Pressing Pause: A Conversation with Rona Siddiqui
Updated: May 8
“It's very dangerous to disparage a group of people that is under attack... How do I talk about the things about the culture that I grew up hating, but do it in a loving way, because I do love my family and my culture and my people? And do it in a way that can't then be used against us." -- Rona Siddiqui, March 13 2020
Right before the COVID shutdowns began, I sat down with the brilliant Rona Siddiqui. Rona is a composer, lyricist, orchestrator and musical director known for her autobiographical musical Salam Medina: Tales of a Halfghan, and One Good Day. Rona has won just about every honor a young composer can win, and it is not hard to see why. Her spirit is generous and her mind is constantly spinning, asking questions, and making connections. We got to talking about what compels her to keep going, to keep creating, and to keep sharing her art. We are so grateful to have it in our lives. -Justine Goggin
Rona: I was living a very different life 10 years ago. I was in the Bay Area teaching piano lessons [and] music directing some community and regional theater. It was lovely and rewarding, but there was this thing in my gut that said there's more for you or there's something else for you, and it gnawed at my soul, and I didn't know what to do about it. It wasn't until I had a friend that said, "let's apply to this NYU graduate musical Theatre Writing program together,” that I understood that that was my purpose. Once I got to New York, that little pit of unhappiness disappeared. That's how I knew that this is what I have to do.
Justine: Yeah, I think that will resonate with so many performers and artists. One of the things we've been thinking a lot about at The Sappho Project is empathy and our industry that tells stories; teaching empathy and learning empathy. Do you feel that there are empathy blind spots in our industry?
Right. I mean, I think we're always going to have blind spots. It's great that different communities are coming together and raising awareness for their own visibility and creating their own work, and there is finally a space for that to be happening. I've become a part of the MENASA, which is the Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian, community, which has been so rewarding because as a “Half-ghan,” I felt very alone, and like I don't fit here and I don't fit there. But the MENASA community has been super embracing. And that's a community actually I never thought I would feel like I fit in.
But I feel like, off the top of my head, there's an ageism issue. I'm all about the youth culture and hearing young voices and all of that. [But] I'm also watching people reach a certain age and feel like they're getting pushed out of the industry - that what they have to say is no longer important. I think with writers it's no different. I just worry that we are squashing a voice of experience that we really need to be also listening to and weighing as we move forward as a society right now.
It is so important to have that voice of experience, to use your words, in the industry and in the room. [Was the NYU program] the kind of program where you met mentors who you got to grow with in terms of their work as well as your own?
For sure. That's one of the best things about that program. One of the greatest mentors I got out of that was Kristin Childs who wrote The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin and Bella: An American Tall Tale. I started music directing her shows and I just learned so, so much from her as a woman of color who, many years before I came along, was dealing with the door slamming in her face over and over and over again. [Childs] said, “I need to just create my own work,” and was doing that when no other women were allowed to be doing that. She was just like, fuck it, you know? I've learned so much from her.
Sappho is a muse for us. Do you have any muses in your own work?
I mean, my influences are so far and wide, but I've been thinking a lot about Ani DiFranco of late. I think she's such a masterful storyteller. Her metaphors floor me. She's a virtuoso on her instrument. She's totally prolific. And she can make me feel all of the full range of feelings in one song. She's a master storyteller… sometimes that's in the back of my mind as I'm writing a song.
I love how your voice is so distinct, yet you have really comedic pieces and really dramatic pieces, you use boom whackers and then you're on the piano doing a crooning song or a vaudeville number. Everything is so different, but your voice is really distinct, so I'm curious about how you feel you came into your voice?
It's so interesting the way you put it. At first I was thinking of [my musical voice], but I think it's more than that, because I think it's just about how deeply you get inside of the character, and how you can be your most honest self through that character. Like I wrote this really stupid song called "Taking It All Off For Jesus." It was a nudist who believed that, you know, God's will that we don't wear clothes, and so he was trying to convince people of his ideology. I have no connection to a person like that, but I am a human being and I do believe other things passionately. And so I think, “okay, how did this guy grow up? [And] okay, this is gonna be kind of a folk thing.” You get as deep into the character as you possibly can. It's just like writing a play, or acting a character.
When you were thinking about the question musically a minute ago, what came to mind?
I was trained on classical piano, so I know that's always a part of how I create songs. Sometimes it starts from a pianistic kind of thing, or my harmonic structures might be influenced by Chopin, or Mendelssohn, or Beethoven. But also, I grew up in pop rock, like, heavily, heavily, heavily and truly in my little kid soul. I would listen to Top 40 music all day and all night. I think that's where my love for groove and rhythm came about. I think I kind of marry those two things in a way that maybe other people aren't.
That's really cool! Is there a song out right now that you feel encapsulates your artistic identity?
Well, the first thing that popped into my head was "I'm Coming Out" by Diana Ross. I feel like I'm always in this state of coming out, of growing, and of trying to find myself. It's like a perpetual state, which I think is exciting and I hope I never stop.
What are the hurdles that you're jumping and what motivates you to keep jumping in that state of mind of coming out and getting at it?
I mean, the hurdle is the self doubt. There's always been self doubt. I don't know why. I had a very supportive family. I've always been supported and I've always had trouble believing in myself. Every day, I'm like, "oh, I'm not smart enough to be here. I've been fooling people,” you know?
When you're actually writing and working, do you struggle with that same voice?
Sometimes. I have to walk away if that's happening. Do something else. But when I'm really in the zone, I do feel unstoppable. When you are not caring whether or not this is “good” or other people are going to like this, that's the place you have to be in order to create something. I'm writing a song right now for a project and I literally have to keep walking away because I've gotten to a certain point [where] I'm just fully stuck… and putting all this pressure on it. This is where the experience comes into play. You know that you've overcome this moment so many times. It's not like, "oh, I'll never get it," because you know, you will.
What are the themes and ideas you're most excited about exploring these days?
All of my work always has a feminist take on it. We have a long, long way to go toward equality, as you know, and so the subjects and the stories are limitless of what we can share to help our cause. I'm not sure how I'm gonna put this into a piece yet, but I'm interested in what makes humans latch on to ideologies so hard that they become enmeshed with their identity. I feel like what's been happening in our society so greatly with… everybody having to be right all the time (even when they're presented with facts that say otherwise)... is how they will still hold on to their ideology. Part of it is the way humans have evolved, and that, for survival reasons, somehow it's more valuable to hold on to the fiction than the fact. [So] how do we make it so that self reflection and self growth is the norm, and there's a safe place for us to do that? How do I put that in the show?
I'm excited to see what you do with it. Also, interesting… you distinguish fact from fiction. That's an interesting way to say it, because if you're creating art, whatever you're creating, it's going to be subjective, it’s going to be fiction, but sometimes isn't that more truthful?
If it can just get somebody to think for a second that maybe what they have believed since they were child is not true… Can you get somebody to that spot with a piece of art? Maybe, you can't... [but] is there a way that we can say that door just becomes open, and [stays open]? I don't know.
I wonder if it's kind of like what we do in school. You're watching a video and then we pause it and we say what did what did we just see there? How did that make you feel? Maybe it just needs more like in-the-moment discussion. What if we hit pause during the show?
Well, you worked on A Strange Loop [by Michael R. Jackson] as Musical Director, which was so honest and brilliant. It didn't hit pause, but...
It did open up a lot of discussion. That's so interesting you brought up Strange Loop because every single show - and I'm telling you every show - I would come into the lobby, and I would have to hold somebody who was weeping. How did Michael create that level of empathy? Holy crap. Yeah.
It was scary… I remember being in rehearsals and I was afraid of how people were going to respond, because it was so in your face, and it was so real and honest. So when it got the response that it did, we were overjoyed. What an incredible experience that was.
I read the Maestra interview you did in which you talked about the honesty that was in that piece. Can you talk about how identity and honesty play into the work that you write?
Sure. There are two tricky things for me in Salaam Medina. One of them is dealing with the fact that I grew up with a bit of self loathing in terms of my Middle Eastern side. But I also feel like it's very dangerous to disparage a group of people that is under attack, and so how do I talk about the things about the culture that I grew up hating, but do it in a loving way because I do love my family and my culture and my people? And do it in a way that can't then be used against us.
When you're writing something that's autobiographical, you - kind of like what Michael did - you've got your parent characters, right? How are you going to paint those parent characters that both reflect how you became the person that you are with the good and the bad and the ugly, without hurting these people that gave you life, and that support you with everything that you do, and that you love tremendously?
Absolutely. Before we end, can you tell us a bit more about, Salaam Medina: Tales of a Halfghan, for people who don't know what it is yet?
It's an autobiographical vaudevillian-style show about what it was like growing up bi-ethnic in America, for me. My Dad's from Afghanistan and my mom is Long Island Italian, and both of them told me when I was a kid that I'm white (and were very, very adamant about that). I internalized the message that white is good and not white is bad. It wasn't until I was in college and taking a women's studies class, and talking about people of color [that] I was like, "oh, a person of color. I see. I get it now." The show uses a lot of comedy to tell the story. It's super, super fun.