It was Kathleen Hanna who infamously sharpie-scrawled Kurt smells like teen spirit on the wall of his room, fusing the Northwestern rise of grunge together with the rise of the riot grrrl reminder that as long as we girls are out there, feminism wasn’t going anywhere. (We also live longer. Source: science).
It was also Kathleen Hanna that was a leading figurehead in kicking the wall down on music, forcing people to once again pay attention to the mission of women from every age, space, ethnicity and time with the rise of the early 90’s movement.
That specific point in time has become his-and-herstorical; the punks and the poor kids and the outcasts and the queers, unleashing their entire beings and loss and life into the music they drummed up themselves. It’s become kind of a crux for those of us who never fit in, even as the Nirvana and Sonic Youth shirts line the aisles of H&M.
We’re a breed. All different — I guess the way no two snowflakes are ever the same, as demonstrated, I heard once on the Science Channel, by Jackson Pollock’s paintings — but similar in our difference, and when I first had the chance to get to know explosive London rock artist Ms. Mohammed it was one of those “oh HEY” moments.
Riot grrrl and grunge and alternative music are all highly recognisable influences in her work, but so is the music influenced by her family, her history, and, as she says on her site, her only goal was to make music she hadn’t already heard.
That, she did.
I quizzed her about some stuff from music to queerness — Ms. Mohammed is an out, queer artist — Madonna, and everything in between.
We joked a little about you being diversity’s wet dream — which also kinda means you’re the Harriet Potter to the conservative, cisgendered white male Voldemort, and therefore my own personal hero — which kind of leads us to start on the name change. You used to perform under your first names, Dana Jade, but then for the release of your debut EP Alibi, decided on using your real last name — Mohammed — because “this moment in time calls for embracing our otherness in hopes of stemming the tide of rising fear and prejudice.” It’s true, it’s real, it’s accurate and I fucking love it.
Can you tell us more about why changing the name you performed under was such an important move for you?
We live in hugely anti-muslim times. Xenophobia and hate crime is on the rise across most of Europe and the US. There’s a lot of ignorance out there surrounding Islam and people of Muslim heritage. I was actually raised Christian and I’m now agnostic, but I read as Muslim on paper.
Islamophobia doesn’t care if you’re a party girl from Trinidad when your name is Mohammed. I’m not sure people are aware you can have a name like mine and not actually be Muslim.
I wanted to be part of an alternate narrative of how people from Muslim backgrounds are perceived. It is far more diverse than the average person thinks.
Alibi is out to buy on Bandcamp right now. Its title single riff is really catchy and layered over it is percussion that’s got a real Indipop vibe. It’s a fab-fusion. You describe your sound as rock ‘n dhol – did you use a dohl? What percussion did you use?
Thank you! Yes, I got a professional dhol player to come in and play on the track. My own mini souvenir dhol that I recorded on the demo is also layered in the percussion of the final product. There are a few djembe hits in there too!
“I had an epiphany at Carnival one year. I thought to myself well you’re not PJ Harvey, there’s already one of her, so what are you bringing to the banquet?”
Your music is a wicked blend of your roots and of artists like Grace Jones, PJ Harvey and the feminist riot grrrls of the 90s like Bikini Kill. When it comes to the writing and production process, do you know how you’d like the final sound to be when you start to write? Do the sound and the vibe come naturally?
I often do, yes. The entire process is about trying to recreate the sound in my head, starting with the demo, which I then take to the studio.
I toyed with the idea of fusion in my Dana Jade days but I’ve since jumped in head first.
I had an epiphany at Carnival one year. I thought to myself well you’re not PJ Harvey, there’s already one of her, so what are you bringing to the banquet?
When did you start playing the guitar? Like, how did the two of you come to be an item? Back in the days before Tinder, it was hard for a girl to find her perfect Fender. What guitar is your favourite to play?
I was always drawn to guitar. I would turn all my toys into guitars as a kid like a tennis racket or cricket bat, putting rubber bands on them and playing pretend band. But I didn’t seriously start playing until I was a teenager, which is quite late for most players. I had to convince my parents that I was serious.
It took me an age to find a suitable guitar teacher; many were old fashioned and taught classical styles, one even tried to instruct me on how to hold the guitar and what position was best suited for, er, “lady guitar players”. [editor’s note: there’s a gif for this]
It wasn’t until I saw Courtney Love on MTV that I discovered a style that really resonated with me. My tiny mind was blown and I knew in that moment what I wanted to do when I grew up!
My favourite is definitely my strat! It was my very first electric guitar that my Dad bought me when I was a wee lass. We went down to that strip of music stores on 48th St NYC and I picked out the candy apple red beauty that I still play live and on recordings to this day. For me, the Fender Stratocaster is the ultimate symbol of rock ‘n roll.
“Islamophobia doesn’t care if you’re a party girl from Trinidad when your name is Mohammed. I’m not sure people are aware you can have a name like mine and not actually be Muslim.
I wanted to be part of an alternate narrative of how people from Muslim backgrounds are perceived. It is far more diverse than the average person thinks.”
I’m planning on starting work on a comic which is going to feature experiences girls have had in being musicians only to be talked down to by a dude. Even if they don’t realise it. What’s your Is That a Fender Wah? shop moment?
Oh, so many! But the one that never left me was trying out amps on London’s Denmark St. I was plugged into a fender hot rod, ready to buy one that day, and one of the guys in the shop came over and turned it down about 4 bars into whatever I was playing.
Now, I’m not an obnoxiously loud guitar player — in fact, my band always asks me to turn up in rehearsals — but he just assumed I was wasting time and didn’t take me seriously as a potential customer.
Brown girls browsing guitar amps in the noughties was not exactly an everyday sight, I suppose. I left that store immediately, went to another one a few streets over and bought the same amp there instead. I just wished I’d gone back and waved at him from the outside with my new amp, but they are heavy buggers.
“For me, the Fender Stratocaster is the ultimate symbol of rock ‘n roll.”
What did you listen to when you were growing up? Like I said — and as anybody that’s listened to or will listen to it will know — your music is such a mixture of styles. I often joke about how my first CDs were Cyndi Lauper and 4 Non Blondes and how that explains everything about me. Did your parents listen to Eastern music? Kinda linked to that, what was your first record?
Gosh, my first CD was Madonna’s Bedtime Story. I think and she is an influence on me, certainly in attitude, if not in sound. I also credit her with my own personal sexual liberation. I wasn’t exactly surrounded by women who didn’t give a fuck about propriety growing up in conservative Trinidad, so the sight of her ripping up the rule book was fascinating and empowering to my younger self.
My parents listened to more country and western than eastern music! Can you believe it? Way more Patsy Cline than Lata Mangeshkar in my house. Presbyterianism wasn’t just a religion but a conservative way of life that informed everything they did, from the clothing they wore to the music they listened to.
It wasn’t until moving to the UK and dating a Punjabi woman did I really delve into the culture of my ancestors working backwards, coming from almost complete ignorance. The Canadian missionaries sure did a number with their conversions on the mentality of the new South Asian Trinidadians who were lured away from the cultures and traditions of their homeland in exchange for an education.
I was obviously surrounded by Trinidadian art forms of calypso, soca, rapso, and chutney; reggae was always huge and almost always blaring out of sound systems everywhere. All of these influences have found their way into my collective sound. I’m certainly blessed to have this much to draw from.
Tell us about CLIT ROCK, which is aimed at raising money for Direct to Dominica, to help rectify some of the damage done by Hurricane Maria. CLIT ROCK was started to raise funds for the awareness of Female Genital Mutilation, to effectively put an end to it. Will you tell us some more about FGM? The awareness of it is slim to none and I’ve rarely, if ever, seen it or read about it on/in the news which is downright fucking criminal.
Clit Rock was born out of sheer rage. FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) speaks volumes about society’s fear of female sexuality, it is oppression on steroids.
Even though I am not from a practicing community, I instantly recognised that it was the same old misogyny that attempts to contain us all. I just knew I wanted to join in with the women who were already on the front lines and spread awareness through music.
A lot of people are put off by our name. In fact, more than one guest at the last event told me they had mates who dropped out when they heard the name of the night. This is 2017 mind! Since when is everyone (in freakin’ London Town) so bloody conservative and delicate? CLIT CLIT CLIT. Get used to it. An abbreviated word derived from the scientific name of a body part is what you’re shocked by? Be outraged that FGM exists in your world, not at the campaigns committed to ending it! Do have a word with yourself.
I always wonder if Cock Rock Festival comes up against this much opposition, but they refuse to answer a sister on Twitter!
“An abbreviated word derived from the scientific name of a body part is what you’re shocked by? Be outraged that female genital mutilation exists in your world, not at the campaigns committed to ending it!”
Earlier on in the year, I was able to have the chance to talk to musician, writer, and activist Vivek Shraya; a queer trans-fem WOC whose album Part-Time Woman examined what defines a woman. With the political climate being what it is, being an out queer WOC feminist who rocks and refuses to let anyone tell her what to do is inspiring.
Why, to you, is celebrating diversity in the media and in life so important? Are there any pieces of advice you’ve been given that you’ve carried through life with you and would like to share? Like a motto or an anecdote. What’s on the agenda for Ms. Mohammed?
I have Muslim family, I have Hindu family, I have Christian family and was raised in the church, but I’m now agnostic. I don’t want to take up space intended for Muslim voices or attempt to speak on behalf of Muslims. I can only speak for myself as a person in the middle of a spaghetti junction of cross-cultural identity.
As a Caribbean/South Asian/Gay/Woman/Immigrant/Londoner/With a Muslim surname in post-Brexit England, I have to say diversity and representation are hugely important to me and others like me.
I was struck recently by the fact that Anoushka Shankar was the first Indian musician to ever present an award at the 2016 Grammy awards! Riz Ahmed the first South Asian to win an Emmy in 2017. Priyanka Chopra’s face stared back at me on a London bus last year and I actually got a little teary because I grew up and went my entire life until that day without ever seeing strong SA females in leading roles.
I’m so happy that things are finally changing for the better and media holds all the cards. It informs us as a collective every minute of every day and with that comes immense power and possibility. So thank you for talking to me, I hope someone who my words might resonate with will find them.
CLITROCK 11, alongside fantastic comedian Ava Vidal, happened on October 14, your EP Alibi is out to buy now on Bandcamp, what’s coming up that we can look forward to after that?
I loved finally sharing a bill with my friend Ava Vidal, a fierce and fabulous comic/writer/social commentator. All proceeds go to her Direct To Dominica fundraising campaign.
I’m also looking forward to recording new music. The studio is my happy place. Also, look out for a new music video for second single, Pandora, early 2018. I hope to make it the ultimate celebration of the divine feminine present in ALL of us.
FIND MS. MOHAMMED ONLINE