Music artist Somaya on creating the representation we want to see
January 7, 2021
The things that are closest to our hearts, can be the very things that people resonate with the most.
By Samia Abbasi & Renuka
“Hey Dad, can I use some of your cologne?” As someone starting to shift their physical expression to align with their identity, Somaya was unsure about how their father would react. To their surprise, their father replied, “Yeah, this one is my favorite!” without hesitation. Later on, when Somaya asked their dad to borrow a tie, they were still nervous about his reaction. When they put on the tie, all he said was, “Oh my god...You need to learn to tighten it better.” And he fixed Somaya’s tie for them.
Before Somaya openly identified as Genderqueer,
These small but powerful encounters with their dad were important in affirming their gender expression.
With their powerful music and humorous content on social media (intriguing Instagram Story polls included!), Somaya (@somayamusic) is an Indian-American music artist who should be part of your go-to music playlist. They have over 3,300 monthly listeners & counting on Spotify and over 23,300 followers on TikTok. We sat down with Somaya to talk about their music pathway, what ‘being your own idea of representation’ means to them, and their ongoing fashion journey.
Q1. Tell us about yourself, Somaya! How did you start becoming a singer & songwriter?
My name is Somaya, and I use any pronouns. I am a singer, songwriter, and I’m very passionate about LGBTQ+ issues, South Asian issues, and the intersection of those things. I’m just trying to bring more representation for people who might feel alone, the way that I used to feel alone and use art to do that. My latest single comes out today (January 7th)! It’s called “Are U Really Having a Good Time?” and you can listen to it here. I’m really excited about it, because it’s the first song that I helped with the production side of it.
Growing up, I was a typical Desi kid; when I was 4 years old, I was like, “I'm going to be a dentist!” Around middle school, I started experiencing challenges with mental health and discovered my Queerness. Music has always been part of my life in the way that a parent makes it a part of your life—taking piano lessons, things like that. I began playing guitar around age 13.
I started to write songs as an outlet for all the feelings I had around my Queerness and mental health.
It became a source of healing for me. I realized that other people also liked the music I was making, and it made them feel a sense of healing as well. So, I was like: “Well, if I love it, and people like what I'm doing. Why not pursue this as a career?” I started putting out videos on YouTube, writing more songs, and performing a little bit here and there. When I got to college, I released my first album. It's been a really cool journey to get to where I am now, because it’s the first time I've actively involved my Queerness in my music. They used to be two separate things, but combining them has been a really rewarding experience. It's actually made more people relate to the music I create.
Q2. What’s your creative process when writing music? What inspires you?
My creative process is: lyrics first, music second, and then recording it on my computer and collaborating with other people. The music that I have out so far I didn’t produce, but the music that I have coming out in the coming months is a collaboration between me and a producer.
As you know, Queerness is something I talk about in my music, but I also incorporate general feelings about life and relationships with other people into my music. I'm a very lyric-oriented person; I usually start by writing down words, and then, I sit down with my guitar or piano, and go from there. I usually will write one line down in my Notes app, and later come back to it to build off that one line. A lot of times, surprisingly, I'm inspired by things like TV shows and movies, because you get so engaged in them that they start to feel like your actual life. I've written songs about couples that I love on TV shows, but I’d write it from the first person perspective, so people would ask, “Who did you write that about?” and I’d be like, “Oh, it's not about me!”
photo credit: Somaya
Q3. How did you become comfortable opening up about your identities online and with your music?
When I began making and releasing music, there weren't a lot of openly Queer artists and even fewer openly Queer Artists of Color. I was told to keep those things separate—that if I talked about my Queerness or being Indian, people wouldn't relate to my music or people wouldn't listen to it.
I was also told not to show my face on social media and things like that. A combination of things happen next: 1.) I grew more confident just existing in myself, as myself, and 2.) I met more Queer and Trans People of Color, and they gave me the confidence that even if I don't do well professionally with my music, I will still have them in my corner. 3.) I got to a point where I thought to myself,
“I'm constantly complaining and saying I want more representation. But I have the opportunity to be my own representation as an artist.”
People often say that they can’t relate to Queer music. Well, I grew up Queer and listened to straight music, and I found a way to relate. I grew up watching white people on TV, and I found a way to relate. So, I started showing my face more on social media and included my Queerness in my music. People began messaging me saying that they related to me and my music even more.
They saw a more human side of me, rather than the perfectly constructed version of me that the media would want to portray.
Q4. How did you start creating videos on TikTok? How have you navigated social media as a Queer Desi?
I started off creating TikToks as a joke. A few summers ago, I would sometimes record things on Snapchat, save it to my phone, and send it to my friends. And they’d say, “Hey, this is good! You should post it!” When the pandemic happened, I had more free time and made TikToks just for fun about my experiences and Queer culture. And here we are!
The first person who I came out to was my therapist. Outside of that, my family was the first people I came out to, because of that particular fear that if I posted about my Queerness on social media, someone would send it to them. I publicly came out on Instagram. Funnily enough, Aunties and others did call my parents, saying, “Did you see what Somaya posted?” and my parents were just like, “Yeah, we already know!”
photo credit: Somaya
As I continued making more content about my identities, more people said things like, “You talk too much about Queerness.” We see Desi creators talking about being Desi all the time, and people are like, “YES, Brown representation!”
But, suddenly, when it’s Queer and Brown representation, people say, “Why do you have to talk about it so much?”
And that’s exactly why we should talk about LGBTQ+ experiences more. We need to get to a point where it’s like, “Yes, this is representation,” without so much of the added criticism. There’s another layer to that where cishet creators talk about being cishet without actually realizing they're talking about it. They’d say things like, “I watched The Bachelor last night!” and it’s just like: Yeah, do you realize that’s straight culture?
Q5. What advice do you have for LGBTQ+ South Asian people who are exploring their identities?
So, the biggest advice I always give people is:
Focus on what will make you feel good, rather than focusing on picking a label.
A label doesn't define you. It just helps you have language for other people to describe you. Labels can be empowering, but the main purpose of a label is for other people to categorize you. So, I think when it comes to gender identity especially, it's very important to do what feels good, even if it's just in the comfort of your room or house at first. I started wearing boxers without telling people. I would do drag makeup every now and then. Those things made me feel good. When I first started doing these things, I wasn't wondering, “Am I Trans?” I was just doing them because they felt good.
I, unfortunately, didn’t have many resources to look to as a Queer Desi person. So, I’d follow a lot of cishet Brown influencers and follow Trans white influencers. Now, to have more Queer Desi representation will be much more helpful for younger generations. I definitely suggest people look up hashtags on social media like #QueerDesi or #DesiGay, or whatever that is most representative of the identities they hold.
Q7. What makes up your style? Who is your fashion + beauty role model?
My style is whatever makes me feel good and comfortable. One thing that I used to always struggle with when going to clothing stores was like, “Oh, this looks so good on the mannequin. It will look good on me.” But, no, that’s not necessarily true, haha. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing the prettiest outfit in the world, you’re not going to look good in it unless you feel comfortable in it.
I would wear dresses sometimes in high school, and I would be like, “This is supposed to be what makes me look good, but why don’t I look good?” In the beginning of college, I wore a lot of snapbacks; there were some with embarrassing phrases like “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.” And that didn’t quite feel right. Then, I switched it up by wearing red lipstick to class and that didn’t feel right either. So, I started wearing whatever I felt like wearing that day.
Wearing what I want to wear if nobody was going to see me has helped me discover my style.
Now, I’ll literally wear joggers and a T-shirt and feel 10x hotter than when I wore a dress.
Chella Man (@chellaman) is a Genderqueer artist and content creator that I look up to. What I love about Chella Man is that he is so comfortable in his masculinity and the masculine parts of himself, such that if he wears feminine clothing, he seems so comfortable in whatever he’s wearing. I haven't reached that point, but I think it's really inspiring to think that one day I could. I'm still in the stage where I only feel comfortable in non-feminine clothing. But the fact that he is so comfortable exploring and letting people into that journey is definitely something I look up to.
My dad is super sweet and supportive of me. He wears a lot of bright colors, patterns, and things like that. Unfortunately, a lot of cis Men of Color aren’t really comfortable with that. So, I’ll often go to my dad’s closet and just try on different things. Having him in my corner has been really important in the process of discovering my own style.
Q8. What would you never wear again, what can you never live without, and what are you growing into becoming comfortable with?
Never wearing again: I do want to say that I’m a ‘never say never’ kind of person, but at this moment, I don’t see myself wearing a skirt again. The few times I’ve worn a skirt or dress, I would never look comfortable.I also don't see myself—at this point—wearing any sort of bright lipstick. But, who knows, maybe the day will come where I'm comfortable with that.
Can’t live without: Aside from my headphones, I usually wear these little hoop earrings. Those earrings make me feel really cool, because it's a little bit of feminine energy, but in a way that’s often shown associated with a men or a gay men. And the second thing would probably be my glasses. I’ve had glasses since middle school, and I never really felt comfortable wearing them. I always used to wear contacts, but I got my current pair of glasses about a year and a half ago and I really liked them. I wear them very often now.
photo credit: Somaya
In terms of makeup, kajal is something that helps me feel like my best self. It’s pretty common for Desi kids, but kajal was the first kind of makeup I started using. It isn’t always considered makeup, which is interesting. I remember this one time, I told this girl, “Oh my god, this is the first time I’m seeing you wearing makeup!” and she said, “I’m not wearing makeup, I’m wearing kajal!” And I was like, “Okay, my bad, haha.” I wore kajal almost every day in high school, and now, even though I don’t wear it every day because of the pandemic, I still wear it pretty often.
Kajal has a gender neutral feel, and it enhances the features you already have.
When cis men wear eyeliner, I think they look gorgeous. I’m surprised it hasn’t become more of a trend.
Becoming comfortable with: Wearing boxers v. underwear that’s usually associated with femininity. I never knew you could be excited about buying underwear—until now. I could also see myself get into wearing rings. I always considered them feminine, but now, I've found rings that aren’t from Claire’s, aha. Just a simple band is great or I got a ring I really like from India that has an Om symbol on it.
End Note: Onward toward a representation that looks and feels like us.
Our conversation with Somaya reminds us that the boundaries of representation are ever-shifting: an evolution of vivid specificity, of silent understandings spotlighted, of the ideas & identities read between the lines that can now be the titles, the main characters, the award-winners. Gatekeepers aside,
We as consumers and creators get to advocate for & uplift the representation we want to see.
Somaya also reminds us that while creating vulnerable storytelling and art can be challenging (the voice in our head that says Why would they listen to me?), just one person can feel less alone in the world because of your art. That’s a beautiful thing. “Don’t forget to Take a Bow.”
Cover photo credit: Sophie Kietzmann, @sophiekietzmann