Iraqi RnB singer Sarah Shebani on the UAE music scene: 'we're learning as we go'

The singer describes the local scene as both tight-knit and competitive

Shebani,  Dubai Shopping Festival Grand Opening Weekend , Burj Park , Downtown Dubai , Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 27/12/2019 Photo by Fritz John Asuro/ITP Images;27-12-19 Dubai Shopping Festival Grand Opening Weekend
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The last time The National caught up with Sarah Shebani she was raring to go.

It was 2016 and the Iraqi RnB singer had returned to Dubai after a year-long stint in London studying at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute.

Armed with a deep knowledge of her craft and a fistful of new songs, she hit the ground running and established herself as a bright talent within the UAE music community.

And now, four years and 17 released songs later, Shebani is exhausted.

She says her latest song, the optimistic and soulful ode Higher, will be the last new track she will release for some time. The good news is that during this break, Shebani will be working on her debut album.

The past four months spent at home amid the pandemic, she says, made it clear that she needed to change her approach to her career.

“When I am creating, it is supposed to make me happy. But I wasn’t because I got caught up in the rush of constantly releasing music to keep myself out there. Some of the songs became too rushed and it didn’t make me feel good about myself and the music itself.”

Shebani is candid in detailing the grind that comes with being an active independent artist in the UAE. It's not only about the creatively rewarding moments in the studio or on stage, but includes hours spent glued to her phone and computer plotting full marketing campaigns, and constantly uploading content to her social media channels.

“And that’s for each song,” she says. “Nearly every song I release, I do everything from the cover art, to sending an average of 200 emails to promote the song and updating my newsletter on social media. When you do all that, you begin to lose sight of why you are doing this in the first place.”

'No one taught us anything about the music business'

Shebani is not complaining. She knew what she was signing up for when dedicating her life to a career in the arts. It was that quest that took her to the UK to study at the prestigious BIMM, where she learnt everything from music theory to production skills.

The whole aim of the endeavour was to return to the UAE as a formidable one-woman team. However, with the local independent music scene here in its relative infancy, that road to success hasn't been smooth.

"That’s because a lot of us artists here are learning as we go,” she says. “All the artists here are talented and super-hardworking, but no one taught us anything about the music business. We are learning on the job and sharing knowledge with others.”

Such an improvisational approach naturally means mistakes will be made, and Shebani admits to a few missteps.

For one thing, her strong focus on the business aspect of her career began to affect her music. It not only clouded her perception of what constitutes success, but resulted in the release of certain songs that simply didn’t ring true to her.

“Sometimes you work hard on a song and then once it’s out it doesn’t do so well when it comes to getting that interest on social media. I won’t lie, that hurts, especially your ego," she says.

"So one time I did a song just to impress people. It was called Girl Talk and while it was a fun song to listen to, it is not one of my favourites because it was too rushed."

That said, hard work eventually pays off. Shebani's consistent work ethic, both on her records and on stage, impressed organisers of the Dubai Shopping Festival, who last year invited her to support the opening night concert featuring former One Direction member Liam Payne and British RnB singer Jorja Smith.

Being on stage in front of nearly 20,000 people, she says, solidified her resolve to push on with her career.

“I was so nervous for that show that I nearly blacked out,” she says, with a chuckle. “But what I do remember very clearly was how I was able to make people feel. To see them smile, dance and be happy, even for those few minutes, made me realise that this is what I am doing it for.

"For me, being a musician is not about being in that spotlight. It is more than that. It is to help people in your own little way. It is to serve.”

Advocating for more kindness

And it is with that spirit of creative renewal that Shebani is at home, Zooming with local and international producers while working on her new album.

While she doesn’t know when live concerts will return to the UAE, she hopes the local music community will be there for each other once things are back on track.

“The scene is already competitive. Everybody wants the next gig and everybody wants to support the next big artist,” she says. “But if there is anything this pandemic has taught us is that we are in this together. So I hope we practise even more kindness once things are back on track.

"The best way to move forward as a music scene in the UAE is to do it together.”