Dounia is not your average pop star. Born in Queens, raised in Morocco, and finishing out her youth back in the New York borough she still calls home, the 20-year-old Instagram star, model and body activist and now singer-songwriter will be the first to tell you that she’s not conventional. Not in the way she looks; not in the way she sounds. But that individuality — and her willingness to speak openly about body positivity, feminism and more on her social platform — has brought her fans, work with major brands and ultimately the chance to record music. As a baby, she was sent back to Morocco while her mom stayed in the U.S. for work. Back in the U.S., she taught herself English by devouring books from her local library. Just a few years ago, though, she was struggling to find her way, failing out of high school and working retail shifts at a now-defunct American Apparel. Yet the things that made a traditional path hard for her — her opinionated personality, her free spirit — ended up being “such an asset in the real world,” as she told TIME.
And on Friday Dounia released her new album Intro To. Filled with her dreamy brand of rap-singing over vibey, rolling beats, it’s a confident alt-R&B sound that explores the challenges of overcoming the grind through its honest, Queens-inflected poetry.
“I’m so glad that I’m unconventional, because at least it’s real,” she laughs. That “real”-ness is evident in every line of her music: “I can’t hold my tongue, it lashes when it wants.”
TIME spoke with Dounia about finding her voice in music, becoming a positive role model and turning her quirks into an advantage.
TIME: Were you also into writing and songwriting growing up?
I feel like writing music and poetry in general is like the most innate extension of me. I’d never really been exposed to music, because I’m Moroccan; Muslims don’t listen to music that much. Especially strict Muslims. So in high school is when I went out of my way to find music I liked, and started writing. I dated this boy — and then he really annoyed me. So I wrote a dis track and posted it on SoundCloud. He was a rapper too, but I really went off on him. I was like, “Your bars are subpar… Everything you’re spitting is a lie.” So that circulated within the school, and people were talking about it, saying it was really good.
So music is pretty self-taught for you?
Nothing was really taught to me at all. I kept trying to find outlets to learn from as an artist, but I realized they didn’t benefit me. It took away from my originality.
Who are your role models, or other artists you look up to?
The people I admire are not on the macro scale that I aspire to be on. Do you know Princess Nokia? She’s a rapper, New York girl with this podcast called Smart Girls Club. She’s such a multifaceted human and good role model, which I think is imperative when you’re a woman with a platform. A lot of people underestimate the significance of that. I think it’s obligatory.
Do you see yourself as a role model?
Yeah, definitely. It’s impossible not to when I’m getting hundreds of messages from young girls who are telling me that I’ve affected them. Especially with social media where everything is so accessible — and young girls are so impressionable — I feel like it’s so dope to have empowering women who are just spreading positivity in whatever form it is. I’m not saying be perfect, but I am saying, note your obligation within your platform.
You’re outspoken on body positivity; have you received pushback that’s been hard for you?
I don’t really care about people calling me ugly or fat or whatever. But what I do care about is when people are coming at my discourse, the ideas that I’m putting out, challenging me in a way that’s antagonizing rather than productive. That’s the hardest to deal with, because sometimes you do get misconstrued. I think I’m a lot better coping with that, because I realized it’s not the end of the world if 1% of Twitter is hating on you.
What’s your advice to other girls who don’t have your natural confidence?
What I say is, hone what you like about yourself. I know this sounds mad pretentious, but: read more. You’ll be able to portray your points better, you’ll be more articulate. And that translates into your social and general confidence. You can find other lanes that make you more comfortable with yourself rather than just the physical. Other than just “I love my rolls today.” Go be really well-versed on a topic — and now you’re cool because you know so much about, like, science or anime.
What drives you?
Being stress-free is the most beautiful concept. Knowing everyone around you is good. Knowing my family is good. That and making sure my friends are eating swell, you know? Also, mediocrity drives me — viewing mediocrity prosper. It’s so inspiring, because I’m like, “Wow, if that can do this well, we can do that well as well. We can also be up there.”
Did you ever see yourself being a part of that beauty and fashion world?
I’d never viewed myself as conventional at all. And I’ve never necessarily cared either, because I’ve always been fixated on other aspects of myself, like reading and writing and making sh–. But when I did think about it, it never even really registered [to be a model]. When I started doing that, it allowed me to see how standards have evolved so wildly that they conform to someone like me. That they pedestalize someone like me, you know? That was insane to me.