WAFIA Al Rikabi, known on stage simply as WAFIA, is riding a glow up wave. Last year the 25-year-old singer-songwriter toured with electro-pop duo Louis the Child, performed their collaborative hit “Better Not” at Coachella, and released VIII, a dazzling six-track EP of emboldened, honey-soaked melodies. For Wafia, a former biomedicine student turned pop star, there is no better time than the present.
Born in the Netherlands to Syrian-Iraqi immigrants, the Australia-based queer Muslim singer is topping charts as one of the most exciting artists to watch in 2019. When she first got her start posting covers to a small following on Tumblr as a university student, she never expected someone like herself could make it big. But after posting her intoxicating cover of Mario’s “Let Me Love You” online in 2014, which catapulted her to the mainstream listeners, Wafia has never looked back.
“If the internet didn’t exist and the music industry was like how it was in the ‘70s, there’d be no place for a person like me,” she says. “I guess that’s kind of my favorite thing about music now is just how much the internet has democratized things.”
When I chatted on the phone with Wafia a few weeks ago, it was more like catching up with an overseas friend than with someone who had garnered the attention of Pharrell Williams or performed at the MoMa PS1. At home with her family in Brisbane, Australia, Wafia speaks softly, laughs often, and shares funny and painful stories about being one of few Middle Eastern students growing up in her Australian high school. Despite the time difference and technological glitches, the faint sounds of a dog barking on her end, and the jingle of the nightly produce truck on mine, Wafia is incredibly present.
It’s no wonder, though, because just as she is candid on the phone with a literal stranger, she is equally sharp and vulnerable in her recent songwriting, revealing multiple layers of personal and political resonance beneath the elastic beats in her newest EP, VIII.
“I think I’ve been more transparent with myself and therefore that’s reflected in the music,” she says of the past year’s music making. On the surface, the EP’s top songs “Only Love” and Bodies’ appear to be bouncy tales of cautious love and partying; however, the lyrics and the timing of the songs elucidate Wafia’s inner reckoning with queer romance and the Syrian refugee crisis.
“I think they’re both things that I was dealing with in private … both things that I heavily guarded and didn’t speak to anyone about,” she says. “I think it’s very relieving to put that out there. I wrote those songs because I needed to get those things off my chest.”
In fact, Wafia wrote “Bodies” the day she learned that each of her Syrian aunt’s family members had been denied visas to Australia. She was in Los Angeles, where she frequently goes to write with “her LA tribe” -- a group of writing partners and friends including the Australian songwriter, Ben Abraham. “We were driving and she texted me saying that the last denial letter had come through,” she says after a sigh. “I was really feeling her pain.”
Wafia encapsulates these feelings even in the naming of her EPs, gleaning some of the knowledge of her Biomed days. VIII, or eight , comes from the atomic number for oxygen and to her, represents transparency, necessity and the intangibility of music. Her first EP, XXIX, or 29, is the atomic number for copper, an element which conducts heat and, “felt really ripe for the state” Wafia was going through when she wrote it.
Now, after a year of touring, her path is curving back to writing. “I’ve been through a lot this year,” she says, alluding to her first adult break up after which she wrote her carefree comeback anthem, “I’m Good.”
“I’m excited to delve into that more because I’ve been through a lot of hurts this year. I’m excited to deal with everything through the process of songwriting.”
Whenever she needs to realign herself after a long flight or tour, or after now, a busy, energetic year, Wafia often returns to Kahlil Gibran’s classic text The Prophet. There’s something about Gibran’s prose that grounds her and pushes her to continue even on days when she feels most unsettled. “It reminds me that I have to do things for myself.”
As a queer woman of color, navigating the treacherous world of pop, Wafia’s music and her very existence are political. Many have referred to Wafia’s music as ‘purposeful pop’, a term first used by Katy Perry after releasing her album “Witness,” to describe music which packs a political punch in its pop. Where Perry panders, and eventually fails on that front, Wafia soars simply by being.
In an interview with Nylon Magazine she says, “Me existing to some people is enough of a statement, you know what I mean?” Yes, for the daughter of Syrian-Iraqi immigrants, making music, and music that is not only catchy but ripe with intention is an act of resistance.
“I’m just trying to make music I like. I want the space to make music that is ‘purposeful’ but also that I think is fun and enjoyable,” she says. “And sometimes, it doesn’t have meaning because every other artist in the world has the liberty to do that.”
In addition to making her music accessible to audiences around the world, Wafia also wants to be present to her fans, particularly to the young women of color who may be interested in making the same pivot to music that she made.
“So many young women have reached out to me asking ‘how do I tell my parents that I want to do [something] like you’,” she recalls. Wafia has connected with young women around the world through social media to offer a bit of advice through her own experience. “There’s kind of no blueprint for it … but it’s cool to be doing it and tell these girls this is how I’m going about it.”
She’s right, there is no blueprint. While the pop music landscape has undoubtedly become more diverse in recent years, there is still no precedent for artists like Wafia, which has put her in a unique position to carve a path of her own. It’s a precarious, and sometimes heavy, position but Wafia is hopeful about the future of queer women of color in music.
“That’s the most exciting thing about pop,” she says. “It really could be anyone next.”