Sonita Alizadeh has seen a lot of life in her 20 years.
Facing an arranged marriage at the age of 16, she rebelled with music, rapping about such social injustices in Iran. As a child, she and her family fled their native Afghanistan to escape the Taliban. After learning to read and write through a NGO for Aghan refugees, she became intrigued by Yas and Eminem and later defied Iranian law, which prohibits women from singing. Her self-made recordings helped her to land a $1,000 U.S. based competition for for a music video encouraging young Afghans to vote.
Wearing a traditional gold-colored dress that she designed and someone else had sewn, Alizadeh took a breather from The Asia Society’s Game Changers awards Wednesday night. “I don’t like high heels,” she said, hoisting herself into a banquette chair at Cipriani Downtown and toying with the “I Am Change” pendant on her necklace, a gift from the nonprofit “Girl Rising.” A 20-year-old senior at Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, she has been busy trying to write essays for her college applications. Later, during the event, a Dartmouth University music professor mentioned he planned to invite her to the Ivy League campus.
When a guest unexpectedly spotted the rapper, she politely introduced herself as Miss Sohni, a choreographer who works with autistic, Down’s Syndrome children and other children.
Taking the Pandora bracelet from her wrist, Sohni said each charm symbolizes advancements that her students have made and offered it to Alizadeh. She explained, “Sometimes in life you meet people who are meant to remind you that everything you do, and every reason you wake up in the morning is worth it.”
Alizadeh responded with emotion. “I’m going to cry. Thank you so much. I love it.”
WWD: Where would you like to go to school?
Sonita Alizadeh: My dream was to go to Stanford. But because that college is really big, I feel that I should go to a smaller place. That would be a good fit for me. English is my second language so I need extra help. I feel like I wouldn’t do my best. I can’t learn that much when I’m with 400 students in a class.
WWD: What is the toughest part about what you do?
S.A.: Doing advocacy work. The hardest part is to not find enemies with what I’m doing. Being a rapper as a woman is not a good thing in Afghanistan. I kind of put my life in danger whenever I go somewhere to talk about women’s rights, or make music, rap or have interviews.
WWD: What has given you the courage to continue?
S.A.: It all started when I was angry. I wanted to go to school and live my life like a child and in a way that I wanted. In Iran, I was in child labor. I wasn’t forced; I wanted to do it because there was no one to support me, to pay for my education or to go to other classes like music class. Then I wanted to share my story about a girl, a refugee, in child labor so I wrote my first song, called “Child Labor.” Through that, I realized that I can write more, say more. That’s how I started.
WWD: What was the worst part about child labor?
S.A.: That no one was there to support you or to buy something. Or when you were walking, other kids were looking at you in a weird way. The labor wasn’t tough, no.
WWD: What would you like to do that you haven’t done?
S.A.: I don’t know what it’s called. When you go and fly in the air.
S.A.: Yes, jump out of a plane [laughing.] I want to experience flying. Also, I want to bring my family to the U.S. I have four brothers and three sisters. Some are in Afghanistan and some are in Iran.
WWD: Have any companies or brands approached you about collaborating?
S.A.: They haven’t but I look forward to having that happen. I hope to start touring again when I get settled in school. Right now I don’t have a huge group. It’s just me. I will need a few people to manage everything for the tours.
WWD: Who are your heroes?
S.A.: My mom. When my father died, I was nine or 10 and my mother was like a dad and a mom to me. She raised me and supported me when I came to the U.S. In the beginning, she was very against it but now she is one of my biggest fans.
WWD: How do you see your life 10 or 20 years from now?
S.A.: Of course, I’m going to go to college. I want to study law, become a lawyer and work in Afghanistan for human rights. I want to give big tours around the world rapping in English and collaborating with other famous rappers. I have so many favorites like will.i.am. Then I want to see the world. I want to see a big change in the world where everyone has the right to choose and the right to go to school.