Zayn Malik accepts his award for Outstanding Achievement in Music during The Asian Awards 2015 / Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images
When Zayn Malik left One Direction earlier this year, it changed the way people looked at the world’s biggest boy band: Longtime fans wanted to know the real story and demanded to know why Zayn couldn’t vocalize his problems. They wondered why his bandmates Harry, Louis, Liam, and Niall didn’t seem to react as negatively to the pressures of fame as Zayn did. The fanbase split into groups of people who support only Zayn, people who support all five boys, and people who strictly support “OT4,” or the boys who are still in One Direction. Meanwhile, the media was quick to turn crying fans into a spectacle or make mean-spirited and condescending jokes at Zayn’s expense. Whether laughed off or cried through, the departure was treated as just another insignificant chapter in the ongoing drama of boy bands. However Zayn Malik’s struggle with fame as a British-Pakistani Muslim is unique, and it’s one that’s resonated with me as both a devoted One Direction fan and a member of an Iraqi Muslim family who sees bits of myself reflected in Zayn.
Zayn is the first Muslim artist to reach such wild levels of global popularity, and, as such, his presence in the entertainment industry has set new precedents. Although he has not been particularly vocal about his faith, both people who celebrate his Muslim identity and those who reject it have tried to forge their own image of him as a spokesperson for Islam. His unique identity has inevitably shaped his reception and the discussion around him in ways that have not been the case for his former bandmates.
Asked about his religion in 2012, Zayn shared: “I believe that your religion should be between you and whoever your belief is in. I don’t think you should stick it in people’s faces.” Unfortunately the world has not allowed him to keep any aspect of his life private, and even his limited tweets about religion have attracted scrutiny and hatred, surely encouraging him to stay quiet. Small actions to educate his fanbase on social issues through a “#FreePalestine” tweet and a retweet in support of Peshawar were heavily dissected, with some media outlets suggesting Zayn was interested in these issues because he was more personally connected to them as a Muslim man—as if natural compassion played no role. Despite the hatred he faces for it, Zayn has publicly taken pride in his identity: In his recent Asian Award acceptance speech, he thanked his parents for making him Asian in addition to thanking God. On the Islamophobic comments targeted at him, Zayn stated: “I thought we had moved away from that and we’re living in the 21st century and people could accept people from different religions”.
I agree with him. We need to step outside our boundaries, prejudices, and stereotypes, and start sharing things like roommates do in college, even if it’s uncomfortable at first. And this isn’t just about C-Pop or just Asian music but all aspects of culture. There needs to be a union of East and West. East meets West and West meets East. It’s somewhat starting to happen, but there is still a loooooooooooooooong way to go.
Hoping for a day when “world pop” becomes a reality. Actually, hoping for a day when we won’t even need those labels, but music will be just that: music. Music that comes from all kinds of languages, cultures, and backgrounds but understood by all as music. Music that moves, music that inspires, music that makes you dance, and music that does what music does.
Anyways, great job on that speech, Wang Leehom! Apparently, he wrote the speech himself, and those two weeks that he spent drafting it definitely were worth the time! The Q&A session was pretty interesting and insightful too.
And lastly, thank you to all my friends who introduced me to C-pop and Wang Leehom: the YouTube user who uploaded all those MVs, mostly K-pop but even C-pop, M-pop, and T-Pop for some time, Jae/AsianDream, and my college and online friends. You know who you are :)