Tahsin Chowdhury recently interviewed Omnia Hegazy, a New York-based singer-songwriter, on behalf of MPV-NY. Omnia is known for music and storytelling, taking inspiration from a wide range of styles, from American pop/rock to Arabic folk. Omnia will be performing with her full band at Sidewalk Cafe this Friday April 11.
Tell me about yourself. What’s your background in terms of heritage and education?
My Dad is Egyptian and was born and raised in Cairo, my mom is Italian-American from Brooklyn, NY. I was born in the States, so I’m pretty much American, while still maintaining certain aspects of both of my parents’ cultures. I was raised Muslim by my Dad – my Mom did not have a preference as to what religion I practiced so long as I grew up to be a good person. She herself was raised Catholic. I grew up in New York and attended public school my whole life until college, when I attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to pursue a B.F.A. in Recorded Music. There was no other school that offered a program quite like the Clive Davis Institute at NYU—it is a blend of a music business and music production program. It was there that I learned how to produce and record my music, and how to manage a career as an artist in the music business.
What inspired you to become a musician?
People often ask why I chose to become a musician, but in reality I think that music chose me. There are definitely easier lifestyles to pursue – being a professional musician means having an insanely busy schedule (rehearsals, performances, meetings, etc), while still somehow making time for your art, and having a social life (what’s that?). When you’re an indie DIY (aka. do it yourself) musician, you have to wear many different hats: artist, manager, booking agent, publicist, etc – it isn’t easy to be 5 people at once. But the reality is that it’s worth it, because I love what I do and I could never stop making music. Being a musician is a part of my identity the way being American, Egyptian, Italian is part of my identity – it’s just something I am and always have been. I’m not so sure it was a conscious choice.
What should I tell others your musical genre is?
This question always trips me up. For several years I have described my genre as politically-charged pop/rock with Middle Eastern influences. But it’s impossible for a songwriter to always write the same kind of music– it HAS to change at some point, because our lives are constantly changing all around us. Lately, I’m delving a little more into indie soul – jam-band kinda stuff! It has been a lot of fun and I can’t to perform some of my new material!
As a Muslim raised woman what obstacles did you face? Feel free to go all out.
As a mixed child, I never felt that I fit in – not with the other Italians on Staten Island and definitely not with the full-blooded, Arabic-speaking Egyptians I knew.
I faced the typical obstacles as a Muslim-American after 9/11 – the usual xenophobic, racist taunts of “terrorist”, “Osama”, “Bin-Laden’s daughter” etc. My neighborhood in Staten Island was predominantly Italian and Russian at the time – and I felt that my sister and I were treated with suspicion from 9/11 going forward.
Being a Muslim-raised woman, normal American things like dating, having sleepovers with female friends, etc were confusing. Most of my fellow Muslims also were not in the art world, and were puzzled that I was pursuing music rather than a “sensible” career.
Since I started tackling issues like misogyny and political freedom in my music I have received some backlash. Some of my fellow Arabs and/or Muslims wanted me to portray Muslims in a nice way, and to pretend everything is rosy in the ummah. I can’t, and I won’t do that. I have also been criticized for my stance on hijab and it has cost me some fans (I respect the choice, but I do not believe it to be mandatory in Islam).
What’s your larger goal with music?
My goal is to be a storyteller. Not all of my songs have a social or political agenda because it’s impossible to be on a soapbox 24/7. I have used my music to prompt debate about women’s rights and other issues that are important to me, but I don’t think that music or art has to be political to be important – actually I think that art’s purpose is to express the human condition. Art (and that includes music) makes life, which can be mundane, more of an experience.
Where do you want to see your music career in ten years?
Well, in ten years, I’ll be thirty-four and unfortunately the way the music business to work is that you have to become successful in your 20’s in order to sustain a career after that (most cases, not all). This does create pressure because I realize I have to work my hardest now, while I’m young (and supposedly should be having the most fun). I can say where I’d like to be in five years? Touring, maybe getting some funding from a great label that gives me the artistic freedom that I need, and living my life. I just want to make a living doing what I do: writing, recording, and performing my music. Sounds simple? Thanks to things like illegal downloading it’s not. :L
Any words for young Muslim women interested in becoming musicians?
Yes!! Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that singing or performing on stage is “haram” [forbidden]! I think hijabi musicians get this even worse than I do – Muslim men (and some sisters as well) telling them what kind of Muslimah they should be! Being Muslim does not have to mean giving up your creativity and your right to express it!
To stay up-to-date on Omnia Hegazy, you can find her at the following websites: