It's one thing to unwittingly launch a music career during a pandemic, but to do so intentionally requires a certain amount of faith, courage and conviction.
It is a dilemma Emirati singer Ibrahim Khemeiri, 29, found himself pondering as the virus slowly dampened the sounds of the regional music industry.
He came to the conclusion that if he didn't drop his infectious brand of pop at a time when good vibes were sorely needed, then there was no point being an artist in the first place.
"We were halfway through the year and the idea of seeing a concert, let alone performing one, was very far away," he tells The National.
“All I knew was that I had this bunch of songs that I worked so hard on, and a positive message that some people could use during these times.”
That's when Khemeiri released his debut single, Never Felt Love, under the moniker Bee (inspired by the nickname given to him by his young nephew).
The lyrics may be about a passionate relationship but the polished production, full of syncopated beats and twinkling synth-lines, made us pine for the dance floor.
It is one of four tracks he has released this year, including the ballad Camouflage and the ebullient I Don't Care, all of which display a nous for radio-friendly songwriting.
They are also anchored by Khemeiri’s vocal prowess, with his soulful and expansive tones suggesting he is rather a seasoned hand.
Learning the ropes
The Abu Dhabi resident may have recently stepped into the recording booth, but it comes after years of training in performance, production and vocal technique.
“When I finished high school, I took a gap year to really find out what speaks to me,” he says. “What always stayed with me was a love of music and singing. That, to me, seemed like the most natural and honest thing I can do.”
It was an insight that put him on the path to become a multifaceted entertainer, getting a two-year stint at the New York Film Academy in Abu Dhabi and twofour54’s Creative Lab under his belt.
He landed his first major break in 2015 when he was picked to host two seasons of Boulevard Abu Dhabi, an variety television show mostly shot in Beirut, Lebanon.
Spending time in the Middle East's music capital was instructive for Khemeiri.
“You really get a chance to understand how certain aspects of the business work,” he says. “You also see why certain things are the way they are in terms of Arabic pop music being released at the moment.”
A better way of working
Noting that many major Arab artists have songs written for them, Khemeiri realised there was a power imbalance in what should be a collaborative relationship.
He came across this firsthand in the UAE when dealing with producers who approached their work in a mercenary fashion.
“A lot of the deals you get here are like four songs for the asking price,” he says. “And they will do it, say they are done with it and want to move on to the next thing. I found this odd and not collaborative at all. If anything, it is the artist who says when the song is finished.”
It is for this reason Khemeiri worked with US producers on his released tracks. Sure, they were hired for the specific job, he says, but their approach to the work was more gratifying.
“Perhaps it is a different culture of doing things, but the producers I worked with really laboured over the work. You can tell they even enjoyed focusing on the little things,” he says.
It is a shrewd move as Khemeiri’s work exhibits a polished and precise production rarely heard in today's crop of independent artists.
With more tunes to be released over the next few months, Khemeiri is back at work for the next phase of his career.
“I am now working on a live show,” he says. “Hopefully when things get better, I can get on stage and do something more than the standard performance. I am talking costumes, dancing and everything. This year has been the entree stage of my career, coming up next is the main meal.”