Interview by Khalid Abdel-Hadi and Eliza Marks
Photos by Malak Kabbani
Art directing and styling by
Ahmed Serour
Makeup and hairstyle/design by Agnieszka Hoscilo
Transcribed and translated by: Hiba Moustafa
Cover design by
Morcos Key
Cover design assembled by
Alaa Saadi
This feature is part of  My Kali’s magazine’s My hair My Hair Issue.

Though the pandemic devastated many corners of the world, it also opened new communication infrastructures and opportunities for experimentation and collaboration. Jordanian-Palestinian pop-alternative musician Zaid Khaled managed to launch his music career in this atmosphere of uncertainty when the music industry had to develop new pathways for production and performance. What emerged was an expressive musical aesthetic that speaks to the genre-bending and blending impulse of the moment.

Born and raised in Amman, Zaid has been immersed in Jordan’s art and music scenes since the early 2010s, collaborating with artists and event producers in a variety of capacities, from videography to helping behind the scenes for music videos to assisting with management and event production. One should be grateful for the collaborative and affirmative nature of these spaces, which allowed artists like Zaid to experiment with the unconventional. By the time he began his own musical journey during the pandemic, he did so with the support and encouragement of peers in these communities, most notably Idreesi and Synaptik. 

In addition to the vulnerability and sentimentality of his melodies, lyrics, and auto-tuned vocals, Zaid is known for his playful clothing style. With vests and flared legs, mixed textures and sparkles, hats, wigs, and bandanas, Zaid pushes back against the norms of masculine dress in mainstream society and music performance, defying gender binaries and inviting a new generation to do so.  

Self-expression didn’t come easy for Zaid, who had to face social aggressors and challenge cyberbullies who questioned his public appearance. Addressing those who questioned him, and in the midst of the pandemic, Zaid posted about his hair and eczema (a skin condition) for the first time on Instagram. He shared, “I never liked to talk about the issue and I never used to leave the house without a hat, but I’ve reached the point where I’ve come to terms with my condition and myself.” Zaid tested the underlying social taboos that are still embedded within our societies around hair loss and skin conditions, providing much-needed space for open discussion and embracing it as part of his public identity. 

Zaid reflects with My Kali on his personal development, his unfolding relationship with his hair and eczema, and the possibilities of a new wave of music. 

Top worn by Kojak Studio. Photographed by Malak Kabbani. Make-up and hair design by Agnieszka Hoscilo. Art directing and styling by Ahmed Serour.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you entered the music scene?

I’m new to music. The first time I tried to make music, write or sing was when Covid-19 quarantine started. When I was younger, I was interested in music and tried to play the guitar, but I never managed to learn how to do it. In university, I studied filmmaking and was always very much interested in shooting music-related stuff. I felt like I did everything around music: shooting, making visuals, and working with bands and producers. Quarantine was difficult and I got depressed, so I started making music as a form of therapy. My friends convinced me to shoot something and when we posted it, people loved it. It was great to have others like a song I made, and it really helped. That was when the music thing started.

Your music is kind of rebellious, and many listeners feel connected to it or like they can see themselves in it. How does your personal life influence the way you write your songs and how specifically do you see your experience in the process?

My personal life absolutely influences my writing, including my failed love relationships, and other singers and musicians from all over the world also influence it. When I write, nothing matters but the things that happened to me; to date, I haven’t written anything fictional. 

The alternative music scene is constantly evolving. Where do you fit into this scene and with other artists in the region? 

What I am doing now is the natural development of the underground music scene in Amman or the Middle East. My work is influenced by a contrast between the 90s pop, Mashrou’ Leila, and Enzel.  As we saw during the Arab Spring, there was already an alternative scene for rock bands and also a new Arabic hip-hop wave.

I have no idea why no one in the alternative scene has approached pop, though pop stars influenced me deeply as a child. I’m trying to create a new voice for pop music, making songs about toxic love in 2022 that use new terminology. I know it is difficult for what I do to reach people; I’m changing what people used to listen to on the radio. 

My eczema used to be so painful that I couldn’t even rest my head on a pillow, and I hadn’t started writing yet. For two years now, I have been writing a song whenever I feel pain. I write about the things that distress me the most and what I want to dance to, and I feel happy when I do.

Zaid Khaled

Left: shirt worn by Ahmed Serour; right: Blazer worn by Ahmed Serour. Photographed by Malak Kabbani. Make-up and hair design by Agnieszka Hoscilo. Art directing and styling by Ahmed Serour.

Your musical work also seems to reflect your taste, dress, and performance style. What are some of the biggest things that have influenced your style and self-expression? 

My style and the way I dress, whether on stage or in music videos, are the same as before I started making music. Ever since I was a child, I had to be creative because I have eczema. I understood that this is who I am when  I first appeared in public with my head uncovered in 2014. Even now, what makes me unique is not my music or my melodies; it is my relationship with eczema that has really made me this way. It’s an inflammatory skin condition, but it’s bigger than that for me. It is a really tough condition; you don’t get much sleep for long periods, and you spend a lot of time on your own. Eczema formed my personality and character to a large extent.

 Your unique style also brings up questions about gender norms and fashion. What is your experience facing fashion standards imposed on all of us, both in music situations and daily life?  

I think that the least I can do with my songs and clothes is to say that there is nothing as black and white, and that there is a varied spectrum. This is how I have always been dressing, and I am not just a musician; I am a whole package and image is like music and I like to adopt different personas.

You once retweeted “Men don’t like Zaid.” It was meant as a joke, but also points to stereotypes that you and people who experiment with dress might face. Can you tell us more about this?

I don’t know what the author meant by it. But for me, it was about more than gender; it was more personal than that. When I started making music, most of my listeners were women, but a lot of men listen to my music too. In my concerts, whenever I make eye contact with any man, we both laugh. I respect men who listen to my music because it’s almost unusual. I am aware of the perception that men cannot be vulnerable or cry, so the retweet was meant as a joke. In my songs, I often talk about the vulnerability of Arab men and how they are not supposed to show this because of societal norms or customs. 

I know the retweet was meant as a joke, but since we are on the subject, let’s talk about your song “Guys” (Arabic زلام). How does this song address the idea that “boys don’t cry”?  

“Guys” started as a song’s title, but later I adopted it as my band’s name. When I wrote it, I was talking about a particularly upsetting moment. It was as if, for the first time, I let all my feelings out for everyone to see. I wanted to say that men do cry though we are told it is a disgraceful thing to do, so let’s talk about all the terrible things and dance to them.

When did you get to the point where you felt that you were more than this condition and that you wanted to play on it, make it a part of your identity, and come to terms with who you are?

The Instagram post we talked about earlier was a turning point because I had always wanted to dye my hair but couldn’t because of my condition. I have a physician in Amman who once said something about an ammonia-free hair dye, which I could use. So, I bleached my hair, or what was left of it, and it turned red. This was when I most felt that this was normal and that I could tell anyone about my condition. I haven’t fully reconciled with it yet, but I also don’t totally hate it. There’s not enough discussion about eczema and, with this post, I felt it was not a big deal. Whether I covered my head or not, I would still have eczema and that’s it. 

Left: Top worn by Kojak Studio; right: jacket worn, stylist’s own. Photographed by Malak Kabbani. Make-up and hair design by Agnieszka Hoscilo. Art directing and styling by Ahmed Serour.

You’ve also made space to show vulnerability on Instagram, for example, when you once posted “Before, I didn’t like talking about it and I never left home without a cap. But now, I have reconciled myself to this condition, eczema, and made peace with myself.” Hair, or the concept of hair, makes up a huge part of your style, identity, and what you express publicly. What was it like to be diagnosed with eczema as a child and how did you deal with it? How has your relationship with it changed over time?

It has changed greatly. I was diagnosed with eczema when I was three or four, and the first thing I understood about it was it would disappear once I reached puberty. But the opposite happened; it got worse and the pain increased. My perception of it has changed, because, at that time, I had been convinced that it was temporary and would disappear. 

But I came to understand a lot of things about my condition during the three years I spent studying filmmaking at university in Amman. Once, we had to make a personal documentary in which we were supposed to talk about something we never did before. I made mine on eczema. I had never shaved my hair, but how my friends looked at me gave me confidence and made me feel that it was okay. What I perceived as ugly, people who loved me found me beautiful and thought I was special. Sometimes, it depresses me; sometimes it does not. 

How has your experience with eczema influenced your music, dress, and performance?

My eczema used to be so painful that I couldn’t even rest my head on a pillow, and I hadn’t started writing yet. For two years now, I have been writing a song whenever I feel pain. I write about the things that distress me the most and what I want to dance to, and I feel happy when I do. I have similes and metaphors that are related to hair, how my hair always falls, and how my scalp is always red. I feel that listeners now understand what I am talking about because my songs always refer back to other songs like they are part of my own universe. My appearance is one of the unique things about me and eczema is just a part of it.

You shift between wearing caps and hair extensions and leaving your hair uncovered. Do different spaces or places influence how you experiment with your hair or play a role in how you present yourself? 

The place or mood plays a role, but I wouldn’t wear a cap just because I was feeling good or because I was performing at a certain place. I almost always wear accessories, but sometimes don’t if it is disrespectful in the place I’m going. I guess that sometimes I hide my eczema when I feel like I cannot stand the place, the people, or myself, and other times it’s the opposite. Sometimes eczema is fine for me and other times it’s not. But I decided to take the cap off and just be myself. 

Do you think that public opinion has influenced your image, how you see yourself, or how you deal with this image?

To some extent. I’m just starting out, so I am not sure yet how to deal with comments, tweets, and stuff so that they don’t hurt me. But sometimes the comments bother me, particularly when they are not about my music but me as a person, and it definitely bothers me when someone talks about my appearance or hair. These things get to you even if you don’t want them to. 

Left: shirt worn by Ahmed Serour; right: Blazer worn by Ahmed Serour. Photographed by Malak Kabbani. Make-up and hair design by Agnieszka Hoscilo. Art directing and styling by Ahmed Serour.

In a way, the visual elements of your work cast it as political. Is this a deliberate artistic intervention? Are there particular social cases that you are more likely to address? 

I always write about things I am feeling based on my relationships and experiences. But in my writing, there are similes and several meanings for the same thing. When war breaks out in some country, for example, I feel terrible and I write about it. I also write about the cases that I feel strongly about. All that is happening in Palestine upsets me; it is my country and half of my friends and family members live there. I write about harassment, because not only is it a terrible thing, but also people close to me have faced it. Sometimes, I don’t mean at all to write about some cause, but things just touch me so I write about them.

Lastly, what are you reading/watching these days and what topics are drawing your interest? 

I’ve been a full-time musician for almost two years now, and I feel as if I am discovering specific ways to inspire me to write new things. I don’t read as much as I watch movies and series, especially about musicians to see their process of making music. Now, I am working on a new album, and there is a song where I will be making some kind of conversation within a song, though I usually just sing. For the first time, I will be talking about my friends and what they mean to me. I am discovering myself and I know that I have a lot of emotional issues because of my eczema and everything that has happened to me, but I have never decided to face them. This year, I am doing it and I will be talking about attachment issues. Now, I am growing as a musician and I sing about the things that make me happy, not just the ones that upset me. 

You’ve already spoken about what you are working on now, but is there anything you are excited about in the future?Yesterday, I shared a song, “The First Time” ( أول مرة), and I am really happy about it. I am also working on my second album, “The Best Days of My Life” ( أحلى أيام حياتي) and I’m really excited and happy about it. In this album, I’m using Ammani vocals and there is more rock, guitars, and solos, adding more of my musical touch.

Interview by Khalid Abdel-Hadi and Eliza Marks
Photos by Malak Kabbani
Art directing and styling by Ahmed Serour
Makeup and hairstyle/design by Agnieszka Hoscilo
Transcribed and translated by: Hiba Moustafa 
Cover design by Morcos Key 
Cover design assembled by Alaa Saadi
On the cover – left: Top worn by Kojak Studio; on the cover – right: garment on Zaid, stylist’s own; on the cover
This feature is part of  My Kali’s magazine’s My hair My Hair Issue.