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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Desert Storm: how fresh faces from the Gulf are mixing up our music

With roots spreading from California to the Corniche, Emirati artist Noor Al Suwaidi chose Iraqi, Saudi and Kuwaiti rap and pop musicians to play the stereotype-busting Desert Storm show in Abu Dhabi.
Saudi Arabian musician Rotana Tarabzouni, who lives in Los Angeles, performs at the New York University Abu Dhabi Arts Center. Courtesy Michael Adrian Minkowicz
Saudi Arabian musician Rotana Tarabzouni, who lives in Los Angeles, performs at the New York University Abu Dhabi Arts Center. Courtesy Michael Adrian Minkowicz

“This here in Abu Dhabi – this is the new world,” says Ya’koob Al Refaie, half of the Kuwaiti rap duo Sons of Yusuf. “This is the future. We’re a part of this new movement, so we should all be aware of that. We’re making history right now.”

With his brother, Abdul Rahman, Ya’koob will be playing live at the New York University Abu Dhabi Arts Center on Wednesday, alongside two other acts – Iraqi-Canadian rapper Narcy and soulful Saudi Arabian singer Rotana Tarabzouni. All are equally influenced by global pop culture and their upbringing in the region. It’s a show, Ya’koob says, that could be “a spark of something new”.

This enthusiasm isn’t unfounded. Narcy is smart, funny, multitalented and on the rise: a track made with Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour called Hamdulillah was on the Furious 7 soundtrack. Tarabzouni has a powerful voice and a determination to do things her own way. She sings about unleashing the wolf within, and was chosen by the BBC as part of their season dedicated to 100 stereotype-defying women.

The three acts, varied in style but united in spirit, were chosen for the event by the Emirati painter and curator Noor Al Suwaidi, who usually selects art works rather than performers to put in a room together, but feels that the act of curation – or “cultural translation” – is essentially the same. This show was specifically intended to be about “artists from the region who are bridging cultures, being an inspiration to youth and breaking stereotypes”, and it’s called Desert Storm, after the US military campaign during the 1991 Gulf War.

It’s fitting, in a morbid sort of way, for an event for which the curator is Emirati, the venue is American, and the performers are from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

“It’s probably going to be my most meaningful performance to date,” says Tarabzouni, who made the leap two years ago from working at a Saudi Arabian oil company to staking everything on a music career in Los Angeles. She has performed in her new hometown plenty of times – and caused a minor internet sensation in 2013 when she put out a tweaked version of a Lorde song in solidarity with women protesting the driving ban in Saudi Arabia – but she has never played in the region where she grew up.

“I want to put on the best show ever,” she says. “So there’s nerves, but it’s the good kind of nerves. I know that so many people are going to relate.”

It will be a homecoming show for Narcy, too, who was born and raised in the UAE to Iraqi parents. He currently lives in Montreal, where he lectures in hip-hop; puts out lushly produced, Arabic-flavoured rap tracks; makes beautiful, freaky short films with City of Life director Ali F Mostafa; and runs a multimedia creative company called The Medium. Mainstream pop, he told an online magazine, doesn’t depict Gulf culture in a celebratory way, “so we decided to make it happen”.

For Sons of Yusuf, who grew up in Los Angeles but moved home to Kuwait to launch their own careers as rap producers and multimedia creators, the whole region is ripe for a new wave of creative expression.

“It’s fresh out here,” Ya’koob says. “It makes sense that [Sons of Yusuf and Narcy] are under the same event: this is a good start, not just for us, but it could be the spark of something new. People can relate to Narcy, they can relate to us. It’s a good start, and we’re the right people to start it.”

When he went back to California last summer, he said, his friends “kept asking about Dubai and Abu Dhabi, because in their minds, that’s like a utopia, it’s the new future. And in a way it is. A lot of things are going to come from this part of the world. This is just the beginning.”

Noor Al Suwaidi feels similarly. When the artists arrive in Abu Dhabi, she’ll be introducing them to academics, students and art-world luminaries, and organising a panel talk on the local music industry so that more talent can be supported here.

“Why are these three artists in the US and Canada?” she asks, “What are the strengths of that music industry? What’s being provided for you that’s missing here, and how do you think we can bridge that gap?”

It’s important to champion music, she says, because it has broad appeal, and can help undo some of the destructive stereotyping that happens in the media. “There’s a role that artists and curators need to play to say we’re not all like this,” she says. “We need to give ourselves a voice.”

Jessica Holland is a regular contributor to The National.