The Couple Changing Music and Modelling
Tom and Deba, both 19 years old, are each on a journey to upend their industries and empower their generation.
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Deba Hekmat and her partner, Tom Austin, have no time to waste.
The teenage creatives, a model and musician respectively, say lockdown has been a time to have difficult conversations about racism and social reform, but also to push themselves in their careers. In the future, they want to be able to say they used this time to make an impact.
"I don't want to look back like, 'Yo, I had three months of just doing nothing and I didn't do nothing'", says Tom, a rapper from a small town an hour north of London who performs under the name Niko B. "So yeah, I've been in my bedroom and trying to bang out loads of things. I love making things that didn't exist five minutes ago".
Those things include two hit singles that both have tens of millions of streams. Meanwhile, Deba is carving out her own path as a model and activist. Having joined a modelling agency through Instagram, she is now using her growing platform to push back outdated beauty standards in the creative industry. Originally from Kurdistan and now living in London, she hosts regular conversations on Instagram with her peers about issues facing their generation.
"It can be so difficult to have a conversation about race and equality, but it's so important, and it is so vital", says Deba. "I've always been extremely vocal about things I believe in, but over the past couple of months, it has amplified it to a whole other level".
The couple, who first connected on Instagram and whose various creative pursuits defy pigeonholing and any traditional trajectory, talk to us about how changing the world requires being vulnerable in your support for others, and how their generation is up for the challenge.
"I love making things that didn't exist five minutes ago".
As with so many connections in these times, the two of you met on social media, right?
Tom: She had a friend that I was friends with, and I was like, "Yes, she's sick". And I followed her, definitely, but I had to do the quick unfollow and follow again so that she saw it. Didn't work, tried about five to 10 more times. Finally, you responded on maybe the 11th time and now, yeah.
Deba: Now we're here.
And also true to these times, you're both only 19 and yet are already involved in so many different projects. How would you describe your work?
Deba: First and foremost, I model. I do modelling. But I guess over the last couple of years in this industry, I've been able to find my voice and create a platform where I advocate for young women of colour and young people like me in this industry, in the hopes of making it a better place.
Tom: Music is definitely the top one [for me]. But then, through music, I can also reach all these other creative outlets. For example, I directed one of my music videos. So I do the music and I also do all the cinematography on the side. And then I also plan the shoot for cover artwork. And then also maybe design a specific piece of clothing to wear in that video. Every creative door there is, I will kick it down and enter it. That's music, cinematography, fashion ... I hate the word "fashion" ... clothes basically, photography. Yeah, everything really.
Deba, what's your journey been like, pushing for representation as a Middle Eastern woman in the creative industry?
Deba: One of the biggest reasons why I kind of started doing everything I did is because when I was growing up, I didn't see anyone online that was Kurdish or Middle Eastern that was doing the kind of work that I was doing. And it wasn't just me, but it was a lot of my friends also who didn't see themselves being represented. That was really disheartening, because we are all young girls, and the women that we were told to aspire to look like are all blonde, blue eyes, that very traditional Western ideology of beauty, and that doesn't exist. It's such a crazy concept. It doesn't make any sense.
So we need to allow more variations of beauty into our industry. And right now, I feel like our industry is becoming a bit more diverse, but only on my side of things, the modelling and in the casting side of things. The next step now is to see what we can do in production. Behind the scenes it's still extremely white. We're not going to go forwards because it's all nice having, like, a cast of 12 Black models. But what's the point when all of the production and the team behind that is white? Authentic representation cannot just be performative. We need to make it fair for absolutely everybody.
What's the response been to your work in changing those perceptions within your respective industries, music and modelling?
Tom: For me, it's very Marmite, I'm going to say. [Meaning] people either get it or they just don't get it. Some people could be, "How is this music? Take me back. How is this music today?" Or people are, like, "Oh, this is genius. It sounds like nothing that's out". Okay, so it sounds like nothing that's out there already. And some people look at that as a positive, and some look at that as a negative. It just all depends how their brains work. It's a good topic of discussion, my music. I do like hearing people's thoughts on it. Because I let people always decide for themselves what my music is to them.
Deba: It's been very mixed. I get lots and lots of young girls, and they're like, "Thank you so much". I think that's beautiful. And for me, that's literally the only reason I try and make some changes.
Tom: Yeah, Deba is sick for this. She always used to say to me, "When I was younger, I wish there was more representation of me, or girls with big hair or thicker eyebrows or whatever". And then she'll show me a comment or message of a girl who's like, "I've always been picked on for my bushy eyebrows, and you made me feel like I can embrace them". And that's incredible. Deba's done that for someone.
Deba: If I'm able to just make one more girl comfortable with the way they look, that's incredible to me. And not just because of my appearance, but my heritage. I would get called a terrorist every day. I used to get called a gorilla or Chewbacca. That would hurt, to be called these horrible, horrible things, literally just because I've got a couple of extra hairs on my arm and stuff like that. But I want to see girls now come out on the other side of that a bit stronger.
"If I'm able to just make one more girl comfortable with the way they look, that's incredible to me".
"If you're online, you might as well talk to someone and have a valuable conversation about something, rather than just looking at your phone for ages and ages and ages".
Why do you think your generation is able to kind of connect with people in such a massive way?
Tom: It's just the power of social media, I guess. Back in the day for my dad to get 100 people to see something, he'd have to print 1,000 posters, go around and do all the work putting 1,000 posters up. For us, I can put up a story, an event, anyone could put up an Instagram story or whatever. And within, like, five minutes, 5,000 people could see it. You know what I mean? The amount of opportunities and doors that can open through social media and change that can happen through social media is insane.
Deba: Yeah. It's crazy. Social media is a weird one. You can either use it for the best way, you could either make money or spread information or help other people, or you could use it and dig yourself into a deep hole that's just really self-destructive. But it is about making that choice and being like, "Why am I here on my phone? What am I going to get out of it?"
So if that's encouraging change, encouraging educating yourself, that's what I want to put out there. I don't want to go on social media to just, like, endlessly scroll and feel sorry for myself about the way I look or the way I am or how much money I have or we don't have.
If you're online, you might as well talk to someone and have a valuable conversation about something, rather than just looking at your phone for ages and ages and ages, processing too much information.
"The amount of opportunities and doors that can open through social media and change that can happen through social media is insane".
In addition to social media, there also seems to be this drive, this hunger, especially for change and upending the status quo, wherever it may be. People are listening. Why do you think that is?
Deba: I think our generation is … not extremely tired, but I feel like we've definitely had enough, to an extent, and it's up to us. It really is, do you know what I mean? And we are the generation that hopefully is going to start the pivot for change.
You're seeing these young white kids have these super, super, super crazy-hard conversations with their parents, who completely don't agree with them. We've seen so many videos of these kids talking to their parents and getting into arguments about this kind of stuff. But we need that, we need to be uncomfortable.
I've always been extremely vocal about things I believe in, especially equality and race. But over the past couple of months, it has amplified it to a whole other level. And I think a reason why is because we're all locked up inside. So when you've got all this built-up rage and anger and that has nowhere to go, you have to put it into somewhere.
Finally, in addition to the millions of people you can connect with every day, how do you find support and collective power in one another?
Tom: Everything I do, I show to her straight away. I very much value her opinion, a lot. It pushes you as well. Because when you make something, you look forward to showing it to someone now, right? I mean, it's not just you enjoying it.
Deba: Both of us are so different; we both do our own creative things. When he sees me do well, it motivates him to do better. Whenever I see him get a new job, or get this or get that, I'm like, "Well done. This is really cool". And then I think of ways I can better myself. Because I feel like he is an inspiration. Tom is my inspiration. It's lovely.
Tom: It was so lit when you said that.
Reported: July 2020