How Arab musicians can appear on Spotify’s New York City billboard

Egyptian stars Amr Diab and Mohamed Ramadan have already appeared in lights in Times Square

Mohamed Ramadan's new single is promoted in Spotify's billboard in New York. Courtesy: Spotify
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The sight was enough for even Mohamed Ramadan to take pause.

When the normally chatty Egyptian superstar singer and actor saw his image projected on Spotify’s billboard in New York City’s Times Square on September 8, he was left speechless.

The moment, which coincided with the Dubai launch of his latest single, Ya Habibi, was priceless. "We did this by celebrating our culture," he told The National. "It's great to see the words Ya Habibi on that billboard."

Ramadan is now the second Arab singing artist to appear on the display, following fellow Egyptian singer Amr Diab's appearance in November last year.

Part of the Spotify team to make it happen is Wissam Khodur, who is head of Artist and Label Partnerships for the region, and based in the Dubai office. While it helps to have Ramadan’s streaming numbers and stature, Khodur says less established artists also have a reasonable shot of having their names up in light.

"I can understand how some artists can think how they need to be massive star to get up there, but that's not the way it works," he tells The National. "And that's because Spotify is primarily known as a discovery service. We like to shine a light on people's work."

On that note, Ramadan’s ascension to the billboard makes sense. While popular in the region, US exposure helps to transcend the Arabic speaking market.

To get that Spotify push, however, he needed to demonstrate more than star charisma. Part of the billboard decision making process, Khodur says, is to ascertain if the artist has the potential of crossing over to a new audience.

With Ya Habibi's blazing EDM chorus, sung by French RnB star Gims and featuring Ramadan rapping over Arabic percussion, he believes the Egyptian may have found a hit making formula.

“We do look at ourselves as taste makers because we have people working within the industry and our own music editors that are able to pinpoint artists they believe can cross over globally,” he says.

“With Ramadan doing an international collaboration with one of the biggest artists in France, he definitely has that potential.”

But not every artist has Ramadan’s contact book. So, how can smaller acts receive similar attention?

The answer, according to Khodur is simple: keep creating.

Even with 40,000 tracks reportedly uploaded on Spotify each day, he says quality music, both in terms of craft and innovation, always has a way of being noticed.

If the artist's surrounding hype doesn’t reach the ears of the music editors first, then their surging streaming numbers will.

“Don’t think that your music is not noticed, because I am telling you it is,” he says.

“We have music editors that are so on point that they make sure to listen to the tracks that come through. We are always checking data to see how tracks are going and where it is being picked up. If we feel the artist is one to to watch then we will definitely collaborate with them on all kinds of campaigns.”

Amr Diab is taking centre stage in Spotify's Times Square billboard. Courtesy Spotify
Amr Diab is taking centre stage in Spotify's Times Square billboard. Courtesy Spotify

Khodur's job has to be one of the most satisfying in the business. Not only is he playing a role in creating what he describes as “mum, I made it” moments for artists big and small, but in providing the US Arab diaspora with an added pride.

“It’s powerful man. To see an icon of our culture up there on the billboard is important,” he says. “It's really an uplifting moment and it makes you feel proud.”

And judging by the musical talent already in the region, Khodur expects more Arab faces to appear.

“I also want to make a point in that what we are doing is more than having you on billboards,” he says. “This is all part of an effort to show that we want to help artists from the region and that we are their best partner home and abroad. This has always been what we are about.”