Music / Features
Queeristan: A New Dialogue
with ZĀN
Words and interview by Hannah McKittrick
Tuesday August 14th, 2018
Zān, an electro RnB project by singer and producer Zain Awan, is silky, gritty, gentle and radical all at once. Identifying as queer, Pakistani and Muslim, his music encompasses these different identifiers to create a sound that is truly his own; characterised by Awan’s own agile voice, nuanced beat-making chops, his political expression and his own sparkly essence. Following the release of his debut EP Gulnaz, Trouble Juice caught up with him to talk about his musical journey, the new EP and contending with identity in the midst of cultural tension.
TJ: Hello Zān! How nice to be here with you, thanks for swinging by. Could you shed some light on what you do for those not yet acquainted with your music?

Z: Hey Trouble Juice! Thank you for havin me. I'm a queer Pakistani Australian singer, songwriter and electronic producer. I've spent the majority of my life engaging with music as a singer, and the last few years I’ve dabbled a lot more in making beats; partially because it’s empowering to make music yourself, and also because I cant really afford to fork out big money on producers.

What drives you to make the music you do?

To be honest, I’m not 100% sure what drives me. It’s a lot of different things. Originally music was escapism; I grew up in a really fractured environment, my parents went through this super drawn out legal battle over us kids, and school was a nightmare for the most part cos of bullying and whatnot. I found my energy being sapped by most of Australia. Watching Hindi films (which is a super musical form of cinema) and watching music videos on Rage was probably my favourite thing to do as a kid.

Now it’s changed though. After studying music for a few years (whatever that means), what drives me is storytelling. I don’t see music as this singular force anymore, but rather a connection to people’s narratives, stories, lands, struggles, oppression and liberation. Being queer, Pakistani, Muslim, there’s a lot of ways I can express those things without having to constantly justify my existence. Instead, music is an embodiment of it and way of connecting myself to a greater community and sharing my journey.

The experience of listening to your debut single 'Salafi Secrets' is captivating, as each section reveals a different facet of your music making approach. What artists or genres are at play here, influencing this project?

Thank you so much. ‘Salafi Secrets’ was originally just a little beat I made because I felt like my life was in a shambles and nothing was really 'working'. That eventually translated into the songs sections – it’s kinda like three different songs I just mashed up into one. And it’s pretty reflective of me as a person; being an intersectional artist. There are a lot of artists that inspired the songs sound. There’s a bit of wonky funk, soul and electronica going on in it - with artists like MIA and D'Angelo being huge influences for me.

Could you talk us through the thematic basis of 'Salafi Secrets', and what it means to you?

I think this is probably the most important reason behind my decision to choose this song as my self-introduction to the music scene. It’s the biggest question I get about it, which I think in essence is a great thing, to create a new dialogue in the Australian music scene.

Salafism is actually a sect of Islam – it’s a reformative movement, which is linked to wahhabism, and saw a kinda literalist approach to Islamic laws, what’s forbidden and accepted, haram and halal. Salafism is particularly tied to Saudi Arabia, and eventually travelled to Pakistan through cultural hegemony, as well as what was the politically dominant force at the time. People in Australia who view Islam as this massive radicalist plague, are often actually just talking about sub-movements within it, and Salafism is probably one of the more intense ones without being too 'radical'.

I called it ‘Salafi Secrets’ because that’s what I think most people are dealing with in my part of the world - whether that’s a physical place or a more metaphorical thing. People are plagued by repression and conforming outwardly, and the greater part of my life has been about that struggle. The queer community has a huge issue with this and has turned it into this commercial rainbow coming out thing, which is something I struggle to fully relate to. Australia itself is a symptom of similar phenomena, but in a much darker way. When you erase parts of its cultural, political and social identity - what lingers after isn't a stronger identity or feeling of closure; but it’s a loss of words and inability to feel like there’s any definition anymore to the world around us. This song is obviously about something a bit more specific to my journey, being queer and Pakistani, but it’s about a human struggle and finding closure through the fact that you fought for something.

The next single you dropped was ‘Fight’. Can you tell us a bit about it?

‘Fight’ is essentially a manifesto behind my work and the EP Gulnaz. My identity, no matter what lense you look at it from, is driven by a sense of conflict or jihadism - which means ‘internal struggle’ in Arabic, not militant radicalism as some might think. I think I’m past the point where I’m even trying to like, eradicate conflict. ‘Fight’ is about the experience of living in it, whereas ‘Salafi Secrets’ is about letting it go.

As a queer man of Pakistani heritage, the conflict between your ethnicity and sexuality is something you speak about having to straddle within your art. How do you/your music aim to navigate these tensions within you? Are they always at odds?

It’s definitely an expression of it. I don’t really feel they are at odds or conflicting anymore; all those identifiers are a part of one another and there are no exclusions there. What is interesting to me is how the world has projected those identities to be conflicting or at odds, and for a while I used to believe that.

A lot of my work at this stage is about identity because I think for Australia that’s a big enough thing to talk about. The most dominant identities and forces here are very homogenous and self congratulatory. So to say that I'm a part of these different things (which are all probably a bit radical for the majority of this country), I think that’s the glass ceiling for me at this point. I haven’t even begun to really talk about all the experiences and great things and horrible things within each of those boxes - because that’s maybe too far ahead for the dialogue here. Maybe I'm underestimating Australia's ability to understand intersectionalism, but also as a 'new' artist, I have to spend more energy into justifying myself as an artist and proving myself. Because if I’m not doing that, I’m just letting a big part of Australia hijack my human identity and make some kind of example out of me; which usually is used as a reinforcement of some anti-immigrant idea.

You engage in the discourse surrounding 'Queeristan'. Could you explain a little what this movement is, and how you see your role within it?

Queeristan is a fun term I like to use about who I am and where I come from. Sometimes I say fagistan, but I think some people find that a bit harsh. I like the idea of queeristan; it’s a land for South Asian queers like myself, and places queerness in the core of who we are, rather than it being something on the side we 'tolerate' or have learnt to accept.

Pakistan in itself is an illusion of sorts; it was a part of India before partition in 1947, and its idea (which was originally a part of the British divide and conquer model) was reappropriated into equal parts resistance to Hindu nationalism and a need for Islamic sovereignty in the region.

Tragically, homosexuality continues to be condemned in modern Muslim societies and Islamic communities. It has been theorised that the correlation between the few Islamic countries that do not condemn homosexuality are the only ones not be colonised by the British - do you see this stigma as something tied more to colonialism than religion? Or is it entrenched in both?

Hmm. The stigma is all encompassing and it’s difficult to trace it back to one source. But I think different forces have an ability to impact on how stigma is compounded and legislated, depending on the 'power' of that force. Although stigma against homosexuality and queer identities in general must've existed to some degree in Pakistan/India, the specific legislation of criminalising same-sex sexual behaviours (section 377 of the Indian penal code) was a British invention, not a South Asian one. That’s because we simply didn’t have the power to legislate during the colonial rule; we were treated like second class subhumans. Slavery was 'eradicated' by the Brits, but replaced with unregulated bonded servitude, which essentially meant the same thing and our rights to owning land, protest and wealth were all stripped in order for the ruling British class to reign. When laws are passed like that, even after the uprising has reinstated power to the original custodians of the land, they have a legacy to carry on their reign through the hegemonic, ideological influence colonisation has passed down.

I also think that in Islamic communities, there is a widespread stigmatisation of sexuality in general, unless you are a straight cis-man. Those things are a symptom of culturally specific attitudes as well as specific Islamic movements. But it’s interesting to me that there is no word for homosexuality in the Quran, and any arguments for its criminalisation are pretty much carbon copies of the Christian view against it. So where is this prejudice really coming from?

After the release of this EP, what badboi flavoured antics can we expect from you next?

Haha, back to music! It's been a pretty big learning curve for me, getting my music out for the first time. Gulnaz is a symbol of my journey as well as the communities I belong to. 'Gul' means rose in Urdu, and 'Naz' has multiple meanings; most importantly, Pride. That’s where I'm at right now as an artist - finding pride and beauty through the journey, and the joys and pain of it all. It’s my mothers name, and I wouldn't really be making music and being who I am if my mother didn’t create a space where I could explore my identity in a safe way.

I've got heaps more music which I'd love to get out soon! I'm not good at following how the industry works, and whether or not I'm supposed to wait til next year to release my next body of work. But I’m pretty keen to just share everything I can, and travel through South Asia for a solid amount of time before I decide to have my next conversation with the world, most likely the UK, who had the most detrimental impact on where I'm from. I think the dialogue really has just begun for me; there’s so much more I have to say, I just don’t know if people are ready to hear it.
Zān on Facebook
Photography by Nicole M and Brodie Rowlands