Foad Manshadi is a 26-year-old Los Angeles-based producer and musician who raps in Farsi over simple electronic beats. As a child growing up in Iran as a member of the Baha'i minority, his family was persecuted for their faith; his politically aware music touches on issues such as capital punishment and women's rights.
Manshadi has had something of a profile boost recently, being mentioned on US National Public Radio and writing a track for the soundtrack of the FX TV drama Sons of Anarchy, and he says that's due in large part to the support of a website and app called Mideast Tunes.
Launched in 2010 by the Bahraini activist and entrepreneur Esra'a Al Al Shafei, the platform (available for both iOS and Android) allows users to stream music from across the Mena region for free, with no ads. "Because of Mideast Tunes I got featured on a lot of other websites and on radio," Manshadi said recently in a video testimonial. "I owe it to you guys."
Helping musicians to get this type of exposure was the driving idea behind Mideast Tunes, Al Shafei says over Skype from Bahrain. "There is an amazing local underground scene that's not being sufficiently discovered," she says of Bahrain and the wider Mena region. "We don't want to be rich; we don't want to be Spotify; we want to celebrate the independent art scene. That's it."
The tagline for the platform is "Music for social change", and although the first 200 acts who were signed up were all chosen for the political messages in their lyrics, bands can now register themselves for inclusion. There are currently more than a thousand bands to choose from: many from cultural hubs such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Lebanon, but also plenty from countries that are often considered more conservative, such as Iran, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. "Iran, for the longest time, has been a highlight of underground musicians," Al Shafei says. "There's a lot of amazingly inspiring artists coming out of there."
Artists from Afghanistan and Pakistan are also included on the platform, as Al Shafei thought they had enough culturally in common with the Middle East to qualify, and Kurdistan, controversially, is listed as a country. "Mideast Tunes is not just about music or talent," Al Shafei says. "It's about people struggling for an identity."
Of the 51 UAE artists currently listed, one of the most popular is a Dubai-based singer-songwriter of Indian heritage called Anushka Anand, who records her folky trip-hop ballads under the name Noush Like Sploosh. Her debut album is expected next year. Both the app and the website look slick, despite the fact that the two Bahraini women running it - Al Shafei, who has a day job at a website called crowdvoice.org, and the recent graduate Hajer Ghareeb, who joined the organisation in 2011 - are yet to accept any venture capital. This wasn't due to lack of offers, Al Shafei says, but the investments proposed always had strings attached and her main concern was supporting the artists and keeping the platform free.
Then again, the bandwidth needed to stream 5,000 tracks isn't cheap and Al Shafei and Ghareeb want to expand the business. On their shopping list is offline listening: Wi-Fi connections and 3G coverage can be unreliable in parts of the Middle East, Al Shafei says, so it would be useful if users could save tracks to listen to while they're out of range. She's also eager to launch "listening rooms": themed, curated playlists that multiple users can listen to and discuss at the same time.
Despite generous donations from some of the musicians on its roster, Mideast Tunes' current drive on the fund-raising site Zoomaal, which wraps up at the end of October, has generated less than US$4,000 (Dh14,690) of its $15,000 goal. "Who knows what will happen next?" Al Al Shafei says. "We're just hoping for a miracle."