It is very easy to love some people, and Zainab Johnson is one of them. We suppose we would have laughed more if we had been in the audience rather than in front of a screen, but it was still a highly engaging set. We are usually apprehensive of low-energy comedians because it feels like we may not get the full value of our money. What we mean is that while comedy remains a conversation, we still want a performance, and we are skeptical of that being compromised. Of course, we have been wrong plenty of times, but our apprehension has remained. As it stands, we did not have to worry about it even during the Zainab Johnson: Hijabs Off stand-up special.
Zainab Johnson starts off by talking about her identity as a Black, Muslim woman, but unlike what the description of her show says, it does not dominate her set. She addresses how both parts of her identity have allowed her to escape the discrimination of either and how, at the end of the day, the discrimination itself has become a double-edged sword. The set then addresses her upbringing and her life in general, but it all goes to show how she is far more than the imposed trappings of her identity by the world.
There is no debate about the fact that gender, racial, and religious discrimination exist in the world. There are people who receive the short end of the stick on all fronts, and someone with more privilege might be tempted to make assumptions about the ‘hardships’ of their life. That is why it is always interesting to hear the facts straight from the horse’s mouth. We would like to clarify that we are not looking for a discourse that negates the harsh truth of their lives but for one where they are able to call it out on their own terms. What Zainab Johnson says about the rush of representation in Hollywood makes perfect sense, especially since we have heard enough white people talking about how they are being ‘reverse discriminated’ against. How about representation itself being presented as discrimination? Who can forget when Tina Turner told one of the writers on her team that he had been hired only for diversity and not because of actual merit? It is an entirely different matter that he became an indispensable part of the team later on but what Zainab Johnson was trying to point out, in as few words as possible, is that without the compulsion of representation, Black lives would have continued to be ignored.
A lot of people may take offense at her bit, where she points out that her being Black, Muslim, and a woman is the ‘holy trifecta’ (her words) that could nail the diversity criteria on its head in any department. That was a good joke, but only if you followed the context of it. It is how she pointed out how hollow the representation had become, with Hollywood’s idea of ‘not seeing color’ instead of telling authentic stories that take the people’s experiences into account. What follows the joke—the bit about her wishing to be ‘even more marginalized’—would have ruffled some feathers. But at the risk of repeating ourselves like a broken record, we would say to look at the person delivering the joke. It is not a straight, white, and Christian man on stage but a Black, Muslim woman, and of everyone in the room, nobody understands discrimination and oppression better than her.
To better explain our point, we would like to borrow the words of Matt Rife from his stand-up special Matthew Steven Rife. This was a straight, white man who was openly ‘problematic’ but when he made a joke similar to Zainab Johnson about disability and how it seems to give them a certain social currency, he told the audience that the joke had been approved and applauded by disabled people because they finally felt like they could laugh about some things in their lives that were unique to them. Just because they were a marginalized community does not mean that they did not have fun in their lives. These are the words we remembered when he heard Zainab Johnson’s joke, even though we had not been fans of Matt Rife’s way of validating his jokes by mentioning their approval by one person in the community. But it was effective because the reasoning was sound, and that transfers to Zainab’s set.
Zainab Johnson is a storyteller through and through in her set, Hijabs Off. She takes us through her childhood, her experience with her last name contrasting with that of her siblings, and her disappointment at them not being ‘gay’ and not satisfying the statistics she had been expecting. It is not a laugh-out-loud story, but we are fondly reminded of the tomfoolery of those siblings who deserve nothing more than ten smacks on their heads. Zainab also tells us a sensitive story from her childhood, and while we disagree with those Instagram quotes that trauma makes one stronger, we applaud Zainab for getting a great bit (about feeding children lollipops to avoid kidnapping) from that. There are many wrong and right ways to go about life, and Zainab has convinced us that she is doing something right.
We almost did not want Zainab Johnson: Hijabs Off to end. Again, we were not laughing out loud, but we wanted to hear more. One of the first things we liked about her set was how she did not bother with an off-stage introduction. Those have always annoyed us, no matter who does them. The second thing was her powerful red pantsuit. That just went to show that she knew her stage and audience well, showing the effort we always look for. And lastly, she gave us a tiny glimpse of her process, which assured us that she would make sure that whether we were in front of her or watching through a screen, we would enjoy every second of it. There are always those artists that you trust instinctually. It doesn’t matter whether you have seen a lot of them or are just discovering them; they make sure that you can never skip over them, and Zainab Johnson is one such artist. Her stand-up is a great watch and must not be missed.