How alternative music in MENA is pioneering alternative voices to challenge and change the mainstream
Over the past decade, a new wave of music has been sweeping the Middle East, with young Arab artists leading the charge.
This emerging genre, known as independent or alternative music, has become increasingly popular as more young musicians opt to produce their own music independently rather than through commercial production companies.
"Through our music, we seek to raise awareness and amplify the voices of marginalised communities"
By doing so, they are able to enjoy greater creative freedom, writing lyrics and composing music that speaks to their own experiences and tackling issues that matter to them.
In this genre, you would listen to new types of lyrics other than romantic songs commercial companies usually create.
The content of songs varies from one country to another and often reflects the challenges and circumstances faced by the youth in those places.
In Palestine, independent music often reflects the political situation and its impact on the youth. One of these notable bands is Darbet Shams, composed of members from occupied Palestine and Golan Heights, creating music that focuses on the experiences of Palestinians and Syrians under occupation, especially the struggles of young people.
“Through our music, we seek to raise awareness and amplify the voices of marginalised communities,” says Hanan Wakim, a member of the band.
"Our music is politically charged and focuses on the issues that concern us as part of the Palestinian community"
According to Hanan, the members of Darbet Shams are politically active in the Palestinian community, where they face significant challenges as they live under Israeli rule.
The band's roots lie in political movements, initially the popular Palestinian movement against the conscription of Christian Palestinians. “As a result, our music is politically charged and focuses on the issues that concern us as part of the Palestinian community,” Hanan told The New Arab.
However, one significant challenge for Darbet Shams is funding, as they rely heavily on the support of their friends and fans to keep the band sustainable. “While we do not make much profit, the band's growth is more important to us than financial gain.”
Despite this, she notes that not receiving funding from any official or large company has its advantages, including the freedom to write lyrics without any restrictions.
Amman-based music producer and singer Ali Khair says the rise in popularity of this genre of music can be attributed to a new approach to music marketing. Ali explains that in the past, television was the only platform available for people to listen to music, “but with the advent of YouTube, musicians now have greater access to their audience and can market their music more effectively.”
According to Ali, the big music companies used to dominate the industry and were too afraid to take risks or introduce new types of music, resulting in a lot of imitation. “However, with the rise of independent musicians who can produce and publish their own music online at very low costs, the market has become more diverse and expansive,” Ali told The New Arab in a Zoom interview.
"With the rise of independent musicians who can produce and publish their own music online at very low costs, the market has become more diverse and expansive"
Haya Zaatreh, a 31-year-old architect, struggled to create music that reflected her experiences as a woman living in an Arab community.
Before launching her first album in 2021, she was producing her own music as a personal reflection. Haya initiated a crowdfunding campaign that managed to gather €15,000 from fans worldwide. "It was a challenging task that required a lot of effort and time, but I am grateful that I managed to achieve it," Haya told The New Arab.
Haya explained that her debut album, Rahawan, reflected her life as a Palestinian woman and addressed various topics, including sexuality and her relationship with the community.
She chose to produce her own music to avoid dealing with Israeli production companies, which she firmly opposes. "I may not have complete freedom in my life, but I want my lyrics to be free at least," she said.
Haya's career as a singer began in 2013 with a collaboration with Al-Qaws, a Palestinian organisation focused on the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
She then started performing at open mic events in various Nazareth locations, where she received substantial support from local musicians. Haya's popularity among Arab audiences increased in 2022 when her song Ghani An Altarif was featured as a soundtrack in the Jordanian Netflix series Al-Rawabi.
"I may not have complete freedom in my life, but I want my lyrics to be free at least"
Although there is an increasing interest in alternative music with provocative themes among the younger Arab generation, there are still limitations, whether imposed by authorities or by societal norms.
For instance, in August 2022, a concert featuring Palestinian artist Jowan Safadi in Ramallah was cancelled due to violent threats against the organisers, due to Jowan's “sacrilegious” and controversial songs.
Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila has also faced numerous bans in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon due to the fact that its lead singer Hamed Sinno is openly gay. In fact, the band announced in September of last year that it would disband due to these restrictions.
After the politically charged uprising in Egypt in 2011, many bands and artists emerged, but the political climate remains restrictive.
Hamza Namara, an Egyptian singer, was banned from performing in his home country after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's rise to power, on charges of promoting the Muslim Brotherhood in his music.
Meanwhile, Cairokee, a popular rock band that sings about love, life, and dreams has gained fame not just in Egypt, but internationally as well, beside other bands such as Sharmoofers, Masar Egbari, and many others.
Masis Mardirossian, a music arranger based in Saudi Arabia, believes that alternative music has its own cultural significance and dedicated audience, and can even appeal to different social classes. He questions why this type of music cannot also be considered commercial and sees nothing wrong with it achieving fame and profit at the same time.
While he acknowledges the challenges faced by alternative musicians such as funding and profitability, Masis is inspired by the “growing number of talented artists and bands emerging from the Arab world, who are making significant contributions to the development of the music scene in the region.”
Abeer Ayyoub is a freelance journalist
Follow her on Twitter: @abeerayyoub