#NoFilter: Dubai Singer Layla Kardan on Being a Beacon in the Dark

Layla Kardan
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Back in my college days, I had a professor named Dr. J who was the most emotionally intelligent and attuned person I’d ever met. That’s what happens when you commit your life to Jungian principles, I suppose. Dr. J was instrumental in imparting some interview techniques that I employ to this day, even though they are – by all accounts – non-traditional.

According to Carl Jung, our three selves – the Id, the ego, and the superego or the unconscious, conscious, and subconscious – need to be in balance with each other for true mental well-being. Our unconscious is always crying out through dreams and perceived coincidences, but in the modern day, we’re taught to ignore that voice.

Dr. J recommended letting the hand draw freely while speaking to someone, and then examining the pictures or doodles that happened as a result – he called it disassociative drawing. These sketches, he argued, were messages from your true self. If you really want to know how you feel about someone, give it a try.

Recently, I had the tremendous honor of interviewing Layla Kardan, an Australian jazz and soul singer who is currently taking the Dubai music scene by storm. From the outset, Kardan impressed me with just how emotionally attuned she was, but still, I was astonished to see that I had repeatedly scribbled the yin-yang sign in the margin of the page where I’d been taking notes. Right there, in black and white, was a clear and unmistakable communiqué from my unconscious. I had no idea I was even doing it at the time, so the revelation – partnered with Dr. J’s advice – brought a whole new layer of awe to my experience with Kardan.

Perhaps I unwittingly borrowed the yin-yang symbol from Kardan’s own words when she told me, “I strive for balance, not in the cliché way that people talk about, but in a real way, where I’m committed to it every day.” Balance is not easy when you leave a cushy, private-sector job in finance to wildly leap into the unknown, just as Kardan did when she decided to live her truth as a musician. “Good girls don’t become entertainers,” her father warned sternly.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Layla Kardan
Photo: Courtesy of Layla Kardan

When I said earlier that Kardan is Australian, that was simultaneously true and not exactly true. While she is an Australian citizen, she was born in Belgium after her family fled Iran during the revolution. They lived in the States and all over Europe, but her family is now split in two. Her mother and her sisters are back in Sydney – along with a piece of Kardan’s heart – while her father divides his time between Dubai and Iran.

“I still feel very Iranian because of the household I was brought up in,” she says. “But, I am grateful to Australia for rearing me and Dubai for catapulting me into the music industry. When people ask me where I’m from, I don’t know how to answer that. I feel like I’m from everywhere and nowhere.”

I feel like I’m from everywhere and nowhere.

How did Dubai come to be the background to Kardan’s latest chapter in life? “Mainly, it’s because my father is here, and I have committed to stay close to him. Otherwise, as an Australian citizen, it would be better for me to have launched my singing career in Sydney, London, or the US.”

One has to wonder how her career might have differed if she had tried to establish it elsewhere. After all, Dubai – or the Middle East for that matter – isn’t exactly known for being a musical epicenter. Another challenge arises from the culture, in which it is typically frowned upon for women to pursue creative endeavors.

“I worked professionally in the corporate world, trying as hard as I could to fit the conventional role that was laid out for me. I come from a very conservative family, so I didn’t want to defy social convention. In the Middle East, there isn’t much respect for female music artists. But, it got to a point where I felt that if I didn’t hang up my corporate boots and just do music, I would suffocate and die inside.”

While there were social and financial drawbacks to stepping out on her own as an artist, Kardan also encountered surprising benefits. While working at her job in finance, she would pick up singing gigs on the side for fun and fulfillment. Not only did she manage to snag a Sunday residency right out of the gate – one she still has, in fact – but she also made important connections to the music scene in Dubai through producers and musicians with whom she would eventually work.

Engaging in her passion set Kardan up for the moment where she would step out into the unknown, leaving behind a stable career for her true love. Meanwhile, she was on stage learning from every opportunity that she was given, from how to connect with her audience to how to improve her musicianship.

“In a way, the smaller music scene in Dubai helped me get my career off the ground more quickly because there are always events here that need performers,” she explains. Smaller markets lend themselves to this kind of quick growth because the less crowded it is, the less competition you encounter. Big fish, small pond, and all that.

Few people would decide to swim upstream against the current, but Kardan has proven to be nothing if not determined. Was it hard to go from something secure to something insecure, to engage with so many unknowns, I asked. “This is my truth and I simply cannot be anything else. I was willing to do that, but it was difficult. Not only because it was a big change financially and socially, but also because I did not have the support of my family.”

Imagine being the dutiful daughter and then – buckling under the weight of your convictions – deciding to abandon those traditional notions and embarking on a brand new creative journey. Not only would the uncharted terrain of your new life become a point of concern, but also would the perception of your loved ones.

“What I find most challenging is the conditioning of people’s minds and how they perceive female performers. For me, it’s surprising because we’re so progressive in so many ways here in Dubai, but sometimes, people are negative in their acceptance of female performers. My own father, who is highly educated, has told me the same,” Kardan confesses.

Fortunately, the challenges she has faced as a female performer in the Middle East have become – in her words – content. Her new song “Save Myself”, for example, contains the following lyrics: Save it though I want to save myself / I was in the box just doing what’s right / though I wanted to believe it of myself / there was nothing more than just a dim light. She makes no qualms about tackling these types of messages through her work. “I write about women who have to bear the criticism of others when they don’t follow social conventions or others’ expectations of how they should behave,” she says.

Layla Kardan
Photo: Courtesy of Layla Kardan

If it sounds cathartic to translate these kinds of internal lessons into beautiful songs, that’s because it is. Kardan carefully explains that her music comes from a place of raw, authentic truth and, because she is in front of an audience speaking her truth, music has become a form of therapy for her. Her songs explore many topics close to her heart, from a longing for stability and familial support to explanations of her innermost self – the self who had to break with tradition and forge her own path, regardless of what others said.

Although they balked at her career choice, her family is starting to come around. “They’re better than they used to be, but still not 100 percent approving of my chosen career path,” she says. “My parents think that happiness comes from job security, starting your own family, or looking good in society – but that’s not what happiness means to me. In fact, for me, that is an idea of prison.”

My parents think that happiness comes from job security, starting your own family, or looking good in society – but that’s not what happiness means to me. In fact, for me, that is an idea of prison.

Whether she intends to or not, Kardan has fallen into lockstep with a new generation of young women who are choosing self-fulfillment and self-actualization instead of the prescribed path carved out by society. They’re choosing to establish creative careers, get married and have children later in life, and gain experiences over material things like cars and houses.

Flouting convention isn’t easy, especially for a sensitive soul like Kardan. “It’s hard to choose this life because it’s emotionally draining. It’s vulnerable. You’re always asking, ‘Am I exposing too much of myself? Do people like what I’m doing?’ Your success is ultimately based on other people’s validation.” Written clearly in the social contract of performer and audience is this expectation: I’ll entertain you,and you validate me. Fortunately, talent at the level possessed by Kardan creates a strong fan base from which to grow as an artist.

As an independent artist, Kardan has also had to argue her point of view with total strangers who have approached her and asked, “What’s your real job?” She’s had to do the same with men she’s been in relationships with when they demanded that she give up singing to raise a family. “There are also men who see you and objectify you, thinking if you’re there on stage as entertainment, then you’re there for the taking,” she states. “I’ve learned how to deflect it and not absorb it. It fuels my message. One of my songs is called “Makeup Like Warpaint”. I say: Makeup like warpaint / skin like canvas / eyes like magnets I arise / out of the darkness I have awakened / you do your thing I do mine.”

The feminist messaging of Kardan’s lyrics is intentional. “The dove of peace has two wings, one is a man and one is a woman. Without them both, you cannot achieve flight,” she quips philosophically. “But, sometimes, I catch myself molding back into that conventional role because it’s so deep-rooted – this cultural conditioning,” she continues.

One of Kardan’s greatest strengths is how emotionally in-tune she is with herself – her ability to catch those moments where she slips comfortably back into the mold that she was trying to break free from is central to her constant striving for betterment. In one of her songs, she powerfully proclaims: I am taking back my power intact / you better not stay on the same wrong line / I will reclaim my goddess state / you better not stay on the losing side / I’m made to be free / I know you can see me / I am a beacon in the dark.

The dove of peace has two wings, one is a man and one is a woman. Without them both, you cannot achieve flight.

Beyond her brilliant and empowering lyrics, Kardan’s visuals help cement her status as a woman to be reckoned with. In her music video for “As One”, Kardan is a queen, marching in front of black-clad bodyguards who sport surprising floral wreaths. “I wanted those guys who were my bodyguards to look like they’re working for me,” she laughs. The un-ironic part is that, during the music video shoot, they were.

Furthermore, she employs talented women on her creative team whenever possible. “The director of my first music video is female, and I wanted to find a female producer for my album, which was actually a bit difficult. I needed to find someone who understood my empowering message and whom I could align with creatively,” she shares.

#NoFilter: Dubai Singer Layla Kardan on Being a Beacon in the Dark

Beyond her talents as a musician, Kardan is notable for her fashion sense, although she shrugs off this idea rather quickly. “I am not a fashion girl because I don’t feel like I have my finger on the pulse. I don’t know if what I’m wearing is on trend or the right brand, you know? I like to wear crazy things and crazy colors. What’s important to me is not to limit myself in terms of trends, but I do like to maintain a level of conservatism. You will never see me exposing too much skin. I prefer a modest look,” Kardan states emphatically.

For that reason, you will often see her wearing the designs of Arwa Al Banawi, a close friend and fellow feminist. “I wrote a song for her, in fact, called “Suitable Woman”. It’s about being feminine, beautiful, and bold while still being modest.” Kardan is preoccupied with her image in the sense that she wants her brand and messaging to be consistent – and consistently empowering.

She’s eager for that breakthrough moment, and all signs point to its impending arrival. She will drop the single from her new EP on May 20th, and release the EP itself in July. Her new album, which she has already finished writing and will be recording in New Zealand, will be finished by the end of the year. While these are immediate career markers, Kardan is ambitious about the future.

“My career goal is to be the first Middle Eastern crossover artist on a global scale, with visuals as well as music that have very subtle Middle Eastern undertones – whether it’s melodically or rhythmically.” Kardan also intends to remain independent, which is the way many artists prefer to shape their careers these days. Instead of being beholden to a record label – which dictates who will produce your music, which studio you should use, who opens for you on tour, etc. – Kardan wants to retain the ability to craft her persona as she sees fit.

If you ask any musician what they want to be, many of them will report, “successful” – but that definition differs from person to person. Kardan’s perspective is unique. “Every year, I build a visual of myself as a house with different pillars of support represented by family, my career, and my spirituality. My goal is to have them each in balance, while developing and growing as a human,” she explains.

“I could be making a million dollars a year, but if I didn’t use my voice, I would see myself as a failure. Even though I’m financially worse off, I’m much more successful from my point of view. I am living my truth, I am pushing myself to realize my fullest potential, and I’m doing something worthy for myself and hopefully others. That is what success is to me; realizing my fullest potential as a human.”

When it comes to balance, Kardan is a calm tight-rope walker, straddling the worlds of tradition and modernity, gracefully handling and deflecting doubt and negativity with charm and humor. She strides bravely into every unknown like an undercover anthropologist. It’s no wonder that the universal symbol of balance – the yin and the yang – spilled out of my hand as I spoke with her, without even noticing.

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