Meet Manizha: Musician, Activist, and "Human of the World"
Manizha is a Tajik and Russian artivist (artist and activist) inspiring positive social change with her catchy, original multi-genre music and powerful voice.
On May 18, Manizha represented Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest, performing her hit song "RUSSIAN WOMAN." The bouncy and fun anthem empowers Russian women, reminding them that they can do anything to which they set their minds: "Every Russian woman needs to know; you're strong enough, you're gonna break the wall." With lyrics in both Russian and English, Manizha honors her own background and sings on behalf of women all over the world. The lively dance beats and vibrant melodies of "RUSSIAN WOMAN" will have you listening to it on repeat.
"Держи Mеня 3емля" ("Hold Me Earth") is Manizha's most recent single. The song is 100% authentic, from its stripped-back instrumentation (traditional drums and duduk only) down to the emotive vocal melodies. Manizha perfectly captures and celebrates the joy and meaning of life in just five minutes with "Держи Mеня 3емля."
We spoke to Manizha about her new music, experience at Eurovision, role as a UN Goodwill Ambassador, and more. Read the full interview and listen to "RUSSIAN WOMAN" and "Держи Mеня 3емля" below:
Where are you from?
I was born in Tajikistan, but my family moved to Russia when I was three years old because of the war in Tajikistan.
At what age did you start playing music?
I started singing when I was six years old. When I was eight years old, my parents got divorced and my grandfather passed away. I remember that my first song was about my grandfather, who I missed so much, and after that, I started to write songs in the English language. When I was 11 years old, I wrote my first English-language song. I think it took me more than twenty years to really find myself in music. In the past five years, I’ve become very confident; Now I know who I am, what I love to sing, and what I want to do in music.
How would you describe your sound?
I record multi-genre, multi-language music because I feel that I am more than my nationality… I am a human of the world. I know and love traditional Russian culture, and I am also in love with my Tajik culture. This love of tradition works in my music; it’s world music. I believe that even if you don’t speak Russian, you can still understand my music, because music is more than that. It’s about truth. I’m really honest with myself and with people who are listening to my music. I love the quote, “courage to be kind.” When you are kind, you can see so many responsibilities on your shoulders, which is why sometimes people choose not to be kind; they don’t want to be responsible for other people's’ feelings. For me, music is a responsibility… music is honest.
"I record multi-genre, multi-language music because I feel that I am more than my nationality… I am a human of the world."
Who are your musical influences?
My inspirations come from a bunch of different genres. My inspiration is Nina Simone, but also Tyler the Creator. I love Radiohead, and I also love traditional Arabic and Israeli music, especially the new wave of popular artists from the East. I especially love Yasmine Hamdan. She’s a Lebanese woman who sings in her own language, and is very popular all over the world. She really inspires me-- she is successful, and she is herself.
What message do you hope to convey with your music?
My main message is that we can change the world through art. Do not be afraid to be yourself... and be a kind person.
Talk to me about your latest release, "Держи меня земля".
I was scared to release the song for a long time. I wrote the song after my grandmother’s death, and it’s about the meaning of our life. It’s about understanding that someday, we will die, and we need to love our life. We need to do what we love. The song was originally acapella, and I added a few instruments: the duduk and very big, bass-ey ethnic drums. There was also a choir at first, but I decided to remove it because I felt that it sounded too fancy; I wanted it to be more authentic. I recorded the whole song in one take, with no super-producing or editing.
What inspired your hit “RUSSIAN WOMAN”?
This patriarchy world. There are too many stereotypes about Russia-- about Russian women. It’s hard to be a Russian woman these days, believe me. No one respects you in your country, and no one respects you outside your country. Why? Because you’re a normal woman, because you know your rights, because you want to live happily. For a lot of people, life looks very different and they’re scared, so they fear you. I wanted to show people that they can do more. You can change your life, like me, my sister, and my mother did. My mom was a hard-working woman. When we came to Russia, we were so poor; we had no documents and we were refugees in Russia. My mom worked three or four jobs, and did everything for us. She showed me that one woman can do anything.
Tell me about your experience performing at the Eurovision Song Contest.
The Eurovision Song Contest was a dream come true. Everyone there was so cool, talented, and kind, and the Eurovision team are heroes. They put the event together in the midst of a global pandemic, and it was amazing. It was a huge celebration, and it was amazing. I did not feel any pressure there-- only in my country. A lot of people said that I couldn’t go there because I’m a Tajik girl, and that I had no right to be on that stage representing Russia. When I was at the Eurovision Song Contest, I just breathed out and let go of all the stress I had in representing my country. I really enjoyed it, and I miss Eurovision.
What is your favorite book?
My favorite book is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. He’s an Afghani writer who lives in New York, and he wrote this amazing book. It’s a beautiful story about people who were destroyed by war, but changed their lives to become happy again. I also love Dostoyevsky!
How do you make your music videos and visual content?
I direct all of my music videos myself because I can understand and feel my music better than anybody else. I can see music when I’m writing it; I can see melody and ideas for videos while I'm in the studio.
Talk about your experience as a woman in the music industry.
It was tough in the beginning, but now it’s better. No one believes in a woman who can produce music by her own hands, especially in Russia. People think that women should just be singers, not musicians. I hate when people say “Manizha is a singer from Russia.” I’m not just a singer, I’m a musician. I create my songs, from melody, to lyrics, to arrangement. I’m a leader, and some people don’t like that. All you can do is continue your work, and some day, they’re going to respect you for that.
"I hate when people say “Manizha is a singer from Russia.” I’m not just a singer, I’m a musician."
What advice would you give to young girls hoping to break into the industry?
There are so many beautiful things you can do with music. Don’t be afraid, and don’t listen to producers. Do what you really want to do. If you fail, you will know that you did something wrong, and if you are successful, you’ll know that it was your success. You have a right to choose your songs, where you want to play, and what you want to wear on the stage. If you want to be sexy, be sexy. If you don’t want to be sexy, don’t be sexy. Just remember that you’re beautiful and valuable the way you are. It’s beautiful to just be human on the stage. There is so much fakeness, but the audience needs real people that they can trust and empathize with.
Tell me about your role as a UN Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
I am the first UN Goodwill Ambassador from Russia, and it’s such an honor. I really respect the UNHCR agency, who work with refugees, and now I work with them closely. We are helping a lot of families in Russia, and for me, this work comes from my heart. I was a refugee, and I know what it’s like to be a kid in a big city, in a big country. It is so lonely to feel the racism and xenophobia, and it’s so hard to move past it. I’m here to help people, and I want to lead by example. You can be a refugee and be successful; do what you love and it will make you happy.
"Do what you love and it will make you happy."