Juliana Yazbeck talks spirituality, identity, and the bonds of sisterhood as acts of resistance
After skyping Juliana from my apartment in Ramallah, I felt an undeniable sense of comfort and strength. Colored with laughter and understanding, our conversation shed light on mutually felt frustrations and shared experiences as women of color. While she talked away, I immersed myself in her knowledge and passion for spirituality and our heritage.
Raised in Lebanon and residing in London, Juliana creates music which is a “mesmerizing fusion of spoken word, otherworldly electronics, and haunting Levantine vocals.” Upon listening to her music for the first time, it was wildly empowering to hear someone so beautifully capture my feelings about feminism, patriarchy, colonialism, and identity. In a few words, her music is here to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.
For the fam in London, be sure to check out her show on October 25th.
Which song from the record means the most to you?
I’m always hesitant to say this because it feels like admitting you have a favorite child! The response to “Alihat” transformed the way I saw the song initially. Ultimately, I wrote a song which I needed to hear, a song which would empower me. I had no idea it was going to have that much of an impact on others. Listeners started sharing stories with me about listening to this song to find strength in a job interview for a position held mostly by men or that anytime they’re feeling weak or “other,” they listen to this song. They say I’ve got this! Get out of my way! Do you know who my ancestors are?! Seeing others feel empowered by this song only amplified my own relationship with it.
This song was about me feeling like I couldn’t make peace with what the world was calling feminism. I wondered Why is there one definition of what feminism should be? and why is that definition so white? why do I often have to choose between my culture and my gender struggle? So “Alihat” became about decolonizing feminism and reclaiming it for myself. It became about recalling our own matriarchs, our own ancestors, the inherent strength in our own heritage.
Tell us about the album title, SUNGOD…
It’s about the unity of pre-abrahamic religions. At one point in human history, we followed polytheistic religions. Spirituality was synced with nature, the elements, the solar system. I find that to be such a beautiful and unifying sense of spirituality. This title became about drawing attention to a thinking very different from what we have today.
What do you look for in a song when you are creating?
I write what I need to hear and can’t find. It felt like there were so many elements of my identity which I couldn’t find in music, a feeling which wasn’t unique to me alone. It became like starting a conversation that was lacking both personally and collectively. In the process of song-writing, no expression is complete for me until it becomes a poem. It can’t be academic, it can’t be an essay, it can’t be preachy. We don’t need that many words. Song-writing for me became about saying as much as I can with as little as I can and trusting that the subconscious will pick up on the message.
أكتب ما أحتاج لسماعه ولا أستطيع العثور عليه، فطالما شعرت أن الأغاني لا تعبر عن هويتي بكل أجزائها، وهذا الشعور ليس بالغريب عن كثيرين أيضاً غيري. بدأ الأمر وكأنني أخلق محادثة كنت بحاجة إليها على الصعيدين: الشخصي والجماعي. أثناء عملية كتابة الأغنية، لا يكن التعبير عن ما أشعر به مكتملاً إلّا بعد أن تصبح هذه الكتابة قصيدة. فأنا لا أريد أن أكتب بطريقة أكاديمية رتيبة، ولا أريد كتابة مقالاً أو أن أكون واعظة. فقد مللنا هذا الكم الهائل من الكلمات المتدفقة علينا، وبالتالي فكتابة الأغاني بالنسبة لي أصبحت الطريقة التي من خلالها أقول الكثير الكثير، بأقل الكلمات وكلي إيمان بأن السامع سيلتقط هذه الرسالة .
How does your diaspora identity reflect itself in your work?
We live in a world in which we’re told that anything that’s not anglo-centric is marginal. It’s so frustrating to be told as an artist of color that you’re not mainstream. Fuck that. I am the mainstream. Part of the goal is to dismantle the musical colonization, the idea that any artist outside of Euro-America is not “mainstream.” Any artist outside of this definition of mainstream is tossed into the genre of “world music.'' It's absurd that any non white or English-speaking artist is erased in that way, as if our styles, our sounds, our identities are all one? This completely does away with nuance and variety and individuality.
In your songs there seems to be a yearning to find and re-connect with the feminine divine. What awoke you to the disconnect? And how do you find that connection now?
I was raised in the Catholic church, which at the core of the institution (not the faith itself) is patriarchal. We were always referencing to God as “He” in both English and Arabic. There seemed to be so much shame associated with the female body, shame which manifested itself in my own mind and my own relationship with my body and my being. I just could not make peace with that. I could not understand how my creator, who is meant to love me, would create me as something shameful. It just didn’t make sense. When a spiritual awakening is coming your way, nothing can stop it. I could not fight it. Once I embraced it, bit by bit, I was able to understand and separate social structures from the purity of spirituality. There is this inherent connection between women and the land and the stars and agriculture. Understanding that has helped me recognize the strength and power integral to our own heritage.
One of your most powerful songs is “White Roses,” what was the thought process behind writing and bringing this song to life?
In a few words, this song is about European settler colonialism. I distinctly remember the moment in which the process shifted from rage to poetry. That was extremely cathartic. I mean, I’ve never given birth but I imagine that it’s similar! Song-writing is such an uncomfortable, painful, and excruciating process! In writing this song I had several confrontations with the realities of a world controlled to such a large degree by white supremacy and patriarchy. This has become woven so intricately into so many narratives of peoples all across the globe. It is enraging to acknowledge how much of my identity has been warped by this, something which I still cannot make peace with. It’s a constant fight.
One of the ways I find comfort and strength is through connecting with womxn. Colonialism (which includes media, politics, hollywood, etc.) has been successful at dismantling that matriarchy and sisterhood. We end up competing against one another so rebuilding sisterhood becomes and act of resistance. This is collective healing.
بكلمات موجزة، هذه الأغنية تتحدث عن المُستَعْمِر الأوروبي، هنا أستذكر بوضوح تلك اللحظة التي تحوّل فيها غضبي الى قصيدة، وكان هذا بمثابة الشفاء لي. أنا لم أَخُض يوماً ألَم الولادة، لكن بالنسبة لي طالما تشابهت هذه العملية في ذهني والكتابة، فلحظات كتابة الأغنية قد تكون غير مريحة، و مؤلمة، ومليئة بالمشاعر الجيّاشة، فأثناء كتابتي لهذه الأغنية كنت بمواجهة حقيقية مع حقائق هذا العالم الذي يتحكم فيه خطاب الرجل الأبيض والأبوية. فهذه الخطابات طالما تحكمت بشعوب كثيرة في أنحاء المعمورة، وكان من المؤلم والمغضب لي أنّها مَسّتني وشوهت هويتي..وهذا ما لم أستطع تجاوزه والصفح عنه. وأعتقد أن هذه المعركة ستبقى مستمرة.
من الطرق التي تشعرني بالراحة والقوة، هي التواصل مع النساء. فالاستعمار بشتى وسائله ( كالإعلام، والسياسة وهوليوود..الخ) قد نجح في تفكيك علاقات النساء ببعضهّن البعض، وجعل المرأة عدوة نفسها في أحيانٍ كثيرة. وبالتالي إعادة هذه الصلة بيننا هي فعل مقاومة، وهذا ما يسمى بالتداوي من الجراح جماعياً.
You reference Baal, an ancient deity critical to Middle Eastern heritage. Why is it important to reach back through history to shed light on the ancient?
Reconnecting to the ancient becomes unifying and grounding. Understanding the roots of our cultures sheds light on the complexity of our histories and identities. It makes room for critical perspectives and conversation when we have more pieces of the puzzle. It’s humbling and necessary to re-connect with a time in which humanity was synced with nature in a way it just isn’t anymore.
إعادة الاتصال بكل ما هو قديم يوحدنا ويرجعنا لأساسٍ موحد نوعاً ما؛ ففهم جذور هويتنا يسلط الضوء على مدى تعقيدات وتركيبات هويتنا، وبالتالي فهذا يفسح المجال لوجهات النظر والمحادثات حول ذواتنا، إنه لأمرٌ ضروري أن نعيد الاتصال مع الحقبة التي تمت فيها المزامنة بين الإنسان والطبيعة، والتي لم تعد موجودة اليوم.
When was the last time you felt completely free?
When I’m on stage is when I feel the most free. In my daily life, I feel too big, like I have to reign in and inhibit my own energy. So, on stage is when I release and manifest my full energy. You have to fill the room! I don’t wear a bra, but I’ve heard other people describe the feeling of taking off a bra at the end of the day. It must feel like that!
What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?
I would have said don’t believe what they’re telling you. Listen to yourself. I speak very openly about mental health. It’s something I’m very passionate about.For me it’s a journey to reconnect with who I was before the abuse and trauma. Before you recognizes injustice rooted in sexism and racism. I’m now trying to meet myself again. I’ve met her now and I love her. So I tell her that she needs to trust herself.
Also I would tell her that euro-centric beauty standards are bullshit.
كنت لأهمس لها أن لا تصدق كل ما يقال لها، وأن تصغي لنفسها.. أنا اليوم أتحدث بكل صراحة وانفتاح عن الصحة العقلية، إنه موضوع شيّق بالنسبة لي، فالأمر أشبه برحلة لإعادة الإتصال بذواتنا قبل التعرض لكل الصدمات والتشوهات التي تعرضنا فعلاً لها، وقبل كل هذا التمييز الذي خبرناه عنصرياً و جنسياً. أحاول دائما أن ألتقي بنفسي مرة أخرى.. لقد التقيت بنفسي الآن، وكم أحببتها.. لذلك فالنصيحة: ثقِ بنفسك
For the fam in London, be sure to check out her show on October 25th.