This article originally appeared in The Sounding Off Issue, no. 350, Winter 2017.
Unless you're Middle Eastern, or a world music aficionado, chances are you can't name enough artists from the Middle East to count on one hand. There's DJ Khaled, the chart-topping Palestinian producer behind " Wild Thoughts" (hands down the song of 2017). There's a bunch of well-known experimental musicians among a Middle Eastern diaspora in America and Europe, such as Fatima Al Qadiri, originally from Kuwait, Sevdaliza, from Iran and British-Iraqi rapper Lowkey. And then there's the world-famous Lebanese rock band Mashrou' Leila, who have built an international following despite singing in Arabic, and who make an unlikely appearance on Hercules and Love Affair's brilliant most recent album, Omnion.
The lack of Middle Eastern breakthrough artists hasn't gone unnoticed by some musicians from the region. Back in 2008, Mashrou' Leila were a group of architecture students in Beirut who looked around them and couldn't see any young bands singing in Arabic about the things that mattered to them. "Most Arab music is all about connecting to a distant past," explains guitarist Firas Abou Fakher. Women musicians are even more scarce on the scene; ask Saudi Arabian pop artist Rotana who her local influences are and she's stumped: "There really isn't anybody," the 27-year-old says, attributing the lack of musicians to Islamic conservatism in the country. "We only had our first concert [in seven years] in Saudi this year. We have artists in the Middle East, yes, but they're not looked at in the same way artists are in the West; they're seen as second-class citizens."
The restrictions placed on artists making music in the Middle East vary from country to country. In Iran, for example, you need to have a government permit to legally play music as a DJ, whereas in Israel – which is considered part of the Middle East, but is predominantly Jewish rather than Arabic – things are much more lax. There's a burgeoning music industry, with alternative artists like Victoria Hanna, Ester Rada, and Shai Tsabari making waves domestically, while the band A-WA, an Israeli three-piece made up of sisters Tair, Tagel, and Liron, who sing in Yemenite Arabic, went international with their track "Habib Galbi" in 2015. The video has more than eight million views, and they've found themselves featured everywhere from Vogue to Rolling Stone.
"How we do it is our responsibility. The mic is in our hands. We can't just say, 'They won't let us.'"
"It is challenging for musicians from our part of the world to break into the US and Europe, and even harder for women," acknowledges Tair, the eldest sister in A-WA. "Luckily we live in a modern society, where women are free and have rights," bandmate Liron adds. "We're allowed to speak out, to dress as we want, to get the education we want," she says, implying that if A-WA hailed from a more conservative country than Israel, they might not have been able to turn the band into their full time job, work on two albums, and tour the world. As the singer Rotana says, of her native Saudi Arabia, "Females just aren't allowed to go out and sing. Growing up, it felt impossible."
Of course, conservatism isn't the only thing that gets in the way of an international pop career when you're a Middle Eastern musician. Countries such as Syria – in the thick of a violent civil war – or Palestine – occupied by Israel since 1967 – don't have much in the way of an organized contemporary "music scene." If you live in the Palestinian territory of Gaza, for example, you might be able to sing, but it's unlikely you could leave the strip of land to perform elsewhere, and regular power cuts make recording difficult. And yet, as different as the situations are from country to country, artists from across the region seem to agree on a shared problem: a lot of these places experience a mass exodus when it comes to young musicians.
The documentary Raving Iran, which came out earlier this year, takes this issue as its subject matter. Honing in on Tehran's techno scene, it follows local DJs Blade&Beard, who get asked to DJ at a Swiss music festival, pack their bags and make the decision to leave Iran for good. "We started DJing when we were 16 with CDJs and Songbird," says Anoosh, one half of Blade&Beard. "But we didn't play an official gig for almost another 10 years, just illegal raves." He explains that anything resembling nightlife, aside from restaurants, has been banned in Iran since the Islamic Revolution around 40 years ago. But it isn't all bad, the DJ maintains. This means that a young generation of Iranians, who as he puts it, "are tired of being without fun in their lives", are shaping club culture. "They create their own parties in people's apartments and the desert. They are happy with that – there's no entry fee or security checks because it's all purely underground."
Rotana also left her home country to pursue music, moving to California four years ago when, at the age of 23, she was feeling depressed by the strict conservatism of Saudi Arabia and finally decided she wanted to live her life differently. Now, working on her first EP, she says the move has its advantages: for starters, she's undergoing a delayed adolescence that provides ripe subject matter for her brooding lyrics, which discuss men, god, nature – everything she couldn't talk about freely back home. "It's shit that's been bottled up for a long time," she jokes. "It's intense." Making music is inherently political for Rotana, as a Saudi woman who refuses to conform to strict Islamic ideals: "On my Instagram people are telling me to go to hell, but that's exciting," she says with genuine glee. "People are stepping out of their boring stage of beige and they're angry, but that's what art is supposed to do."
Narcy is an Iraqi-born rapper who first started making music in the 90s, while he was living in Abu Dhabi. He says his music has been subversive in an Arab context for as long as he can remember: "The government in Abu Dhabi didn't exactly encourage political thought or social opinion when I was a kid, but me and my friends would mix our parents' old Arab music over hip-hop beats and freestyle in my bedroom," he remembers. Narcy left Abu Dhabi for Montreal in the early 2000s, and quickly found himself with a responsibility to portray Arab people in a positive light in the west following 9/11. "It wasn't about saying, 'I am not a terrorist,' it was about saying, 'I'm a human being, a father, brother, son.'" He quickly found that the media would flock to him as a token Iraqi musician working out of the West, something he found frustrating: "They'd be saying: 'Look, they're peaceful! As opposed to saying, 'Look how normal this is,' or talking about the music," he remembers.
"People are telling me to go to hell, but that's exciting. People are stepping out of their boring stage of beige and they're angry, but that's what art is supposed to do."
Mashrou' Leila was never meant to be a political band, lead singer Hamed Sinno claims. "We started making music for ourselves, and I think for the most part we still do," but clearly, the band's music resonated with young people on a political level. In 2012, a lyric from their track " Inni,"Mnee7 became a slogan for protesters involved in the Arab Spring. "The opening phrase, 'Let's burn down this town and build a more honorable one' was suddenly graffitied on walls and used in chatrooms," Firas remembers, "people just made it their own." Then there's the song "Strong," which is about a violent attack by police on a cinema frequented by gay men in Lebanon. These issues aren't usually made explicit, though, says Firas, but are instead, "addressed in an intimate way, even when talking about loaded subjects."
In 2016, and again in 2017, Mashrou' Leila was banned from playing gigs in Jordan, suggesting that thinly veiling the content of your lyrics isn't enough to keep you out of trouble with some Arab authorities. "What happened there was an illegitimate attack on the content of our music. We became blasphemers to some people, a threat to their national sense of morality or sense of conduct or culture," explains Firas with a sigh. Blade&Beard found themselves similarly unwanted in Iran. When asked why rules on music are so strict there, Anoosh puts it down to the government being scared not about electronic music, but the communities growing around the genre. "They're afraid of young people coming together, taking drugs, having different ideas about how they want to live their lives, and spreading these ideas to new generations," he says. "But if you ban young people from music, they will find a solution."
Rotana believes that change is in the wind on a broader scale. She reports what she describes as an, "artistic renaissance happening across the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia." The government of Saudi even reached out to her and asked how they could help her make music, explains the singer. "It's part of the King's 2030 vision. They are trying to understand the youth because soon millennials and Gen Z will make up a majority of the population and these kids aren't stupid: they have access to the rest of the world. They are watching and they are hungry for it." Narcy sees the same thing happening across Oman, Dubai, and the UAE when he goes back to play gigs. "There are hardly any countries in the Middle East that haven't seen war yet, but there's still a lot left culturally. How we do it is our responsibility. The mic is in our hands. We can't just say, 'They won't let us.'"