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'We're just taking space.' How Arabic music is breaking through to new audiences

Until recently, Arab music had been used by American and European studios and popular media in a way that "was very orientalist," playing on racist tropes, according to writer and music journalist Danny Hajjar. But music streaming apps like Spotify and platforms like TikTok have offered greater access to the music and allowed new Arabic music genres to bloom, Hajjar told the PBS NewsHour's Deema Zein.

These platforms have increasingly given "space to Arab creatives and creatives of the region, or in the diaspora, using the music in a way that we had not seen our music be used before," he said.

Representation that was once relegated to a controversial sampling of Egyptian music on a Jay-Z track has now evolved into full collaborations between longtime stars of the Arabic music scene like Nancy Ajram and the likes of Marshmello on the song "Sah Sah."

Watch the conversation in our player above.

Where once this music was reserved for weddings and cultural events within the community, it's now everywhere, from the World Cup to Coachella, underground music scenes to Spotify charts and TikTok trends.

"Now you've got people who may not be around a lot of Arab Americans or people who speak Arabic, for example. Now they're trying to do it. They're trying to sing it," Hajjar said.

That shift is exemplified by the rise of Egyptian artist Wegz. He was the top-streamed Arab artist on Spotify for 2022. He also performed at the last World Cup, hosted in Qatar, the first Arab and Muslim country to hold a World Cup. To reflect this new reality, Spotify this year signed a deal with Rotana Music – the largest record label in the Middle East- that would bring more than 10,000 Arabic songs to the platform.

Especially in a post-Sept. 11 world, Hajjar said this type of positive, constructive representation is crucial. "There was also this sort of fear of wanting to be fully yourself outside of the community," Hajjar said, adding with the new movement in Arabic music, "we now feel a little bit more empowered to fully be ourselves and to say different words in Arabic, colloquially with people who may not know the language or anything like that."

"Music has the advantage of being music. It's not speech. It's not a book. It's something that doesn't really matter if you understand what's being said. If you feel it, you feel it. It's a visceral thing," said Philippe Manasseh, a Lebanese artist based in Montreal.

Yet as Arab music gains greater prominence, the acts in the (still small) spotlight aren't necessarily representative of the multitudes who comprise this diverse community. "There's been very little space for our community," Manasseh said. And it's a shame that sometimes the space is taken by people who shouldn't be there, and they're just there because there's money behind them and power and all sorts of industry mechanisms."

When an artist is able to break through, there are still concerns about whether their music will be diluted or wrongly appropriated. It's a concern Manasseh said he shared when he learned of the historic performance by Elyanna, a Palestinian-Chilean singer-songwriter who performed her entire set at Coachella in Arabic this year. He said he hopes that she will be able to continue performing in Arabic and not be pushed to create in English in an effort to sell more.

"We want to ensure that the actual people who are involved, the actual, you know, the DJs, the producers, the songwriters, the whoever it may be, the ones who have their ears plugged to the ground, the independent artists, make sure that they are the ones that are involved in that process and are the ones that have a seat at the table, and not just in a sort of tokenized sense, but in a real way," Hajjar added.

While samplings and collaborations have helped highlight Arabic music in the past, being fully presented and represented by Arab artists themselves is the next step in the movement.

"It's about artists from the region showcasing music from the region and talents in the region," Manasseh said. "We're taking space. We're not taking space away from anyone. We're just taking space" – and doing it with excellence.

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