Tonal: of or relating to the tone of music, color, or writing.
Zarna Surti was flying from Los Angeles to Nashville to visit her family when the word struck her and launched her into an entrepreneurial odyssey. "I was writing the word 'tone' on a cocktail napkin, and as I started to play with it, it became 'tonal.' When I looked up the meaning, I [realized] it was my three favorite things, and that's when I knew I had found the name of my print project," which is dedicated to "celebrating women of color," Surti tells MyDomaine.
And although the name came to her organically in something as ordinary as a mid-flight doodle, the ensuing project was a massive labor of love, and the result is nothing short of revolutionary. When we had the opportunity to meet Surti at her stylish Silver Lake home days before the release of the first volume of biannual journal Tonal, we couldn't wait. We learned how she transformed that spark of creativity into "a hardcover linen book filled with 288 pages of profiles, photo stories, essays, and everything in between," as well as her own career path and why the future of feminism in media needs to adopt a genuine intersectional framework. Step inside her cheerful Los Angeles home and get a sneak peek at Tonal for an empowering fusion of media diversity, striking visuals, and inspiring stories.
How It All Began
Before we deep dive into her current professional projects, let's rewind a little to when her career trajectory was just beginning to take shape. "Well, when I was 16, I thought I was going to be a pop star! That didn't work out so well," she jokes. "But it led me to start songwriting and fall in love with words, stories, and beautiful visuals. I was always into music." In her early 20s, she spent most of her time "studying, traveling, and immersing [herself] in the culture" of music. And then she started writing more editorially, "which led to freelancing, which led me to the fashion world, where I worked for six years before I started working for an agency," Surti explains.
And then she took another pivot: launching her own publication and creative studio. Though it happened gradually, "I slowly realized working full-time for someone else was just not for me. [And] I've always been inspired by my father, who is an entrepreneur, and decided to save up as much as I could and dive into the entrepreneurial world. From there, I launched Tonal journal and Tonal Studios," Surti tells us.
"As far as the origin story, I was in between jobs at the time—I had just left my position as the managing editor at a fashion company and was starting at an agency a week later. It was the first time in years I was able to live without the pressure of my email inbox, and I was really able to free my mind creatively." But it's not like the idea came to her out of nowhere.
Behind the Scenes of Tonal
Surti always knew she wanted to create something for women of color, something that made visible all sorts of experiences that rarely find representation in mainstream media. And it was important that this "something" was physical—there's something about a bound journal that makes it feel more intimate and long-lasting. So it needed to have real weight, and it needed to be accessible to girls and women of all ages.
And since Surti's overarching objective is to celebrate women of color while also telling beautiful stories across multiple mediums, there's a special attention to color. "Each issue is dedicated to a specific tone, the first one being nude," she explains. "There isn't any nudity; rather, it's an exploration of skin tones and based around the idea that nude isn't just one color—everyone's skin tone is their own beautiful, personal shade of nude. Tonal is meant to be something for all ages, races, and genders to pick up and enjoy."
Using Art as a Form of Resistance
The interdisciplinary approach to the project—the fusion of prose, photography, poetry, design, and more to communicate stories—is a testament to the power and potential of art as a vehicle for resistance against intolerance, violence, and oppression. Indeed, "the idea for this project came out before the last presidential election," but "after the election, I was even more motivated to keep on pursuing it," Surti tells us. "This is a time where many people of color feel lost, forgotten, and, of course, discriminated against. I wanted to do my part, in my medium, to showcase stories of strong women of color, display photos of their internal and external beauty, and give them a space to feel comfortable and invited."
When it comes to her own personal philosophy, Surti identifies as "a minority-ist—I stand behind women, people of color, LGBTQ communities, and people who too often feel overlooked. There is obviously a feminist mentality within that, but it definitely goes beyond, especially to people of color," which brings us to the concept of intersectionality.
Beyond Mainstream Feminism Into Intersectionality
As an artist, entrepreneur, and woman of color, Surti has taken her experiences and her expertise to reorient the conversation of feminism today, which has become oversaturated and commercial in so many ways. "Personally, I've always believed in the strength and power of female energy. My home was always full of strong women—my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts, my cousins—I have a huge family, and the women were always running things," she tells us. So womanhood has always been a pillar of strength as opposed to weakness, which is the opposite of so many of the cultural representations we consume as young girls. "I've always felt powerful within myself and as a female, so I never let anything hold me back. If I needed to work harder than a male to get where I wanted to be, I wasn't and never will be afraid to make it happen," says Surti.
But because feminism has so often revolved around the issues and concerns of white women, many of the times she's felt empowered by the movement have been when she's carved out her own space. "I feel empowered by it as I work on Tonal—it's a project that has brought this beautiful, divine, feminine energy to flow through every moment of my life. I feel excluded and disempowered by it, as many other women of color do, constantly. The first step in feminism is always for white women, and then 20 steps later, women of color might get the same benefit."
Making Mainstream Feminism More Inclusive
If we want to reignite the integrity of a social movement that has been so commercialized and exclusive, Surti says the answers lie in "including genuine and thoughtful diversity." And while she believes that "Tonal is a start, we have a long way to go—I want to make sure we dive into subcultures and throughout our journey feature as many cultural groups as possible. It's not easy, but it has to be a top priority." She also explains that "brands need to realize that including one light-skinned black girl in a sea of white models doesn't mean they're being diverse. Also, one Asian girl doesn't cover Korean, Japanese, and Chinese women (among many others), and one Persian model doesn't cover Indian, Persian, and Arabic women (among many others)," speaking to the way in which certain models are commodified and tokenized to meet certain diversity requirements rather than working from a genuine sense of inclusion and tolerance and celebration of everyone.
So how can we make this intersectional framework more widely understood? In her opinion, "everyone needs to take this responsibility very, very personally. We have the internet; we have social media; we have podcasts; we have every single thing at our fingertips—do your research! You can't expect women of color to answer every single question you might have. We get tired, and sometimes, we don't have every single answer. It's important that everyone makes this a priority in their lives."
Stepping Inside Tonal
We know asking Surti which spreads in the journal she's most of proud of is sort of like asking a parent which child they're most proud of. But we asked anyway. Understandably, her response was, "This is a hard one! There are 17 stories, and they are all my babies." As a storyteller, she says she's excited to be crafting narratives that aren't always as common in media, but the most inspiring element of this project is being able to work with so much inspiring talent.
"From a music perspective, it was incredible to do a full shoot with the beautiful Yuna, and we also did some fun Q&As with Amber Mark, Joyce Wrice, Rotana, and VanJess. The profile of Jocelyn Cooper, the co-founder of Afropunk, written by the incredible Amirah Mercer (who is also our stellar copy editor), was one of my absolute favorite stories to read. Yumna Al-Arashi did a beautiful photo story for us, Ericka Hart is an absolute inspiration to me, Julia-Elise Childs did a deep dive into colorism, and the story we did with Inner-City Arts is the closest to my heart. So in short, all of them."
Rapid Fire With Zarna Surti
What's the best piece of advice you received as a child or young woman?
To work hard and always be generous, even if you have very little. My parents always instilled this in my brother and myself—never be greedy, work harder and smarter than anyone else, but above everything, always prioritize your loved ones.
Who's on your fantasy dinner party guest list?
Michelle and Barack Obama because I am just fully obsessed and in awe of them. Miles Davis because I'm a total jazz nerd and even though he is the obvious choice, I know every song, every solo, and his autobiography is the most entertaining thing I've ever read. Indira Gandhi because her strength is so incredibly inspiring to me (she was the first and the only female prime minister of India!). And my family and boyfriend because I wouldn't want them to feel left out.