Nemahsis: the TikTok phenomenon looking to inspire and educate
The Toronto artist powerfully articulates the reality of discrimination against a backdrop of beautiful, healing pop
With Nemahsis, 27-year-old Nemah Hasan wants the world to know that what you see is not what you get. When the Palestinian-Canadian singer-songwriter – who began her career on Instagram, making videos about beauty and modest fashion, and posting Adele covers – released her rich and introspective debut single ‘What If I Took it Off For You?’ in 2021, she started a vital conversation.
The track saw Hasan seeking justice after she was exploited by a major company, who offered her no compensation after she shot an advertising campaign with them. It was a galvanising moment that positioned the Ontario native as a gateway artist, encouraging other Muslim women to use TikTok to talk about their experiences of discrimination over the song’s delicate instrumentation. Across the app, the song has soundtracked thousands of uplifting videos of women discussing their relationship with the hijab, and how wearing it empowers them.
On new single ‘Dollar Signs’, aching pain seeps from every note; “I’m a voice you want / With a face that you need / Tryna pay me less / Than the tax of my fees”, she sings atop eerie, sparse chord changes. For Hasan, the track is an important opportunity to share her story once again, and more directly than ever before. “I want this song to change a lot of people’s perspectives on hijabi, POC women, and Muslims in general,” she says over Zoom. “That’s all I can hope for.”
Nemahsis caught up with NME to discuss how she found her voice as a songwriter, the stigma around being an ‘influencer’ as well as a musician, and her big plans for 2022.
NME: On ‘Dollar Signs’, you tackle the representation of POC and Muslim women in the media – do you think that’s a topic that needs to be addressed more widely in music?
“A lot of my peers that are Muslim don’t necessarily want to do what I’m doing. But I feel like I can’t just sing easygoing songs without airing out the obvious. With my music, I’m trying to share more about the lives of Muslim women with people, so that you guys can help us, and become more aware. There’s definitely both a therapeutic side and an educational side to my music; the only way for us to learn is to share these stories instead of bottling them up.”
The track immediately feels like a breakthrough. What was the process of writing it like?
“If you were to type ‘Dollar Signs’ into my Notes app, you’d see that 2019 was the first time that I tried to write this song. I tried to write it alone, but I knew that the story wasn’t finished yet; I often found myself thinking, ‘How can I write about something that I’m still experiencing?’
“So I revisited it the following year with someone else, but it went in a different direction, and almost became slightly tone-deaf. I knew that if I wasn’t to write it with a POC or someone that looks like me, they wouldn’t understand what it is like to be in my shoes.
“At the start of 2021 I met my songwriting partner Joel [Compass], and we literally got the words down in one day. And when I showed people the song, everyone reacted in a way that I had never seen anyone react to any of my music so far – and that’s when I knew it was the right song.”
Did you find yourself reflecting on some other early experiences of yours?
“Yeah, it was really hard for me. I recently watched the music video and started tearing up because I remembered what it was like to grow up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, to the point where I was the darkest kid, and the only hijabi. I got bullied; I was called a bunch of slurs. It was super traumatic for me because all I ever wanted was to be accepted.
“But now, this song has made me feel hopeful for so many young Muslim women, who can look at me in the industry and be like, ‘Oh my god, there’s someone that looks like me.’ I just want to make their lives easier.”
“I want this song to change a lot of people’s perspectives on hijabi, POC women, and Muslims”
You have gone from starting out as a social media influencer to being celebrated more widely for your music. What new challenges have you had to face?
“A lot of people deliberately don’t want to like my music because I have a platform and I’m an influencer, or started out that way at least. But then people click on one of my songs and their minds are changed. Most of the comments I get are like, ‘Damn, I really didn’t want to like this song, but you blew me away.’ Seeing how well my music has been received has been a real confidence boost.”
Since you are so vulnerable in your music, is it difficult when fans also expect that level of openness from you online?
“I’ve put so much of myself on social media, through the covers I’ve shared to the outfits I’ve put together; I didn’t grow my audience so that I could eventually make music, I grew it as an outlet to be creative. If people are following me for the right reasons, they know that I’m honest in what I write. I’m a transparent person and I think people appreciate that, I’d never want to come across as mysterious.”
‘What If I Took it Off For You?’ has connected emotionally with people on a massive scale. What has that been like?
“It’s super crazy, because people of every ethnicity are using the song on TikTok. I wrote it about the hijab, but it connected widely because every woman has had to take something off – whether it be makeup, clothing, or even emotions – in order to be accepted.
“The song also blew up on SexyTok (a corner of TikTok primarily devoted to explicit content) which is equally funny and amazing because it proves that when a song is beautiful, it makes people feel something deeply. But some people really misunderstood my song; there are videos of men taking off their shirts while it plays in the background!”
Did you ever consider not referencing your experience so explicitly in the song?
“When we had just finished writing the first verse in the chorus, Joel looked at me and he was like, ‘Are you sure you want to release this? This is gonna paint you as a villain; you’re telling people that hope is dangerous.’
“What I’m talking about in this song is the average Muslim girl experience. I’m writing our stories as my own, and I feel like a fraud or a sellout because I’m the only one benefiting off of our tokenization. I’m literally tokenizing our stories for the world to enjoy, if that makes sense. And that’s how I felt after finishing this song – that’s the honest truth.
“But the reason why I wrote ‘Dollar Signs’ is because I felt like there was a missed opportunity with ‘What If I Took It Off For You?’ – I didn’t actually manage to get all of the emotions that I wanted to explore into that song. ‘Dollar Signs’ is the new and improved version of that message, it’s more mature.”
How does it feel knowing that Elton John is a fan of yours?
“When Elton played the song [on the radio], I finally had something to call my dad about. He’s super religious and doesn’t know a lot about popular culture – but you’d have to live under a rock to not know who Elton John is! My dad thought it was amazing that one of the most iconic pop stars ever shared my music, he was so proud.
“Elton understood the assignment to the point of knowing what the song was even about. He clearly took time to try and understand the message on a deeper level; he really understands the importance of having a significant story behind a song. To have someone as influential as Elton John hear my music and then want to find out what it means is crazy, it absolutely blew my mind.”
Your debut EP is set to be released over the coming months. What does it represent to you?
“It sheds light on the experiences that a lot of POC go through, especially to those who have no idea about what our lives are like and what goes through our minds. These are super conversational songs, but thematically, they’re definitely very heavy.
“My music is relatable to a specific audience, in the way that Taylor Swift’s lyrics are relatable to the majority of women. As I continue to write these types of songs, they can grow to become relatable to the general public as well, who may read them entirely different to how I do. I’ve written this intense body of work now so that I can write about cute shit later!”
Nemahsis’ latest single ‘Dollar Signs’ is out now