Wafia Al-Rikabi—known professionally as Wafia—is aware of how her music career contrasts with what is culturally expected for a woman of Iraqi-Syrian heritage. Lacking an Arab musical-role-model she could identify with, Wafia was initially deterred from pursuing a career in music, only to later be motivated to become the performer she wished to see. Over the course of our phone conversation, we explore the origins of her new release “Good Things,” her relationship with cannabis, and how her parents’ support pushed her to realize her artistic potential.
I read you started your musical journey around age twelve. How did it begin?
Wafia: My dad saw I was singing to myself, so he took me to different churches for their choirs. Even though I’m Muslim, I really loved the community and singing. As I grew older, I sang in the high school choir but then stopped. It wasn’t until my second year of university that I picked up the guitar again and started writing songs.
The decision to pursue music professionally was actually a suggestion from my father. I was going to school for pre-med and my dad always drove me to my exams. On the way to my last exam, he asked me what I was doing. I said, “I’m going into medicine.” He was like, “But what about your music? You’ve been singing, writing and playing guitar more than you do your lab work.” He’d picked up on the fact that there were definitely some days where I would just skip lectures and play guitar. He was like, “I think [music] is what you should do, and you should give it one hundred percent so that you don’t get older and regret not doing it. I definitely don’t want you to move through life thinking [me and your mom] don’t support you in this.” I hadn’t considered music as a career option because being Arab and being Muslim…there wasn’t really anyone making music in English who I aspired to be like. While all of my friends graduated and went on to research to become doctors, I was confused about music.
But my dad was constantly on my back, the same way he used to be about my schoolwork. It was a lot of pressure and was definitely the turning point for me.
What an amazing support system from your father.
Wafia: Especially for an Arab man. There was definitely a moment last year where I told him how surprised I was with what he said [in the car that day]. He just turned to me and said, “When have I not supported the thing that made you happy?” He’s just always been “team me,” whatever makes me happy, even if [what makes me happy] doesn’t go by what is culturally expected of me. I feel so thankful to have grown up in that kind of household.
Reflecting on it now, I don’t think my dad would have said what he said if he didn’t see genuine potential in me. He’s supportive, but he’s not the kind of supportive where “everything you do is special, and you’re so special.” His encouragement is specific. I don’t think if I was bad at painting he would be like, “You should go be a painter,” even if painting would have made me happy. At the end of the day, he’s my dad, and wants to see me succeed in whatever I do. As much as he’s like “go be happy,” there’s also an acknowledgement that the thing that makes you happy should also be a big opportunity for you.
I also know my dad lived with some regret. He’d wanted to pursue theater and acting, but his family was not supportive at all. He had some resentment toward his parents and I think he just wanted me to make a decision that if it wasn’t going to be music, have that be the clearest decision. I think part of him wanted to clear his conscience like, “I don’t want you to harbor anything toward me,” in the same way he did to his family.
Do you consciously share a story of empowerment, leaning into happiness, and moving forward without fear, or is that an affect of you as an artist?
Wafia: I think it’s something I’ve chased unconsciously. I don’t know that I was that way inherently growing up, but I feel thankful I’m from a family that nourishes the pursuit of happiness and nourishes that I’m strong-willed sometimes, for better or worse.
There’s definitely been times where I’ve doubted this career path. I think doubt and hesitation are essential to make sure that what you’re doing is the right thing. But I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the very specific way that I was brought up. It’s a privilege that I don’t take lightly.
From an inspiration standpoint, what went into the crafting of your new EP, “Good Things?”
Wafia: The big thing for me in 2019…I had to do a lot of grieving that year. Not like anyone died—thank God—more that I had a really big breakup with a very toxic partner and then I had a bunch of friends very suddenly cut me out of their lives. I still haven’t really had closure, but those experiences make for really great songwriting material [laughs]. I looked at everything as an opportunity to grow and this EP is the culmination of that.
So the EP is an expression of your growth.
Wafia: Definitely. And it’s growth on so many levels. I think I’m definitely more confident than I’ve ever been. I’m more comfortable with myself in my skin and in my body, and I’m more comfortable having severed the relationships that I let go of last year in order to have room for the ones I have now. There’s a lot of hardship I had to deal with that got me to where I am presently.
In talking about these past relationships with certain people, I know that some folks have the capacity to be like, “This person is not the kind of friend I would call in a crisis, and that’s okay.” Some people have room within themselves for that kind of duality from friends, but I really struggle with it. I want “ride or dies” in my corner. I’m so willing to give to others at the expense of myself, and I’m not saying I need other people to do that for me, but small gestures [of giving] go a long way for me. I don’t need all of you all the time, I’m not a very demanding friend, but I think I need you to meet me in the middle, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
For your song “Flowers and Superpowers,” how did cannabis play a role in its creation?
Wafia: I’d smoked weed a few times but never “correctly,” so I decided to try edibles. My partner at the time had given me a 10 milligram cookie and I ended up eating the entire cookie. Right when I was about to say “I don’t feel anything,” [the high] came on really strong, stronger than usual. I was convinced the FBI were outside and that we were being surveilled and that my heart was going to explode out of my chest. The next couple of days—which happened to be the ones we played Coachella—I was still high, and spent the entire weekend very anxious. The experience was almost hallucinogenic.
A couple of months later, I was writing with my friend Stephen [Wrable], and had been listening to a lot of Shania Twain. Shania Twain has these really cool key changes in some of her songs where you can’t even tell that she’s doing them. I knew for my next body of work, I needed a key-change song. Stephen and I were messing around on the piano with Rogét [Chahayed], who pulled up this keyboard line that immediately made me see a song about my edible experience. He played some bird sound in the background that sounded like sitting on the grass looking at a blue sky. I thought, “What would it sound like if my edible experience was only complete love,” and also had a key change? That’s the rabbit hole I went down for that song and it’s become one of my favorites. I love that the song almost sounds like a trip, too.
How have you used cannabis since that experience?
Wafia: I definitely started smoking way too much weed. I was using wax pens constantly. There was one in my pocket at all times, except in the studio. I can have an addictive personality and there’s nothing I’m more afraid of than making a really big song while I’m high and then feeling like I always have to get high to accomplish [a hit song again]. To this day, I’ve never written high, and use [weed] more as a stress reliever.
Only over the last couple of months have I been smoking a joint maybe once a week. I’ve really enjoyed that as a way to completely switch off. But I only ever use weed that’s been given to me, I’ve never really bought it. My current partner will actually roll me little joints that I can take home to myself, which has become somewhat of a ritual.
And now when your partner or friends come over, they’ll be able to enjoy their creations with you.
Wafia: I like thinking about it that way for sure. Like, “Remember this joint you rolled me three weeks ago?” I still have it.
Follow @wafiaaa and check out her EP “Good Things” now available everywhere.