'Being a third culture kid has its pros': Egyptian artist Bayou on the craft of bilingual lyrics and building bridges with music
It is often said that music reflects life. As a third culture kid who grew up between the UK and Middle East, I didn’t see my life reflected in the English music I listened to, yet couldn’t completely identify with the Arabic music I listened to either.
When it came to love I found that modern English music artists often sang about it on a superficial level, yet the lyrics in Arabic music spoke of a love that sounded intense and overpowering.
As a British Egyptian, I found myself not even being able to fit in with the music I listened to, similar to the ways in which I felt I didn’t completely fit in with my English friends nor Arab friends.
"From poets long ago like Rumi to Mahmoud Darwish, we have a tradition of eloquent writers in the way they write about love and how intense love can be, as well as how love comes in different forms, not just for a human being but for the homeland or the divine"
My generation of third culture kids whose parents immigrated from the West to the Middle East and vice versa in the Noughties is now all grown up and have created a space on the music scene that caters to us all – Arab diaspora music which code switches between English, Arabic and French, within the genres of indie, hip hop and R’n’B.
Popular artists include Palestinian-Chilean singer Elyanna who this year was the first Arab artist to perform an entire set at Coachella in Arabic, mixed-race Palestinian artist Saint Levant, and Saint Levant’s friend, up-and-coming US-based Egyptian artist Bayou.
Speaking to me from his sunny apartment in LA, Bayou tells me that his artist name is an abbreviated version of his father’s name Bayoumi and we joke about how there’s no mistaking this uniquely Egyptian name, as my own grandfather’s name was Bayoumi.
Born to Egyptian parents in Jeddah who moved to Dubai shortly afterwards, Bayou explains how he grew up alongside the city’s skyline, acquiring that distinct American accent that many kids in the Gulf develop while attending international schools. It wasn’t just music he fell in love with at school, but a passion for songwriting.
“Back in elementary school, I had a teacher who used to play his guitar at the end of class. One day he played Yellow by Coldplay and I remember going up to him after class, feeling nervous and excited, and saying, ‘I want to do what you just did.’ Then I realised I actually liked songwriting itself. And from there I was just writing songs and essentially, it was like my journal.”
Bayou initially thought he was destined for a career in football, but after an injury at the age of eighteen, his focus became his music. It went from being a pastime to something he did full-time.
Last year he went on tour with Saint Levant, marking the beginning of Bayou’s rise to fame, as well as a shift in his parents’ views of his music being a hobby or something “nice” to do on the side, to them recognising it as a serious career, giving him their full support.
When it comes to love and loving, the Arab experience is different – and this is something reflected in our music. It’s something that Bayou tries to reflect in his songwriting and sometimes only the Arabic language can capture the intensity of those emotions because there is no English equivalent.
“From poets long ago like Rumi to Mahmoud Darwish, we have a tradition of eloquent writers in the way they write about love and how intense love can be, as well as how love comes in different forms, not just for a human being but for the homeland or the divine. As an Arab, love is very intense and passionate. Our love experience is one that engulfs you.”
Because of this unique love experience, Bayou chooses to write bilingual lyrics, switching between Arabic and English – and it’s not as easy as it sounds, with the need for the lyrics to not only make sense but also rhyme and flow with the music.
“It’s definitely a craft. It’s something I've been developing all the time and it needs to serve a purpose, you can’t just add Arabic lyrics for the sake of it. Arabic is a language filled with so much emotion and so much depth. So, whenever I look to add that kind of depth I feel like Arabic always trumps English.”
“You also need to find words that have the right kind of rhythm and sync with the beat in a way that the switch between languages doesn't feel jarring to the ear.”
"Being a third-culture kid plays an important role in Bayou’s music. He hopes fellow third-culture kids will be able to resonate with his music and also feel less scared or intimidated when it comes to exploring their multiple cultures"
Bayou doesn’t like to box his music into one genre – “I want to be able to entertain people and also express myself in a variety of ways. I want to be able to explore all those emotions artistically as well as put on a show and make them feel different things” – but there is something about Bayou which reminds me of a modern crooner. There are definitely R’n’B beats and hip-hop influences.
In Dodi and Diana Bayou reflects on forbidden love and interracial relationships, inspired by the tragic love story of Princess Diana and Dodi El-Fayed. He also points out that few people remember Dodi El-Fayed – the other human being in one of modern history’s most famous relationships - and the loss of Dodi and his family’s hopes and dreams.
“What I was exploring was the essence of Dodi and Diana s’ relationship, which was a forbidden love where people don’t want you to be with someone because they're from somewhere else, and I experienced that growing up. On a human level, Dodi had hopes and dreams just like Diana. I just wanted to bring that into the song, when people ask, ‘Who is Dodi?’”
Bayou’s latest single Egyptian Wifey has less of a serious undertone. It isn’t him literally saying he wants an Egyptian wife right now, but more of a celebration of all the Egyptian women he knows and grew up with.
“It’s a song about the strong women in my life and the strong presence of women in my life. They shaped the man I am today. And those women are my mum, my sister, my grandmother and all my cousins. Egyptian women don’t take sh** man! And that's what I really love about them. When I was away and I was missing home, I was missing these women that have a huge part of my heart. This led to me writing Egyptian Wifey. Essentially Egyptian women symbolise my longing for home – it’s about them being my home.”
Being a third-culture kid plays an important role in Bayou’s music. He hopes fellow third-culture kids will be able to resonate with his music and also feel less scared or intimidated when it comes to exploring their multiple cultures.
“As a third culture kid, there’s the fact that you always feel you're never home. Growing up in Dubai you're around every possible nationality in the world. I feel like I am not really from anywhere on the inside, but at the same time, I have a strong connection to certain places and a strong understanding of the people who live there. When you are home, like back in Egypt, it’s this fantasy world you’ve built up in your head and you're like, ‘Oh, this is where I'm from.’ Third culture kids just have more sides to them.”
Being a third-culture kid has its pros too. It means having the potential to appeal to a wider audience and that’s what Bayou is hoping he achieves.
“I am an international kid. I am able to be myself in a variety of ways. Ideally, I would love to be the bridge between our cultures.”
Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press.
Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA