Singer Aseel Hameem on the enduring appeal of Iraqi music and why it's here to stay

Baghdad-born artist with growing international profile describes her new EP as an 'evolution'

Iraqi singer Aseel Hameem's face projected on a Spotify hoarding in New York's Times Square. Photo: Spotify
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The emotional heft and probing lyrics of modern Iraqi songs are responsible for its regional popularity, according to singer Aseel Hameem.

Speaking to The National, the Baghdad-born singer partly attributes her regional stardom to Arabic listeners seeking more depth from Arabic pop music today.

“The message is a key factor in an Iraqi song in that the singer always has something to convey,” Hameem says. “It is music heavy with meaning because it is part of a rich history of storytelling that is at the core of Iraqi culture.”

The enduring appeal is apparent through international tours and the streaming numbers recorded by Iraqi artists who span generations.

In 2019, Hameem’s heartbreak ballad Al Mafrood – a plea to resilience in the way of betrayal – was the most streamed song in Saudi Arabia on Spotify, according to the platform. Spotify's Hiwaya Iraqi playlist, featuring the likes of Hameem, Rahma Riad and Nabeel Al Adeeb, was also the fifth most streamed playlist last year.

That success is also played out on the road with Hameem, 39, following the likes of celebrated Iraqi singer Kadim Al Sahir by completing a solo tour in the United States.

Hameem’s international profile also received a further boost last month when her image appeared on a Spotify digital hoarding in New York’s Times Square. She is an ambassador of the platform’s Equal Arabia initiative, which aims to highlight the work of female artists from the Mena region.

Using all that momentum, Hameem wasted no time releasing half a dozen songs this year. Four of them are included in her new EP Tekfa La Taz’al.

“In one way it is a continuation of what I do and what my listeners have come to expect from me,” she says. “While at the same time it’s an evolution because I am trying to show the diversity of Iraqi popular music.”

This can be heard in the different percussive elements of Warda Hamra and Bakhtasrak, while the EP’s title track underscores the genre’s ability to embrace new styles courtesy of its winning jazz horns and cinematic strings.

Hameem traces her eclectic approach to her father and composer, Karim Hameem. While the duo has never formally collaborated, his keen ear is often sought for career advice.

“He has definitely shaped my personality and character,” Hameem says. “He always told me don't pick a song if you don't connect with it, even if it's from me. He told me how sentimentality should never play a part in my decision making if I want to succeed as an artist.”

That said, performing her songs in front of audiences comprising the vast Iraqi diaspora, from the UAE to the US, remains a bittersweet experience.

“It's something many Iraqis feel. When I am away from home and I hear an Iraqi accent on the street my heart races a little,” she admits.

“When I play abroad the Iraqi audiences are so attentive and you can sense a thirst and longing for home. I am blessed that I can make that distance seem shorter on stage, even if it’s for a little while.”

It is partly for that reason that Hameem feels the future of Iraqi music is secure, with listeners and artists having an equal role to play.

“It is a responsibility we all have to keep this great tradition alive,” she says. “I know I take it extremely seriously and each performance, whether it’s a concert or national day festivity, I commit to with care. It’s the least I can do.”

Updated: June 06, 2024, 5:10 AM