DEEYAH: "What I was trying to do was draw a line in the sand. Saying enough. But essentially it was about standing up, and claiming myself in some ways and saying no more."
Deeyah has faced a strong backlash, including harassment, assaults and threats since she began performing. After years of trying to dodge these confrontations, she says the song. "What Will it Be?" was the first time she addressed the problem directly.
Deeyah was born Deepika Thataal in Oslo, Norway. Her Pakistani father and Afghani mother are Sunni Muslims. By the time Deeyah was 7, she showed promise as a singer, so her father made some plans.
DEEYAH: "He sat me down and said, 'You know listen, there are two professions that I know of that it only matters how talented you are or how hard you workï¿½where you will not be judged or discriminated against because of your ethnicity your culture or your gender. Those two professions are sports or music, and you know sports I know nothing about, so it's going to have to be music."
She studied with respected teachers from Pakistani and Northern Indian classical traditions. Deeyah was a teenager when she put out two critically acclaimed albums. But some conservative Muslims in Norway did not like the image she was presenting, especially when she showed her uncovered back in a video. Deeyah and her family received threatening phone calls. People spat at her, called her names, and she was attacked at a concert. She decided to leave Norway.
DEEYAH: "It got a point where I couldn't walk down the street without something happening, without some sort of incident taking place. And I just decided that it wasn't worth me putting my family through more of this."
At the age of 19, Deeyah bought a one-way ticket to London. There she released a single with a video called "Plan of my Own."
The video featured Deeyah dancing seductively, and it unleashed outrage from some Muslims in the UK. Deeyah found herself in a familiar position. This time, she decided to move to the US.
Deeyah is now 31. She says the threats and harassment have taken a toll. Her latest album is called Ataraxi, which means the absence of stress of anixiety. It's a collaboration with jazz and electronic musicians. She says it wasn't so much a career move as it was a form of therapy.
DEEYAH: "I just needed to retreat into the music. Just do whatever I felt like, and through music find that peace of mind that I keep losing because of all these external problems."
The first song is called 'Hope' and it features a recording of Deeyah singing on television when she was 7-years-old.
DEEYAH: "The song is actually one of the hymns that Mahatma Ghandi was very fond of. It's basically about peace, it's about coexistence and tolerance and understanding. And you know, a 7 year old singing it in a 7 year old innocent, naï¿½ve, hopeful and also somewhat ignorant way too, I thought was really quite sweet and also quite sad."
On the album, Deeyah draws from the classical training of her youth. She sings mostly in Punjabi and Urdu, her first languages. She also includes a song in Pashto, her mother's language. She ends the album with a song featuring prayers from different faiths including Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The song is called "Oneness."
Deeyah says she doesn't know what's next for her musically. These days she's focused on helping other women, especially young Muslim women.
DEEYAH: "I've had countless e-mails and messages, and letters from girls, who say we really wish we could do what you do, we really want to, but we can't we're not allowed to, or we're not supposed to, or whatever."
Deeyah has launched a project called Sisterhood. She's produced an online compilation of female Muslim singers, rappers and poets from around the world. And she says she's trying to find ways to mentor young artists, to connect them with producers and studios. She says the point is to create a support network.
DEEYAH: "I don't want them to feel what I've had to feel. I don't want them to have to go through some of the things that I've had to go through. The more of us there are, the better and easier this is going to get."
For The World, I'm Andrea Smardon.