By writing this blog, I will be revealing that I know much more about One Direction off of the top of my head than I would generally like to admit to the public. However, Zayn Malik’s recent move to quit the boyband has become fairly unavoidable news, and I think there are implications to his choice that merit examination even if you couldn’t care less about the band itself. Being half-Pakistani, Zayn was the only person of color in the band. Many, including myself, feel that it is important to discuss how this, along with his Muslim upbringing, may have everything to do with why he was the first One Direction member who felt that he had to step out of the spotlight—a proposal that is hard to deny when looking at the events that led up to his departure.
From the beginning of the band’s formation in 2010, Zayn has been labelled as the stereotypical aloof and mysterious “bad boy.” Aside from any natural tendency to be more reserved and private than the rest of the band members, it’s pretty obvious that there’s a racial factor here, with Zayn seen as mysterious due to the western instinct to romanticize his Pakistani descent as “exotic”.
This “bad boy” persona was often taken too far, and in a way that it never would have been if not for racial motivations. Last year a video leaked of Zayn and another member of One Direction, Louis Tomlinson, smoking weed in the back of a van. With the “bad boy” label forced upon him, there were already speculations and jokes about Zayn’s drug use, so this video drew immense criticism of him, serving as more of an “I told you so” than a shock. Not surprisingly, Louis did not receive as much backlash for the video, despite the fact that he used a racial slur in the video in addition to his using drugs.
Last fall, due to an illness Zayn had to miss a performance with the band on the Today show, during which news anchor Matt Lauer brazenly asked if Zayn’s absence had anything to do with substance abuse rumors, even after the other band members had already explained that he was ill. Lauer’s accusation is consistent with the general reaction to Zayn from the media, which was always ready to pin Zayn as a troublemaker.
In addition to this scrutiny, as a Muslim, Zayn constantly dealt with Islamophobic comments and even terrorist accusations. At one point a few years ago he temporarily deactivated his Twitter account because of how often he was bombarded with these comments, and he experienced another flare of aggression and death threats last year when he sent a tweet that contained only the hashtag “#FreePalestine.” Not just a victim of anonymous threatening comments on the internet, Zayn also dealt with more casual, but still horrible, Islamophobia in the form of attempted humor. For example, on the day that Zayn announced that he was leaving the band, one of the most common disgusting “jokes” circulating around was that he was leaving the band so he could join ISIS; someone even temporarily altered his Wikipedia page to say so.
With this constant negativity and ignorance, especially directed at someone who does not seem to crave the spotlight in the first place, there is no question about why Zayn was the first One Direction member to not be able to sustain his lifestyle with the band. The stress that he cited as his reason for quitting was likely not just due to the rumors that he was cheating on his fiancé but also to a build-up of racist and Islamophobic aggression he has faced over the course of his musical career. The other members of the band, who will never have to deal with that kind of verbal violence, have not been pushed to the point of desperation that he was, where he felt that he needed to leave for his mental health.
Despite all of the negativity, Zayn’s ascension into the place of a popular figure in pop culture is extraordinarily important. The Pakistani and Muslim communities have minimal representation in today’s western media consciousness. His success is an amazing victory for representation in the entertainment industry, and even though his time with One Direction ended on a sad note, he has served as an important figure for many young people who do not generally see representatives of their race or religion, and he will probably continue to be just as influential in his pursuits outside of One Direction.