. It was a battle getting the first submission – five weeks and a whole lot of pushing – but the responses from our audience were almost immediate. I knew, no matter what struggle lay ahead of us, that we’d hit upon the pot of gold.

Instead of speaking for diverse millennial women, we were giving them the chance – finally – to tell their own stories through writing, videos, audio and music, and the results have been inspiring – in growth and in reach. Rather than creating a set narrative and fitting different people into what we deemed “the right box,” we were giving them the ability to own their experiences, voices, and stories.

Now, I wake up every morning full of fire for something greater.  With more than 300 writers in more than fifteen countries, the articles flowing out of our space are fresh, engaging and truly unconventional. Our content isn’t found anywhere else. Why?

Simple: we’ve tapped into a core of unmatched diversity, made up of a team of passionate, dedicated staff and writers telling the most impactful stories, creating incredibly authentic conversations, and representing the wide range of voices that make up today’s world. Headed by my co-founder and myself, the company brings in millions monthly, powered by a shoe-string budget and a national team dedicated to the vision of something bigger and better for millennials and women.

Rather than paying lip service to minorities, millennials, and women like many networks and media properties tend to do, The Tempest talks the talk – and walks the walk. We mean business.

I think a lot about whether my younger self would befriend the person I am now. I believe she’d give me a chance.

Money Now + Beyond Interviews

Entrepreneur Zeyna Iman is redefining feminism

When you’re on the cusp of giving up on society and the latest poll numbers for Donald Trump have got you down, your search for a light at the end of the tunnel may seem futile. Zeyna Iman’s got you covered. Zeyna’s “White Tears” scented candles (also available in “White Feminist Tears” and “Male Tears”) are the IT item for all of our needs. 

We had a chance to sit with Zeyna to discuss her inspiration, the feedback (love and hate) she’s received, and where she’s headed next.

The Tempest:  So, what inspired you to start the business?

Zeyna Iman: I’m not completely sure what the catalyst was, but a little over a year ago the idea struck me that “white tears scented candles” could be one of the greatest and amusing things I could produce myself  and distribute with the right supplies and aesthetic vision; it wasn’t until this past November through being broke enough and feeling creatively stifled that I decided to power through with the idea. It didn’t take me too long to design my labeling, whip up prototypes, and snap some photos. As soon as that was completed (over the course of a few days), I listed it all with Etsy, shared as much as I could without spamming social media, and hoped for the best. I think that best came when Hannah Giorgis included my candle line on a holiday gift roundup for Buzzfeed – that was really major for me.

What have been some of the internet’s reactions to your candles? Have they been a mix? Are there any particularly outstanding reactions you’ve gotten (good or bad)?

Oh, God. Definitely a mix. A deliciously if not often disturbing, messy, mix. I’ve had a lot of wonderful people reach out to me to share that they admire the candles and support my innovation and what I’m doing, which honestly will never ever get old. But of course, there have also been a considerable amount of folks who’ve decided my product is not only offensive but actually *racist*. The comments section of that Buzzfeed roundup, in particular, was riddled with debates on White Feminism and whether my “racist candles” belonged on such a holiday gift list, a list that was specifically curated for black girls/women(!). One of the first commenters said my candles are an example of the reason why he married a white woman haha. People are really amazing, though not surprising at all. One conservative media site even did their own write-up on my candles, drawing special attention to my pricing while comparing them to Walmart of all places! It’s almost as if I’m not one woman handling every aspect of a small business herself without the backing of a corporate machine allowing her to sell a handmade product for pennies… Like I said, people are truly amazing.


Outside of your business, what are you involved with? Where do you see taking this in the future?

I plan to expand the Zeyna Iman brand into a larger, lifestyle line. I have a lot of big visions for it that I’m pumped to see manifest soon, but don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch. Right now though I am working on some event curation involving beautiful brown people sharing space and getting free in NYC, my hometown, now that the weather is starting to pick up. If anyone is interested in collaborating with me I’m so open!

You’ve come out with White Tears, Male Tears, and White Feminist Tears candles – all of which have been incredibly popular online. What’s next in the works for you?

I’ll definitely be branching out from online to outdoor markets and festivals this spring and summer; I’m really excited to be able to connect with buyers IRL while also pursuing wholesale opportunities. Getting my product into brick and mortar locations is a huge step I’m super excited for; I’m making moves to have that happen sooner than later.


What’s your advice for young women of color looking to create and sell in their own businesses?

Find peers whose vision, insight, and intent you can trust, definitely make sure you have people in your circle who will keep it all the way real with you and support you above all. As women and gender-fluid/-queer people who don’t have the privileges of whiteness going for us, it’s really important that we’ve got each other’s backs and create our own networks of support, and take that support seriously. A good friend of mine, Cherrell Brown, has this saying “Black women saved my life” which for me just really speaks to the significance of having people who look like you, look out for you when it’s clear that no one else cares to do so. Definitely don’t let anyone invalidate your ability to be an entrepreneur with the rest of the bros just because you don’t fit the straight white male archetype; find the people who will hold you down and then get free with them. Oh, and definitely utilize social media to every last end! Building an online network of people interested in your art/product can and will go such a long way, don’t ignore that opportunity!

Are there any women you take inspiration from in creating your products and in life, generally?

A great friend of mine from high school, Morgen Bromell! As a creator, it’s so important to have other creative spirits around you putting in serious work and realizing their dreams into the amazing and tangible–that’s what Morgen is doing out in the Bay right now with their dating app for queer and non-binary people, Thurst. They’re just one of those people who is always hungry and in pursuit, willing to take risks and get things done–basically my favorite parts of myself but even more focused! It’s really important for me to be around that energy, to draw from my peers and friends as my greatest inspirations before I think to look to the (ostensibly?) inaccessible. Intimate and real over everything.

Zeyna Iman can be found on Twitter.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.