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Wafia is Finished With Fitting In

“I’d thought Arab kids become doctors or engineers, I didn’t know that they could be arty.” The artist talks role models, finding herself online, and swapping medical ambitions for musical dreams.

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As part of their ‘Love the Progress’ campaign, Converse approached ACCLAIM to share the stories of Australian women we admired. Last week, we heard from teenage boxing powerhouse Rahma Soliman. This week, we chat to Syrian-Iraqi songwriter Wafia who’s forging her own path in the music industry.

Wafia Al-Rikabi is assertive, whip smart, and uncompromising. In 2018, she headlined her first European tour; sold-out shows in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and San Francisco; and racked up more than 10 million digital streams. Mid-year, she shared the acclaimed single ‘Bodies’ in response to the refugee crisis, singing “We’re just bodies, we’re just bodies in the night/Move your bodies, move your bodies in the light.” There’s more music due this year, and another international tour in the works, but right now Wafia spending some rare downtime at her family home in Brisbane’s south suburbs.

It’s late on a Saturday afternoon when we call the artist, who answers in her parent’s home. “I love suburbia,” she tells us, “It’s home for me.” Over the course of a lengthy, enlightening conversation, Wafia tells us about her role models, finding herself online, and swapping medical ambitions for musical dreams.

Hi Wafia, I wanted to ask you a big question: what does being a young woman mean to you?
It means wanting to prove everyone wrong. It means persevering through adversity. I think it means doing it regardless of what people’s opinions are of me or what I do. It’s about putting me and my choices first; whether it be with my body or my music.

How do you work through that tangibly?
It’s doing what I’m doing right now. It doesn’t necessarily mean the commercial idea of success. I exist in the most free possible way I can and I think that’s proof enough of that.

When do you think you realised your identity?
I think I flip-flopped a lot—thinking that I knew my identity from a young age. Up until I was about 20, I wanted to fit in. I wanted a normal, white passing name. I wanted hair that wasn’t curly. I just wanted to not stick out for either being Arab looking or different looking. I struggled with that. I’d get to a point with who I was, but the minute I’d have to invite someone to my house or go to school I’d be at odds with myself. It wasn’t until I was 21 that I realised this is who I am and it’s actually pretty cool. A large part of that acceptance of myself was through the Internet. I found friends that were similar to me. I’d thought Arab kids become doctors or engineers, I didn’t know that they could be arty. Looking at my family history, we’ve had a history of being in the arts. [I was able to] see how being creative literally runs through my blood. I think identity is an ever-evolving thing and being open to the change within yourself. I know that I’ve changed within the last year. As long as I just accept that, I’m comfortable with who I am.

I think that’s a really interesting point you’ve made about how the Internet helped you find your way. At what age did you first get online? What sites were you into?
Tumblr! My parents never let me have MSN. I completely missed the boat on that. I didn’t have Bebo. I had MySpace for a second, and my Mum was just not impressed by that. She was like “Shut. It. Down.” Then I got really obsessed with NeoPets and I realised you can chat with people on there. I used to just tell my Mum “Oh I’m just playing NeoPets” but I was actually talking to strangers on the forum—that was where it was going down. I spent so much time making friends on NeoPets. And then Mum figured that out. So I left the Internet for a while, because every time I’d go on I’d have anxiety and feel like I was doing something wrong.

It wasn’t until my first year of university, I discovered Tumblr. I’d got my own laptop for the first time and I was like “What can I do with this…” I don’t even know how I got into Tumblr. I think I had a friend at uni who said I should do it. I was like “Alright!” So I started on Tumblr, making essentially just a green blog. I’d go onto Flickr, I’d find all these incredible photos of greenery—literal trees—taken on film and repost them. It got me such a large following and I don’t know where it came from or anything. Then I realised there were people talking to me and trying to get to know me. I’d have people ask me “What do you do with your time when you’re not posting green photos.” And I said, well aside from avoiding university work I sing. So that’s where I started posting my covers. I still have people come up to me at shows saying “I used to follow you in 2010!”

Are you still in contact with a lot of your Internet friends?
Some of my best friends in the world I met on Tumblr. And then a few others that I’ve drifted apart from, but then they’ll come to my shows occasionally or if I’m in town. I don’t really use Tumblr anymore, it’s still active and everything’s still on there but I don’t use it. People still message me on Instagram and come up to me at shows saying that they found my music through that [platform]. So I feel like it’s wrong to take it off. I think that Internet friends are real friends. They’ve seen the worst of you, back in 2010. I don’t have any friends from 2010 except for the ones I met online.

I know you studied pre-med at university. Are you still a science nerd?
I think at heart I am. I love reading the science news. But I couldn’t tell you what a covalent bond is now. I reckon I could balance an equation still. But I just don’t remember these things now. There’s only so much that your brain can hold when you’re not using that information. I do love it. I’m fascinated by it. It just wasn’t the right thing for me in the end.

What’s your mother like?
She’s really sweet. She lives for her daughters. I really admire her.

Is she more introverted or extroverted?
She’s very introverted. She really makes an effort for the people that are close to her family. If I invite friends of mine, she’s always down for a chat. She’s such a sweet mum though. She’s always like “I just don’t want to say anything because I don’t want to embarrass you or get in the way!” It comes from a place of love. She’s very loving and wears her heart on her sleeve. She likes to sit back and observe people and how they interact before forming any opinions on them.

What traits do you think get from her?
Interesting. She’s really cautious and I get that from her. She’s never frugal with her money—she’s very giving. But she’s very cautious about whether she’s making the right move… that extends to people as well. She loves to take care of people. I’ve learnt in the last year that fussing over people gives me a lot of happiness. I’m like “Please! Give me something to do for you! I’d just love to make something for you or help you in some way.” I’ve definitely learnt that from her. That it’s a really nice and fun thing to do.

What’s your favourite way to treat people?
It always comes back to food. I love to buy people meals. I think if I had my own place I’d be more into feeding people food I’ve made. I love seeing something for someone and being like “Oh I bought you this really stupid thing that was only $2 but it made me laugh and it made me think of you.” And giving that to you. Things like giving someone cupcakes because we talked about cupcakes.

Do you have a favourite dessert?
I love anything with pastry in it—savoury or sweet. I don’t like things that are too sweet or too chocolatey. I love anything with pecans or figs or pear. I really love those Japanese fluffy cheesecakes. They’re just so jiggly! They make me so happy.

You wrote ‘Bodies’ about the refugee crisis. How do you go about writing a song like that?
Well… you gotta feel a lot of things. I think with the last EP, I tried to just be as transparent as possible. I’d written ‘Bodies’ because that was the thing that was affecting me the most that day. I didn’t even know if I would put that out because on paper I thought it sounded too much like a pop song. At the end of the day I can’t sit here and preach transparency and vulnerability and not share this really really huge part of my life that’s affecting me and my family. You write a song like that because otherwise you’d be lying by omission.

It’s a beautiful song. I can’t tell you how much I admire your jewellery collection. Where do you get most of your pieces?
Oh thank you! Honestly, I get most of my jewellery from overseas. The bulk of my jewellery is from Syria or Iraq—a very Mum and Pop type thing. Most of it is 22 karat because I love that yellow gold. But my whole life I hated it. I remember my Aunts coming out and they were decked from head to toe in gold. I never got it. Then I was talking to my Mum about it and came to the realisation that gold in my culture actually signifies security for a woman. A lot of women maybe don’t have bank accounts. So their husbands or family gift them gold. It’s value will never diminish. So, I asked my Mum what happened to all of her gold. She told me that everytime our family has been in crisis, she sold a piece of her gold. Obviously it’s very sad that she’s had to part with her gold. But for her it meant that it was a sacrifice worth giving. Now I understand it. I can’t imagine not decking myself out in gold every time I leave the house. It’s what my Aunts do, it’s what my Great-Aunts do, my Grandmother.

What do you think makes a good role model?
Interesting. Number one—basic human decency. You don’t want to look up to someone nasty. But I think it’s important to remember that a lot of these people have lived in the limelight for a long time. Not everyone can be perfect. I’m sure if you dig into anyone’s past, especially with the Internet, there are some questionable things there. I don’t think it’s fair to put people on such high status, only to destroy them later. I hate cancel culture. Not that I love anyone that’s particularly problematic…

Who are some women that you really look up to in your industry?
I love Rihanna. I love her style, I love her confidence. Something about her makes you feel good about yourself. I also really love SZA. I think she gives off a similar vibe. Her transformation from the person who released their music two years ago compared with who she is now is something I really admire. The way she carries herself on stage now is with more confidence than she ever did. When I see other women go through that and become the performers that they are now, it’s really encouraging to me. I also really love Kasey Musgraves. She’s one of my favourites. I love what she stands for. She’s a country artist that is very much involved in the LGBTQ community and goes out of her way to not be a country music stereotype. Those are my top three!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Converse’s Love The Progress collection is available now at www.converse.com.au. Go behind the scenes of our shoot in the clip below.

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