How often do pop stars sing about war in 2016? When was the last time you heard a song about the Middle Eastern migrant crisis on the radio?
These are the issues Jordanian singer Jaafar is tackling head-on with his recent single, Sixteen, which has become a surprise hit in his adoptive home, the United States.
The song tells the story of a 16-year-old girl caught in the crosshairs of history, in the midst of a war zone, hoping to survive until her next birthday.
Jaafar says the track — sung in English, but with distinct Arabic musical flourishes — was conceived after reading about events in Syria, which is just 80 kms from Amman, where he grew up.
“I feel like what is on the radio right now is a lot of nothing — it’s talking about being in the club, or whatever,” says the 24-year-old songwriter. “I don’t connect to this at all. I feel I don’t know what they’re saying at all.
“I really wanted to say what was on my mind — and being from Middle East — it was the issues of the region.”
After achieving success in his native Jordan, Sixteen is Jaafar's first single in North America. It was released in June and by the end of last year, it had skyrocketed into the top 100 playlist chart on nationwide, cross-format radio, picking up 130,000 YouTube plays along the way.
“Sixteen talks about a 16-year-old girl who wants to make it to her 17th year, her 18th year — but doesn’t know if that’s possible, because she’s in a war-stricken zone,” says Jaafar. “It’s dealing with the refugee crisis we have right now, from all the different conflicts in the world.”
It marks the first taste of his upcoming debut album Folktales of Spring, which, like much of the artist's work, is inspired by social issues affecting people around the world — tackling themes rarely addressed in pop music.
“After the Arab Spring, I wrote a lot of the album in reaction to that — it’s what’s going on in Syria — in many different parts of the Arab world,” says Jaafar. “There’s a lot of social commentary. I don’t like to get that political in my music, it’s always from a humanitarian standpoint, rather than a political one.”
Sixteen's surprise success comes at an important time, with anti-Muslim prejudice in America reportedly on the rise, stoked by controversial statements by Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
In this environment, Jaafar’s decision to flaunt his roots — he left Amman at 17 to study, first in London, then Miami — with prominent Arabic-flavoured strings makes the song’s success all the more surprising.
How much opposition has he encountered as a Middle Eastern artist trying to make it in “the land of the free”?
“I’d say things are quite disgruntled,” he says. “I do go there with my music, which has a distinct Arabic influence and instrumentation — that’s my trademark — and that has caused a bit of a barrier for some people. But it’s also something people are intrigued about because they haven’t really heard it before.
“In terms of prejudice towards being an Arab, I haven’t quite felt that. There have been a couple of instances but it’s not something I feel on a daily basis.”
While his success in the US is new, Jaafar is already well-known in his homeland. His debut single, You Got Me Good, achieved widespread airplay when it was released in 2013 and spent 16 weeks on the official national chart, The Play Top 20, peaking at number four.
Such a strong response to an English-language track by one of their own was unusual in Jordan, and led to high-profile gigs at Amman's historic North Theatre and Jordan's Jerash Festival. As a thank you, in May 2014, Jaafar released a free single, Oasis, which has clocked 270,000 YouTube views.
Having played sold out gigs in Jordan and the US — including a recent showcase at the notorious rock hangout The Roxy on Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip — the only remaining question is when we can expect Jaafar’s UAE debut.
“I would love to perform in the UAE,” he says. “I’ve been dying to play out there ever since I started the album. Last time I played the Middle East was a year-and-a-half ago, and as soon as this album is out, I guarantee I’m coming back and playing as many places as possible.”
• Folktales of Spring will be released this year. For more details, visit www.iamjaafar.com