From Instagram challenge to debut album: how Lina Makoul's '#YOM' tells the stories of Palestinian youth

All the lyrics to the album were supplied by Palestinian teenagers through social media

Palestinian singer Lina Makoul goes back to her roots with her new album, '#YOM'. Courtesy Maana Music
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Lina Makoul’s friends had had enough.

After weeks of the singer-songwriter sharing her cooking experiences on social media, it was time for an intervention.

"I have a close group of five women who came to me and said 'what are you doing'?" Makoul tells The National. "They pretty much told me to snap out of it and go back to using my talent, which is to sing and compose songs."

It was last summer and US-born Makoul was back in the family home in Palestine.

With the pandemic scrapping a planned European tour and festival appearances, she was feeling uninspired, sharing non-musical content online to engage with fans.

However, convinced to forgo the vine leaves for the piano by her friends, Makoul began composing one of her first songs in months with the help of fans.

"I put a video online and basically said, 'OK people, I want you to post what text you have, whether it’s your poetry or messages from your phones, and I will use that to challenge myself to write and record a song out of it every day',” she recalled.

“Within minutes I started getting material."

Ten out of 10

Thus began the #YOM project, an Instagram songwriting challenge that not only birthed 10 songs in as many days, but formed Makoul's debut album, also named after the campaign.

While such a fast and furious approach could have yielded underwhelming material, #YOM works precisely because of its focus, serving as a fine showcase for Makoul's songwriting talents.

It also represents a rarity in Arabic pop music today: a restrained album relying more on craftsmanship than production.

All songs feature Makoul’s soulful vocals and piano, as she spins elegantly minimal ballads with lyrics written by Palestinian youths aged between 15 and 19.

“That, for me, was the best part about the whole project,” Makoul enthuses. “To be able to compose and not really contribute in terms of lyrics really took a lot of pressure off me. It also exposed me to some great lyrics and poetry that made it all very exciting.”

With lyrical contributions coming from across Palestine, the songs reflect the challenges of current times, with themes of hope, courage and loss.

As part of the creative process, Makoul contacted the 10 chosen songwriters who provided extra context to their lyrics for the singer's Instagram page.

One of them was Sherry Mwais, the writer of Biji Abali.

“She told me how she was diagnosed with cancer and responded to the songwriting challenge only hours completing chemotherapy that day,” Makoul says.

“She felt like it was something useful to do during these challenging time. I still remember when I first saw her words; I realised it was so good that I had to use it.”

Another insightful encounter was with Yomna Al Assar, the 17-year-old behind Fi Halak Ballah Khalleek.

“She is from Gaza and, during our livestream, she was telling me about the hardships they are going through,” Makoul says. “Yomna was positive, saying people in Gaza are normal people like the rest of us (in other parts of Palestine) and that they are doing the best they can do under the situation.”

Keeping it real

More than its back-to-basics musical approach, #YOM also finds Makoul going back to her roots as her first fully Arabic release.

That ability was partly displayed during her time in the 2012 season of The Voice Israel.

As the first Arab performer to win the competition, her journey to victory included a stunning performance of Bizakker Bil Kharif, an Arabic version of jazz standard Autumn Leaves sung by Fairouz.

Following her win, Makoul began performing regularly abroad, including supporting pop group Little Mix on their UK and Ireland tour, and Queen and Adam Lambert on their European tour, as well as finding moderate success with 2017 solo singles Dance Sucker and Can't Keep Falling.

Despite the excitement that comes with performing in packed arenas, Makoul admits the buzz began to wear off over the past few years.

"While I was reaching the goals I set out for myself, the content I was producing was ultimately not for the right reasons," she says.

“I was singing only in English at the time and I just felt disconnected from the music. There was this void I was feeling. Yes, I was singing in front of thousands of people but they didn’t really know who I was as an artist. I am not doing this for the success but to be fulfilled. I realised I needed to take another direction.”

With the pandemic hastening the transition, Makoul hails #YOM as her most authentic statement to date.

"I feel like I am starting again, only this time I am doing it my way," she says. "I hope to reach the biggest stages in the world again but this time on my terms. If I fail, I can tell myself honestly that I did the best that I could."