Ghazal Amin is a B.A. student in Stockholm majoring in International Relations. That’s not her full name, but she doesn’t want her classmates to be able to google her and find out about her other life as a DJ. Actually, right now she’s on a break from school — it might be a forever break, but don’t tell her mom. I try to practice due diligence and ask Ghazal if her mom will see this interview, to which she responds “hahahaha no.” I also make sure she’s definitely okay with leaving in the part where she calls her dad a fuccboi: “Hahahaha yeah def.” I channel her parents, anyway, and edit out the parts about weed and sex, despite being frequent and important topics in my ongoing conversation with her. “My mom has literally nothing to brag about at the mehmooni,” Ghazal jokingly laments. A mehmooni is a gathering of Iranian parents where they drink tea and brag about their children. Of course, Ghazal’s mom has plenty to brag about. For instance, her daughter is the co-founder of a globally influential record label called STAYCORE that releases experimental club music from artists across Europe.
For Bidoun, Ghazal has created a music mix that blends sexy dembow-inflected songs from Sweden’s varied diasporic youth with moody instrumentals from her label-mates mobilegirl and Dinamarca. It is better by far than any mix ever made by any of the children of her mom’s friends.
Tiffany Malakooti: Were you born in Sweden?
Ghazal: No, but I moved here when I was about four months old, around 1988/89. I was born in Thailand. My dad was already in Sweden; it was me, my mom, and my brother. So I guess I’m Swedish; I grew up here.
TM: What was your family doing in Thailand?
G: They had been political activists in Iran. They fled because there was an order on my dad for… what do you call it, edam, when they want to kill you? He was a wanted man. So first he went to the Soviet Union — he thought they would be nice to him because he was a communist, but they sent him back to Iran [laughs] and he had to go to Turkey. He traveled around Europe trying to find a UN office that would give him refugee status. He was able to travel because he was one of the last surviving senior members of his organization, and they wanted him to continue doing political work from abroad. They basically gave him the whole budget just to survive.
You know when Iranian parents tell you their story and some shit just doesn’t add up? [Laughs] You’re left with so many questions but there’s just no way to get answers. Like why did he really go to so many countries? I have no idea. He popped over to Asia, he went to Japan and some other places, and he ended up in Thailand. Meanwhile, my mom was in India. When she went to the travel agent to buy a ticket to Thailand, the agent was a Parsi woman who said, “You’re one of us,” and upgraded her to first class. So my mom and my brother flew from India to Thailand as refugees, flying first class.
They lived in Thailand for two years, where my dad was, you know, hunger striking and whatnot. [Laughs] In the end we never got refugee status — my dad just bought fake papers and went to Sweden. He apparently met a woman at the train station and somehow charmed his way into getting the whole family brought over. That’s how we got to Sweden. [Laughs]
TM: It is funny with parents, how you grow up with a certain story and then you get to an age where you begin to repeat that story to people and they ask questions and you suddenly realize that maybe the story doesn’t fully make sense…
G: [Laughs] They’re kind of borderline bedtime stories. When my dad told them, they were so dramatic — there was always blood, the moon, a mountain, a sword — all these keywords. It took me so long to understand that half of these stories, they’re just lies! There wasn’t a mountain, a horse, and a sword in every fucking story, it’s just not possible. [Laughter]
TM: What about when your mom was telling the stories?
G: She doesn’t like to talk about the escape itself because it was so hard on her — she was alone with my brother, and then alone again when she gave birth to me — in my dad’s stories, he barely had kids. [Laughs] My mom’s stories are about details. Like, I know exactly what pregnancy cravings she had, but I never get a full picture of my mom. She doesn’t want to think about the full picture. She never wanted to leave Iran, she wanted to chill — they weren’t trying to kill her, they wanted to kill my dad. [Laughs]. My mom is way smarter but she’s low-key, she’s not into bragging and stuff. My dad is a total airhead fuccboi. He’s always so fucking happy. He just loves life and thinks he’s the smartest and is always taking up all the space. So I got a lot of fake stories from my dad, and not that many stories from my mom. I’ve somehow connected the two and talked to my aunts and other relatives and I think I’ve kind of put together something that might be close to the truth. But I don’t think I’ll ever get all the answers. I’ve given up.
TM: Where in Sweden did you guys end up living?
G: My dad took us to the north of Sweden to this small small village called Hofors, where nothing ever goes on. He didn’t know that — in Iran there’s stuff going on all over the place. But it was horrible — super-white, no immigrants, everyone was just racist. Our neighbors were like… Nazis. Just crazy openly racist. I think there were some Bosnians on the other side of town — because they arrived in the 1990s, as well — but I never saw them. Most immigrants would leave after a while. We were the only ones that stayed! [Laughs]
TM: How long did you stay?
G: I lived there until I was twelve, though my dad left us and went to Stockholm when I was little. I would go there every summer, so at least I had some sense of the outside world. Seeing people of color, or just seeing people. [Laughs]
When I was twelve my mom and I moved to Gothenburg, which is the second biggest city in Sweden. I lived there alone with my mom for five years — those were definitely the best years. She started studying and got a better job, and I was just being a teen, wilding out on all the options. What blew my mind the most was that in Gothenburg I could be friends with people outside of school. Back in Hofors there were only two schools, and each class had twenty kids and those kids were it, you know? When I visited my dad in Stockholm I saw that there were other kids, even if I couldn’t be friends with them. But just seeing that they existed made me go back and look at my friends and think, “If I had a choice, I would choose none of you.” [Laughs]
TM: And there were more immigrants in Gothenburg?
G: Oh, way more. But we still lived in a pretty Swedish area. We were renting this apartment from this Iranian guy, and Iranians in Sweden are known for trying to avoid being grouped with other immigrants. They always live in Swedish areas.
TM: God, what is up with that?
G: They’re so posh, they think they’re above everyone else. They think they’re better. And the thing is, it works — the white Swedish people do treat us a little better than other immigrants.
TM: It’s so funny, because Sweden is supposedly where all the left-wing Marxist diaspora went.
G: But they’re still middle- and upper-class! They look at all the other immigrants and they’re kinda like, “But wait, you guys are trash, you’re just fleeing some war. You didn’t bring Marx with you.”
TM: I’m trying to get a picture of how things have changed since you were growing up in Sweden in the 1990s.
G: Oh my God, it’s so much better now. Oof. There was a big music awards show yesterday, and all the artists that won were some type of immigrant. The guy that won artist of the year, Jireel — he’s from Angola, so he spoke Portuguese to the camera during his acceptance speech. No one gives a fuck anymore. It’s like, Oh hey Swedish people, you guys are still here? [Laughs]
TM: So “Swedish people” is synonymous with “white people”?
G: Yeah. Cause we don’t consider ourselves Swedish. Well, we do, but they don’t consider us Swedish. I try in Swedish to use the word vit, “white,” but it’s so hard. People don’t like hearing that here. It’s not how people talk.
TM: Is there a derogatory term for white people in Sweden? Like in Canada, people used to say “caker,” short for mangia-cake, “cake-eater,” because the term came from Italian-Canadians. Sort of like calling someone Wonder Bread — Anglo-Canadians were perceived as so vanilla and sterile they would just eat plain nothing cakes.
G: [Laughs] That’s so funny. We just say suedi, like how you would say “Swedish” in Arabic or Persian, but it has negative connotations. We have lots of Turkish slang. People say benim for “it’s me,” gari or guzz for “girl.” Lots of Arabic, too: yalla, khalas, tamam, shoo…
TM: That’s so cute.
G: It is so cute! The Swedish context is very different. I forget sometimes, until I hear and speak with others.
TM: How do you guys relate to other parts of Europe, though? Especially France, in terms of the music?
G: I think in a way the French are the role models. It’s really similar, but things have been going on there for a longer time — in society and in music — so we can kind of see our future in France. Which is pretty sad and dark, because the situation is not good!
TM: Let’s talk about the mix you made for us. It seems like most of the artists on here are really young?
G: Yeah, really young, all of them. Like seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. They’re doing, you know, trap and rap or whatever, but the way they’re making and singing their melodies… they’re very, like, homeland melodies, you know? This kind of melancholy-feeling [makes melisma noise] voice that you don’t hear from other artists in the same genre.
TM: Yeah, there are extra micro-melodies in some of the songs in parts that wouldn’t ordinarily have them — like in that track, “Nina.”
G: Yeah, how Iranian is that? [Laughs] It’s so diaspora. The guy on that song, Meron, is Habesha, from Eritrea, but the style just works for so many different places. Everyone recognizes it except the white people, but they like it anyway cause it’s danceable.
If you listened to the catalogs of these artists, you would be surprised by my mix — the songs I’ve picked are definitely their most “ethnic” ones. But I didn’t pick them just because they’re ethnic, it’s because I really like them. I think that’s where they shine. The other songs are more traditional rap and trap and they just don’t seem as good to me.
TM: We have to talk about the whole reggaeton phenomenon. Why is it such a popular rhythm among Iranians and Middle Eastern people? Why is it the global dance sound now?
G: [Laughs] This guy at the Fader, I forget his name, some important guy [musicologist Adam Harper] — he wrote this… I don’t what it’s called in English, like a piece where he’s just speculating, just writing from his thoughts cause his thoughts are so important —
TM: A think piece!
G: Okay yeah, that — he wrote this think piece about how there’s a belt around the globe, from Mexico over the Caribbean to North Africa and into the Middle East, and how along this belt there’s this consistent rhythm, which he calls tresillo.
TM: Like shish o hasht in Iranian music. A 6/8 time signature.
G: In Swedish it’s baktakt. The backbone of reggae. Like one beat is in half or whatever.
A couple of years ago I was with my cousins in Iran driving to a wedding and we were all trying to turn up but all of my music was a bit too Top 40 for them — but then I accidentally put on a reggaeton song and my aunt just immediately starting dancing. I looked around and my cousins were all dancing, too, so I just kept going. They did not give a fuck that it was in Spanish — it was just familiar, and they knew how to move themselves to it. Rhythms made for dancing from your hips, not your arms. Lower body dancing. It just works for them.
I remember the article got a lot of shit, though. He named all these labels that were part of this trend and he mentioned STAYCORE as one of them. People felt he was trying too hard to make his term catch on, that he was trying to give one name to something that was from too many different places.
TM: What do you think, though?
G: I don’t really remember what his whole theory was but it’s definitely something I’ve thought about before. Just from my own experience, you know — why am I so drawn to these rhythms? When I met Cristian [Dinamarca], who is from Chile, we were somehow intersecting on these same types of beats. He made this song that was kind of inspired by a Kurdish wedding song, and it made sense to me. This was at a time when people were discovering the term “cultural appropriation” — why am I doing air quotes as if it doesn’t exist? — but [laughs] I have a hard time applying that term among immigrants in Sweden because if Swedish people equals white people, then what are we? We don’t have a common identity. Our main identity is in relation to what we are not, and we are not Swedish. That’s a pretty weird way of bonding.
TM: It happens. I think reggaeton fixes the problem of Iranian music not having enough bass…
G: [Laughs] Yes. I remember when I was growing up, the Spanish sound was so popular. Like, Gypsy Kings or whatever.
TM: My dad took me to Gypsy Kings concerts twice when I was a kid! I always say Gypsy Kings are the most popular Iranian band.
G: Yes! My uncle used to blast them super-loud and we would all dance and sing in fake Spanish. It was my happiest, most best music. All those big Arab pop stars did those collaborations — I feel like there was like a preexisting palate for Spanish-language music. So when reggaeton came along — that rhythm, plus Spanish? — it just went off.
TM: I love that Shakira song, “Ojos Así.”
G: There was that really famous song with the woman singing in Arabic and the man in Spanish…
TM: Hmm. There was that group with the Israeli singer? Alabina?
G: Yes! [Laughs] That’s the one I mean!
TM: “Ya Habibi Yalla.” [Laughs]
G: That song was so big. [Laughs]
TM: We would listen to that album in the car with my mom a lot.
G: Well, there you go! [Laughs] I can’t believe she’s Israeli — I’m so conflicted right now. [Laughs]
Ibbe — Amira
Dilly D x Kilber — Mala
Dinamarca — Dino
Lorik ft Chapo Lab — Lyssna
Sega Bodega — Ghost
Z.E — Caramel
Firaasbeats — Sa7Bi
Aden x Asme — Skiner
Dinamarca — ??
Gee Dixon — La Madrina
Blastah — Too Many Years
Icekiid — Jalousi
DJ Nervoso — Ah Ah
Mobilegirl — Forest Coloss
Mo, Aden & Asme — Jet
Merca Bae — Said Riddim
Meron & Donyanah — Nina
Sean Paul & Migos — Body (Instrumental)
Ozzy — Askungen
DJ Veneno — Falso Amor
Ricky Rich & ARAM Mafia — Habibi