Astrit Ismaili’s musical debut The First Flower, released back in February, is the musical addition of Ismaili's eponymous performance work, exploring themes of survival and blossoming through transformation. In album form, Astrit Ismaili reflects on what it means to create a pop album, challenging those prevailing narratives through collaborating with the voices that popular culture so often silences. 
The First Flower follows the story of the Earth’s inaugural bloom, showing the flower’s fight for survival, growth and transformation, and innate sexual fluidity. This natural queerness and fluidity found in the botanical world, as Astrit Ismaili recognises, is so vastly different to our reality, where queer people have to struggle against political framework to justify their existence. Through a hybrid sound of hyper-pop and glam, Ismaili draws parallels between pop culture and this botanical history, challenging issues such as beauty standards, gender dysphoria, and the commodification of nature. A standout from the album is Miss Kosovo ft. Mykki Blanco, taking its name from Ismaili’s 2019 performance Miss. This collaboration, alongside collaboration with Lotic and Colin Self also on the album,  symbolises unity amongst marginalised communities in recognising their shared struggle for recognition, be that the LGBTQ+ community, people of colour, Palestinian peoples, or otherwise. As Astrit Ismaili emphasises, from these harsh environments that both flowers and marginalised peoples are subject to, there is a beautiful bloom waiting to happen. 
Amsterdam-based, Kosovo-born Astrit Ismaili has long dedicated their artistic projects to voicing the marginalised; in 2012, they co-organised the performance project Prishtinë - mon amour, a collective outdoor performance aimed at challenging the enduring tensions in Kosovar society, as well as confronting conservative views towards women. In their performances, they often work with these body extensions, alter-egos, and wearable instruments to expand the human body beyond anthropocentric social norms, questioning binaries of gender, body and machine, and natural and artificial in the modern world. With METAL, Astrit Ismaili reflects on creating The First Flower, and looks forward to what comes next.
You were born in Kosovo, and that is something that is deeply integrated into your art. Can you share a little bit about that upbringing and how you find it shapes your art?
I was born in Pristina in the midst of war. I grew up in a post war environment where everything was transforming in front of my eyes. Witnessing the construction of a new country and how its identity was being shaped. It made me question the distinction between history and fiction, natural and artificial and it made me aware about power relations in connection to identity and gender. Music but also humour and storytelling have always been a space to dream, escape and fabulate. I found my voice as an artist and used my platform to deal with issues I couldn’t talk about in real life. Later this practice became a universe with its own rules and language, it became a shield. In that context, I didn’t have any models or references. I was very intuitive and listened to my body. It took years to feel safe and finally talk about my work, at that point, all I could do was make the work but not talk about it. 
This EP The First Flower, marks your musical debut. The project is written from the perspective of the world’s first flower, which seems to be a perfect link to this work from your previous work, what drew you to this central idea?
My research on flowering plants started back in 2019 when I found out that plants did not always have flowers. Therefore, they had to evolve into flowering plants in order to overcome their environmental limitations that made their reproduction processes insufficient and very slow. The transformation of a plant into the first flower on earth, which is believed to have happened hundreds of thousands of years ago, revolutionised the entire ecosystem since a lot of organisms on earth depend on flowering plants. During this research I came about a notion that serves as an umbrella in my practice that I named Creative under Limitation. Through this notion I look for personal, historical, scientific or fictional figures that had to deal with some sort of environmental, socio-political or physical limitation and use creativity to overcome them, confront them or deal with them.
Talking about flowers one cannot ignore the commodification of nature and the extraction of natural resources has brought us to a climate emergency. The songs speak about the industrialisation of flowers and climate change but also about queer phenomena that, within the botanical world, happen naturally and undisturbed. The story of the first flower is used as a metaphor to talk about my experience as a queer person navigating environments that work against queerness. Some songs are also quite political and personal and speak about the struggle of identities that are fighting for their political existence in society.
Your previous projects, such as Miss and Prishtinëmon amour, seem to defy categorisation, blending performance, installation, and participatory art. What motivated this change to create an album, and how do you find translating this aspect into music?
I compose music for all my performances and that comes very naturally in my practice. The music is then produced to be performed live but there were no recordings of the music available after the performance. The most common question that my public asks is “Where can we listen to your music?”. 
The First Flower is the music I composed for my performance Miss and it is indeed the first time for me that the music of the performance has become an album with the intention to connect with the public outside the realm of live performance. The process of recording this album professionally was a long and challenging journey. The most difficult part was finding the right team, especially the producers. The album was produced independently under the executive production of The Performance Agency. This was our first time working within the music industry and coming from the Fine Art world made us realise how separated all the scenes are. We learned a lot along the way, and we made some decisions that turned out fruitful for our project, so I am very happy about it. I guess the creative process is the same, but the industries are very different and that makes it a new experience for us.
I believe that music, and especially the singing voice, has transformational properties. The voice, produced from within, and the melodies can often be transcendental. Words that are sung add an emotionality that somehow makes it surpass the meaning of the actual words, therefore it becomes more universal. For me, it is important that the music I make is catchy so that the public leaves the performance with a piece of music in their head and heart!
Being a performance artist, how do you see performance still included in this album?
The album is the music of Miss, a performance piece that references three figures, The First Flower, Cicciolina and Miss Kosovo. The album unfolds a non-linear narrative through 7 songs and at times it is quite theatrical and performative especially because it was made to be performed. 
Your previous project Miss features these egos of the First Flower, and Miss Kosovo. How does this album respond to this project, as further world-building, an extension, or something else?
Through alter-egos, body extensions, and wearable musical instruments, I try to expand the human body beyond the social norms. I question distinctions between natural and artificial, real and fiction, body and machine.
By doing so, I want to understand where our bodies start and end and how these extensions relate to current socio-political contexts in relation to gender and identity. The wearable musical instruments, body extensions, and alter-egos in my work are tools to explore the transformative potential of our bodies. I often think about objects like cars and, smart phones and other vehicles  as extensions of our bodies. Our memories, senses and feelings are stored and expressed with and through these vehicles. But also alter-egos as animated fragments of identity that can act outside what is considered to be a norm. There is a liberation and a space for reflection there, in between the selves. How do we relate to ourselves, society and identity while being aware of these extensions in our everyday?  But also, how come our societies still function in dichotomies and binaries that reject our complexities and our nature of being in constant transition? By exploring all these states of becoming I contemplate on future bodies, new bodies, the bodies of the now and other possibilities of extending, referencing and backing up with material from history, pop culture, anthropology, biology, science, science fiction, etc.
The album is no doubt a pop album, and yet engages with activism very seamlessly, notably on Miss Kosovo. What does working with the medium of pop music mean for you, and how do you see it as a platform for activism? 
What I find charming and intriguing about pop music is actually its accessibility. Coming from the contemporary art scene, I am aware that a general public that has not been so much exposed to it may not fully understand what we are doing and often feel excluded from it. I find contemporary art at times quite elitist which is an element that must change. Working with pop music in my art practice it's also a way to try to speak and reach out to audiences that feel excluded.  On the other hand, what I do comes from a sense of urgency and a need to voice stories and references that are neglected, forgotten or muted. I think there is a distinction between what I do and activism, but there are definitely causes and ethics that are relevant and which I push through and make visible on my platform. 
With the nature of this project, it is beautifully resistant to categorisation. However, were there any musical artists you found that influenced your sound? 
The First Flower album represents sonic references that inspired me consciously and subconsciously from childhood until now. As a kid, my mum took us to a lot of classical music concerts. I remember, at times I was bored to death (laughs) but there is something about the structure of my songs that I think comes from classical music. The duration and the recurring musical themes that appear and disappear just like in classical music. Discovering Björk as a teenager was definitely a significant moment. I was impressed by her album Medúlla and the use of mouth sounds and vocals as musical instruments. Another album that followed the trajectory of the production of my album was FKA Twigs - Magdalene. From this album I was inspired by its production value and the hybrid use of new and classical instruments. An overall inspiration is definitely Sophie the queen of hyper pop and synthetic sounds which I think marks the sound of my generation. 
The sampling on track Miss Kosovo as well as the focus on dates and historical events stood out to me, could you talk a little more about the focus on dates and sampling?
These dates mark relevant historical moments in the 90s that I believe shape the political climate right now in Europe and beyond. One of them being 1991, the year that I was born, (laughs) just kidding! 
From the fall of the Berlin wall to the separation of Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars, there is definitely a tendency and need for reconciliation, reconstruction of borders and national identities and a striving for independence that is predominant even today. The song is actually a reflection on what happened in the 90s in Europe, specifically in Kosovo but it also bridges to the queer communities whose struggles for the recognition of their political existence are still very present. The song relates to everyone who is fighting for their independence, especially the oppressed and the marginalised ones. 
Collaboration really shines in your work, especially in this project working alongside artists like Lotic, Mykki Blanco, and Colin Self. Can you share how these collaborations came about and how they influenced your artistic vision on this project? 
For every project, I do my best to prioritise working with queer people and women. This project is indeed a dream project since these collaborations including the three of them are artists I always dreamt of working together [with]. Lotic produced Fear of Death, an epic symphonic, cinematic explosion, a song that speaks about the temporality of lives of flowers.  Having the opportunity to work with Mykki Blanco on Miss Kosovo, someone I looked up to for many years who has inspired me and an entire generation with their courageous presence and their cutting-edge work. It's been a total honour to work with Mykki, and their contribution in Miss Kosovo has definitely elevated the song artistically and politically, making the song, I believe, an anthem for the underrepresented identities who are fighting to be recognised and acknowledged. Colin Self produced Voices, a very personal song to me which actually speaks about my experience of the Kosovo war. Me and Colin are also friends, and they produced a song that is indeed one of my favourites on the album. Working with them has been so inspiring and safe; it's always beautiful working with queer peers and supporting each other. I love our beautiful connection and friendship and appreciate Colin's work as an artist, and I am blessed to have a song with this great artist and friend.
In your other work, you create these with body extensions or wearable instruments. How does this transformative capacity of bodies coincide with this album and the portrayal of nature?
Through this album I wanted to share information about queer occurrences that happen undisturbed within the botanical world.  In the song Queer Garden, among other things, the lyrics talk about the sexual fluidity of plants. For example, Avocado trees seamlessly transition between male and female reproductive phases within a span of 36 hours. During the day, they unfurl pollen-producing flowers, while by night, they bloom with pollen-receiving buds. Similar examples exist in nature, and over hundreds and thousands of years, while in our societies, anything that doesn't fit the patriarchal system is oppressed. I, like most queer people, have to navigate in societies that cater to heteronormativity, and metaphorically speaking, blooming unapologetically in these environments feels like an image of a flower growing out of concrete.
Your performances have been showcased at various venues worldwide. How do you see your work contributing to these larger conversations?
Working consistently and for many years now has taken me to places all over the world, to institutions I always dreamed of working with. Doing the opening performance of Manifesta 14 in my hometown Pristina, performing at the Stedelijk Museum in the city where I am based in Amsterdam and doing Miss Kosovo in Brazil and Greece, both countries that don’t yet recognise the independence of Kosovo are highlights of my career. Moreover, having access to these spaces means using these platforms to push forward and engage in conversations about body politics and unrecognised identities. I think it's time for non-Western queer artists to claim spaces and institutions who kept their gates guarded. By doing so, I believe we open paths and opportunities for the less privileged, with humble beginnings. The key though is to always do it gracefully, virtuously, professionally, profoundly and with love! 
If you could give your younger self any advice, knowing where you are now, what would you say?
Maybe the same thing I would say to myself now. Don’t be too hard on yourself! Celebrate your accomplishments and acknowledge them. 
What can we expect to see or hear from you next, do you have any new projects underway you can share with us?
I have a film project titled The First Flower that I have been working on for a few years now. It is a musical film of the first song in the album. The film narrates the story of a plant that decided to become the first flower on earth and a queer person in their early 20s who is figuring out their sexuality in a hostile environment. After some adventures in the gay sauna with  human/insect hybrids and brutalist concrete landscapes they both manage to bloom, against all odds. I am also working on a series of drawings and hopefully by next year a new killer album, even more pop, full of hits darling (laughs).