Growing up Indo-Caribbean, do you feel more one than the other?
Even as fifth generation Trinidadian, the South Asian side is strong. I can talk to anyone with an Indian mother and connect. For instance food is a big part of how you show love and nurturing in Indian culture. You could be born in Fiji, Trinidad or Canada and that will be always be the case.
Where did the music start?
From the beginning.
In the Caribbean all the houses are close together, the windows always open and the cars driving by are blaring so you hear everyone’s music even if you are not listening. Reggae and dancehall were huge, calypso was everywhere, and about 100 yards from my house a steel band would practice. And then there was the radio with the American top 40.
I came out of the womb asking for a guitar
Why did you choose the guitar?
I came out of the womb asking for a guitar, although I didn’t get one for years. My mum would make us birthday cakes and she would ask what shape I wanted and every year I would say ‘A guitar.’ I would make everything into a guitar – a cricket bat with rubber bands.
How old were you when you finally got one ?
About 12, but then it took me an age to find a guitar teacher.
They had to be suitable.
What made them suitable?
Well for me it was the rock n’ roll vibe. But one teacher was into Spanish guitar, another was into classical guitar, he had a book of guitar tunes and the first song in it was God Save the King, that’s how old it was. It had diagrams on how to hold the guitar if you were a lady.
How should you hold a guitar as a lady?
With legs crossed obviously! So imagine – being a Trinidadian Indian girl wanting to play the guitar was not easy.
I don’t think I even identified as female, I was just one of the boys
Did you ever find a suitable teacher?
Yeah, when I was 17, a musician who introduced me to Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. When a kid says they want to learn guitar everyone says ‘How nice, but what are you going do for a living?’ My parents had already made me do a computer programming course by then, but instead of studying I was hanging out in a pool hall with the boys. When I was very young I don’t think I even identified as female, I was just one of the boys, which I realise now was just internalised misogyny. I had thoughts like ‘Oh girls are so lame, they are so not cool’. I wanted to be the hero in the film not the girl who got saved. And the boys were interested in what I was interested in: horses and guitars.
Homosexuality was only decriminalised in Trinidad last year
Did you know you were queer?
Well if you had asked me in Trinidad at 16 if I was straight I would have said ‘What the hell kind of question is that?’ I would have been offended. But at 16 and a half I went to New York because my dad had moved there, and my eyes opened a little. But you know compulsory heterosexuality is a thing. You just go blindly into it, you think ‘I must be straight, everyone is, why wouldn’t I be?’
Homosexuality is quite taboo in Trinidad?
Oh yeah, it was only decriminalised last year. Although it’s funny I was more out then in some ways. In my early twenties, we would go to clubs and really be acting out, but we were girls, so it was somehow ok.
You came to London at 24 – I guess not as a computer programmer?
Hell no! I wanted to be a session guitarist but my teacher said ‘No, you can’t have your music depend on the singer. You have to do the singing yourself’. That’s when I started writing my own songs but at first I didn’t think I could sing, and I couldn’t.
Look at Sade, she was dressed in a turtleneck for God’s sake
Most singers start by imitating someone, who did you imitate?
PJ Harvey, Courtney Love, growly voices. Then I discovered my own growl, which is a little bit more of a purr.
You have a legendary presence on stage. I believe you cut your teeth in London’s underground scene, performing at Club Motherfucker, and with Gaggle, the all- girl alt-choir. You must feel pretty much able to deal with anything now.
When I am performing, on around the fourth song I feel the audience suddenly get it, but at first they are stunned to see a South Asian woman in front of the stage with an electric guitar. When I was a kid wanting guitar cakes I had no concept of race or gender being an obstacle, I was just like ‘I want to do that, why wouldn’t the world let me do that?’
So you have really had to forge your own way?
I was on a panel of South Asian women musicians last night and I said ‘If you can see it, you can be it’. Well I never saw myself out there, nor had any of the other women on the panel. It would certainly have helped if I could have seen someone like myself playing guitar while growing up. My lived experience is one where people are resisting you. In the same way as I hadn’t seen myself, they hadn’t seen me either.
Did you think of creating a stage persona to hide behind?
I was terrified, but I believe it is important to be authentic. I don’t do or say anything on stage that I wouldn’t in my real life. I don’t think you can work on having presence.
At the beginning I didn’t confront people with my ethnicity, name, heritage, or sexuality
How do you choose what to wear on stage?
I want clothes that make me feel powerful. It seems nowadays there’s only one way for women to express their sexuality in pop and that’s depressing because I think there are so many ways to be sexy. I mean look at Sade, she was dressed in a turtle neck for God’s sake and is way sexier than any girl wearing nothing. Why can’t sexuality be more nuanced? There needs to be room for a broader spectrum of female sexuality in the music industry.
Is it about being comfortable in your skin?
Oh yes, but that’s been a slow evolution for me. At the beginning I was more apologetic, trying to assimilate or at least trying not to challenge people too much. I didn’t confront people with my ethnicity, name, heritage, or sexuality. I have had to learn to accept and celebrate these things. It’s been a long-assed journey from hiding to telling my mother: ‘Who cares what anyone thinks?’
I want to reach out especially to brown women who don’t know how to feel this liberated
What is your ambition for your music? You’re obviously not aiming for the top 10, but as an activist you want to reach as many people as possible?
My aim with the EP Alibi was to make music that I hadn’t already heard a hundred times. I wanted it to encompass as many of my influences, identities and heritages as possible while retaining its own flavour. It was also the point at which I started making music for myself. I think it coincided with a huge amount of self-acceptance and self-love via many months of intense therapy. It’s my own symbol of artistic and personal rebirth. And while it’s not my ambition to be mainstream I do want to reach out, especially to brown women who don’t know how to feel this liberated.
‘Whoa! A Middle Eastern beat into a rockin’ groove!’
The cover certainly does that, you are depicted as an Indian goddess, rising phoenix-like from the flames. Was there anyone you recognised as truly liberated when you were growing up?
Well I did have Madonna. I saw her being so provocative, so gutsy. She didn’t care what women were supposed to be like. Where I grew up women were still supposed to be lady-like and I never was very lady-like. I don’t know if I am now?
Well you definitely look like a lady, whether you are lady-like is another question.
And my mother really hated Madonna’s guts so obviously that intrigued me. What I love about Madonna is that she must be the only conventionally attractive blonde woman to ever take off her clothes and actually upset straight men. I think it’s because they know it’s not for them, it’s for her. She’s like ‘Fuck you’ with her nudity, it’s not ‘Consume me’. She is saying ‘You don’t own this, I own this’.
I didn’t experience the male gaze so much as the gay male gaze and gay men love powerful women
But she is adored by the gay community?
Oh yes. I’ve always had loads of gay male friends, maybe because my brother is also gay. I kind of learned about femininity through them, so I feel my femininity is edgy, subversive. I didn’t experience the male gaze so much as the gay male gaze and gay men love powerful women.
So you never learnt your femininity by trying to please men?
That’s true, but I remember the gay guys saying ‘You have great tits, come on you have to get them out’ and unbuttoning my shirt a little more. They would tell me what looked beautiful or powerful. Society teaches you to play down your power as a woman, which is crap. The feminine is powerful and we have been apologising for this fact for centuries.
Good time to talk about Clit Rock, the series of music events you organised with anti-FGM activist Leyla Hussein to raise consciousness about FGM and other feminist issues. Did Clit Rock open up a new consciousness for you?
Definitely. At the time I was performing as Dana Jade, who was suitably vague, ethnically and sexually unidentifiable, trying to be acceptable to the record executives.
At the same time the world was going further to the right and I have a lot of Muslim friends and family, and was hearing so many stories about what that was like. That’s when I began thinking about changing my professional name from Dana Jade, to Ms Mohammed, which is my official name.
Islamophobia doesn’t care if you’re an agnostic party girl from Trinidad
Except you are not Muslim you are Presbyterian?
Yes, but Mohammed is my official name. It’s on my passport. And I had developed my own anxiety about it. I was full of fear: ‘Am I going to be even more rejected?’ I was already a brown immigrant woman, it’s not as if I was being invited in as it was. The music business is a revolving door of straight white guys who play guitar, there are not even that many men of colour.
Then my father died and it made me question everything, especially my music, which is my love, and suddenly I could only continue on my own terms, as my fully authentic self. So I took back my real name, my government name, Ms Mohammed. I wanted to stand up and be counted. To be part of the alternative narrative surrounding people of Muslim heritage. Islamophobia doesn’t care if you’re an agnostic party girl from Trinidad when your name is Mohammed, it treats us all the same. So Dana Jade who cared about what people thought was the phoenix that was set on fire, and Ms Mohammed was the one who emerged from the flames.
How did you overcome your fears?
I knew from people like Leyla what it was like being a woman with an opinion, there is a lot of trolling, and opening yourself up to that is difficult. Then I went to dinner with the journalist Mona Eltahawy, who is another feminist activist dealing with Muslim issues. We were talking all night and I brought it up and she immediately said ‘You must use your own name’ she just kept saying ‘It’s your name, why do you need permission to use it?’. So I thought ‘Ok that’s me told!’
No more apologising for being so many different kinds of different
Was the outcome as negative as you feared?
Some right-wing guys found me on Facebook. One said I was trying to smash the patriarchy like my future husband was going to smash my face in. My friends all gathered and said, ‘Husband?, honey pull up a chair!’
My whole experience has been littered with silence, cold shoulder action, and straight up rejection. There are designated roles for women of colour and goddess help you if you dare to step outside of them. But now I feel: no more apologising for being so many different kinds of different.
So what does the future hold for Ms. Mohammed?
Climate catastrophe is looming. At first I was depressed, we have 10 years of breathable air unless we dismantle capitalism and save the planet, but now I find it liberating. First of all I need a lot more sex, a lot more dancing, and of course making music, and my activism, working for the LGBT community, to represent brown women like myself who are still closeted and struggling. For me and others like me, merely existing amidst the status quo is a revolutionary act, but the time has come for us not just to find a space to exist but to be celebrated.
Interview and portraits