Zayn Malik, DJ Khaled, and the radical rise of Muslim pop power

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Upon first glance, there are not many similarities between Zayn Malik and DJ Khaled. One is a former member of the most popular boy band in recent memory. The other is a radio DJ turned advice expert. Zayn, just 23, is cultivating his reentry into the music world, while Khaled, at 40, has worked alongside music veteran Rick Ross and produced the likes of Drake and Lil Wayne. The former has, from the beginning, exhibited a shyness, while the latter, with his exhibitionism, has cultivated a following on Snapchat that is nearly unmatched.

But they are both Muslims in the public eye, who are not just existing but somehow thriving, in a world where Islamophobia is ubiquitous. Khaled, whose family is Palestinian, calls himself a “devout Muslim.” Zayn’s father is Pakistani. His mother, who is English, converted to Islam before marrying Zayn’s father, and going to the mosque was routine. Zayn has read the Quran three times, and his body is even tattooed in Arabic.

These men and their ascension in popular culture has coincided with Republican candidates outdoing one another in their bid to rid the U.S. of Muslims. At the GOP debate late last year, Chris Christie argued that Syrian orphans under five could be a threat to American life. Exit polls at the New Hampshire primary were bleak: Two-thirds of Republican voters supported Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims.


Muslims can tell you that this toxicity goes beyond rhetoric, from the arrest of 15-year-old Ahmed Mohamed to the deaths of Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, who were killed outside of their home, by their neighbor, over a “parking dispute.” Last year, some Alabama members of the KKK vowed to “fight the spread of Islam.” More recently, three men, Muhannad Tairab, Adam Mekki, Mohamedtaha Omar, from a predominantly Muslim community in Indiana were murdered execution-style inside an abandoned house.

When you are Muslim, there is a fear of being compartmentalized, and thus misunderstood. Crazy, hooded terrorists have become a simulacrum of the West’s definition of Islam. And instead of non-Muslims challenging and re-evaluating their own bigotry, the onus is on Muslims to disprove those deep-rooted fundamentalist theories. Islam is so misrepresented by the subterfuge of Trump and bigots that it has become morally acceptable to hate us, and to want for our demise.

Zayn is the opposite of DJ Khaled, both spiritually and artistically. Since winning The X Factor in 2010, Zayn has been part of billion dollar boy band franchise One Direction and a teen hunk manufactured for the masses, all the while hawking himself (or being hawked) on everything from perfume to books. Zayn left One Direction in March 2015, after realizing the limitations on privacy and creative control that came with his ultra-fame. In a Fader interview late last year, referring to the music he used to make, Zayn lamented, “That's not music I would listen to.”

After taking some time to focus on his art—and attempting to define what that means to him as a solo artist—Zayn has been reincarnated as a musician of his own making. “Pillowtalk,” his first single, released in January, from his debut solo album "Mind of Mine," reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. and charts in upwards of 60 other countries. It has charted higher than any One Direction single. His new musical aesthetic is R&B-meets-pop, with a falsetto to kill. His hair has gone from his natural black to lime green to icy blonde to, most recently, a dusty pink. His fashion sense has evolved. It’s a deliberate, cultivated reentry into the music world, one meant to expand the public conception of Zayn.


DJ Khaled, on the other hand, speaks in mumbling non-sentences punctuated by vague adages on how to be successful. Khaled’s professional life started in the late ‘90s. He began DJing in Miami reggae sound clashes, mixing dancehall and hip-hop. He eventually made it to radio, where his first gig was on a pirate station. In 2006, his first release, Listennn… the Album, made it to number 12 on the Billboard 200. Since then, he has found both respect and success in producing, but recently stumbled into a newfound calling as a lifestyle guru.

ICYMI, Khaled has become something of a social media savant on Snapchat, his medium of choice. There, to a voracious audience of bite-size-content-hungry tweens, Khaled outlines his rules of living to one’s fullest potential with pithy captions like "Ride wit me through the journey of more success," while on a jet ski. Or “When they look in my eyes, When the ladies look in my eyes (blink, blink) they love it” (wink, wink), while shirtless and chesty in a hot tub. Or “This is what I love doing, watering my plants, it’s relaxing, it’s a blessing, it’s a part of my success,” as he hoses down Ciroc trees with cheery aplomb. His snaps are as popular among tween to late-millennial audiences as “The Big Bang Theory,” television’s number one show.


Before taking the stage name DJ Khaled, Khaled Mohamed Khaled went by “Arab Attack.” He changed it after 9/11, explaining in a 2008 interview with Heeb magazine that “when 9/11 happened…[i]t wasn’t respectful to the people that went through some stuff.” In a different vein, Zayn has been accused of “boy band jihad.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, these challenges to their Muslimhood, Zayn and Khaled both seem content to claim their Muslim status without shouting it. And unlike our country’s GOP leaders, their embrace by young fans reflects a growing audience that is more accepting and less concerned with faith-based issues—at least in what or who they consume culturally. The Zayn and Khaled generation are, after all, less religious, though not necessarily any less spiritual, according to a 2010 Pew Study. We’re also more ethnically and racially diverse than the generations before us. This evolution could explain, in part, the paradox of these Muslim men prevailing in a world where Muslim identity is tethered to hate.


The appeal of these two divergent pop stars doesn’t negate the existence of racism and bigotry against Muslims—but it does encourage those who have limited access to us to engage with what Islam is in a broader context. The visibility of these two men challenges the inchoate rage that exists on so many levels, whether institutionally (Guantanamo, Iraq War) or on a social level (an attack on two hijab-wearing women).

Two Muslims in the public eye, dictating their own identities and what it means to be a modern Muslim man—whether that’s a soft-spoken idealist or an accidental sage—that in itself is a slow revolution. Sometimes being Muslim is political, which makes sense when so much death and war has marred our existence. But other times we are just people wanting to live in normalcy. We crave a metamorphosis of our identities; we crave being custodians of our own stories, of our own rhythms.


Which is why I think Zayn’s lyrics from “Pillowtalk” are malleable and open to interpretation. When he sings “It’s our paradise and it’s our warzone/Pillow talk/My enemy, my ally/Prisoners/Then we’re free, it’s a thin line,” I hear “Allah” instead of “ally.” Both interpretations work.

Fariha Róisín is a writer living on Earth.