'There was a scarcity of women like me on the mic': How Arab women are finding sisterhood in the music scene

Ahead of the London Remixed festival, British-Lebanese DJ and producer Saliah and Egyptian-American hip-hop artist Felukah discuss a lack of representation in the music industry

Arab women open up about challenges in the music industry

Arab women open up about challenges in the music industry
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If there was ever an accessory that could encapsulate the proud modern Arab creative, then the contemporary tarboush resting on DJ Saliah's head as she speaks to The National would be it.

Fans of the British-Lebanese DJ will be familiar with her unique blend of heavy basslines, popular Arabic grooves and electronic Arabesque, but they might be surprised to learn that she embraced the genre only after leaving the music industry altogether.

From Kuwait to London's drum and bass clubs

DJ Saliah, who will play at London Remixed Festival. Courtesy Callum Francis Hugh
DJ Saliah, who will play at London Remixed Festival. Courtesy Callum Francis Hugh

Raised in Kuwait until the age of eight, DJ Saliah was surrounded by Arabic music growing up, but when she moved to the UK and bought her first turntables, it was the underground drum and base scene that she embraced.

When she was old enough to graduate into the club scene to play professional sets, she garnered success but found the going tough.

“It's really hard to make money [in DJ-ing], especially as a woman in a very male-dominated scene,” she says. "I decided drum and bass wasn't for me because I just couldn't fit in.”

A lack of cultural understanding was one challenge. Taking a month out of performing during Ramadan, for example, was not something the scene appreciated. The lack of female solidarity, she says, was another.

"What tends to happen, unfortunately, is that there're so few spaces for women in the scene, that sometimes there's a lot of competition towards each other to fight for that spot. And there's not this same kind of solidarity as like, brotherhood. There was no sisterhood in DJing. Honestly, it's only recently that I've been really finding those spaces where there is a sense of sisterhood," DJ Saliah says.

Community over competition

Which is perhaps why she is now, during her second attempt at cracking the music industry, such an advocate of inclusivity and in raising the voices of other women.

"I'm a true believer in community over competition, there is plenty of food on the table for everybody," DJ Saliah tells The National from her flat in London.

It was, after all, a shout-out from another successful woman that heralded DJ Saliah's return to the music industry in 2018 after a four-year hiatus. After loving a mix DJ Saliah did of one of her tracks, the Mobo-award winning Lady Leshurr booked her to perform at one of her gigs.

I felt like there was a scarcity of women like me on the mic, or just in pop culture. And I wasn't seeing women portrayed in enough of a nuanced light

That was the year another unique Arab female artist took to the airwaves: Egyptian-American neo-soul hip-hop musician Felukah, who shares the feminist outlook of her British counterpart.

"I felt like there was a scarcity of women like me on the mic, or just in pop culture. And I wasn't seeing women portrayed in enough of a nuanced light … because all we see are hyper sexualised images of women in mainstream media, and to a whole culture that has sex as a huge taboo, we found other avenues and means to express ourselves," she tells The National from New York, where she lives.

Raised in Cairo, Felukah frequently raps in English and Arabic, and explores cultural issues and multiplicity in her lyrics.

Female Arabs represent

She says it was the lack of female Arab representation in the industry that pushed her to become a creator to help fix the problem.

"It's to shout out my streets and my culture and my little intimate moments that make a lot of other people in different communities laugh and have a really cool community-building moment with their artists. And we never had that as Arab women," Felukah says.

Felukah, who will feature at London Remixed Festival. Courtesy London Remixed Festival
Felukah, who will feature at London Remixed Festival. Courtesy London Remixed Festival

She also gets a lot of positive reactions from non-Arabs, even when she sings in Arabic.

“They feel like it gives it a whole different dimension and then they're more inspired to go look up the lyrics and translate them because they're like, well, I might as well memorise that one line that's in Arabic and, for me, that was exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted you to go to genius.com and search my lyrics, learn something,” Felukah says.

DJ Saliah's commitment to community over competition was part of the reason she curated an all-female video campaign for International Women's Day 2019 for a popular breakdancing YouTube channel, after realising that only 1 per cent of its footage featured women. She is also currently developing a community safe space called BIPOC for female and non-binary music producers.

'We need music for these times'

Across the pond, Felukah has, of course, been very exposed to issues around race and representation. She says the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement and the more recent anti-Asian-hate protests inspired and empowered her.

"I take that power and it inspires me to keep working because I'm like, this is for them. They need anthems ... and they need things to think about when they're processing these different things. We need music for these times. That's the revolution," Felukah says emphatically.

Both women are included in the line-up for the London Remixed Festival, a musical event that features 36 artists, bands and DJs streaming in virtual reality this weekend.

DJ Saliah's signature Arabic-infused electro-music came into being only after a nostalgic search for a cultural space she could connect to led her to MARSM UK, the London-based event producer and dynamic digital platform for contemporary music from the Arabic-speaking world. They are also one of the partners of London Remixed.

“It was really a nice feeling of connection to culture, to community, to nostalgia ... because when you're from the diaspora, it's so hard to keep connected,” says the DJ about discovering MARSM.

At one of their events she saw the Palestinian DJ Super Mike playing, and the first time she had heard Arabic music mixed electronically. After being "blown away" by his set, she quickly tracked him down and asked him to teach her his style.

“I owe it to him really that he took the time out to kind of have the patience and have the solidarity in seeing how important it is to pass on that knowledge, especially to women,” she says of the DJ she describes as her mentor.

The DJ says it is important for men to pass on the mic to women and that it should not just fall on the shoulders of women to push their way through.

“Because I think a lot of the attitude is that women just need that mentality. We do have that mentality. Unfortunately, there are lot of gatekeepers. And if you're not moving at all, if you're not making the space, it's very hard, and you get shut out quite a lot,” DJ Saliah says.

She admits that societal pressures and norms mean Arab women in particular have a difficult time getting their voices heard in the arts. Nevertheless, she says the misogynistic attitude in the industry is cross-cultural. She has witnessed first-hand male DJs deliberately trying to sabotage her sets before her turn came. When she recently shared her story on a social media platform, she was surprised by how many other female DJs came forward to say the same thing had happened to them.

Thankfully, it did not stop her progress or success. Since returning to music she has been featured on the BBC and performed opening sets for Omar Souleyman, Shkoon, Ammar 808 and Acid Arab. But even the most successful artists struggle to withstand the effects of the pandemic.

Creativity in lockdown

Nostalgically recollecting her last live performance at one of MARSM’s most popular Hishek Bishek events in London, DJ Saliah is glad that she kept playing until security shut off the sound system.

“There was something in the air, it was like we somehow knew this was our last night, it was just so positive. Everybody was so happy,” she says.

Like all those in the arts, it has been a hard adjustment since then, particularly when her career trajectory was going so well.

Without live performances, DJ Saliah turned to her other dream – music production – taking a production course and using the internet to create her own tracks. She'll be playing those tracks at London Remixed Festival.

“I think for so many of us [the pandemic] has been two extremes. It's been really sad, in terms of losing that vibe, that energy that we've all worked so hard to get towards,” she says. “But on the other side, it just really helped to have time to focus on being creative.”

She is keen to acknowledge that she is speaking from a position of privilege, given that her employment as a freelancer in brand identity has kept her financially secure – unlike the thousands of artists whose livelihoods were wrecked by the pandemic.

Christina Hazboun from MARSM says the negative effect of lockdowns, as well as Brexit, is worrying, but the platform has seen a great deal come out of the musicians it deals with.

"Artists and creatives have had breathing space to go inward, reflect and re-evaluate their inner journeys and get creative in different ways," she tells The National.

“The myriad live-streamed events also allowed artists to grow their following and gain exposure in previously untapped territories, and this has also meant that there's many new collaborations between artists that wouldn't have happened if this digital connect hadn't become a part of our daily reality.”

Making connections

Case in point is Felukah, who decided to drop her debut album, Dream 23, in the summer last year. Naturally, she is saddened by the inability to tour her album, but has diverted that time to engaging with her fans through her regular Instagram livestreams.

“I'm really trying to just be available to my fans, my listeners, my people, in a way that pandemic has made more possible ... and I can show you a little bit of my world and like my brain and stuff like that, and we can share in the future,” says Felukah, before quickly adding that she would really like to go on tour once things open up.

DJ Saliah is also proud of how much she has developed musically in a year, and of the surprising connections she found between seemingly opposite music genres.

“I noticed that UK grime uses a lot of the same kind of musical scales as Arabic. So I found I could merge those two things together.”

The aim, ultimately, is to play an entire set of her own music. “I just want to take people on a journey with my music. And that journey is to listen to the influence of not only my identity but of all the genres that raised me.”

London Remixed virtual festival starts on 26 March at 8pm. For more details visit  www.losthorizonlive.com/londonremixed