I love Zayn Malik with the fire of a thousand suns, and his hair is really dreamy and his cheekbones are beautiful and he means a lot to me. One of my very good friends recently got me a Zayn doll and he’s hanging out in my living room, on one side the awkward adolescent doing publicity shots and on the other side the grown-up stubble-y guy with magical hair.
I’ve had to explain to some of my friends why I love him so much and the honest answer has been it’s the fact that he’s Pakistani and he’s Muslim, but he doesn’t pretend that those identity categories make up the whole of his existence.
In some ways that’s a bit of an obvious thing to say but, in other more complicated ways, that says a lot about the fact that being South Asian, being Pakistani, being Muslim and living in Britain has been heavily politicised. You can’t look sideways at someone without the intense weight of the politics of your actions, the politics of your thought, and the politics of your existence intervening – despite the fact that you’re just trying to live your best life and listen to Zayn softly singing about bad bitches.
Anything he does feels important because he’s living without seeming to be torn apart by the apparent contradictions of his “identity categories.” As a Muslim (however devout you are, given the volatile nature of contemporary Islam there’s nothing you can do to divorce yourself from the culture of Islam if you happen to be born into it) and/or Pakistanis living in the diaspora it often feels like you have to be hyper aware of your own actions, as well as expecting hyper-awareness from others about your life choices, cultural choices, and any choices you live out in the public sphere.
That’s why it’s unbelievably refreshing to see Zayn make his own music and his own artistic choices, he’s going ahead and getting stupid tattoos and singing about how much he loves sex when brown boys are depicted as sexually repressed beasts that are simultaneously undesirable and incapable of sexual maturity. And yet, even if you put aside the windows-media-player style graphic effects in the Pillowtalk video, there he is owning the fact that sex is fun and enjoyable, that he is desirable and desired. That by itself speaks volumes, and it means so much to see a brown guy embracing his various identities but keeping it at that – identities that avoid being nothing, whilst still not being everything.
He is one of very few Pakistani/South Asian/Muslim celebrities that white people have embraced too; however far we come in our racial politics, until white people notice it, in mainstream media it’s not really considered a “thing.” Zayn represents someone who transcends white supremacy in having appeal across cultures – white girls are noticing that this guy can be hot, like, international boy-band machine hot and it has been really weird to see. It’s far more normal to see brown guys being treated like shit by white people, being degraded and encountered as sex depraved whilst being sexless and undesirable. The juggernaut of One Direction humanised him enough for white girls to see him as desirable and KABOOM (halal style, obvs) suddenly this brown, Muslim guy was fanciable, he had mass sex appeal, like someone flicked a switch and made him be seen as an option.
The amazing Fariha Roisin (here’s her article on Zayn, do yourself a favour and read it) has already covered the intricacies of how important Zayn is, and the intelligence he’s demonstrated when faced with questions of identity and “culture clash.” It’s no hyperbole when I say, as a British Muslim, that it usually feels fucking impossible to make people understand that there is no such “culture clash,” that you can exist without having to account for your existence. Maybe it’s giving too much credit to Zayn to project all this stuff about identity politics onto him, but I also feel like he’s given various interviews recently about what type of artist he wants to be, what he expects of himself and what he sees from fans to recognise that he’s just doing what he fucking well wants to.
That feels valuable. That feels like something powerful, something that not everyone is going to understand, but it doesn’t have to be universal to be meaningful. Identity becomes a fractured, polarising thing when it comes to being Pakistani and Muslim and British, before the person at the centre is even allowed to get involved. If anything, the person is usually lost and when I see Zayn just doing his best life, it feels like I can chill, we can all chill and wait to see what he’s going to do next, because whatever he does, he’ll do as a person that can’t be contained by restrictive labels, only by the labels he chooses.