Born to a Pakistani father and Caucasian mother, Zayn Malik has encountered bigotry ever since he was thrust into the spotlight on The X Factor U.K. at just 17 years old.
Now 23, Malik is reluctant to discuss his cultural background or his Muslim faith in interviews or on social media. Apart from yearly “Eid Mubarak” wishes and a “#FreePalestine” tweet that garnered death threats, Malik tends to keep that part of himself tucked away from the increasingly invasive public eye, even as he launches a highly publicized solo career.
On Friday, the former One Direction singer debuted Mind of Mine, an R&B-tinged expression of individuality following nearly five years of sharing creative output with four bandmates and a host of radio-ready collaborators. And one track, in particular, stands out from the rest: “Intermission: Flower,” which is sung entirely in Urdu, his father’s native language.
“His relationship with his dad and his whole family is super important — especially his dad,” Malik’s producer and co-writer, Malay Ho, tells EW of how the song came together. And the Grammy-winning producer, perhaps best known for his work on Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE, can relate: Ho, too, was born to an Asian father and Caucasian mother, and he and Malik bonded over the similarities in their heritage as they recorded.
“Flower” was “inspired by his father’s culture,” adds Ho. “He knows how to sing like that and he’s always been able to do it, but he just never took it that seriously.” But one day, as Ho played around with a new guitar during a writing session, Malik “just picked up the mic and tracked that whole thing basically live, in one take.
“I was just blown away. I didn’t know he could sing like that,” says Ho. “Afterward, he told me he was in a super spiritual place, and that the saying is something one of his family members had told him that had always stuck to him.”
The lyrics, “Jab tak is mohabbat ke phool na khilay / Tab tak is dill ko sukoon na miley,” roughly translated via The New York Times, mean, “Until the flower of this love has blossomed / This heart won’t be at peace.”
At just one minute and 44 seconds in length, “Flower” speaks to Malik’s pride in his heritage in a simple, meaningful way that would be difficult to misinterpret, or to construe as a desire to become a spokesperson.
“I’m just a normal person as well as following my religion, and doing all the normal things that everybody else does,” Malik told The Fader back in November, adding, “… But I would never be trying to influence anything or try to stamp myself as a religious statement or portrayal of anything. I am me. I’m just doing me.”
Ho likens the track to “jazz music, in a way, where a singer will have a concept or a melody and then the rest of it is just improv. That’s sort of what that was. I think in his mind, he had those lyrics, but then all the singing and everything is just pure him — on the spot.”