Sonita is an Afghan rapper whose music is liberating a generation. She is an advocate for an end to child marriage and has been featured in Rolling Stones 25 under 25. Her first YouTube music video “Daughters for Sale” is a personal reflection of her own journey, and that of her friends, to escape child marriage. The video went viral worldwide and Sonita has since received a full scholarship to study and live in the United States.
What did you initially feel when Strongheart Group, the American non-profit organization, offered you a way out of Afghanistan and the chance to pursue your dreams?
I was amazed by the opportunity. It was a dream come true. Even though my life was extremely difficult, I never lost hope. It’s hard to have hope when you struggle for basic needs. I found that I was the one giving hope to other girls and trying to tell them that they should not give up on dreaming big for themselves, despite their circumstances. But in order to give hope to others, I had to find it in myself first. In Iran, I had to believe that change was possible and I had to believe that wonderful things can happen in the world. Personally, I do this by using my “Dreams Book”. First, I must picture what it is that I want. Then, I put a picture of it in my “Dreams Book” so that I can see it. But it isn’t enough to see it, I have to speak about it. Then I work to make it real. Strongheart finding out about me, and offering me the opportunity to come and study in U.S.A, was a dream come true.
You lived in Iran as a refugee while your family had moved back to Afghanistan. Can you speak about how Iranian culture has influenced your music?
Watching Afghan refugees in Iran struggle everyday inspired my music. I was a child laborer and my first song was about child labor. I heard a rap song for the first time in Iran. Iranian culture has great aspects that have influenced who I am today. I have great Iranian friends who have always made me feel welcomed there and supported me throughout my journey. Growing up in Iran as a refugee will always be a part of who I am.
Why rap and do you have any other artistic forms of expression?
I had tried writing pop music, but I felt that it was too slow. Pop music couldn’t hold the story I wanted to share with the world. I couldn’t say enough with it. When I found rap, I knew it could hold my ideas. I understood right away that rap has the power to share the messages I wanted to convey, and those messages were always about social change. I saw injustice around me and I had to speak out about it. Music happened to provide that outlet for me. I knew it could help me share my thoughts with a power that matched the importance of the issues themselves. For me, it became a way to tell my story and share the things I care about most.
When you declined your family’s pressure to marry you as a child, did you ever feel outcasted and if so, how did you deal with that?
I did feel outcasted but I had people who supported me in my quest to get my family to understand me. I had dreams and aspirations for my future that would die if I was forced to get married. I don't blame my family for wanting to marry me at a young age. My own mother was married when she was 13 years old. This is the tradition, and that is all she knew. She thought it would be best for me. I know that my mother loves me very much. These families just need to know new ways. They need new ideas and they need to see new possibilities for their daughters. So we need to work in communities, along with religious leaders, to show the worth of these young girls.
You were breaking laws in Iran by singing as a woman. Did you ever fear for your safety or for that of your family?
Growing up as a refugee in Iran, it was made clear to me that women are not allowed to sing or perform alone in public. I would always carry my lyrics in my backpack, walking through the streets of Tehran, holding onto my bag tightly. Police in Iran target people like me. There was always the possibility that they might search my bag’s contents and open my notebook. If they did, they’d discover two things: I felt strongly about women’s rights and that I was a female rapper. Rappers are among the few who speak about injustices and speak to reality. Women are not supposed to speak out at all. So for me, it felt like carrying drugs, or something illegal. But I didn't give up. I will always sing about what is closest to my heart.
Your lyrics in “Daughters for Sale” say “women must remain silent, this if our tradition”. How does it feel to look back knowing you broke this silence and were greatly rewarded for it?
I have always been observant of injustices in society. This has led me to express myself and speak out against what I feel is wrong. When I broke the silence in this way, through using YouTube to put my video online, I realized the power of speaking out. I realized young people can use this power to change the things they want to change. Now I want everyone to join me and speak out against things like child marriage.
Education is a liberating tool. How do you think your music pushes people, especially young girls, to action?
Awareness and education is critical to changing behaviors, laws, and perceptions about current global issues. Child marriage happens everywhere, even in the United States and Canada. The first step to changing something is understanding it. Music is a powerful first step. It reaches people’s hearts in a way that words alone can’t. But my hope is that music is just an entry point. I designed a curriculum on child marriage with some wonderful partners, the Strongheart Group and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights. This curriculum is now being taught to over a million students in 15 different countries. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. I want everyone around the world to learn about child marriage and I want to engage them as activists.
As of 2018, are you happy with the progress you’ve made in advocating for these problems through your music?
I am happy with the progress I have made, together with my partner organization, Strongheart Group. Child marriage is now part of a global conversation. But we are still far away from it being over. Every year 15 million girls around the world are married before they are 18 years old. That is 15 million dreams destroyed. The need to end child marriage is dire. I want to ask everyone around the world to join me in the quest and end this cruel tradition. You can check out my website, sonita.org, to learn about child marriage and what actions you can take to help prevent it.
If you were to move back to Afghanistan or Iran, do you see yourself influencing public policy on child marriage through music or will you explore other ways?
My heart will always be in Afghanistan and I do hope to help create change there. However, in the long term, I am working to help the youth change policies all over the world. I hope this will bring an end to child marriage, and also support programs that will help the youth create a brighter future for themselves.
As an example of someone who has risen above their circumstances, on top of education, what else can young girls do to reach safety and opportunity?
I want girls to be able to dream big and believe in themselves. It is very important for girls to believe in who they are and to believe that they can become something great. To hold this hope and vision in their heads and their hearts is what I aim to do for them. It is what inspires me to make my art. I want girls all around the world to know and feel that they have power.
Sonita Alizadeh continues to use her platform as a musician to inspire and advocate for social change. Her message to the world is clear—child marriage robes the dreams, potential and safety of all children. As a leading figure and voice for the all the silenced child brides, this 20-year-old rapper has accomplished a tremendous amount in a short period of time.