Jo Whitehead talks to the inspirational Zahra Haji Fath Ali Tehrani, director of Oxford’s Young Women’s Music Project, about getting involved in music, sexism in the music industry and maintaining a safe and creative space for the young women of Oxfordshire
CN: harassment and assault
“Drummer. Mother. Other.” This is how Zahra Haji Fath Ali Tehrani, director of Oxford’s Young Women’s Music Project (YWMP) describes herself on her personal Twitter page. While this pithy description may be accurate, it fails to incorporate the many other hats she wears and position she holds as a long-standing member of the Oxford music scene, leader, teacher and all-round inspiration.
I first met Zahra when I was 26-years-old and had just bought a drum kit. I was looking for a teacher and my friend, a musician, told me about Zahra, who was only 18-years-old at the time. Despite her tender age, Zahra had been heavily involved in the local music scene for some time. At that time, she was performing with the band Baby Gravy, but had been drumming since the age of 14, and was an exciting and refreshing presence on a musical landscape largely populated by middle-class white boys in guitar bands.
In possession of the most monotone voice since Daria Morgendorffer, Zahra was born and raised in east Oxford by an Irish mother and an Iranian father. Despite Oxford’s romantic image as the city of dreaming spires, academic excellence and privilege, there is another side to this divided city. Relative to household numbers, the city has one of the highest recorded rates of homelessness and rough sleepers outside London, something evident to any visitor to the city. Despite Oxford’s Labour city council, it was recently reported that homeless people have been threatened with fines of up to £2,500 for putting their possessions in shop doorways. The imprisonment of a gang of men in 2013, who had groomed and sexually abused young girls in care over an extended period, also revealed a much darker edge to Oxford.
The origins of the YWMP began in the early 1990s and continue through to the present day, under Zahra’s exceptional leadership and unwavering commitment. While she is keen to involve anyone who she feels would benefit, she is dedicated to providing a safe and creative space for local young women to explore their creativity and discuss the issues affecting them. I recently met up with Zahra in Oxford to talk about her involvement in music, her experiences of being a young woman in the industry and the achievements and hopes for YWMP.
Can you tell me a bit about how you first got into music?
I started out playing instruments when I was about 11-years-old, playing guitar. I didn’t really enjoy playing stringed instruments, but I felt like it was what I should be doing back then. I always wanted to play drums – I used to really annoy my Mum by playing with the cutlery on the table at dinnertime – but I didn’t have access to a drum kit or anything.
One day, my Dad said to me that someone was selling a drum kit for £20. It was just sitting under the table of some really rich family in Oxford and my Dad asked if I wanted it and offered to buy it for me. So, I had this drum kit in my room, but I didn’t know what the hell to do with it. It came with a book and I copied the image on the front to figure out how to set it up and then I was just listening to my CDs and learning how to play along. I was 14 when I started playing drums and I realised that that was the instrument that I really wanted to play ‘cos I could literally just hit shit and have fun and it sort of made sense. Then I started to access local music projects, so I could go into a studio and record stuff.
I love that your Dad suggested bringing a drum kit into his home!
I remember covering all the drums with tea towels so I didn’t piss anyone off.
Did you get any complaints from neighbours?
Yeah, probably! I used to rehearse in the kitchen, but I did try and warn everyone. It is the most antisocial instrument in the world [laughs].
It really is!
But, I love it. It’s anger management! Smash the shit out of things.
How did things evolve for you at this stage?
I accessed a space in Cowley Centre called the Ark-T centre and that’s where I met Kate Garrett. She was one of the music leaders there. I built up a relationship with her, which was really great, because I hated school and had some crazy shit going on at home, so I really needed that sort of support. I used to just skive school all the time; all I wanted to do was play music. By going to see her and work in that space, it opened me up to meeting loads of new people and I started loads of bands through that. I met loads of other musicians and started accessing Young Women’s Band Project, which is what YWMP was called then, and watched some of my first shows there because they had regular live sessions.
It was a really good way to meet musicians my age, because they were all doing similar things, which was good. That was a really big opening to starting up Baby Gravy [Zahra’s old band] and going to gigs. I was on the Zodiac [legendary Oxford live music venue, now an O2 Academy] street-team, so I used to get in for free to loads of shows and hand out badges and get people to sign mailing lists, and that got me familiar with the Zodiac and people that were working there, so I met people that way, too.
How old were you at that stage?
Between the ages of 14 and 16? I started putting on my own gigs at 16, so I started quite young.
You mentioned your relationship with Kate, but who else in your life was inspiring you?
I’ve always listened to a variety of styles of music, but I think artists like Missy Elliott. Around that age, I was obsessed with her and how out there she was; her music just didn’t fit into a box. Also, bands like The Breeders … there weren’t many female drummers. I liked Bikini Kill and loads of Riot Grrrl stuff, like Le Tigre. That whole attitude of being able to say what you want and making the music you want and not putting yourself into a box was really inspiring to me growing up.
Locally, I didn’t really have much inspiration apart from Kate. I can’t really think of many supportive people in the local community or local music scene who changed my life or helped me – that sounds really bad! [laughs]. There was one lady called Delia who helped me a bit later on. She used to support my band, Baby Gravy, loads, by promoting our shows and making sure we weren’t getting ripped off by people – she was amazing. Her and Kate are really the ones who stood out who didn’t rip us off! I can tell you loads of really bad stories …
What was your experience of being in the music industry at such a young age? Fifteen years on, do you feel like the music industry has improved to become a more inclusive, supportive space for young women?
It was really difficult. We had massive problems. In Baby Gravy, three of us were girls, the other three were boys, but we were female-fronted. The big characters in the band were us ladies. I feel like Oxford at that time was so messed up and we were at the forefront of getting lots of abuse and being in lots of difficult situations. There were lots of predatory older guys around …
Personally, I had a very difficult time training as a sound engineer. I got kicked out of school and was always at the Zodiac. I would find ways of not having to pay and getting on the guest list, for lending someone a drum kit or doing some mailing list for someone. I met someone who worked there, who asked me to train with him to be a sound engineer and to cover him when he was on tour.
I was so happy to be offered that opportunity, as it was something I was really interested in – but I had the most awful experiences. Touring bands would come in and he would humiliate me and call me names and shout at me in front of them and pick on me and come on to me, like, constantly, at night, through text or in front of people. He would just humiliate me in front of the other engineers. I remember having lunch and him saying, “If you can fit that whole pizza in your mouth, you can be my girlfriend”, in front of a load of old men. He was really unwell at the time, no excuses, and heavily into drugs.
I remember being at the club night and people like Eliza Gregory [musician and front woman of ex-Oxford band Ivy’s Itch coming up to me and saying, “Zahra, it’s so amazing seeing you up there! Do it for the women of Oxford!” So, in the back of my head I thought I had to persevere through all this shit just to get somewhere.
He prevented me from learning anything; I ended up asking other engineers what a DI box was, because he didn’t teach me shit. I remember him making women cry in sound checks that were in other bands. And, that was just one guy out of, like, fifty other guys I could mention who were so horrible to us – screwed us over when we recorded, came on to Iona [the vocalist] because she was very confident on stage and outgoing and her lyrics sometimes had sexual content, so people felt that they had the right to talk to her like that, which was really sad and not her fault or any excuse in any way. At the time, I didn’t get it and was just like, “Can’t you wear something different?” I didn’t understand. No one said to me that it was the way it was gonna be. I’ve apologised to her since because I felt like I really made her life difficult because I felt like it was her fault, when really it was just the men.
We were signed to a record label who did similar things. The guy who ran it was in love with Iona and was waiting until she turned 18 to, like, yeah … I was probably 17, 18 and she was only 15, 16. It was really hard because we were taking these opportunities as we thought they were going to put out our record or give us a show, only for them to then threaten us and say, “If you don’t do this/work with us on this thing, we’ll tell everyone …” That sound engineer, for example – I got put on the rota for working at the Zodiac as a sound engineer and he said to me that if I took the job he would “turn his back” on me. So, I turned down the job, because I thought he was going to tell everyone not to employ me.
There were lots of mind-games and horrible things that I really felt stopped us from getting any further. I got assaulted in the Zodiac by a guy in another local band, who was drunk and pinned me up against a wall. He was shouting at me about the fact that we were on the cover of Nightshift [an established Oxford music paper] and was shouting, “I put you where you are now!” He wouldn’t let me go – this huge guy, rubbing himself up against me – and I remember having to push him away and duck under his arm to get away. No-one helped me and there were people everywhere.
I remember constantly having that; whether it was them making us feel uncomfortable or giving us a shit slot at a gig because we were women or humiliating us in sound check or luring us into situations where they would offer us studio time or a sound engineer apprenticeship – but there were always strings attached. I know other women who I’ve spoken to who’ve had similar situations and it’s really sad, in Oxford in particular. I’m sure it’s happened everywhere, but the fact that Oxford’s so small and everyone’s in a band. It’s a good thing, in a way, as everyone pushes themselves to do better because there’s so much happening. It’s just a very unusual situation.
I’m so sorry to hear that, Zahra …
I don’t really talk about it too much. It’s come out a lot in my teaching. I would never put my experiences at the forefront unless it comes up in conversation and the girls have found it helpful for me to tell them bits of my story, because then they understand what to look out for and can come to me. I feel responsible because I’m connected to the Oxford music scene – whatever’s left of it – and connected to those experiences, because I’ve had them.
I don’t things have got that much better, to be honest with you. I think seeing the whole Kesha thing really blow up in the media and the helplessness you feel seeing that there’s no way out of these situations. And that’s on a much bigger scale and so public. Imagine that was your first musical experience – it would put you off for life. I’ve met lots of women who have got older and, similarly to me, teach music. Another facilitator, this one woman in particular, emailed me after a session that I did with some vulnerable girls and said, “I quit music when I was in a band because the guys didn’t support me” and she listed some experiences she’d had. It’s probably connected to so many different art forms and situations, but music doesn’t feel like it has progressed enough.
At a grass roots level, you walk into a music shop and you feel uncomfortable and you get some shitty comment. Whenever I talk to industry people, they all say, “Oh, I don’t know what you’re talking about, things are fine. There’s a 60:40 split”, some guy said to me the other day. I said, “But, you’re not living and breathing this. First of all, you’re a white man and you’re telling me what I have and haven’t experienced. Secondly, you’re talking about it at a higher level – they’re all working in event production and admin and there is a 60:40 split, but we’re on the ground, doing the work and knowing the bands. You don’t see that bit. You might see a few women who are doing really well and don’t experience issues – that’s gonna happen as well.
I would also really question what that 60:40 split actually looks like and how many of those 40% of women are actually in senior positions and making decisions and have respect, or if they’re just sitting on reception or making tea.
Exactly. I’ve been to some ‘women in music’ conferences and sometimes I sit there thinking, “Why am I here? What is the actual problem?” because I can’t get to the bottom of it. It’s just something that’s been going on for so long and so ingrained in our culture. Seeing that there are women who are really high up in record labels, CEOs of massive labels, that’s great – but the A&R aren’t women. A&R and production are the two fields that have the least representation of women that I’ve seen and those are the people that are creating and sourcing the music. So, they’re making the decisions about who is being heard. At the end of the day, it is an entertainment business – it’s all about money at that higher level. I don’t think anyone really gives a shit, to be fair. On the level I’m on, and growing up as a young person in Oxford, it has not been easy.
Thank you for telling me all that, Zahra. I’m really sorry to hear of these experiences.
Yeah. I feel like it’s the right time to start saying it, because it just didn’t seem like an issue before, but actually all that was not cool.
That’s a really polite way to describe it. It’s really fucked up.
I do feel sometimes like there’s something there, of the collected stories of women that have been through this stuff. And, I don’t think a zine is gonna cut it. I hear it so frequently. And, you only hear the stories of people who have made it, so to speak, like Viv Albertine’s memoir or Patti Smith or Carrie Brownstein or whoever decides to do one. As for the actual people who are still out here? It’s a really forgotten and lost thing. It really puts me off. I mean, I’m making music now, but when I show up to sound checks with the girls, I actually hate it. They never experience it really, because I’m there.
What’s it like in Oxford right now, with women and girls in bands? Is anything happening?
A bit. There are a couple of women or all-girl things happening. There are some women playing in bands, here and there. The girls that I’m working with are all doing their thing. School takes over, though. It’s very singer/songwriter-y – Oxford’s very folk-y, indie.
When I did Punt festival two years ago, I was one of a handful of women who played, but the following year, there were twice as many women playing, which felt like some progress. There’s none of what we had, y’know, the young punk bands from Didcot, like Iona’s [ex-Baby Gravy front woman] band, stamping their feet and hitting their head with the microphone. There’s none of that Riot Grrrl angst or any of that in the music, really.
Where are you up to with YWMP?
We’re currently working on a year-long project with Fusion Arts, which is funded by Youth Music, which is like a Lottery thing. It’s pretty good. It means I’ve become salaried, which is mind-blowing, because I’ve been freelancing for five years! So, personally, I have some security and the project has some security and a space within Fusion to run, which is ideal. It’s not forever, so we need to think about what’s gonna happen at the end of the year, but we’ve just secured funding for other things.
We submitted a proposal to Rosa fund, which is a women’s charitable fund, to start up a training programme based around sexism in the music industry – and we got it! So, we’re over the moon about that. It starts at the end of the year and the plan is to formally research – we have plenty of ‘research’ from our own experiences! – to get the facts in and I’ll be working with 15 young women to create this training. We will then deliver it to 300 professionals in a year. Places like Oxford University, PMT music shops – they need it! So, we’re going to offer it to places like that. We’re going to have an audio book, visuals and a manual, so it’s gonna be the next level as, eventually, we’ll be able to get income from it. So, it’s very exciting.
We have a drum troupe, which is a year old. When I used to teach you drums, I had a dream of an all-women drum troupe. You should join!
I would love that!
You only have to play one drum at a time! Everyone always says, “I can’t drum!” then they come along and they’re just amazing. You’re playing together … there’s just something so natural and hippy-like all playing drums in a group [laughs], it’s like back to basics. So, it’s kind of turned into a marching band, but we take tunes we really like, like ‘One Dance’ by Drake, and just made our own version, and Missy Elliott. We just take beats and put our own twist on it. Those girls have performed all over the place. We played at Cowley Road Carnival, Oxford Pride, the BBC Introducing Stage at Truck, Common People and Supernormal, which sold out.
We still run workshops twice a month. With this Fusion Arts and YWMP collaboration, we can now offer qualifications for a year, so young women are getting arts awards, from bronze to gold, which is the equivalent of a GCSE and A Level. Some of the girls are young mums and they can now get Ucas points and things like that, which is great.
In the summer, we’re running a 2-week camp – not a residential! – from 18 August – 2 September. It’s called UpBeat Masterclasses and we’re going to deliver music sessions every day and they’re gonna get a GCSE out of it. That’s the bonus side of this collaboration.
We were BBC Introducing… Act of the Year last year. I couldn’t believe it, because we’re not a band! We were over the moon with that kind of recognition, very exciting. We all went down to the studio at Christmas – there were, like, 20 girls in there – and did interviews, played some tunes and did a live session. So, we’re getting recognition within Oxfordshire and the respect I think we deserve. And, slowly, but surely, the money’s coming through. Maybe, eventually, we’ll have our own space, our own purpose-built studio and space. What we’re missing is our core funding for next year.
We’ve started running a girls’ rights project, which started a year ago, with Plan UK, who have set-up this girls’ rights project in the UK. I’m delivering their sessions, which is really fun, but new to me. We’ve sent letters of solidarity to girls in Malawi and Uganda and it’s helped them with their campaigns to ban child marriage and to get proper sexual health care for girls in Uganda. So, we’re learning about other girls’ rights across the world and learning that our rights are really relevant, too, and that certain things, such as sex education in this country, are really behind. It’s really great. We’re running this as a monthly session at Modern Art Oxford and we’ve just secured two more years funding to continue running that. I deliver this and put my own twist on it and connect it to music. Plan UK are trying to get the young women to learn about campaigning and public speaking, so I can show them musicians who do that, like Amanda Palmer, whose TED talk I showed them. It’s exciting, but we really need to get that core funding in to keep the regular stuff going.
YWMP also run an annual festival called Womanity, which was at Pitt Rivers this year, which was such an unusual space as it represents a lot of negativity and a colonial past, so it was a big statement to be there. We ran workshops on things such as trans women and feminism, we got a young chef in to talk about west African cooking and her life and we also performed in there.
It sounds like you’re already incredibly busy with YWMP, but do you have any current musical projects?
I taught myself to DJ in September. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m having a lot of fun [laughs]! I’ve started doing bits of DJ-ing by accident … I played Common People in May. It was scary being on such a big stage at first, but we had a lot of fun – and saw Pauline Black perform in the flesh!
What do you DJ?
Serious mash-up, from Ru Paul to, like, The Slits. I’m not mixing at all; I’m just playing what I love and seeing how it goes. It’s been really fun!
I also put together an EP of my own songs, which I released in late April. The first single, ‘Inheritance’ is officially out now! I’ve been working on it for ages since I had Sé [Zahra’s son], but I tend to put my own stuff last, which is kind of classic, really. The whole EP is centred on being a parent, becoming a Mum and learning about my heritage. I’ve sampled my mum, and my grandmother in Iran, singing lullabies and turned them into songs with me on it, speaking in my monotone, Daria voice and singing. I’ve made all the beats out of household things; I’ve like sampled Sé and his toys. I’m also planning on how to do it all live and get back out doing shows, so, that will hopefully come soon. I just need to get the right equipment.
What works well and what hasn’t work well for the project. Do you have a wishlist?
What works well is when I’m left alone to do what I want and when I don’t have to deal with politics or tick boxes. To me, the project will run no matter what and the girls know that. Wherever I teach it, they will come, and I proved that point when I left Ark-T.
I’ve also had really difficult experiences working with other charities when they have supported us financially or by giving us space – but, there’s always a price to pay. That’s the biggest difficulty and it takes loads of time. I feel like I just want to be left to do what I do, because I know I can do it well and I just wanna deliver this for the young people, because that’s what it’s for!
A lot of charities and big institutions – we’ve worked with galleries, museums – all the big people in Oxford, basically, which is a nice place to be – but we are important to them for different reasons. I don’t feel like we’re valued for the right reasons, let’s put it that way. It’s all about ticking boxes or “who have you brought in today? Are they LGBT or disabled or black?” – they just wanna know the facts so that they can report back to whoever to show that they’re doing what they’re meant to be doing in the first place. But, I think that happens a lot – it’s not exclusive to us.
That’s been my experience in many places I’ve worked. Like, “are you hitting these marks, working with these kinds of people”, so we can tick that box, rather than making actual structural changes that reflect our communities. It’s very tokenistic.
Exactly. I also think that there are very few people in this city with integrity and those people are all starting to stick together, which is what I want to see, because it feels like something is on the verge of happening. The girls are fed up. If it wasn’t affecting them so much, I wouldn’t be so bothered. I mean, eventually it would start to affect me. They’re fed up – why can’t we have some freedom? It feels like we’re just living in someone else’s pocket.
In terms of the women you see who come through the door, do you have any sense of what the main issues affecting the young women you work with are? What are the big things that they’re excited about or unhappy about?
There are always big conversations about identity. Everyone speaks very freely about this, which is really great. And, they’re so open-minded! The current group I’m working with, they challenge anyone who works through the door. We’ve worked with lots of different kinds of groups and they will focus it all around every type of woman … they just go really deep with it. We did a session about women with a theatre group who came in and they challenged them straight away about trans women and non-binary inclusivity.
The focus is also on equality for all people and people of colour. Out of the girls that come, there are a lot of quite privileged girls – like massively privileged – and they know that and they’re so aware of it and they are, sort of, enlightening each other. There’s another group who come from different estates – and they all get on. I’ve never worked with a group where there’s no bitchiness and everyone’s just out to support each other. They go to each other’s events, they promote each other’s work …
It’s like a utopia!
It is! There can be ups and downs, but they’ve always been very easily sorted out. The age group is so broad – the youngest is 14, whereas a lot of them are turning 21, so they look out for each other a lot. They learn from me and I learn from them.
I’d say the biggest problems about living in Oxford, are the divide, racism and sexism. They experience this on the bus to school, getting touched up, being shouted at in the street or having creepy guys come on to them. The other day, one girl said she turned up early for the session, so she went to Costa, where a guy just sat staring at her for an hour. I told her that she was safe to come here – she knew I was here. She said how uncomfortable it made her and how it happens to her all the time. So, safety and street safety is a massive thing. Being at the bus stop. Sharing those experiences is really good.
A lot of the times, we’re meant to be doing music, but half of it is just talking about stuff that ties in with song writing. It always works out that way. But, having that space to vent is important.
It sounds like a big burden for you, Zahra …
It is. I do feel like a parent to all of them. But, at times I do feel a bit like it’s a lot, but it’s natural. I feel like any job I’d do, I’d always care for others, it’s just the way I was raised. I’m trying to learn to take care of myself better and not to prioritise everyone over myself, but it’s just the way I am, with nurturing people, I can’t help it. I mean, not everyone wants to be nurtured!
One of the girls said to me, “everybody that comes here is here for a reason, whether you know it or not”. I was like, wow. They walk in through that day and want some sort of support or help, whether they look really “sorted” and confident with orange hair and cool clothes and a cool attitude or whether they’re really nervous and can’t get a sentence out.
Find out more about YWMP on their website and follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Find out more about Zahra on her website, Instagram and Twitter pages. You can also listen to her EP here, track by track.
Image one: this is a black and white shot of Zahra onstage, in front of a laptop, with some white cables sticking out. She appears to be looking out over the top of the laptop and wears an expression of concentration.
Image two: this is a fantastic shot of Zahra sitting behind a silver drumkit, with her son, Sé, on her knee. She has her arms around him and is kissing the side of his face. Sé is holding the drumsticks and has an incredibly mischievous look on his face. Picture taken by Philippa James.
Image three: these black and white images are split into two. The upper image is a group shot of a range of young women and Zahra from the YWMP. They are smiling, making a “kiss” sign with their lips and looking into the camera. It’s a happy image. The lower image is the same group, in the same position, but some of their facial expressions have changed to convey excitement and humour, such as sticking out a tongue or opening their mouth wide in an excitable shriek. In both shots, there are a number of balloons with Plan UK written on behind them. Text reading ‘youth action festival’ is in the centre of the images, a Plan International logo is in the bottom left corner and the hashtag #standupforgirls is in the bottom right corner.
Image four: this is a black and white action shot of the drum troupe Zahra talks about above. There are five young women and Zahra, each with a large drum, marching down a busy street. The image was taken at Cowley Road Carnival.
Film: the embedded film is the official video for Zahra’s single ‘Inheritance’. It’s very stripped back and features Zahra sitting in a sparse cafe with a mug of tea, seemingly deep in thought. Zahra then climbs in an empty coach and sits down. The film cuts to her sitting alone in different seats, with a reflective expression on her face. At one stage, she holds a heart-shaped locket, with images of her parents in, plus a black and white wedding photograph of her parents. The camera cuts to a clock throughout the film.
[March 2020: The F-Word acknowledges and apologises for the word ‘crazy’ which slipped through the net in our editing process for this article. We want to leave the published words of the interviewee unedited, so have not removed it on this occasion.]