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How Franco-Algerian Singer Lolo Zouaï Incorporates her Heritage into her Music

Lolo Zouaï photographed by Johanna Siring

“I’ve always been into thrifting,” admits R&B singer Lolo Zouaï. The Franco-Algerian artist, whose new single, Challenge (which she wrote in a taco bar), is set to release this Friday, now calls New York home. “I really love vintage Tommy Hilfiger, Guess, and Harley Davidson. I’ll wear anything Nascar themed. I love Doc Martens, and workwear brands like Dickies. I’m sure I’d like some more high-fashion brands but I ain’t got it like that just yet!”

As for her favorite places to shop, Zouaï (pronounced “zoo-eye”) lists second-hand stores L Train Vintage, No Relation Vintage, and Goodwill as her go-tos because, as she puts it, “there’s nothing worse than showing up to a function in the same outfit as someone else!” Refreshingly honest, it’s no wonder that the self-proclaimed tomboy’s authenticity has garnered her a swift following in such a short amount of time.

Her breakout moment was when she met producer Stelios and dropped “High Highs to Low Lows” in 2017. The song currently has over 5 million streams worldwide, without any kind of promotion. She’s also in the midst of preparing for an almost-totally-sold-out West Coast tour, and is currently working on her hotly anticipated debut album.

“Challenge” cover art

However, before her singing career took off, the 23-year-old worked a number of odd jobs in order to support herself. “I used to make milkshakes at a burger joint and I even had job where I cooked vegan sushi— I was definitely not qualified,” she recalls. “I think in the last four years I’ve worked at three clothing stores and six restaurants. Thankfully, I don’t have to do that any more. I’m so grateful to have music as my full-time job.”

Lolo Zouaï was born in France to a French mother and an Algerian father and relocated to San Francisco with her family when she was a mere three months old. A child prodigy of sorts, she discovered her passion for singing at the age of 6, by practicing Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera songs she’d heard on the radio. “I was always that kid who couldn’t stop singing. I used to record myself on the computer and play around reversing and editing my voice. I remember having so much fun doing that and I feel that same excitement when I’m in the studio now,” she muses. Though she admits she didn’t grow up in a musical household, her parents were always supportive, even enrolling her in piano and trumpet lessons. She would go on to teach herself how to play the guitar when she was in middle school.

Lolo Zouaï photographed by Grace Rivera

With her porcelain skin, dyed platinum lengths, and delicate features, the part-Algerian beauty admits that she didn’t face any hardships or challenges due to her ethnicity growing up, despite being one of the only foreign-born kids in her neighborhood. “To be honest, a lot of people in America don’t even know where Algeria is,” she jokes. Though she didn’t face any challenges with her American peers, the songstress reveals that she did face a period of internal struggle, where she felt she wasn’t as in touch with her Algerian heritage as she would have liked. These feelings informed her fourth and most personal single to date, Desert Rose, which is essentially a love letter to her Algerian family. “‘Inshallah,’ that’s what you say/ You think I lost my faith/You won’t speak my name/Forbidden, won’t see you again/I chose a ‘life of sin’/Wish you could forgive me,” she croons in her soft, buttery vocals. Meanwhile, the title alludes to the rose-like crystal that forms in the desert of Algeria, and plays on her existing feelings of not belonging. How did her family receive the song? The singer admits that she doesn’t know if they’ve heard it yet, though someone did message her to tell her they heard it playing in a local lounge in the North African country.

Despite feeling like she’s not in touch with her roots, her heritage does play a central role in her music. The singer, who incorporates Arabic, English, and French into her songs, implores Aicha by Cheb Khaled was a childhood anthem. “Sidi Mansour by Saber Rebaï was also something I listened to growing up,” Zouaï adds. She admits that she isn’t aware of the newer Arabic music out now, but thinks Nina Abdel Malak has “one of the most beautiful voices ever” after stumbling upon her Instagram page.

Lolo Zouaï photographed by Johanna Siring

As of now, Zouaï is focused on her upcoming tour, where she will open for Alina Baraz in October. In addition to working on new music, she’s been going to the gym steadfastly, and relaxing during the weekends. “I’m excited to sing in front of people who may never have heard my music before,” she says, listing noise-cancelling headphones, a blowdryer, her signature Doc Marten boots, and a VHS camera as her tour essentials. Considering how exhausting touring can be, the singer reveals that alone time, exercise, sleep, and lots of water are crucial in order to stay in tip-top shape for performing.

When asked how her life has changed in the last few months, the rising star recalls, “I remember moving to New York and thinking, all I want is to be able to go to a studio every day and make music. And that’s exactly what happened after ‘High Highs to Low Lows came out. People have recognized me on the street and I’m like ‘me?’ I’m not used to it, but it feels great to know that my music is resonating with people all over the world.”

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