Their voices narrate the unofficial soundtrack of life as an Arab today. But for the artists leading the Arab world’s alternative music scene, their work is not revolutionary — it’s a legacy.
With the growing popularity of bands like Lebanon’s Mashrou’ Leila and Jordan’s Autostrad, hip-hop artists like Iraqi-Canadian Narcy and Palestinian Muqata3a and solo acts like Yasmine Hamdan, Arab artists not traditionally considered mainstream are increasingly gaining recognition regionally and across the globe.
Building on a rich musical history, their fusions reflect experiences in situ and in the diaspora, blending traditional beats and maqams, or modes, with rock, reggae, funk, electropop and hip-hop.
Indie outfit Mashrou' Leila, arguably Beirut's most famous contemporary musical export, sold out at both London's Barbican and The Hamilton in Washington DC after the release of their last album, Ibn El Leil, in 2015.
Multimedia artist Narcy this month landed a Juno, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy, for directing an equally gripping and entertaining music video for the 2016 hip-hop track R.E.D., which spins a complex tale of race, war and migration in under five minutes.
But hard-won recognition and rampant misrepresentation are far from mutually exclusive. “We try to continue the legacy that our parents put in us,” says Yassin “Narcy” Alsalman, one of the leading voices of Arab hip-hop and a man formerly known as The Narcycist, adds shortly after a high-octane gig in Dubai.
With their blend of traditional dress and trainers, of maqams and messages, artists not conventionally considered mainstream have reinvigorated the Arab world’s music scene.
For Avo Demerjian, vocalist and bassist with breakout Jordanian act Autostrad, “it’s not a renaissance so much as a return”.
“It’s a heart-to-heart between musicians and the people,” Demerjian says of the Arabic reggae funk band’s success. “I think this is the moment when music is coming back to our part of the world, when we can stand on our own feet and say what we ourselves have to say, through music.”
Autostrad, Narcy and Mashrou’ Leila headlined the closing night of Dubai’s Step 2017 conference on April 7 — an annual technology, digital and entertainment festival. Overlooking the water of the man-made Dubai Marina canal, festivalgoers mingled and cheered as a string of mainly Arab musicians took the stage.
Massively popular Mashrou’ Leila sang against a backdrop of animated footage. But the most high-energy gig was Narcy’s. In traditional dress and his trademark wire-rimmed glasses, the rapper was joined onstage by fans doing the chobi, an Iraqi folk dance, to his Arabic and hip-hop beats.
His award-winning music video played on a giant screen behind him, featuring African-American hip-hop artist Yasiin Bey (also known as Mos Def) and drum group Black Bear, who hail from the Atikamekw community of the Manawan First Nation in Quebec.
Narcy's final track, Free, was dedicated to refugees around the world. While fans went wild for the politics of R.E.D. at Step, the messages behind much of today's Arab indie music are far from universally welcome.
Within the Arab world, backlash over gender politics is not unheard of. "We are still in a very precarious place as a people," notes Narcy, whose latest track Fake News addresses United States President Donald Trump's travel ban. "We are countering yet another wave of misrepresentation ... we have a lot of work to do, but we are on our way."
Agence France Presse