Out of all the fans 27-year-old Nemah Hasan met on her 2022 European tour, she remembers one encounter distinctly. During a meet-and-greet after a show, a fan brought her a stuffed elephant because, as they told her, she’s always the elephant in the room. “Because I'm [one of a few] hijabis in the music industry,” she explains over Zoom on a recent Tuesday, smiling at the memory. “It was so positive to put it in a stuffed animal joke.”
The Palestinian-Canadian singer and songwriter is far from being the only hijab-wearing artist, but Hasan — who makes music as Nemahsis — recently became a very visible one in the Western world. After years of establishing a modest online following through making beauty and fashion videos, she released her debut song “What If I Took It Off For You?” in 2020 — a gorgeous but scathing pop response to a brand that refused to pay her for a campaign, because “it’s a good look for your community.” It took off, racking up over 4 million views on TikTok and resonating with muslim and hijabi listeners all over the globe. A debut EP that touches on heavy and personal topics (think immigration and depression) and a tour followed in 2022. Months later, Hasan still can’t quite believe she can call herself an artist. “I do feel a little imposter syndrome,” she admits.
But Nemahsis is undergoing change. On the afternoon of our Zoom, she’d just landed in NYC (a black Yankees cap tops her hijab) days before she’ll play her first-ever show in the U.S — in the cavernous hall of Brooklyn’s Ascension Episcopal Church — and release the first single of her next project, a marked shift in style.
“I Wanna Be Your Right Hand,” out now, finds her musing on love languages and adventurously letting loose with her vocals. The hook has her sharply vocalizing, “I- I- I- I’m getting lonely,” and bending in and out of her falsetto. It’s light but calloused just so around the edges; it’s bitter with the sweet; it’s pop that she sees in the lineage of Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette, and, for Hasan, it’s what she’s always wanted to make. “I feel like this is the first time I'm just writing about something that a normal girl would write about.”
Below, NYLON chats with Hasan about the newfound freedom she’s found in this era, blowing up on TikTok, and why she never thought she’d be a pop star.
Your first song, “What If I Took It Off For You?” in 2021 was a response to a brand treating you poorly, and it got a lot of attention and resonated with many people. What was the experience to have your first-ever song explode like that?
Honestly, it didn't feel like it was exploding at the time because I feel like I'm so used to social media and having little viral moments, little videos, or a comment even that can go viral on someone else's video. I think at the time it felt so natural and it wasn't, “Oh my God, my song's getting the recognition it deserves.” And it also wasn't like it deserves more. It was just, everything felt right. And looking back now, I'm like, "Whoa, those are crazy numbers considering that was my first ever song release." But at the time you didn't really feel it as much because it was just when you're doing the right thing, you're not feeling that it's a moment in time that is a memory now.
How does it feel now as you're slowly realizing the impact it’s had?
I think I realize it every day. I don't really know, to be honest. I'm a bit delusional also, I don't even realize that people even want to hear me or listen to my music. So the most shocking thing is that I can even fill a room, let alone that people actually know the lyrics to my first song ever, so all the time I just forget that I even wrote a song like that, or even wrote an EP that I did. So when people come up to me, I'm like, "Oh, am I in your way?" You know what I mean? And they're like, "No, I like your song, ‘What If I Took It Off For You?’ and I'm like, "Oh, me? My song?" So it's always pretty shocking. It still is.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you hope your music empowers more Muslim women in your community. With your new visibility, do you feel a responsibility to your community, and is that something that you struggle with?
I think after the first single came out, I felt a lot of pressure to now be the only spokesperson for my community. And honestly, I'm not really good under pressure like that. I don't think I'm the right person to do that, so I'd rather just not do it at all. [But] I didn't think I deserved to do music if I wasn't going to speak for my community because everybody's just looking at you and they're like, "Well, you can fight for us." So I got really anxious [at the] end of 2021 and beginning of 2022. And then when I released the EP, I felt like I had completed what I needed to complete. It was things that I wanted to say, but it was also enough for my community.
Now, I feel like this album and this song that's coming out, “I Wanna Be Your Right Hand,” I feel like this is the first time I'm just writing about something that a normal girl would write about. I think I also deserve to write songs that aren't always so much weight that I have to carry every time. Even singing “What If I Took It Off For You?” sometimes it's triggering like, "Oh my gosh, I have to retell the story." I love it in the end, but sometimes there's that one day in the year where it's just maybe I don't want to listen to this.
Did you feel freer making your new songs? Vocally, it sounds like you’re letting loose.
I think with the EP I had this thing where I was like, I don't want to oversing it. I want it to be about the lyrics. I want to sing it as simplistic and universal as possible. Whereas with this album, because it's just lighter and I don't have to carry the weight of such severe topics, I got to actually sing and have fun with it. And I feel like it's going to progressively get more vocal-forward.
Before you were making music, you were a beauty and fashion content creator. Was a music career always something that you wanted to pursue?
No. It was never. I didn't even think it was possible, to be honest. I knew if I was born white, I would 100 percent be a pop star. I would watch [TV] and I'd be like, "Yep, I have what it takes, but I don't have what it takes externally, and it just won't work." I'm a realist. I'll look at something and I'll think very logically, and I watched Disney, I watched Family Channel, and I would look at it, I'd watch YTV, whatever it is I'm watching, and nobody looked like me so I knew that it's not likely that I could be that person.
How has it been navigating the industry now? Do you still feel like it wasn't built to accommodate non-white artists?
It's a tricky one. I think the music industry is very welcoming of POCs and stuff, so long as you're not going into pop. There's definitely bubbles, and they welcomed me in, especially, I got invited to a few events with Amazon that were for Black creatives and brown creatives, and they invited me in and they're very welcoming. Obviously I'm Arab, I'm not Black, but they'll bring me in because they know that there's not really a space, but then everyone's okay with me so long as I'm not trying to be in pop. I'll get labeled as soul, R&B, which I always get labeled as R&B, which I think is really quite silly. Yeah, there might be 10 seconds of it that you might find an R&B melody or something in there, a term. But for the most part, I'm indie pop, alternative, folk, in nowhere, maybe soul, that's fine. But the point is, over everything, I'm definitely pop and I always just get mislabeled, and there's no point in even fighting it.
How would you describe the sound of your new project in a few words?
It's funny, I sent two songs to my friend, and he loves my old stuff and he was just like, "Oh, it makes me a little uncomfortable." The sound and the way I play with my voice, it's got old pop sensibility. I'm talking Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, The Cranberries. So I think there's a little bit of discomfort, not necessarily with the lyrics, but it's a little abnormal and a little alternative, but I think it's just a sprinkle. And the best way to describe it is trying green tea for the first time. It's a little bitter so it's leaving a weird taste on [your] tongue, but then you keep going back. And next thing you know you're drinking one every day.