Former One Direction singer Zayn has become the only male U.K solo artist to debut at number one with their first album. Ever.
Think what you want about the music itself, Zayn’s current status as a solo artist is an undeniably huge achievement. It is especially so, considering the fact that as a young, mixed-race (Pakistani-English, perhaps making him even more of a target for racial abuse), Muslim man he has faced a hefty lot of racism and Islamophobia, as well as equally hurtful criticism and rejection from within his own culture, throughout his entire career.
The targeting of Malik over the years has included (but not been limited to): blaming him for the 9/11 attacks in New York through song; suggesting he was the Boston Marathon Runner in the name of comedy; accusing him of using his position as a 1D member to “pimp Islam,” and being sent a barrage of death threats over his 2014 “free Palestine” tweet. On the other side of the fence, he has come under attack and in some cases been rejected as a Muslim for being a pop star, and lifestyle choices including drinking alcohol and donning tattoos.
In any case, the pressure Malik has been under throughout his short adult life -which he has come into under an immense spotlight- makes his debut solo album Mind of Mine evermore significant and a wonderful accomplishment to behold. Regardless of what critics and commentators might think of it musically, having a mixed-race, Muslim person top the Billboard charts is an incredible step towards having a more multicultural popular music landscape. One would hope that this in-turn helps to quell the intense xenophobia and racism faced by people of culturally diverse backgrounds every single day. Just as one would hope that Malik’s appearance in US Vogue with Gigi Hadid (and indeed her status as a supermodel in her own right), a Palestinian woman, would lead to wider inclusion in the fashion industry and wide acceptance of different types of beauty.
Having never (in recent years, at least) made a secret of my adoration of pop music, I will state right here and now that I was never a fan of One Direction. When One Direction exploded I was outside of their target demographic and never heard any of their music beyond What Makes You Beautiful being used as an ironic dance-floor filler at the club at 3am on a Sunday morning.
However, when it was announced last year that Zayn Malik, both the oldest member and the only person of colour in the group was leaving, I started paying attention. Were we about to experience a Timberlake Transition from popular boy band to serious musician, or was he sincerely retreating from the spotlight as he claimed to be doing so? As it played out, we appeared to find Zayn somewhere in the middle. He took control of his own image almost immediately when he changed his hair and clothing and he started working with Naughty Boy and a select few others. Still, it wasn’t until January this year that Zayn released an official single, PILLOWTALK. As expected, Zayn, who doesn’t fuck with indie-rock, opted to make his mark as a solo artist with a slow-burning R&B jam.
With PILLOWTALK came the predictable comparisons to 2015’s comeback kid Justin Bieber. Certainly, the similarities are there: they both have songs that are explicitly about sex, they’re both delving into a more R&B-influenced sound, they have (it would seem) more control over their own image and they’ve both moved on from tween sensations to being taken more seriously by a wider audience. But one might argue that it is there that their similarities end.
For one, Bieber’s Purpose was feature-laden; Mind of Mine has but one feature with Kehlani (who is also notably of a mixed-background), titled wRoNg. For another, with this album, Zayn joins the very short list of those before him who have made it to the top of the charts as both part of a group and as a solo artist. That list features but three other names: Beyoncé (Destiny’s Child), Gwen Stefani (No Doubt) and Justin Timberlake (*NSYNC). Additionally, while Bieber has faced his fair share of vitriol, it was completely different to that faced by Zayn. Finally, where Bieber received immense critical praise for the 18-track Purpose and the way it matched up with efforts to re-route his image, Zayn’s Mind of Mine has thus-far been discussed as a tepid and directionless offering (pun unintended). What they naysayers seem to miss, however, is the cultural significance of having Zayn occupying the number one spot on the Billboard chart.
Just as Miguel‘s What’s Normal Anyway illustrates, growing up as a mixed-race child was at times difficult for Malik. As a mixed person myself, I can relate and find it not only incredibly warming, but nothing short of inspiring to see and hear Malik owning and celebrating his mixed-heritage. Just as Halsey, a bi-sexual, mixed-race woman who is open about her struggles with mental illness has become somewhat of a pop darling in her own right. Just as we need diversity in film and literature, we need diverse pop-stars, and it seems as though we are finally starting to get more of them.
To sing an entire track in Urdu and have it be one of, if not the standout on the album, is immense. INTERMISSION: fLoWer is significant on so many levels, despite the few reviews which have dismissed it as being a track that simply throws around a “foreign flavour” over the top of some handpicked guitar. Not only is this where Malik’s vocals truly shine as they rarely were able to in One Direction, but the song doesn’t feel as though it is a purposeful exercise in “being different” – rather, Zayn is being true to himself, as he explained in an interview with The Fader: “I would never be trying to influence anything or try to stamp myself as a religious statement or portrayal of anything. I am me. I’m just doing me.” Something he was prevented from doing as part of One Direction.
Producer and co-writer Malay Ho (perhaps most well-known for his work on Frank Ocean‘s Channel Orange) said that he related to Zayn as a person born to an Asian father and Caucasian mother, and that they bonded over the similarities shared in being of mixed-heritage as they recorded. Flower according to Ho was “inspired by his father’s culture… He knows how to sing like that and he’s always been able to do it” but he never did. That was until one day when Ho was playing around with a new guitar during a writing session, Malik simply picked up the mic and tracked that whole thing in one take. “I was just blown away. I didn’t know he could sing like that,” says Ho. “Afterward, he told me he was in a super spiritual place, and that the saying is something one of his family members had told him that had always stuck to him.” – “Jab tak is mohabbat ke phool na khilay / Tab tak is dill ko sukoon na miley,” roughly translated via The New York Times, means, “Until the flower of this love has blossomed / This heart won’t be at peace.”
Despite all the criticism, racism and Islamphobia he has endured, Zayn has managed to sell 157,000 units of his first solo album, debut at number one and maintain a fiercely loyal fan-base. Those who believe the only way to like Mind of Mine is if you are imagining yourself rolling around in bed with Zayn are over-simplifying it. Right now, our pop music charts are being dominated by someone of mixed-race heritage, who is Muslim and who grew up in a working-class environment. Zayn is in a spotlight so often occupied by white singers, representing himself in a way he was unable to before due to any number of factors. In a world where bigotry is very quick to rear its ugly head, that is precisely why Mind of Mine and Zayn matter.