A Drive With RIZ LA VIE: Meet The Lebanese-American Artist Behind The Hit ‘Napkins’

Meet RIZ LA VIE, the Lebanese-American artist that is making everyone in tune with their spirituality.

A Drive With RIZ LA VIE: Meet The Lebanese-American Artist Behind The Hit ‘Napkins’

Meet RIZ LA VIE, the Lebanese-American artist that is making everyone in tune with their spirituality.

By

Ameena Qobrtay
Photo - Felix Francisco / Art - Tasneem Sarkez & Shayma Al-shiri

 

It’s rare that music can seep into every aspect of my life as quickly as RIZ LA VIE’s work did. The last time I was this obsessed with a single artist was when I was 14 and exclusively listened to any song by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys (I mean, come on, how can you listen to “Love Is A Laserquest” without thinking it’s the pinnacle of good music?). 

But after the persistent nags from my best friend, the love I had for LA VIE started with a single song – Saturn– and meandered into a whole ocean of obsession. Yes, maybe there’s still some unshakeable residue from my 2014 I’m-not-like-the-other-girls Arctic Monkeys craze. Or maybe I’m just really picky. But I found myself streaming LA VIE despite my best efforts to listen to literally anything else. Doing the dishes, going on my pensive pandemic-induced bike rides, hanging out with the people I was quarantined with – every activity somehow felt less complete without LA VIE’s coos, shouts, screams, and transient voice accompanying me. 

Riz’s music is addictive because of its undeniable authenticity. Streaming Riz is like listening to a roadmap of his soul, and while the exciting beats and different sounds he explores is one of the reasons many of his fans love to stream his work, it’s his lyrics that truly make him one of the most exciting voices of our time. LA VIE’s words reflect the intimacy with which he sees his world, and he conveys this with a noticeable tenderness. 

Ironically – or perhaps completely by fate, as LA VIE’s outlook might suggest –  the Nitetime in Atlanta singer and I spoke as he was driving to Georgia to create more music and at-home videos with friends.

 

Photo - Felix Francisco

 

In between soft curses due to car-merging incidents and cheers after finally reaching Virginia (“Virginia is for lovers, it says on the sign, that’s beautiful!”) the Lebanese Jersey-native spoke about his latest E.P. “Feed.,” activism, and spirituality.

“Feed.” is LA VIE’s latest project, consisting of five glorious songs that span from melancholy to upbeat to even melancholy-er. The sound, which is entirely different from his previous work, acts as a backdrop for a level of lyricism that Riz hasn’t achieved before. 

His She Said music video eerily predicted the future. Complete with a table and chair, tea set, and bustling street, outside dining couldn’t have been better foreshadowed in the video. But the fortune-telling didn’t actually start there. LA VIE talked about how he has been thinking about undergoing a “personal revolution” for months, and that the COVID-19 pandemic and BLM protests show that he was right to think that this year would be a reset. 

Riz wrote “Feed.” about an “internal revolution” and about changes on the personal level. But he said that he was, “blessed and thankful” to release his music while “the world is also going through a much-needed revolution, to make the changes that it needs to make as it is a living organism.” 

While the “She Said” video may or may not have predicted the future, an overall exciting aspect about LA VIE is his carefully-conducted music videos. When asked about them, he said, “I think music videos in general are a completely superfluous art form. I don’t think they need to exist whatsoever. Because music, as an art form, is whole and complete and often elicits a visual response in your mind. But I do think videos are perfect in their ability to add an entire new layer of art on top of art.” 

LA VIE’s obsession with day-to-day life is intoxicating – he described how earlier that morning, while renting a car for the road trip to Atlanta, the rental man gave him a 5% discount and how that example of impact-per-person makes all the difference in life. 

 

Outside of his art, LA VIE is also an agent for change. In addition to donating to different causes, with proceeds from “Feed.” going to the Loveland Foundation, he also encourages people to “speak out if that’s something they felt they had to do.” LA VIE stressed the importance of doing other things outside of donating if you don’t have the means to do so. In addition to sharing information, as he discussed many young people are doing right now, he also suggested that people should, “Spend 20 minutes (every day) educating yourself. I don’t mean to say this facetiously whatsoever, I mean, seriously, go read a book,” noting the importance and gratification of “tactile reading.” 

LA VIE spoke about the horrific August 4 Beirut explosion in a somber follow-up interview. After speaking about donating and wishing peace for all of those affected, LA VIE said, “Our people in Lebanon come from the Phoenicians and we were called Phoenicians because we rise again and again. For centuries and centuries and centuries we’ve been doing this, and we fall to ashes, again and again but we’re known to rebuild and come back stronger than ever before. I feel like that’s our ethos as Phoenicians and as Lebanese people. And I think that’s what we’ll do. I hope that we build a stronger and a more well-rounded, just society.” 

LA VIE is also concerned about an injustice that is rarely discussed but occurs in many Middle Eastern countries: the mistreatment of migrant workers. He made the connection to how although many are rightfully speaking about police brutality and Black Lives Matter, migrant workers from countries in Africa, South Asia, and the Far East are being exploited in Muslim-majority and Arab countries. He spoke about how atrocities like the Beirut explosion are just one of the ways that migrant workers are made even more vulnerable. 

 

Photo - Felix Francisco

 

But it’s impossible to talk about LA VIE without mentioning his connection to spirituality. He described how from when he was younger, his Mom had always informed him about the moon, chakras, and the importance of acknowledging and caring for the “essence” that exists in everyone. He joked about how when he was younger, his pockets heavy with the stones his mom gave him, he would tell his friends about the law of attraction whenever they would complain about wanting something. 

LA VIE thinks it’s exciting to see the increased popularity of a lot of the things he appreciated when he was younger that have gained popularity now, from hummus to horoscopes. (BTW: I had to ask. He’s a Pisces sun, Aquarius moon, Scorpio rising. After two conversations and binge-listening to his music, I can say with confidence that it definitely shows).

LA VIE’s interview ended with me feeling something entirely unfamiliar: hope. Talking to someone that was so in-tune with life and choosing to spread positivity and love was entirely refreshing. If you want to support an artist that is in pursuit of goodness, start by basking in the poetry that is RIZ LA VIE’s discography, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Aint Afraid Ain’t Your Average Rap Duo

Meet the twins who are absolutely killing it.

Aint Afraid Ain’t Your Average Rap Duo

Meet the twins who are absolutely killing it.

By

Elizabeth Aziz
Photo self shot by Aint Afraid / Art - Shayma Al-shiri

On a hot, sunny Wednesday morning in Los Angeles, I woke up bright and early at 7:45 a.m. to hit the streets for my signature drink – an oat milk mocha with an extra shot of espresso – ready for my 9 a.m. call with Aint Afraid, a pair of Black hijabi musical artists, that just so happen to be twins. I’d spent the few days before listening to all of their songs and watching a bubbly Q&A they’d just recently dropped. When the time came, I got back in the house, turned the A/C wayyyy up, and got situated. At 9:01 on the dot, I answered my phone to the sound of not one, but two refreshingly enthusiastic voices. 

It was already afternoon for Straingth and Wizdumb, who were already a few hours ahead of me time zone-wise. Their exuberant energy and joyful laughter quickly shook any bit of sleep out of me that might have survived the mocha I’d just downed. Although they prefer to keep personal details private, I had to at LEAST know their sign. “LEO!!” they yelled into the phone simultaneously with the correct amount of pride one would expect from the sign of the lioness. It’s only right.

When asked about their main musical influences, the first person who comes up is their mother, also an artist, who they say taught them the importance of artistic expression, whether musically or visually, from a young age. They pointed out that more than anything, their daily lives and the emotions they experience are the true source of inspiration for their music – but how long it takes to create differs each time.

Aint Afraid recording at the studio. / Photo - Aint Afraid for Muslim

Art has always been all our life, so we don’t have a process, it just kind of happens. A line will come in our heads and boom we’ll start making a piece. Once we get a piece or a line, it just flows, it just falls out, one after the other. Like literally, God is inspiring the piece through us. Most times, it’s not like let me sit down and write something about this. So we’ll have a conversation about something. Let’s say perhaps we’re talking about the Black Panthers, which is a real life example – we’re learning more about the Black Panther movement at the moment. As we have conversations, we’ll say a line or a sentence or something, and it’ll start something in us, and then from that it’s like oooh, this could be a piece. A lot of people are like oh my god you guys come out with something like every week, you’re just so talented, I’m like yo, this is something I’ve been working on for three years or sometimes three minutes. It’s always different.” 


One of the girls’ latest singles, the beautifully powerful anthem “We Will Breathe”, is a perfect example of how their musical influences and artistic process play off of each other. The chorus incorporates the line “by any means necessary,” a nod to the sentiment popularized by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers about Black liberation in the United States.

I asked the duo if there were any specific artists they look up to, to which they replied, “Just good music. Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston … one of the highlight songs growing up was ‘We Are The World’ (a charity single from 1985 written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie featuring some of the biggest stars of the time).”

 

Having had various artistic personas over the years and performing locally all over the girls were already used to being spotted out by fans in their community. Now with over 125k followers on Instagram, I was curious to find out what it’s been like for them being in the spotlight and sharing it as twin sisters.

The girls said, “Allah has blessed us with a well-known reputation, people know us for the good work that we do, alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah. All of our life we’ve kind of shared that. It’s always been that way. It feels like a team. For us, it’s not fame, it’s impact, you know? I don’t ever want to put myself in a place of feeling self-important, I never want to do that. But what I will say is that success is  really good, because I’m reaching so many people with my good messages.”

Despite their wide reach and impact, like so many young Black Muslim women in the United States and around the world, they’ve endured a lifetime of pushback simply for being who they are. Whether it be from members of the Muslim community for being Black, from the Black community for being Muslim, or either one for being women, their layered identities leave them on the fringe of each group: 

“The religion is not anti-Black… Some people choose to be anti-Black, and we’ve lived this all our lives. For me, it’s really hard being a Black Muslim woman, and a Black Muslim person, but especially a Black Muslim woman because all the communities you identify with end up not supporting you totally, or they’re against you in some way and you never find acceptance. Just as a child in elementary school, people were telling us we couldn’t be Muslim because we were Black… or they would ask are we converts. The only reason they would do that is because we were Black. Even the Black community, when they see me, they first see me as a Muslim, they don’t even see me as a Black person. I can keep going… even in the women’s community, they’re like ‘if you’re about women’s rights, take the scarf off!!’”

Photo self shot by Aint Afraid for Muslim / Art - Shayma Al-shiri

Thankfully, the stress of being pressured to fit in a box has not dimmed the light of these incredible young women in the slightest. “We’ve always been pushed out but that has not made us bitter people, as you can see. I love the world. I love the people. Alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah, Allah has given us a space, a platform, where now we can educate the world and open people’s minds. There are even people in Africa and other places now that feel represented because of our platform.” 

In fact, Aint Afraid now has an additional connection to Africa that goes beyond having fans in the continent – the twins are spearheading an effort to build a school in Gambia. In collaboration with the SPOT Project, they are currently raising funds between now and September 4, 2020 to build an academy that will provide free education to local girls aged 6-15 years old. This instance of activism is just one of many ways the girls seek to make an impact. Much of their work offline centers around building community, addressing local gentrification, and helping make connections between the arts and political strategy.

What else are the girls up to when they’re not making anthems and learning? Lately, they’ve been trying to cultivate a more sustainable diet. They said, “We were already exposed to corruption in the food industry and whatever ’cause our mother taught us about it growing up, but we decided to take our own journey to understanding more about what’s in our food, and what the human body needs.” Although they’re not totally vegan and don’t say they necessarily want to pressure others to take it on, they spoke about the power of implementing more whole, plant-based foods into one’s diet – especially for vulnerable people. “Just starting from changing our diet in the Black community, our community can thrive,” they said.

 

 

Aint Afraid’s latest release, “When I Praise Him,” honors Allah through carefully crafted raps and beautiful vocals. Between their thoughtful songs and amazing projects, the duo is an unstoppable force.  

It’s so hard to sit and talk to these girls without walking away feeling like, okay, there’s hope. We’ve all encountered people who know exactly what they’re worth and are very sure of themselves and it can be intimidating. The twins, however, are so grounded in their purpose as artists and leaders, you can’t help but think mashallah. The girls of Aint Afraid are very, very impressive and we here at Muslim can’t wait to see what lies in store for them in the coming years.

Aint Afraid’s latest song “When I Praise Him” is available to download and stream on all online music services. Watch their video here, and follow the sisters’ fresh come up on Instagram and Twitter.

Yuna Wants You To ‘Stay Where You Are’

Malaysian pop icon Yuna talks about going independent, dealing with societal expectations and staying creative during these challenging times.

Yuna Wants You To ‘Stay Where You Are’

Malaysian pop icon Yuna talks about going independent, dealing with societal expectations and staying creative during these challenging times.

By

Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh
Photo - self shot by Yuna / Art - Shayma Al-Shiri

Picture this: it’s 2016. I’m scrolling through my Tumblr dashboard at 2AM on a school night, as usual. Among the photos of inspirational quotes, white models and stylised flowers appears a GIF of Usher with a hijabi. Intrigued, I paused and hit the video link, only to see a woman in a turban taking the lead on the song. The R&B icon was only ‘featuring’. My jaw dropped. 

Her name was Yuna. 

I had never seen a Muslim woman artist that was the lead, ever. Not in movies, not in books, and certainly not in music. The industry was still adjusting to new female rappers. I hadn’t felt a sense of enlightenment in discovering Muslim representation since Janet Jackson’s apparent conversion to Islam was smeared all over headlines earlier that year. I immediately followed Yuna and deep-dived into a melodic journey as she dropped her album Chapters a few months later. 

Crush by Yuna featuring Usher immediately became my anthem as I dealt with the heavy transition into my freshman year of college. It was around that time that new artists began to emerge as mainstream media took a shift in becoming more inclusive. 

Yuna had already established herself in her home country of Malaysia after writing hit EPs in the early 2010s. As she grew in popularity, she went further by signing to major record labels in the US, allowing her to reach international audiences. Most musicians will tell you that their dreams are to dominate the industry and fall into the glamorous world of pop. Yuna, on the other hand, just wants the world to truly recognize her talent.

Photo - self shot by Yuna

Making it onto Billboard’s Top 10 R&B Albums in 2016, among many other achievements, Yuna is more than just the token hijabi in the music industry. Since representation is crucial in deconstructing societal norms, oftentimes Muslim creatives are pigeonholed into being “groundbreakers”, Muslims that dismantle stereotypes and set new standards. However for Yuna, she is more than a category. Her talents exceed her identity as a “Muslim singer.” 

By daring to exist outside of the mold, she reflects an authenticity that is evident in her work, and takes on a new meaning of representation. Being an icon in Malaysia while working with high profile artists like Jhené Aiko, Tyler, the Creator and G-Eazy – she embodies versatility and brings a fresh voice to the scene. 

After recently leaving Los Angeles, Yuna began to shed her skin, leaving her record label behind and going independent. Her latest single “Stay Where You Are” is the first release since her album Rogue dropped last year. 

The music video was shot entirely on an iPhone 11 during quarantine at Yuna’s home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and also features some of her fans’ submissions; friends like the musicians MadeinTYO and Jay Park, and Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad make special appearances throughout. 

Although stationed in Malaysia, Yuna stays on the forefront of pushing for social  justice – she recently sent proceeds of her music video to NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, in an effort to help against racial injustices in the United States. 

Muslim sat down with Yuna for an exclusive interview after leaving her record label, going independent, and moving back to Malaysia with her family. We discussed her relationship with identity, her experiences in the music industry and what it means for her to give something back.

You recently broke out of your contract and became fully independent, congratulations! How is that, do you feel free? What led to this decision?

YUNA: You know, like, it’s actually a really good thing when you get signed to a record label, it means you’re doing something right. Your music is being heard, and people are actually paying attention to you and giving you the opportunity to make the music and for me, Malaysian Muslim girls sometimes don’t come by like that.

This is an exciting moment for me, I have full control. There’s definitely that feeling of being liberated in a way that you know now you don’t have deadlines, or that you can actually earn a huge portion and it’s yours. 

 

As a woman in the industry – as a Malaysian hijab-wearing Muslim woman – do you find yourself facing particular challenges?

YUNA: Regardless, even if you’re like an amazingly talented pop star and look like Dua Lipa – it is gonna be tough. It was tough in the beginning trying to break away from that stereotype. 

Wearing the hijab – I didn’t like the fact that I had a label. I was always the “Muslim singer” and I’m more than that. It’s more than just me being Muslim. I really want you to focus on my music and work. I understand representation is everything these days, but at the same time, you have to recognize the talents and the skills that I’ve worked on. Like, for so long it was really hard to get here. 

In the beginning people wanted me to change the way I look, or change the way I think or the things I sing about. 

I kept hearing “if you want to be a singer, you got to take off the hijab,” and this is before leaving the country and going to the US. This was like, in my country, in my city. I was told that by people from the label, “Oh, you know, this is how you got to look” –  and it’s just ridiculous to me.

 

You have a huge presence and fanbase in Malaysia. As a Malaysian-Muslim do you find yourself feeling under pressure for having to embody a perfect representation for your community?

YUNA: Oh, yeah! In the beginning, I had to deal with a lot of pressure – Malaysia is so close knit as a community.  Everybody knows everybody so people would go to my mother and say, “do you know what your daughter is doing online?” 

As I grow older, I realized that you know what, like, nothing I do is going to please everyone. Someone will find something that’s wrong with you, you know? So I decided to not fall into that feeling of being pressured. Especially not being pressured into being someone that I’m not.

 

You achieved so much with your music, what would you say was your biggest accomplishment?

YUNA: I think my biggest accomplishment is taking that first step going to Los Angeles for myself as a female and that is still my biggest accomplishment.  I think, like, it was the  first real time that I really felt like, “wow, I made it.” No one knew that I could do it. Not even me.

That was the turning point in my life. I think, like, when I got on that plane, flew out to LA I was a different person, the old Yuna was gone.

 

I just have to ask – how was it working with big names like G-Eazy and Usher? We have never seen such a prominent Muslim musician able to reach as far as you have within the music industry, how has your experience been?

YUNA: It’s really cool. Every morning I wake up, I know who I am. I’m a Muslim singer-songwriter who works in the music industry. I pray, fast and partake in Ramadan – that’s a part of me. But at the same time when I go into the studio, I meet people who are huge artists or huge producers that people can’t even dream of working with. They’re awesome people and they don’t treat me differently. I don’t treat them differently either. Like I see them as an artist as well. So, when we work together, it’s amazing. I don’t know how I got here, but I feel like this is meant for me. I don’t know how to explain it. So I just take it day by day and be very thankful and grateful for the opportunity. 

 

How has it been being an artist during this pandemic? Were you able to work?

YUNA: Well, I’ve started teaching music classes. My husband [Adam Sinclair] and I started this online learning platform because we were just like, we need to do something local to inspire people who want to be more creative.

During this time when it’s difficult for someone like me to be creative, I think, to give something back, like just do something for other people, really helps. I feel like that’s a better thing to do right now. Of course, I would love to be able to release more music in the future, but I think now that we’re just at home, it’s a really nice thing to be able to teach every weekend. I’m actually like a teacher – I like all the slides and everything! It’s kind of fun. 

 

So you just released your latest hit, “Stay Where You Are” and by the time this feature is out, your music video will be going live – Can you tell us a little bit about it?

This is my first independent release and we didn’t even plan to release the song! I played it on my piano and decided to post that video in March. So I posted that knowing, these are the kinds of things that independent artists can do now. It’s really exciting for me to just play unreleased songs like that randomly.

So I played it and people reacted to it.They connected to it and really loved the song. I told myself, you know what, I think this is something that more people would want to listen to during this time, we should release the song immediately – so that was it. I just felt that it’s a beautiful song and the message of the song – a lot of people can relate to it right now. Not just like staying where you are as in staying at home, but to stay lovely, stay positive. 

People are going through some really, really difficult moments in their lives and I just want something uplifting that I can share with the world.

 

Tell me about this music video! How was the process creating it? – I noticed it involves people from all over the world holding signs that say “Stay Where You Are” – Where did the idea come from?

YUNA: I work with my husband a lot. We would always brainstorm ideas for music videos. He’s a director, he shot a lot of my music videos and for this one, we were just like, I don’t know what to do. It was my manager who said, “Hey, why don’t you get your fans included in this? It could be a song where everyone joins in and you have a lot of fans who would definitely want to be part of it.” 

I knew straight away, that was it. It’s also a nice way to celebrate my first indie track and get everyone involved. 

 

What are you working on currently? Do you have any exciting news for our readers?

YUNA: I think now I’m just focusing on releasing singles. I’m currently back home in Malaysia. I’ve been writing, working on projects and staying with my family.

I’ve been traveling and working nonstop before. I haven’t had a proper vacation in 10 years. So this is definitely the rest that I needed, so I’m just gonna see this moment as a blessing.

 

Do you have any words of wisdom or messages you’d like to share with our young Muslim audience?

Wow, you know, just please be proud of yourself. I think that’s the most important thing. I always try to tell my Malaysian Muslim girls like… I feel as though they’re very timid. They’re very shy. So, I’m always like, “go slowly. If you have a dream, you’re good enough. You can do it and don’t listen to anything that’s trying to pull you down.” 

Like, don’t let life pull you down and just be proud of who you are. Be proud of your roots, be proud of your identities. 

Sometimes in life, you’re gonna come across people who will make you question your values because of the way you look or the way you do things or what you believe in, what you practice. But no. You know yourself, so just be you. Always believe in yourself. There’s gonna be a lot of people who are going to tell you no – just keep on going.

Yuna’s single “Stay Where You Are” is available to download and stream on all online music services. Watch her video here, and follow her new life and work as an independent artist on Instagram and Twitter.