It’s 2019, the air is still laced with that New Year optimism as we enter another year of the unknown.
Whatever 2019 may bring, we can be certain young people will be at the heart of coming change as millennials continue to set the standard for social transformation. This past year saw the rise of previously quashed voices from sexual assault victims, the transgender community, women fighting for their reproductive rights, climate change warriors, and advocates for gun control. It has also been a year when established and previously unchallenged institutions have been called to account, including the fashion industry, Hollywood heavyweights, and the seemingly unchallenged NRA.
Still, for all the progress made, we have very far to go as a global community as we continue to fight against the age-old prejudices; homophobia, racism, gender inequality, xenophobia, and the human race’s tireless fear of ‘otherness’. So, who leads the charge? That daunting task has been eagerly taken on by the fearless contrarians of our generation, such as Leo Kalyan; artist, activist and welcome rebel who lives to contradict the status quo.
Born in London, but having spent many years of his childhood living in the thriving populous of Lahore, Leo has often drawn inspiration from his rich and multiple identities to create a layered, eerily beautiful and nuanced sound which is too complex to simply label as ‘pop’. His distinct sound fills a natural place in an industry that is gradually trading catchy, teen bopper hits for the smoother sounds of artists like The Weeknd and Troye Sivan. Couple that with the incredible visuals in his videos, as well as the ultimate indie appeal of being an independent artist who writes and composes his own music, Leo Kalyan has all the makings of an unwitting superstar.
What was completely unanticipated, however, was the social impact he would make simply by being who he is; a young gay man who embraces his Muslim and Asian background as much as he immerses himself in the multiculturalism and liberal standard of London. Standing in his truth while refusing to denounce a community that often marginalizes queerness, Leo Kalyan tells me why he believes that all the layers that make up the entirety of him can exist in harmony, and the realization that in conveying this, he has inspired countless young people who have been facing similar challenges.
Endearing, honest, and refreshingly blunt, Leo opens up about coming out, the powerful messages in his music and how he became an unsuspecting voice for the queer Muslim community.
MUSLIM GIRL: How did growing up in London but having such strong ties to your family’s roots in India and Pakistan impact your sense of identity?
LEO KALYAN: I’m from South London but between the ages of 11 and 17 I lived part-time in Lahore, which is on the border between India and Pakistan. When the partition happened, some stayed in India and some went to Pakistan, so my family is on both sides, which is quite unusual. I have a weird relationship to it, where I’m from here but I’m also from there, and I soon realized that over here I was the brown/Asian kid, while over there I was the white kid. It was confusing; I wanted to feel like I belonged somewhere, but now I feel like I belong in London.
I usually feel a real sense of belonging in big, cosmopolitan cities, but London most of all because this is my home, and in my opinion, it’s a true melting pot of different cultures, languages, belief systems and philosophies.
Do you think this has had an influence on your music and creating your distinct sound?
Massively! I think my music is best described as left-field pop and sits in the same category as artists like Sade or Jessie Ware; people compare it to George Michael and The Weeknd a lot. It’s pop-y because I write lyrics and hooks which are memorable but it has a cinematic ambience to it.
I’ve been as inspired by Sade, Massive Attack, and Portishead as much as I’ve been influenced by Bollywood films and Indian classical music so I would say that my musical education is equal parts Indian/Bollywood and Western pop.
Would you ever consider recording and releasing a Hindi album back home?
I’m actually working on a Hindi language EP at the moment and planning to release it back home. I’m obviously a little more apprehensive about Pakistan than I am about India, because section 377 has been overturned in India and it’s now legal to be gay, but in Pakistan it’s not. Your rights are not protected there, and that’s scary because you could be thrown into prison just for being who you are. I have friends who are gay in Pakistan, and you just have to keep a tight lid on it.
What about your family over there? Have they been supportive?
I haven’t spoken to many of them about it because I just do what I do. They follow me on social media and like my posts, but I don’t know what the gossip is, and I kind of don’t want to know. I don’t want to be disappointed if there are negative opinions going around, which I’m sure some people will have.
My mum’s family over here surprised me because when I came out, one of my more liberal uncles didn’t want his wife and kids to meet with me and my boyfriend, although that has changed now, and we have a good relationship. On the other hand, my mum’s older sister who wears a hijab, and who I expected to frown and be disapproving [about my coming out] said such lovely things. I think when you meet people who are connected to the faith, they actually turn out to be more open-minded than the ones who have a vague idea of what they think it might be.
I listened to ‘Focus’ recently and apart from the incredible visual impact of it, there seemed to be a distinct message in the lyrics. Is that the case, and is that a recurring theme in your other songs?
‘Focus’ is about keeping your eye on the prize and pushing through when it feels like the world is rigged against you. For me, as a queer person, as a brown/Asian person, as someone from a Muslim background, I can’t turn on the TV, listen to the radio or go online without seeing or hearing some part of my identity in the line of fire.
I’ve faced quite a few hurdles in my career as a musician as well, so the song and my music, on a broader scale, is about carrying on regardless and fighting against that; it’s about resilience more than anything else. You need to keep your focus when the tide is pushing against you, and keep swimming, sticking to your path.
It’s apparent from your public social media interactions, as well as some DM’s you’ve posted that you have become a source of inspiration for a lot of young, queer people from Muslim backgrounds like yourself. They felt that they could reach out to you, and many have expressed that your music and self-acceptance has helped them push through hard times. How did you get to that place in your life?
It was a long journey and it wasn’t easy. It was a long battle with myself, with my parents, with my belief system, and I came out in stages. I came out first to my siblings, then to mum, and it was years after that when I came out to my dad. It was a slow journey, but when I came out on the other side of it, I expressed what it was to feel like you’re on the outside of the outside, in my EP ‘Outside In’.
I thought I was just making love songs and then to read that I was giving them [my listeners] hope gave me the hope and strength I needed to be braver in my music, visually, and in the subject matter.
I told my dad before I released the song ‘Fucked up’, which was about feeling like I was a constant disappointment, and it was actually through coming out to him that I got comfortable with myself. I finally was able to really fall in love, and make my relationships work; before that, I didn’t believe that I could have a happy and successful relationship because I felt like I had to hide a big part of my life from someone, or compartmentalize certain aspects of my identity. After I had that conversation with my dad, I began to ease into myself, and talk about things publicly and I got such courage from the messages I was starting to receive from people.
The truth is, I never intended to be any kind of activist, nor did I think that my music would be giving anybody strength or inspiration. I thought I was just making love songs and then to read that I was giving them [my listeners] hope gave me the hope and strength I needed to be braver in my music, visually, and in the subject matter. I never thought that I would be able to create positive change because that just wasn’t on the agenda, but it gives it so much more meaning, and it’s so gratifying to know that I am making a change. Even if it only helps one person, how amazing is that?
You said you were writing love songs. If we look back at the great classics in this genre, they have traditionally depicted, almost exclusively, heterosexual relationships. Do you think that is starting to change now?
Definitely! I deliberately never use pronouns; I never use ‘he’ or ‘she’ in my songs and it’s something that I did consciously. I noticed that my fans started to pick up on this and were encouraged by it, so I continued not to use them because I wanted my music to feel inclusive and universal. I spent so much of my life feeling like an ‘other’ who was never fully part of something, and so I want my art to provide a space where people don’t have to experience that.
As two young, Muslim people living in London, we are both very familiar with the negative reactions to LGBTQ people from the wider Muslim community. A recurring concept within this is the idea that queerness equates to an automatic exit from Islam. What do you say to that?
It doesn’t matter what anybody says, and to them I say, with all due respect, “piss off”. Who are you to tell me what my relationship with my faith is? I don’t know them and so their opinions mean nothing to me.
If you’re someone who believes in God, and believes in the teachings of Islam, then you should know that we were all created equal and are loved equally; He doesn’t make mistakes and if you can’t reconcile that, then there’s a flaw in your logic. Whether you’re straight, or gay, or bi, or whatever you are in between, we just need to be more loving and accepting and tolerant towards each other.
Look at the way that Muslims are being treated around the world; we are facing such awful hate and discrimination on a global scale, and we all know how awful that feels, so how can we turn around and do that to others? It doesn’t matter whether you agree with someone being gay or straight because the fact is, gay people exist and you just have to deal with it.
One of the most basic principles of any religion is having respect for your fellow man and if I’m not hurting anybody, there should be no objections. Who I love is not anyone else’s business, and that’s really my bottom line. One of my big sticking points that I’ve developed due to the people that I met growing up, such as religious elders, is that everyone is very keen to school you on what you’re doing wrong, and I think we all need to look inwards a little bit more. Instead of constantly looking out in order to criticize others, why not take that criticism and apply it to yourself? If we all turned inwards and started to work on ourselves, the whole planet would be full of nicer, more loving people. Take your judgement and turn it inwards; it has no place here.
Some young people from Muslim backgrounds feel a need to step away in order to come to terms with their queerness; that the two cannot co-exist. What made you reject this notion?
It’s very simple; I don’t let other people tell me what my faith is, or let their opinions affect my relationship with my family, my culture, or my history. I apply a very independent thought pattern and the only people whose opinions matter to me are my parents. During the in-between period after I had come out to my mum, but not my dad, I developed this weird relationship with him during which I was saying quite Islamophobic things to him.
It’s not nice to say, but I became very Islamophobic, especially towards my dad and we had such awful rows because I would say such deeply disrespectful things to him about Islam, and I realized that it was coming from feeling like I was being pushed outside and that he was rejecting me. I felt like his faith was more important to him than I was, and that’s why I couldn’t be out to him, which was weird because I hadn’t even tried to come out to him. Finally, when I did, he turned out to be one of the most open-minded people, even though my mum had originally advised me against telling him because she wasn’t sure how he was going to take it.
My mum and my sisters felt quite ashamed that they’d assumed this, as it turned out that my dad’s love for me completely trumped everything else. After that, it clicked for him why I had been behaving the way that I had, and I came to the realization that I didn’t have to reject my culture or my religion, and cut that part out of me just because I was gay, and vice versa. They are both a part of my identity, and they can co-exist because I exist.
What advice would you give to someone who hasn’t come out to their family, but is confident that it will not be well received?
I would say be very careful; don’t come out to them until you are financially independent. If you know that your family’s going to react in a negative way, then don’t rush it because people should come out when they’re ready, not when they feel pressured by society.
If you are sure that you will face rejection, or even violence, build your community of support first. That’s the power of social media; as much as it has its downside, you can really find people to talk to, who are in your shoes, if you can’t find that in your everyday surroundings. Don’t do it until you’re able to look after yourself because you don’t want to find yourself out on the street, as these things happen too often. It may feel awful at times, but it gets better.
Kevin Hart has recently come under fire for a collection of his old, homophobic tweets, and some people have argued that the backlash he has faced has been unfair. They’ve pointed out Caucasian comedians who have used similar slurs in the past with no apparent consequence to their careers. Do you feel that there’s a sense of hypocrisy there in people pointing out possible racial discrimination while seeming to dismiss the way Hart has discriminated against gay people?
If you have a problem with someone using a racial slur, then have the sense not to use a homophobic slur. If you want to receive equality, you have to also be willing to give it to others, and that doesn’t work if you want to subjugate them.
There is a false notion that being gay is a lifestyle choice, as if I’m joining a new yoga class. It’s a very difficult thing and there are so many hurdles, barriers, and invisible boundaries. You experience bullying in school, discrimination in the workplace, abuse on the streets, and then when that same treatment comes around to those inflicting it one day, they had better be prepared for it. You can’t go about spouting hate, and then expect love to come to you; it just doesn’t work like that.
Do you think the world will ever get to a point where this isn’t a hot topic anymore?
I hope so, because right now it feels like every sub-group is fighting for their own space, voice, and right to exist, and there’s a lot of friction in the world right now.
I believe that if we are going to survive as a civilization, then we will have to get past that somehow. I don’t know how yet, but I do think that we will have to figure it out. It’s either that, or continue to fight until none of us exist.
Do you believe you have allies in this endeavor beyond the LGBTQ community?
I think that women are very important, and very natural allies because we’re subjugated by the same patriarchal system. The system which requires women to be submissive to men is the same system that says gay people are lesser. We are both considered lesser and we have to unite against that because it really upsets me to see women being homophobic.
The subjugation of queer people is just a stone’s throw away from the subjugation of women, and if you’re think because they’re being homophobic today, they’re not coming to be misogynistic tomorrow, then good luck to you. You know what misogyny feels like; it doesn’t feel good to be treated like shit because you’re a woman, so you should know that it doesn’t feel good to be treated like shit because you’re a queer person. Women and gay men are actually the most natural allies that can exist because we don’t need or want anything from each other. It can be the purest form of friendship because I’m not trying to get into your pants, and you’re not trying to get into mine. What’s left? Pure, true friendship, and I think that it’s really time we hold hands if we’re going to push it over.