Record label Empire paves new path for Arabic music industry

Egyptian musician Abdullah Miniawy (R) performs at a nightclub in Cairo, on October 26, 2016 [Getty]
7 min read
20 May, 2021

According to Suhel Nafar, the time was ripe for Arab musicians trying to make their mark.

An innovator best known for launching Spotify in the Arab world, Nafar was recently appointed strategy and market development vice president at Empire. It’s a role that will see him head up a new division within the label that focuses on artists who have roots in West Asia and North Africa – or WANA, a decolonised term inclusive of Arab, Kurdish, Turkish, Iranian, Amazigh, Assyrian people and more.

Empire is a digital music distribution platform that curates talent in the same vein as a record label, and its new WANA division is thought to be the first of its kind in the industry (in the US, at least). And it has wasted no time – it has already partnered with Canadian-Lebanese singer Massari and is currently developing Palestinian upstart Elyanna.

“We will be partnering with artists from all tiers and backgrounds – those that we aim to develop from the ground up all the way to established artists looking to expand their reach globally,” Nafar told The New Arab.

“We want to produce a funnel for artists in the WANA region to reach a wider global audience.”

"Empire’s expansion into WANA artists comes on the back of a growing trend of major record labels branching out to or buying up stakes in the Arab music industry"

While it has specialised in hip-hop since its inception in 2010 – working with Iggy Azalea, Kendrick Lamar, T.I, Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes – Empire’s new WANA division is a natural next step in its business strategy. After all, the label’s founder and chief executive Ghazi Shami is of Palestinian descent, and several senior colleagues also have WANA roots.

“This gives us a unique understanding to enter the marketplace with care, respect and a knowledge-base that no other record company can replicate,” Nafar said.

“We hope to help usher in a cultural exchange and economic growth in the region.”

Empire’s expansion into WANA artists comes on the back of a growing trend of major record labels branching out to or buying up stakes in the Arab music industry. In addition to Spotify launching across the region in recent years to become a challenger for Anghami, Warner Music Group also recently made an undisclosed investment in Rotana Music, the Arab world’s largest record label owned by Saudi Arabia's billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The deal will see Warner Music distribute Rotana's releases globally.

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In 2018, Prince Alwaleed himself invested $267 million in French music streaming service Deezer via Rotana Group and his investment company Kingdom Holding. Rotana and Deezer had also signed a long-term agreement to distribute Rotana's audio and video content in the Arab world.

Spek, the chief executive of Dubai-based record label PopArabia, welcomed all industry entrants interested in developing, signing and releasing WANA artists, especially those with a global view. While PopArabia has been around for 10 years and specialises in music publishing, creative consultancy, and songwriter/artist rights, it only moved into becoming a record label recently. Spek said that in this way, it shares some parallels with Empire in that it was also investing in WANA talent.

“All moves to invest in the music sector in the region are things that will help the greater whole, and as the market around music begins to monetise rights we will see a lot more foreign direct investment coming in and leading to consolidation in the industry,” Spek said.

The success of electro-Shaabi in Egypt has ushered in a new generation of musicians [Getty]
The success of electro-Shaabi in Egypt has ushered in a new generation of musicians [Getty]

“The [WANA] region is bursting with potential, the data points us to a well-connected, youthful population, who are very active on social media and who have a lot to say. These make for a perfect storm for a market to flourish over time.”

Palestinian singer-songwriter Rasha Nahas, who sings mostly in English and is signed to Cargo Records, believes Warner Music’s and Empire’s recent moves are testament to how far the music industry has come.

“For example, a few months ago I took part in the Sawtik campaign by Spotify in which they featured Arab female artists, including play-listing and billboard placements across the Arab world,” she said.

“That was around the time I was releasing my debut album Desert, and it’s a very nice feeling to feel supported by a global company like Spotify.”

She added: “Few years ago there weren’t as many agents, labels, distributors and promoters in the WANA region – not that there are many today, but it’s definitely growing and expanding. And there wasn’t also that big of a spectrum of diverse music in Arabic.”

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Christina Hazboun of Marsm, a UK-based Arabic music events producer, organiser and digital platform, said Empire’s new initiative could fortify efforts to increase exposure of WANA artists globally.

“It’s a significant step for diaspora artists who have made the US their home as it allows them to present their unique blends of home-grown music with diasporic influences to wider audiences,” she said.

But what of the lack of WANA representation in mainstream Western music – apart from the usual suspects like DJ Khaled, Shakira, French Montana and Mika? Will Empire’s appointment of Nafar be the trigger that brings about much needed change?

Hazboun believes there is still a long way to go in terms of what needs to be done. She said WANA artists have not gained the recognition and exposure they deserve, and that highlighting talent from the region was essential.

“More networking and curating of shows and programs alongside UK and European partners is needed,” she explained.

“We all need to forge stronger bonds with more music and arts organisations, associations, venues, record labels but also media outlets so artists are spotlighted within all those platforms.”

Over the past year, Marsm has been working on showcasing an array of WANA artists and linking them to UK and European festivals, events and media platforms. Hazboun said this was because the artists themselves sometimes need support rather than be left to their own devices when it comes to branching out across the West.

"As significant players enter the market by signing talent, we will see the region organically develop its creative industry infrastructure around that"

“Our own work on our latest digital platform also means that we're increasing the visibility of acts and artists through features, podcasts, music films and playlists that provide musicological, historic and social insights into the region's rich history,” she said.

“We are hence extending our content to give a platform to WANA artists to tell their stories both past and present. This also emerged from the need to increase the visibility of artists in UK media and beyond chronicling the testimonies and evolution of our music scenes.”

Nafar highlighted that aside from chart toppers mentioned earlier, there were already many successful WANA artists in North America, like Faouzia, Abir, Bazzi, Ali Gatie, Raef, Kareem Salama and of course Massari, and that there’s a lot more in Europe.

However, he conceded it was “still not enough”. He added that the WANA region has the youngest and fastest-growing population in the world that is expected to reach approximately 600 million people by 2030 – and that the constant political and economic changes in the region makes them the biggest newcomers in many countries across North America and Europe.

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Nafar believes one of the best ways to bring about better WANA representation in mainstream Western music is to start from within.

“There needs to be more encouragement from our own society and our families to have careers in art like music and TV/film instead of just encouraging the typical being a doctor, engineer or pharmacist,” he said.

“We need more of us working in media, behind the scenes and in front, to combat the racism that has been embedded in the West’s media and Hollywood.

“Seeing negative and harmful representation repeated daily creates the idea that this is fact and impacts our kids and makes them feel ashamed and embarrassed for being who they are. 

“A lot of work needs to be done to unlearn those racist stereotypes and creative outlets are one of the most powerful forms to do it in.”

Spek, on the other hand, had a rosier outlook.

“The future looks bright for music creators in the region, and as significant players enter the market by signing talent, we will see the region organically develop its creative industry infrastructure around that,” he said.

“We have suffered from a lack of real investment in the region in the creative arts, but we’re witnessing a turnaround in part due to the opportunities around music streaming entering the fold. It is an exciting time, and the Arab representation you mention will be coming.”

Elias Jahshan is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. He is a former board member of Arab Council Australia.

Follow him on Twitter: @Elias_Jahshan