It may have taken Little Mix singer Jade Thirlwall until she was 27 to truly embrace her Egyptian-Yemeni heritage, but she is certainly making up for lost time. The musican shares her story with Vogue Arabia.
“I grew up in an area called Laygate, South Shields in the north-east of England. It’s near the docks where a lot of Arabs worked from the 1920s. My granddad Mohammed arrived around 1943 from Yemen. He worked as a firefighter in the merchant navy, before becoming a laborer at the docks. It was in South Shields that he met my grandma Amelia, whose dad was from Egypt. They were very much in love and settled in the coastal town. They loved the large Arab community, and everyone stuck together. Sadly, my grandma passed away when my mam was just four so I never had a chance to learn much about my Egyptian heritage, but my granddad talked about her a lot.
While my granddad didn’t force his children or grandkids to follow his religion, he was a devout Muslim and wanted us to know about his faith and culture. We lived near the local mosque and he would tell me beautiful stories about when he went to Mecca. He would always cook for us, too – I loved his chicken soup with khubz, which is the best bread in the world. I remember him fasting for Ramadan, and during Eid I would wait for him outside the mosque and say Eid Mubarak to his friends as they came out, and they would gift me a pound coin.
It was important to him that I learned how to read and write Arabic, so every Saturday I went to Muslim school. I have fond memories of it. I went from the ages of eight to 10, but I think I was unfortunately too young to understand how important it was to learn. I also went to church every Sunday, but faith-wise I don’t know what I believe in. I think, perhaps, that stems from having so many beliefs and opinions put on me.
I had a happy childhood. My primary school was incredibly multicultural – there were a lot of asylum seekers and refugees from all over the world so I just felt a part of it. That changed when I was a teenager and went to secondary school. My granddad passed away and suddenly I felt like I had lost that whole part of me. He was the person I’d go to when I felt down. He made me feel proud of who I was – he was my line of understanding to my Arab heritage. I felt alone. At school, I didn’t fit into any group, and started to experience prejudice and racism. I was one of the very few people of color in the school, so from the off I felt like an outcast.
Where I’m from in England, if you weren’t evidently black or white, you were put in this big bowl of one ‘other’ thing. I used to get called the P-word, which I didn’t understand as I’m not Pakistani. I was also called half-caste. During one incident someone pinned me down in the toilets and put a bindi spot on my forehead. There was a complete lack of education and understanding of different races and faiths. It affected my mental health. I became very depressed and it triggered the eating disorder I had throughout school.
Looking back, I realize I experienced microaggressions even as a kid, whether it was being part of musicals in my hometown and having white powder put on my face to blend in with the rest of the cast, or not getting cast at all because there were no people of color in the musical. It wasn’t until I moved to London and into a multicultural environment that I realized how messed up it was.
I was 18 when I moved, just after I did The X Factor [in 2011]. I went from being the token person of color to being in London, where it didn’t matter. All of a sudden I was thrown into the limelight [with Little Mix], and people didn’t know what I was, so I went along with it. I had suppressed who I was because I wasn’t proud. I had been bullied into thinking I should be ashamed of my identity, so I didn’t talk enough about my heritage in interviews. It makes me sad to think about it now.
When I was younger, I didn’t see enough representation of Arabs in magazines or on TV, and when I saw people who looked like my granddad they were always misrepresented. There’s this stereotype of Muslims being terrorists. I regret now that I didn’t talk about it more, but I was young and scared. I’m trying to make up for it now. I’m more open to being that voice for people. I think it comes with being more confident in yourself, and more curious. My mam and me have started looking into our culture more and it’s something that is bringing us closer together. The Black Lives Matter movement and the war in Yemen has triggered a lot of trauma for my mam, who I think suppressed who she was for a long time, too. The past few months have been very eye-opening for us. We’ve talked more than we ever have about race and who we are.
As an adult I’m connecting more with my Arab side – it’s a shame that it’s taken me until now to understand that. Being Arab is a beautiful thing. I’m trying to learn more of the language; in fact, during our US tour with Ariana Grande [Little Mix was one of the opening acts on Grande’s Dangerous Woman tour in 2017], I did an online Arabic course. One of my goals is to learn the language so that I can travel more to the Middle East. I get a lot of messages from Arab fans saying that they look up to me and that it’s lovely to see positive representation of an Arab woman in pop culture. The messages were one of the triggers that encouraged me to explore who I really am.
When I was young, my grandad used to play Arabic songs for me, and I think it did influence me. When I’m in the recording studio people say they can tell I have Arab heritage because when I do riffs I must subconsciously perform them in an Arabic style, which is lovely. My granddad used to love hearing me sing – that’s definitely one of the main reasons I got into music. One of my favorite memories of him was when I bought him a Mecca-shaped alarm clock that played the call to prayer. He played it and started to cry – it made me realize how powerful music can be.
It’s taken me too long to embrace my heritage and I wish I did it sooner. I want people to know that who you are is a beautiful thing – learn about your ancestors and educate yourself on your heritage. It gives you a purpose. It’s important for me to use my platform to be a better person and raise awareness, especially about what is happening now in Yemen. It’s not being talked about enough. I’m striving to be a better role model for my fans and be an artist that I would’ve liked to have seen as a young girl.”
As told to Alexandria Gouveia. Originally published in the September issue of Vogue Arabia.
Photography Heiko Prigge
Style Zack Tate & Jamie McFarland