There was this trend that was maybe borne out of reality TV that permeated pop culture. It was the notion of “I’m the best” and “I didn’t come here to make friends, I came here to win.” By the mid-aughts you had these songs — stuff like, “Don’t Cha” “Fergalicious” and “Milkshake” come to mind — that felt a little sinister, because it went from the Eminem thing of “I’m great, and if I weren’t around y’all would miss me” to these women telling me my boyfriend likes them better than me. Because they are hot. And they would even go into these obnoxious explanations about all the reasons why he sweats her over me. RUDE.
Even Gwen Stefani, who wrote a whole album about the horrors of turning thirty, jumped on board in a song that sampled the fucking Sound of Music.
And the boys all look, but no they can’t touch
But the girls want to know why the boys like us so much
They like the way we dance,
they like the way we work,
they like the way the LAMB is going ‘cross my shirt
they like the way my pants, it compliments my shape
They like the way we react every time we dance
Leave me alone. You can have the singer of Bush.
Now, I grew up speaking to my parents in English, with a very Southern accent, and my parents spoke to me in Farsi. Being Afghan, humility is huge. Big heads get deflated with a wallop and if someone tries to impose their inflated sense of self on us we get real ornery and, “You think you’re better than us?” real quick. Afghanistan is the country where if your tribe thinks it’s better, folks get killed.
My father — and it took me years to discover this — through adversity and just being smart as hell, got chosen, above thousands, to take part in Unesco scholarships. He eventually got a scholarship to earn his PhD in Statistic and Methods of Learning in the early 80’s in Florida, which is where I was born and why I’ve never been to the Motherland. However, he never took the “Dr.” title because his father, despite being a 4-star Army General, was one of the most humble and peaceful dudes on the planet. My grandfather was known for talking to tribal leaders, and mediating, and encouraging discourse, which is why the Commies wanted him on their side so bad — because he had influence. But he was killed because he couldn’t lie to his people and tell them he thought Communism would be a better way of life for them.
This had a tremendous effect on my father, who was in Florida at the time when he found out his father was killed in the Pul-e-Charkhi prison, a place notorious for torture and executions (in fact if you look at the Wikipedia page, the second sentence says “notorious for torture and executions”). My uncles witnessed it because they were there too. My father wanted to go back after he graduated (when I was just a baby) to fight the resistance, but one of his old professors told him he had a family here, and he had to fight to get my mom and sisters to the states, and he had a young baby that he needed to support and he’d do far greater work using his mind than his brawn.
We weren’t a family that discussed our achievements, any achievements. We were a family that would house various folks in difficult positions in life, and try to give more than take because we were aware of our privilege. My grandmother, who I miss every day, used to let people with illnesses and nowhere to go live in the compound they had in Kabul. This was due to my grandfather’s position as second in command military-wise before the Communist invasion. My father told me the story of how they had an older woman with syphilis living with them when they were younger, and my Grandmother went through pains not letting her know that she washed her dishes and cutlery separate from the family’s. She didn’t want her to feel worse than she had to.
Fast-forward to my youth, and the various hardships I had being a weird-looking child of refugees in the south, and you can understand why I took to punk. There was a supposed selflessness there and a sense of community for folks that were already cast aside by “normals.” Certainly, this was narrative that I read about and romanticized, not what I experienced, but I wanted to get to a place where I could potentially be peers with like-minded, art-obsessed folks.
I went through great pains to get here in New York City. It was an actual topic of discussion in the Afghan-American community that a girl left the house before she was married. It was seen as failing on my parent’s part at first. But I had to. We didn’t talk about accomplishments but some part of me knew that I couldn’t let myself down. I had too much ambition. I wanted to be a musician that badly that I thought it was worth whatever death threats my mother would warn me about, shortly before she would throw a spoon at me.
I can honestly say that the world of an independent lady in New York City, well…there were days were I thought maybe it would have been better if I had been born in Kabul, and never had lofty ideas about “making things.” I can truly say I’ve met some of the best, and the fucking worst, folks around here. There’s no common demographic for the worst, they are men and women, all shapes and sizes, some attractive, some who think they’re attractive, some successful, and some who think a high enough score on Pitchfork and/or a trustfund is JACKPOT. The one thing they have in common is their ruthless pursuit of self, their all-consuming notion that they’re the best at everything even when there’s no empirical evidence to back it. They tell you things you don’t need to know, things they know you don’t need to know, and then tell perfect strangers private details of your personal life; all out of “concern.” This town, I guess any town, is rife with Cluster B narcissistic personality disorders. They are the equivalent of watching a violent car crash when you’re close enough to them – sometimes thrilling but always dark as hell.
Full-time jerks speak in code. Insults are guised. Just like my home life, where I had a bilingual relationship with the people around me, I may not speak in passive-aggressive slights as fluently, but I understand them.
We put extensions of ourselves out there for the world to interact with, and that extension, be it our art or our heart, can get it’s ass kissed and kicked — sometimes simultaneously. It can feel like self-immolation.
I once had a friend call me after she’d heard someone made fun of my legs on a Brooklyn Vegan comment section. A person or two, she told me, also anonymous, came to my defense and said I was “hot.” She called to tell me “Not to worry about it,” and that “it was cool my sisters came to my defense.” My sisters don’t read Brooklyn Vegan, and their standing up for me would not be in the form of calling me hot. But this was her way of making sure I didn’t feel any of the kindness of someone standing up for me and paying me a compliment, because the defense came from fragments of me, my family.
It never got better. In fact, relationships with these jerky malignant narcissists never will. Finally it took an interview with Kanye West, whose “I’m like Jesus, but better” vibe never sat with me well even while his production and music sure did. I was lured into watching a video where I was promised to observe Mr.West throwing down a beat on an MPC but it was overdubbed and I heard this:
You have to will positive energy into your life. You have to will your own way. You can’t let anyone take control of your dreams. When you walk around, that’s your life. Everyone is a part of your world. So you make your decisions. Not to be cliche, but they say, “you make your bed, and you lie in it.” That’s why I think I got a bad rep when I first came out. Because I refused to let anyone make my bed. If someone asked me to wear a throwback jersey in a shoot, I’d say no. If someone wanted me to pose in front of a car with rims, I’d say no. Even if it was for the cover of a magazine, I would walk away from it. Awards shows, arguments back stage, I’d say, “No, I’m not singing that part, I’m not doing this part.” Cos at the end of the day, nobody’s gonna say, “That production guy, I didn’t like his idea,” they’re gonna be like, “Man, Kanye had a bad performance.” Just knowing that you reap what you sow. I try my best to sew up some Gucci.
I finally got it. The chest-puffing is a protection! From bad people’s bad fucking energy. It’s like a string of garlic and crosses. It’s the back the fuck off. I needed to hear that it’s okay to project, “I’m better than this shit.” Because I am. I love the life I have, for the most part, and I’m fucking proud of my work. It’s what I want, it makes me happy.
There will always be some loser out there trying to assert their “I’m better than you” — and they’ll try to be clever about it. You might even have a spell where you believe them. But once you get out of that haze, walk the fuck away. I know this better than anyone, I’m a girl with dark humor and dark hair, and I make quote unquote “dark” music…but now that I’ve cut out social cancers, I think I’m a better friend, a better daughter, a better sister, a better aunt, and a better companion. I embrace my happiness and I know making art is a dream. I had people who loved me, who gave me warnings to stay away from jerks — and I owe them big cuddles and I thank them. And I thank Kanye West, and hell, The Pussycat Dolls too. If someone tries to fuck with your life, and your passions, eat them alive and spend your time doing the work they get so worked up about. I feel like writing this now is a testament to that, because I never would have done this a year ago.
I leave you with this: I may be happy to be proud of myself, but I most certainly couldn’t, and never would tell you that I could steal your man.