I’m a first-generation American raised by a family of Iranian-Jewish immigrants who fled from war and religious extremism in 1970s Iran. These are the incredible people who taught me about questioning the vast universe like the Zoroastrians, stimulating our insatiable senses like Rumi, protecting and defending ourselves the way the kings and queens before us did.
About this time every year, my brother and I literally jump through flames to celebrate the Spring Equinox/Iranian New Year with our family. We do this to burn away the impurities and struggles of the year behind us so that we can approach the new year as a changed person with a clean slate. Though leaping through flames is eye-catching and fun (slightly dangerous), it comes and goes; as an act is just a moment in time. But what the act symbolizes lives beyond time. The symbolism is what remains in our psyches. What we carry with us after those flames have been doused is rebirth and growth; improvement and evolution. What we internalize builds the lens that we see through.
So when my community tried instilling positive values into us; self-love, confidence, and self-respect were washed somewhere in there. My flame-jumping partner and I absorbed many of the same lectures, however, my brother and I were somehow being given different lenses to see through. Questioning the universe was purely masculine, stimulating our senses was part of the male-experience; feeling and reacting to the world, defending ourselves from our environment was not permitted for everyone. The self-love we were taught was different. Mine came with restrictions.
“You’re stupid if you talk with boys. You do yourself a disservice by ignoring boys. You don’t respect others if you’re too outspoken. You don’t respect yourself if you don’t have an opinion. You clearly don’t love yourself when you show that much skin, but you clearly don’t love yourself if you’re hiding in your clothes. You’ll bother your fragile mind if you ask too many questions. People walk over you if you act fragile and don’t ask enough questions. Be fragile, men like that. Be confident, men like that. You don’t want a husband? Clearly you don’t want to be happy. Be simple, no one likes drama. Be complex, everyone likes a mystery. Don’t even try to stand up against men. You have to stand up for yourself or things will never change. Be beautiful, talented, humble and poised, intelligent but quiet; have wide hips for child baring, buy clothes to hide those wide hips; be self-confident but submissive, self-respecting but subjugated, desired by all men but untouched by a single one.”
Do all of these things: you will achieve self-love nirvana.
I was going to explode. I was pushing 12-years-old and I didn’t care at all about what people thought of me. I was made to believe that something was wrong with me because I valued how I felt about myself more than how the community felt about me.
Understandably set in societal norms and their own generational traumas, my parents thought I’d be over the moon about Barbies and boys, when all I wanted to do was play Nintendo and kick people (I was a rambunctious little fire-cracker). They applauded me when I danced and sang to entertain our guests, but not when I entertained conversations about anime and football. I absorbed everything my brother did but would get chastised for enjoying it. A large part of me was being neglected and injured, and even though I later found the roots lied in cultural conditioning, my relationship with myself began to falter. Something was wrong with me – it was my fault.
The denial of my perceived “masculine interests” led me to despise anything perceived as feminine. The guilt and pressure for being unable to satisfy everyone’s fantasies as the perfect Iranian-Jewish lady, stripped me of my identity and own unique relationship with my womanhood. So I kept my mouth shut for fear of being judged as ignorant and naïve, incompliant and radical.
What happened to questioning the vast universe like the Zoroastrians? What happened to stimulating my senses like Rumi? Did they think I had forgotten the stories about the great Persian queens and kings who were all symbols of liberation, tolerance, and knowledge? Remembering what my community had truly taught me… I quit playing their game. I didn’t want to be a pawn in their hypocrisy anymore. As far as I could tell, I was on this planet one time, and society’s thoughts on my “manhood” or “womanhood” was not going to ruin my one chance at enjoying it.
I transformed so drastically that the ones who taught me self-love were resisting my personalized version of it. They taught me self-love was a wonderful thing as long as it abided by their rules, but their rules were doing the opposite of what they intended. And none of this was done to intentionally hurt or suppress me – it was done through a perceived reality that someone else had drilled into my parents and family the way it was being drilled into me.
So I went on an uncomfortable and wild mission to find out who Ashley really was. I had to rediscover her, and when I did… I found a shameless musician.
I built a new world in my self-proclaimed genre, Dark-Pop – and what is Dark-Pop? Well, it’s the understanding that life is always at an imbalance. It will always be dark and it will always be light, but it will never remain one or the other forever so we may as well enjoy both the best we can. That being said, living through the dark parts can sometimes feel like forever, and that journey is more digestible when we have a team that supports us through it; music was always that team for me when other people couldn’t be.
Music taught me to be unapologetic about my positive qualities and to be mindful of the things I’d like to change. Music taught me to embrace all of who I am and not to accept any less than the bar set by my own self-love. Music helped me engage with my unique femininity that I was restlessly trying to escape. My personal journey taught me that loving, accepting and listening to every part of me is what makes my creativity what it is. I can’t deny either side of myself, so I remain true to both; embracing my masculine and feminine sides as one harmonious entity rather than two clashing forces has made me and my work the alluring output that people engage with today. They are as much a support system to each other as I believe we should be as a race.
One of the most empowering songs I have written yet is a song called “Like I Do.” “Like I Do” is the declaration that “if you are not going to love me the way I deserve to be loved (and I know what that looks like now) you can keep walking.” As far as I know, I am on this Earth only once, and I don’t have time to waste on negativity and toxicity when I can be using that time to study the vast universe like the Zoroastrians. Stimulate my insatiable senses like Rumi. So I can strengthen and defend myself and everyone I touch like the beautiful family that raised me. I give myself freedom to explore, I give myself freedom to feel and to transform; all without boundaries or restrictions. If someone wants to join my journey, they’ve gotta love me like I do. Otherwise, “it’s fine.
I know someone cuter than you anyway:”
[Video made by Kayla Kaniel]
Ashley Zarah is an Iranian-American, singer/songwriter and Dark-Pop performer hailing from Los Angeles, CA. Coining the genre Dark-Pop for herself and the characters courageous enough to follow, she is on a mission to teach and heal her generation to speak their truths and enjoy the lives they’ve been given rather than simply surviving them. As if ushering us through an exorcism, Zarah’s dissonant pop brings to light our darkest demons, but not without dancing away her own on stage for the world to see; proving to audiences that no pain is worth the disposal of a life.
Facebook: Ashley Zarah Music
YouTube: Ashley Zarah Music