‘No matter where we come from, music is a way to connect us’: Iraqi-Belgian singer Sandra Sahi on her music and YouTube fame

The Dubai artist is set to perform atop Burj Khalifa

Iraqi-Belgian singer Sandra Sahi describes her music as 'Oriental pop.' Courtesy Dubai Opera
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Sandra Sahi is literally going straight to the top.

The Iraqi-Belgian singer will be the next artist to perform as part of Dubai Opera's online series of concerts, with her Thursday, June 25, show to be streamed live from Burj Khalifa's sky-high viewing deck, At the Top.

The event will be another landmark moment for the young singer and vlogger, who is beginning to make an impression by calling her own tune.

After years of decent covers on YouTube, Sahi, 20, recently began her transition to original songwriting and released tracks showcasing her eclectic roots.

Her Dubai show will feature two new songs, the multilingual pop of Ya Hayati and the uplifting RnB of Celebrating Love.

Speaking to The National, Sahi says the songs, already available online, are part of a new artistic phase.

“I wanted to really get into this idea of Oriental pop,” she says.

“I speak English, Arabic and French and these are all languages I love. I want to show my multiculturalism in the music and show that no matter where we come from, music is a way to connect us.”

It is more an attitude than a sound

Her first shot in that direction is Ya Hayati, a sprightly number deftly weaving regional melodies, muted dance beats and arresting English and Arabic vocals.

The track, which was produced by Iraqi-Dutch artist Rafil, who resides in Amsterdam, began, says Sahi, as an experiment to see if the traditional Arabic vocal style could co-exist within the rhythms of western pop music.

“They incorporate well together, rather beautifully,” she says. “A lot of it depends in how you approach it. The key for working with both styles is that you don’t want to overdo it.”

Hence Sahi's notion of regional pop is not so much a sound, but an attitude.

It’s the willingness to dig deep into all facets of her background to create something honest. That exploration continues, she says, with a bunch of French tracks to be released later in the year.

Such a freewheeling creative approach could have caused marketing headaches a decade ago when physical CDs were the norm. But now, online streaming, Sahi says, has created an increasingly borderless world when it comes to musical tastes.

“What streaming and really social media have done is open up the world more. People are connecting every day and they are all sharing their backgrounds and cultures,” she says.

“When it comes to music, people are more open and accepting of listening to different styles and genres.”

Sharing her stories online

Sahi knows all about such connections.

While her YouTube channel began back in 2013 as an online showcase of her talent, its success – she now has 838,000 subscribers – turned her into a fully fledged lifestyle vlogger in 2016.

Melding the personal with the professional, Sahi takes viewers on her journey to becoming a pop star and regional fashionista, while having some good-natured fun in the process.

After a short break, Sahi confirms she plans to reboot the channel with new and consistent content from next month.

“What I am proud about is that it began from the music and not the other way around. People were introduced to me first as singer and someone who was doing versions of these popular songs,” she says. “If I became a singer because of my success on YouTube, the music that would have come out would have been totally different.”

The move to online was also down to Sahi’s unquenchable need for expression. Born in Belgium, she moved to Dubai as a 12-year-old after her father found employment in the emirate.

“Since then and even before that, I have always been a talker,” she says with a laugh. “My family would tell you that as a child I was about all singing, talking and meeting people. So in a way I have always been creating content and sharing my stories with people.”

The fact it landed her a gig at the top of the world and an enthusiastic fan base more in line with seasoned artists, shows that we often appreciate the journey as much as the destination.

Sandra Sahi performs from At the Top, Burj Khalifa on Thursday, June 25. The concert will be streamed on Dubai Opera's Instagram from 6pm.