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A new wave of Arab musical artists are gaining global traction

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Danny Hajjar has always been surrounded by Arabic music. He grew up in the U.S., but his parents are both Lebanese immigrants who had it on all the time.

DANNY HAJJAR: So it's really intrinsic to who I am and to everything that I enjoy and try to do.

CHANG: Over the last few years, he started to notice that this music was permeating through American pop culture in a different way.

HAJJAR: So you're seeing it really with big Western production TV shows and film like "Mo" on Netflix...

(SOUNDBITE OF 47SOUL'S "INTRO TO SHAMSTEP")

HAJJAR: ...Or "Ramy" on Hulu...

(SOUNDBITE OF EL MASREYEEN'S "LOUNGA 79")

HAJJAR: ...On "Moon Knight" on Disney+...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL MELOUK")

AHMED SAAD: (Singing in Arabic).

HAJJAR: You're seeing Arabic music kind of used in a way that kind of acts as a storytelling device and not necessarily in a way where we've seen in Hollywood in the past where, you know, it can play up on sort of orientalist and racist tropes of Arabs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL MELOUK")

SAAD: (Singing in Arabic).

HAJJAR: You've seen TikTok become a vital social app for people trying to discover new music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HADAL AHBEK")

ISSAM ALNAJJAR: (Singing in Arabic).

HAJJAR: And then I think you've had major global events, too, like the World Cup in Qatar, where you had people more exposed to kind of the culture, the region. You had one of the main FIFA anthems with Nicki Minaj, with Maluma and with Lebanese pop singer Myriam Fares.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUKOH TAKA")

MYRIAM FARES: (Singing in Arabic).

CHANG: Danny Hajjar wrote about the global breakthrough of Arabic music for Pitchfork. His article begins at Coachella, the giant California pop music festival, where next month, Palestinian-Chilean singer Elyanna will perform on the festival's main stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHAREEB ALAY")

ELYANNA: (Singing in Arabic).

HAJJAR: She'll be singing her entire set in Arabic. There have been Arab artists at Coachella in the past, but to have an entire set fully sung in Arabic is very new. And so it's going to be exciting. It's an exciting time. And you're seeing all these things kind of pop up across, you know, different countries across the world that feature Arab artists and Arabic music.

CHANG: I know that you've been talking to a lot of musicians and industry execs, and I was struck that one of them told you that he wants to replicate the success of Bad Bunny, who became like the most streamed artist on Spotify without making any English-language music. Why do you think people express so much optimism these days about where Arab artists are going now?

HAJJAR: I think there's a lot of optimism because we can see the groundwork happening. We can see what's happening from, you know, different pieces of the puzzle kind of starting to move together in tandem to put this picture together. You know, for Latin music, especially kind of with its global phenomenon, everything, that took years and years of firsts and artists coming through and trying different things and crossing over and what have you. And I think, you know, when "Despacito" came out, that really blew the door open for Latin music and a lot of ways. And then Bad Bunny essentially built on that foundation and is now just a megastar and has - and, you know, is one of the many artists that helped put kind of Latin music on the map. We're seeing the same things with Arabic. It's very nascent right now. It may seem like, you know, to us it's new and it's exciting and it's getting bigger and bigger, but it's still fairly nascent. And so we're seeing that happening on, you know, the foundational level.

CHANG: Yeah. So I'm curious, like, what are a few of your favorites among this new generation of Arab artists? Can you can you pick a few?

HAJJAR: I'll definitely do my best to pick a few. One of them for sure is is Wegz. Wegz is an Egyptian rapper. And, well, I guess it's not fair to call him a rapper anymore because he's branched out into so many other genres. But what he's doing is so fascinating. I think he's so talented.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL BAKHT")

WEGZ: (Singing in Arabic).

HAJJAR: This song, "El Bakht," by Wegz. El bakht is Arabic for the luck. And it is a profoundly beautiful song. It's incredibly vulnerable. It has a lot of kind of afrobeats, afropop vibes from Wegz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL BAKHT")

WEGZ: (Singing in Arabic).

HAJJAR: Big fan of Lana Lubany.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SNAKE")

LANA LUBANY: (Singing in Arabic).

HAJJAR: Big fan of DYSTINCT.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA LA LAA")

DYSTINCT: (Singing in Arabic).

HAJJAR: He's based in Europe. And he raps in Spanish, English, French, Italian and Arabic...

CHANG: Wow.

HAJJAR: ...Sometimes all in the same song. So things like that, it's just really fascinating to see.

CHANG: Well, you know, we should note that these artists that we're talking about now are not by any means the first Arabic-speaking artists to break through to Western audiences. But is there anything different, stylistically or otherwise, with these newer artists? What would you say?

HAJJAR: Yeah. I mean, you really raise a good point. I mean, there have been artists in the past like Fairuz, for example, who was an iconic Lebanese singer...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NASSAM ALAYNA (LIVE)")

FAIRUZ: (Singing in Arabic).

HAJJAR: ...Who toured the United States. But what's different this time around is that, you know, these artists are kind of using an updated sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DORAK GAI")

WEGZ: (Rapping in Arabic).

HAJJAR: I think a lot of times, Arab pop, especially since the mid-'80s, has sounded fairly the same. It sounds fairly formulaic. That's not to say it's not enjoyable, but it has kind of, you know, stayed within the same sort of framework. These new artists are combining, you know, R&B that you would have heard in the 2000s from Aaliyah or from TLC or Destiny's Child and they're putting Arabic to it. Or you've got artists that are doing, you know, drill rap in Arabic, and that is something that feels fairly new. And so you've got a lot of younger generation folks who are connecting with that because it's their language with music that they would listen to by a Western artist, for example.

CHANG: Right. You know, just listening to you talk, Danny, and hearing so much pride, so much joy in your voice that you're talking about this music, can you tell us more about what this means to you personally as someone who's a child of Arab immigrants, who's Arabic speaking? For someone like you to hear Arabic music becoming more and more popular, what does that feel like?

HAJJAR: It's the coolest thing. This is the coolest feeling.

CHANG: Yeah.

HAJJAR: I mean, you know, for the longest time, I felt afraid to speak Arabic in public because of, you know, the racial profiling that would happen for Arabs or Arabic-speaking communities. And now you have people using habibi, which is a term of endearment in Arabic, or people saying inshallah, which means, if God willing, just casually, colloquially, that is something that I never thought it would ever happen in the U.S. and, you know, let alone something where, you know, people are singing along or trying to learn Arabic or trying to understand the words or are into Arab artists. And so this, to me, means everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERO'S ISLAND")

WEGZ: (Rapping in Arabic).

CHANG: Music journalist Danny Hajjar. His story for Pitchfork tracks the rise of Arab pop music. Thank you so much for this, Danny.

HAJJAR: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DORAK GAI")

WEGZ: (Rapping in Arabic). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linah Mohammad
Patrick Jarenwattananon
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Mary Louise Kelly and Juana Summers. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.