Emirati-Yemeni singer Balqees brings us music from the heart
Balqees was the name of a powerful and wise queen who ruled over Sheba. The historic significance of the name has helped drive Balqees Fathi, an award-winning singer and soprano, to leave her own legacy.
“Ismek Naseebic,” says the 27-year-old Emirati-Yemeni artist, quoting a proverb that translates as “your name defines your destiny”.
“When I asked my father why did he name me after this Yemeni queen, he said he wanted me to be a wise and powerful figure, just like her, who brought about change to her people peacefully without dragging them into war.”
Bringing positive change to the turbulent Arab region is the singer’s latest mission. This month, she was appointed the first Planet 50-50 champion for the Arab States Region.
Launched by UN Women last year, the initiative aims to push for gender-equality reforms.
Balqees explains her role as one that aids Arab women and girls to reach their full potential, through a mixture of public awareness and advocating for laws that protect their rights.
“I am so honoured to be given this responsibility,” she says. “It is actually the social and cultural responsibility of every influential celebrity to use their power to highlight problems and bring about solutions.
“Besides traditional outlets such as TV and newspapers, we can now use social media to bring about social change.”
Balqees has more than 1.8 million followers on Twitter and 4.9 million on Instagram. She made her debut in 2013 with the record-breaking album Majnoun. Her follow-up release was even more successful. Last year’s Zay Ma Ana was the most-downloaded album on iTunes in the Middle East, and was included in the Apple Music’s “Best of 2015” end-of-year list.
Balqees says her social-media approach is not only for self-promotion.
“I am in touch with the public through my social media and talk on a daily basis with Arab women from around the world, and know what issues they are struggling with,” she says.
This constant correspondence with fans has revealed myriad issues facing women regionally.
“One of the first issues I will be tackling is helping women entrepreneurs in this region by giving them exposure, empowering them with information and tools, and connecting them to each other and the right people,” she says.
“One of the biggest issues is illiteracy, in the sense that the families of these women don’t understand why their daughters would want to do this or that kind of business, and block it.
“Another major issue is poverty; so many women have lost everything due to war, and they are trying to find a source of income,” she says. “I won’t be focusing on certain nationalities. I will be helping all Arab women, especially those in real need, regardless of where they are living.”
She explains that the urgency of her task came into focus last year, when visiting Yemeni refugee camps in Djibouti to help raise public awareness about the status of Yemeni refugees.
Other issues Balqees holds close to her heart include domestic violence against women, and child brides.
“I want to inform and empower women to know what to do when they are abused,” she says. “Many don’t know they have organisations they can go to to seek help.
“I have visited refugee camps, such as the one in Jordan, where parents play on paper with the ages of their daughters to marry them off to older men, as they feel that is probably the only way out for a possible future for their children. It is terrible. Children between 10 and 15 are being married off to complete strangers – God knows what they will do to them.”
The UN position marks another high point in what is a growing, stellar career. Her first performances date back to 2013, when she became a member of the UAE National Symphony Orchestra, singing in multiple languages, including French and Italian.
The experience with the latter language helped when she had the honour of performing alongside Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli in April at the du Arena in Abu Dhabi.
“I have met rulers and princes and heads of state, but when I met Bocelli, I was just speechless,” she says. “He is so sensual and sensitive and so down to Earth. When I sang with him, I was dreaming, ‘Am I really on stage with this guy?’ I wasn’t on stage, I was in heaven.”
She says her calm exterior on the stage disguised some gut-churning nerves. The song Cheek to Cheek, from the 1935 film Top Hat, was performed on the fly without rehearsals – but Bocelli’s soothing advice got her through.
“He was so supportive and whispered in my ears what a great job I did,” she says.
“He hugged me three times. I would love the chance to work with him again and again and again.”
Her duet with Bocelli came on the back of her stage debut in January, where she starred in the musical Al Faris (The Knight) by celebrated Lebanese composers, the Rahbani Brothers.
It was a lavish production inspired by the poetry of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and created by an international cast and crew from Dubai, Lebanon, Kuala Lumpur, Prague and Kiev.
“I still don’t feel like I have reached the top,” Balqees says. “There is still a lot more I want to do and explore.”
One of the international stars she would love to work with is American pop singer Katy Perry.
“She went through some ups and downs, like myself, and turned it around into something positive,” she says.
“I felt a connection with that as I went through a similar journey in my career.”
Balqees promises fans that they can expect some interesting new projects to be launched online soon. She married Saudi businessman Sultan Bin Abdullatif, her “partner in crime”, in May, but dismisses suggestions that she will be taking a career break as a result of her marriage.
“I will not retire as some rumours said, if anything, I will do even more,” she says.
One key event on the cards is a performance close to her heart. “I have a surprise for my fans – the first ever duet with my father.”
Ahmed Fathi, a well-known Yemeni musician, will perform with his daughter on September 20 at the Cairo Opera House in Egypt.
“I grew up listening to and singing with him. He is a legend and has been my greatest support,” she says.
“He doesn’t miss a single concert of mine, he is always there in the audience, cheering me on.”
Before that, on August 3, she will perform in London with Qatari singer Fahad Al Kubaisi.
Reflecting on her career, Balqees says she is living her dream.
“I used to say I want to be an ambassador,” she says. “Not doctor, not engineer, not astronaut. The grown-ups would laugh it off and say, ambassador of what? I would say, of something special. Today, I have become an ambassador of women’s rights.
“So dreams do come true – and while I did put aside my dreams of singing for a long time, it was always there, hidden away, waiting to come alive.”
Updated: July 23, 2016 04:00 AM