If our aspiration is to see reflections of ourselves in the world around us that define us first by our humanity before our identities, then SZA is the embodiment of that dream. We know the Good Days singer through her emotionally raw and achingly open art that has become the captionable battle cry of Gen-Z. Her personal story of growing up in an insular Muslim prep school in New Jersey to becoming a Grammy-nominated global icon has been largely untold.
In her first TikTok Live, SZA joined me to celebrate #MuslimWomensDay on March 27 with an honest chat about her Muslim identity in the face of today’s adversity. Her candor about growing up post-9/11 and struggling to have a strong voice in the midst of anti-Muslim hate is painfully familiar to a young minority generation that is freshly emerging from the Trump era. In her breathtaking journey, she has made an art out of harnessing those experiences and navigating the music industry to reach this moment of complete affirmation in her faith—and feeling of purpose to clear misconceptions about it by simply being herself.
Her openness in this conversation—that even SZA has ‘bad days’ where she feels unworthy—remind me of our shared struggle to embrace the vulnerability of our imperfections, and, most importantly, accept them as the most beautiful parts of who we are.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Transcribed by Nada Alturki.
AMANI: First things first. I think we all want to know: how has the last year been for you?
SZA: I’ve just basically just been losing it and trying to stay a little bit sane — starting therapy, multiple therapists, lots of sound bowling, lots of crying, lots of crying, lots of going to the beach to cry, lots of working out, not even to be, like, fine, but just to stop myself from crying all day. And it definitely works. And a lot of prayer, lots of just really sitting with myself and sitting with Allah and just understanding what is being downloaded to me and just vibing.
It’s just I really was tried on a whole other level of humanity, like becoming a different person and finding out parts of myself that really hurt me that I have to really accept and really get to know. I’ve never spent so much time alone with myself, and I’m really annoying. But, also, I can accept that. That’s just life and getting acclimated with my thoughts and who I am.
I think what healing has looked like for me has been focusing on my meditation, like going in and connecting deep down with everything.
What kind of meditation are you doing?
I see my salaat as meditation. We’re supposed to pray five times a day — I do the best that I can. I can’t say that I catch all of them, but for me, that’s like, the point of that. The purpose of us being asked to pray at the specific times during the day is to be consistent with that connection with ourselves no matter what’s happening around us. Take that break, that time out, to just recenter, remember what’s important and take a deep breath before you say bismillah and dive into the next thing. What about you?
I have a really short attention span and it’s hard to stay still, and sometimes the fact that prayer is verbal — that helps me. When I recite in prayers or am just verbally having that conversation with Allah is the most direct connection that I can think of,sometimes learning how to pray correctly or in the right direction or at the right time. Sometimes I feel like I’m super imperfect and I can’t possibly have any value in spirituality. But I realized that everybody’s journey with God, source, spirit, Allah, whatever you want to call it, is very personal. It’s very direct and it’s very — I don’t know, it’s just super-individualized. So I try to just release the guilt and let whatever natural energy is coming through my mind, and just embrace all the thoughts, all the feelings.
As women of color, we’re so used to people expecting us to carry so much all the time and bear the brunt of what’s happening. We start to think that we’re not worthy of making sure that we are taking care of ourselves.
Self-care is a radical act. Self-care goes against colonialism. It goes against all of it. Treating yourself to anything, applying value to yourself and others that look like you is a radical act. That’s just the truth.
Are you fasting for Ramadan this year?
I don’t see why not unless I’m ill or on my menses! [laughs]
What is the hardest thing for you to fast from during Ramadan?
Umm… Probably [gestures to smoking weed].
You’ve been very outspoken about your experience growing up with a Muslim dad. I’m curious about what your experience has been, especially because the past few years have seen a lot of hate.
For me, Islamophobia really kicked in fresh after 9/11. I am from a small suburban town where people have good intentions, but they’re inherently maybe closed-minded and it’s not their fault. It’s also my personal fear of standing in my truth and standing in my faith and having to be honest about that.
My father went to a mosque on 96th St., which is predominant [inaudible]. and I went to a Muslim prep school in Newark, New Jersey. The experience was very microcosmic, very insulated, very much like you don’t know that no one else is practicing the same thing if you’re Black and in the suburbs because you’re kind of in your bubble. I guess I didn’t realize that things were weird and awkward until I got a lot older. I couldn’t believe the Islamophobia that I was seeing and all of the misinformation, like randomly deciding that I’m oppressed because I’m covering my hair. I’m not oppressed. I think that it’s a privilege to exemplify modesty in its forms and in a closeness to God and to explore different avenues of connection with the human form, with yourself and others. And I feel like it’s very bizarre, sometimes, the general misconceptions that come and go about Islam. Violence has no connection whatsoever.
Literally, it’s the antithesis of Islam. It’s the most peaceful, all-encompassing religion. The easiest way for me to always explain that is like, hey, there’s less confusion in this religion for me because there are no partners, no helpers, no separate deities. There’s just kind of like, follow the niyah (intention). You follow the deen. You look at the direction of the way that people who you respect and admire have lived and the way that’s the full, all-encompassing picture.
It really helped me stay in alignment and feel grounded in the fact that, no, I know what this faith is. I know what it represents. The hate and the strange misconceptions are not a reflection of the way I feel, and that mostly just made me excited to advocate for it and explain. Let me explain. Let me be welcoming. My mother is Christian and she can tell you how my parents have always created space for each other and their thoughts and their faiths and beliefs and have really come together to integrate.
I’ve always felt like, yes, I see the hate. I feel it. I think it’s super ignorant and disgusting, but I’m also really passionate and excited about debunking any misconceptions or just exemplifying what the most beautiful attributes of Islam are, which is peace and love and acceptance of all things and wholeness,and oneness. The one is a very powerful theory.
So many Muslim women have been experiencing increased levels of hate recently.
Getting your hijab snatched off. It’s crazy, it’s so disrespectful. I think about what the lesson could be in that [kind of adversity] because, you know, Allah presents lessons, but is it education? Is it an opening of the heart? Is it acceptance of other people and their confusion?
Have you ever had experiences on the receiving end of that type of hate?
I haven’t been a direct victim of Islamophobia in so long, only because I don’t cover. I’m not being hyper observant and I think that I want to be able to use whatever privilege to educate them so that they don’t do it to other people because it’s disgusting and really ignorant. I’m not grateful that I’m not receiving so much hate. If anything, I just want to really meet the vacuum to help other people who are experiencing it on an everyday level. I wouldn’t even pretend that that is what I’m experiencing and it breaks my heart for everyone in America, in the UK … I don’t even live in Europe, but what I’ve seen of Islamophobia in Europe is really violent and dangerous, and that is heartbreaking beyond.
It’s wild that that’s been a shared experience for so many Muslims.
It’s so wild. On a direct scale, someone threw a brick in my dad’s mosque. And that was very weird. Getting chased home by children at school and getting my hijab snatched is also weird. But you being put in imminent danger because of people assuming from the way you look … It’s a different type of intense. I guess it’s like the same kind of intense that people treat me differently based off of looking like a Black woman. And I really empathize. Even though I’m also Muslim, it’s a different type of targeting when it’s about your aesthetic and your ethnicity, you know what I mean? They’re really not mad at your faith. They’re mad at the way you look and the way you live.
That’s the reason why I feel like so many of our communities really need to be unified, because just like how Black Americans face increased violence because of the color of their skin, something they can’t change, we also see [violence against] people of visible minorities, like what we just saw happen to the Asian American community.
I think most empathy comes from being forced to understand things that are super scary, but fear is what breeds that weird hatred. It’s so hard to break through that door of empathy. But once you do, it’s very much a never-going-back kind of beat, for me.
Do you feel like being Muslim ever impacted your music career or being in the industry?
In the beginning, definitely. Definitely. Because in the beginning, it was super interesting: I had a lot of people telling me what they thought I should be looking like and what I should be dressing like. And for some reason, I didn’t give a fuck, like at all. And I think that’s because my dad really instilled [that it was cool], I felt cool in my overalls and my baggy clothes. Everything that was kind of required [to do differently] felt very fun. All of it felt super natural.
So, by the time I started making music and coming outside, I was like, no, I’m gonna do my little baggy shit. I’m gonna be a little different and not polished or any of that. I didn’t care. I didn’t care because that’s just not what the focus was. I really 100% attribute that to being cool as hell and Muslim.
I love that because everyone always wants to put into a box what a Muslim woman should look like or how she should express herself or how she should sound. The only way that we can take down stereotypes is in the most authentic way. Like you said, just being cool and Muslim and being yourself, not trying to impress anybody and just doing your thing.
I had a fear of even wearing hijab or even being on this live with you because I’m like, wow, am I living correctly? Am I going to embarrass the faith? Do I make the right intention? These are the thoughts in my head, but when I see women like you just being who you are, it’s really comforting.
That makes me so sad and really blows my mind that you would think that you would be embarrassing the faith because you’re not wearing a headscarf or something like that.
It’s not just that. It’s not about me covering. I know that I’m not living so clean. I feel guilty about not praying five times a day, and I feel guilty about being imperfect. And I just feel like it’s such a beautiful religion that I never wanted to blemish it with anything of my own. But that could also be my own personal feelings of imperfection.
Right before we started the live, you even asked me, should I put a headscarf on? I was like, girl, no, come as yourself. None of us should have to feel like we have to change who we are in order to be accepted or to have that spiritual connection that’s just between us and our creator.
One thing that really surprised me that I didn’t know until recently was that you wore a hijab when you were younger. Is that right?
I stopped covering after 9/11 because I was so scared. This was like elementary school, middle school. I regret so much—like, being afraid or caring what people said about me, or in high school feeling like if I didn’t cover all the time that I can’t start covering some of the time. And I did start covering again in high school, and then they were like, “What is this? You don’t live your life properly. You’re not really Muslim. Shut up.” I always let somebody dictate how I was.
I remember the other day even talking to Punch, my manager, and being like, “Oh, I want to wear a hijab. I wonder if I could.” We played Malaysia and Indonesia, and it was really comforting to be able to cover up for those shows. I didn’t feel like anybody would judge me or was going to say that I was being fake. It was just part of the custom, where I’m amongst my own people and they just accepted me as whatever. They were like, cover cause it’s a vibe. You don’t have to be perfect. And I just really love that. I always go back and forth about, like, should I cover? Because I don’t want to be a part-time coverer.
No way. You think about covering?
All the time. I don’t want to be part-time with it. I think about the rest of my life—my lyrics, my music, I’m smoking weed. I’m doing all these things.
Are there Muslim women in your life that you’ve been inspired by?
All the Muslim women in my life are so strong of character. Asiya Muhammed. Ibtihaj Muhammad. I went to high school with both of them. When I looked at Ibty (Ibtihaj) and her sister and their whole family, I just love the way they carry themselves in a quiet confidence. It was magnetic on top of that. It was just so inspiring. It always just made me want to be a better person, be more noble, be serious about keeping my word and like, the way that I honor God. And that also made me feel like, you really can’t say you’re Muslim because you are not living like Ibty and Asia and everyone else because they’re just such amazing women and huge examples of beauty, grace and that dream.
They all inspired me so much in the craziest way. And now you, now that I’m grown. As I’ve grown, now there’s so many people [that are visible] especially on the modeling spectrum. I love the representation I’m seeing. And, you know, everybody gets fetishized, whether we’re Black, Asian, Muslim … But I really have been loving how responsible some of the representation has become for Islam. It’s kind of beautiful.
We have all these amazing Muslim women coming out to the forefront and finally opening up the space for us to not just be the poster face, but also to be heard for what we have to say. I feel like all the credit is due to the amazing work of the Muslim women on the frontlines right now, breaking glass ceilings and knocking down doors so that there’s all these other Muslim women coming in after them. It’s such an exciting time to be alive to witness that.
It’s a very radical time altogether. And I feel like it’s even restructuring the way that I feel like women in Islam are respected and viewed. It’s just powerhouse vibes. it’s so necessary. It’s giving, for me.