What do you think when you hear hip-hop? Some think about the stereotype of sexist and homophobic artists influencing a group of already angry people. These themes do appear in some music, however, there is movement within hip-hop to change these perceptions. Two of those artists live right here in Salt Lake County, Zigga and Ermiya Fanaeian.
Zigga is a 25-year-old father of three. He describes himself as a black Jew with gay transgender parents. Even with this history, he wasn’t naturally an advocate for the LGBT community. He was simply a rapper who wanted to perform. After years of hearing homophobic slurs from his friends and fellow rappers, he began to feel that his family was under attack and he stood up for them.
Ermiya is a 16-year-old rapper who describes himself a gay man who loves to challenge gender. Before Ermiya was a year old, his parents moved from Tehran, Iran to San Diego, Calif. His family moved again when he was 9 years old to Salt Lake City. His family isn’t Muslim but his parents have many homophobic and transphobic ideas. A year ago, he accepted that he was gay and refused to allow it to affect his dream of being a hip-hop performer.
Both men write and perform their own music. Zigga’s background is that of a writer and a speaker. Ermiya describes himself as a poet first. Zigga said that his poetry naturally fit into becoming hip-hop music.
They have different reasons for connecting to this musical style. Ermiya describes his reason as an art form with infinite possibilities. Yet, Zigga gives two reasons. First, he says hip-hop was a convenient choice, a direct connection to a community he is a part of. Secondly, he gravitated to the grittiness of the music.
In the song “Rose Pedals,” Ermiya says, “the line ‘it can happen all of a sudden then I’ll just blow it off like we were nothing’ where I’m talking about a boy he fell in love with, and the boy left Ermiya for a girl because the boy’s parents were very homophobic and didn’t want him to be gay.” This is one song Ermiya suggested as an introduction to his music. He describes a line in the second song, “Violins,” as follows, “I wrote the line ‘the violins aren’t really there if no one hears’ which is talking about romantic violins playing at a candlelight dinner, but the couple sitting at the dinner table can’t enjoy the sound of those violins because they’re too focused on the negativity and unhappiness in their relationship.” He writes with the passion of a young lover who is challenged to find the love he wants.
Zigga also gave me two songs to listen to. The first song, “Mama Proud,” is about his views of parenting. This song hasn’t been released at the time of this article. His second choice, “We Are One,” presents his desire to see unity in this world. This song speaks of the gun violence in our society prior to the events of June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Fla., “shootings in the public schools/shootings in the theaters… all because we are different.” This song is addressed to “all the people of the world” in the first line.
The life of Zigga
Zigga was born in 1991 and moved to Berkeley, Calif. as a small child. He describes meeting his stepfather at a gathering of queer people with his mother. It was this meeting that changed both of their paths. His mother learned she could become his dad and did. He was 4 years old when this happened. His father is Sean Dennison, the former minister at the South Valley Unitarian Universalist congregation. Sean has spoken several times at local and national LGBT rallies and events.
With the move to Salt Lake City, Zigga learned that people saw him and his family as different. He observed that multiculturalism wasn’t the norm. He also experienced that he couldn’t always have friends over to his house because his parents were gay men. This was in sharp contrast to his earlier life in Berkeley. He spoke of spending time with his Jewish family members, with his Christian family, and his Muslim family. He has even traveled as far as Turkey to spend time with them and learn from them. This personal history has given him the personal feeling of jokingly being “the ultimate minority.”
Zigga describes his teenage years as rebellious. He also freely admits that he would love to go into politics but he has a criminal record. Since then, he has become a father of three girls. His children are the center of his world. He also describes how he feels he is looked at when he walks with his children who are lighter than him because his wife is white. This highlights the racism he sees around him.
Zigga’s music is his way of finding a place in the world. It is also an opportunity for him to try to create the world he wants for his daughters. He says one of his proudest moments was when his daughter stood up for transgender people. He sees the values of equality and diversity developing with his own children.
His style would be best described as abstract mainstream. The thing that makes his music special is the versatility he can display, both because of his multifaceted past and the large range of influences and contacts he draws from and works with.
The Life of Ermiya Fanaeian
Ermiya was born in Tehran, Iran, and before his second birthday, his parents relocated the family to San Diego, Calif. He started music classes at 9 years old after moving to Salt Lake City. He learned to sing and play piano. At 11, he began to notice other young hip-hop artists such as Drake, Tyga, Nicki Minaj, and Lil’ Wayne. Watching Nicki Minaj perform, he realized that he didn’t have to be a macho man to be a rapper. He saw the infinite diversity of hip-hop because of Minaj’s song “Super Bass”. He became inspired to write his own music. He spent hours in his room working on his rhymes and lyrics. He started recording his own music in the summer of 2014.
He acknowledged his homosexuality a year ago. He says that his parents don’t know about his work or his sexual orientation. He hasn’t come out to his family because he has seen both homophobic and transphobic responses to recent events, such as Caitlyn Jenner’s public transition. However, this hasn’t kept him from writing songs about boys he’s loved, or getting on a stage wearing a dress and makeup.
His style of music is very sassy and different. It’s also raw and real, he speaks on his personal life.
“You won’t hear most hip-hop artists talk about boys or wearing heels.” He knows people are going to have some negative reactions, but, “if I don’t take risks, I’m not a real artist.”
The events of June 12 affected both artists. For each, it was another example of a society that didn’t welcome him. Zigga described his feelings as another moment when he fears for his community and his family. His protective nature kicked in. Though he doesn’t want to be the only one speaking about LGBT issues in the hip-hop community, he will continue to speak out when he hears homophobic or transphobic comments.
“Homophobia is a potent poison,” he said.
Ermiya described his reaction as crying all day after hearing the news of the attack. He also spoke to the historical nature of gay bars as places where the LGBT community could be safe from society’s judgment. He connected this large attack on the LGBT community with the individual acts of homophobia. He reminds us that people die from bullying. They die because of how transgender people, especially trans-women of color, are perceived.
“Homophobia/transphobia is more than just making ignorant little comments; it’s killing people!”
What happened in Orlando has galvanized them in the importance of being a part of the hip-hop community. It has sparked them into speaking about how marginalized communities need to work together to fight oppression and violence.
Zigga did point out how he doesn’t understand why there is a separation between historically oppressed groups which work against each other instead of together.