"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.
"How we do it is our responsibility. The mic is in our hands. We can't just say, 'They won't let us.'"
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.'"
"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."