Reattaching rhythmical roots: How Arab artists in the diaspora navigate identity through musical expression

Iraqi-Canadian hip-hop artist Yassin Alsalman, known by his stage name Narcy, performs the chobi, an Iraqi folk dance, to his Arabic and hip-hop beats on stage at the Dubai International Marine Club during a music festival in the United Arab Emirates
6 min read
14 March, 2022

“Growing up I didn’t feel like there was a ‘blueprint’ for me as an artist who is an Arab but wasn’t making Arabic music and so I would love to be that for young Arab girls by continuing to make music and staying authentic to myself," begins Australia-based singer-songwriter, Wafia.

Born to a Syrian mother and an Iraqi father, Wafia exhibits her identity through her music in subtle ways. She wants to make her people proud, she says, and does so from a place of honesty in her songs.

The sentiments Wafia expresses are ones that many artists in the Arab diaspora feel as they create music. For listeners in the diaspora, this concept of "seeing ourselves in musicians and bands" felt virtually unattainable up until recently.

"For many in the diaspora community, the journey to feeling comfortable with embracing identity often coincides with pivotal moments in life that lead us to exploring the connection to our culture in a vulnerable way"

Yes, there have been many artists like legendary Palestinian hip-hop producer Fredwreck and iconic Lebanese singer-songwriter Paul Anka who Arabs could point to as symbols of our people making it in music. But those examples felt too few and far between for a massive diasporic community that has long sought meaningful and valuable representation in music.

Much of this is rooted in the lifelong navigation of our identity, be it personal or collective. There remains a constant tug-and-pull between feeling accepted within the community in which we live and yearning to maintain our roots in the countries of our ancestors.

That journey – with all of its complexities, anxiousness and realisations – is borne differently for each individual, let alone for each diaspora community, whether that be manoeuvring through government institutions that have enacted barriers for our existence or the racism our communities globally still endure.

Wafia understands what it means to be a third-culture kid and ultimately, she says, wants her authenticity to connect with her audience.

“I can only write music from a place that feels personal and honest to me and the reality of the situation is that we are all kind of going through the same thing – there is something comforting about that. So if there is anyone resonating with my work the most, it would be the Middle Eastern and North African community.”

The real lived experiences shine through in Wafia’s music. Her debut EP XXIX, released in 2015, feels relatable to anyone who has gone through the depths of pain and heartbreak. Wafia’s latest track, I Wanna Run Away, sees her collaborating with Nigerian superstar Mr Eazi and Moroccan producer R3HAB.

“It’s obviously very important to like the music of whoever I’m working with but I find it important above all to mesh with them on a human level,” she says. 

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Intibint, a Yemeni-British artist living in the UK, similarly uses her own experiences to centre an audience that can identify with her music.

“When I think about my audience, I actually think about myself. I’m writing for people like me,” Intibint says. “As someone who has lived both in Yemen and in the UK, I’m writing to both the women and people in Yemen and for girls like me who have had to grow up in the UK.”

As someone who writes, sings and produces her own music, Intibint is incredibly thoughtful about how her audience connects to her songs – and some songs may hit differently with her diaspora community and others with her community in Yemen.

For example, her latest song, Ishty Ansa, which speaks intimately about wanting to forget about loss and pain, resonated with someone living in Yemen – given the ongoing war and crisis in the country – who messaged Intibint about the track.

“It made me really think like [Ishty Ansa] can touch someone and make them want to forget about their reality even though their reality is so different to mine, but we’re still both Yemeni.”

"Our connection to these artists and their songs reassures us that our journeys toward understanding our identity are rooted in the genuineness of our holistic selves"

Even the deliberate decision to sing in both English and Arabic has to do with Intibint’s desire to ensure that her music connects with both local and diaspora communities.

“If we don’t share the same experiences, it’s okay. We still can connect through music and learn from each other’s experiences. But Yemenis are not going to be able to do that if it’s not in a language they can relate to.”

For many in the diaspora community, the journey to feeling comfortable with embracing identity often coincides with pivotal moments in life that lead us to explore the connection to our culture in a vulnerable way.

Abir, a Moroccan-born New York-based singer-songwriter who identifies as being part of the African and Arab diaspora communities, explains that for her latest album Heat, which has been incredibly successful, she too needed to go through a journey of self-discovery in order to give her full self to this project.

“I was conflicted with the music I was making prior because I felt I had outgrown it and wanted to tap into something even more meaningful to me,” explains Abir. “I felt that Arab elements in pop/mainstream could really spice things up and it fueled my drive to learn more about how exactly I could do that. It was an entirely new experience of making music.”

With everything accompanying Heat, including the visual art and music videos, Abir intentionally chose to work with an all-Arab crew, something not often seen in the industry.

“Because it was such a vulnerable and fragile project for me, I handpicked creatives that I felt aligned with the energy of the project and the meaning of the project. People who could relate and know that they could treat it as theirs and have the freedom to add to the message without any limitations.”

Though she lives far away from Morocco, Abir maintains her deep emotional connection to the culture, land, and people through her music. That allows her to continue creating music that both challenges the perspectives of some while also allowing others to feel seen.

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That authentic and vulnerable representation provides so much more than just being able to see ourselves as a diaspora in music and art. Our connection to these artists and their songs reassures us that our journeys toward understanding our identity are rooted in the genuineness of our holistic selves.

After releasing Heat, Abir felt she had a true support system and audience for the first time in her career. Being open, honest, and real about her journey in the diaspora shapes her music and her creative process.

“Where I come from and what I identify as plays a huge role in why I see the world the way I do and why I share the stories that I do,” Abir concludes. 

Danny Hajjar is a media relations professional based in Washington, DC. An avid music lover, he is passionate about hip hop artists in the Middle East and North Africa and the growth of their music beyond the region. He curates music and stories in his weekly newsletter Sa’alouni El Nas.

Follow him on Twitter: @DanielGHajjar