Sully Khwaja is a 24-year-old pop singer-songwriter, recording artist, and BC alum with a passion for music and inspiring others.
Growing up in a household where music and creativity was greatly encouraged, Sully, who graduated from Brooklyn College last year, knew early on that he was passionate about the arts. His sound comes from artists with “big, emotional vocals” who inspired him like Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, and Sam Smith.
“I was always a creative person, [and] I always had an interest in art,” said Sully. “I was very much bullied as a child…for various reasons but one of those I think is for being creative and for being sensitive.”
Early on, singing became an outlet for Sully to express himself, and this remains true today. Sully has an active presence on social media, using his voice not only to promote his music but to also draw attention to specific issues, such as the lack of Asian representation in the music industry.
Sully says his motivation for speaking out stems from his lived experiences as an Asian person. Growing up in a small suburb of Illinois in post-9/11 America, Sully, who comes from an Indian and Swedish background, was often called “a terrorist” and excluded from certain activities at a young age.
“Not everybody was welcoming of people from India, Pakistan…countries that have been stigmatized in the media since 9/11,” said Sully. “It sticks with you as a child and even down to…parents not wanting their children to be my friend because of my ethnic or racial identity.”
Similarly, Sully has also been vocal about societal gender norms and stereotypes. This was something Sully encountered as a high school student in 2013.
“My dean at the time had approached me and basically reprimanded me for wearing a flower hair clip,” said Sully. “Him and the school district’s response was that I shouldn’t have worn it because ‘only girls are allowed to wear that.’”
Fearing the possibility of being suspended or expelled, Sully took to Facebook to share his story, but he did not anticipate what would happen next.
“I had several hundred people sign a petition at my school, and they actually showed up and protested, and eventually, the school dropped it,” said Sully. “From there, I began to open up more.”
Despite this victory, however, Sully still faced challenges going forward as he would occasionally wear dresses to school and experiment with makeup. While he had begun to express himself more openly, he lost almost all of his friends in high school.
“That was so hard…but I think through that experience, I began to become stronger in myself and more aware of what my identity is, my artistic identity, and developing ways to combat the negativity and the hate that comes with being different,” said Sully.
It was this same artistic identity and passion for music that brought Sully to Brooklyn College in 2017 to pursue a BA in Music, an experience he looks back on fondly.
“I absolutely loved my time at Brooklyn College,” recalled Sully. “We have excellent professors and just a really great pathway.”
Specifically, Sully credits Dr. Malcolm Merriweather for the lessons he learned from participating in his choirs, as well as Professor Aibe Morrison for her views on gender expression and identity.
“She just really inspired me to be my fullest self and not to fall into the stereotypes or traps that we in that community could be put under,” said Sully. “Anybody who decides not to be ‘gender-normal’ doesn’t get control of their narrative…and I think that’s the problem, and that’s part of what made me inspired [when] talking to Aibe.”
Most recently, Sully’s lived experiences have played a significant role in “Aura,” his first EP that was released on Spotify last month.
The inspiration for “Aura” comes from the idea that people leave their energy with us, a theme that has resonated with him during the COVID-19 pandemic from not being able to see his loved ones but still having memories of them. “Walking Out All On My Own,” the second track of the EP, explores the darker “aura” that has been left in his life.
“That talks a lot about my issues with being rejected, bullied, and misunderstood for the way I express my gender,” said Sully. “Almost all of the songs I write come from a place that is real.”
Currently, Sully is writing new songs for his upcoming performance at Inspired Word NYC’s “Featured Artist Showcase” on Apr. 29. When it comes to performing his music, however, Sully is not focused on fame. He just wants to be heard, and singing has made this possible.
“When I would talk, nobody would hear me, but when I would sing, I had a voice in the world,” said Sully. “My goal is to share my messages with the world and inspire and entertain as many people as I can.”