Born in Palestine, raised in Dubai, the rapper counts Norah Jones, Tupac and Coldplay in his eclectic mix of influences
Dubai-based rapper FADL on cultivating a more vibrant music scene in the UAE
Let’s be honest: hip-hop is not exactly synonymous with the UAE. Or not yet, anyway. Countless American rappers, including Flo Rida and Busta Rhymes, have namechecked Dubai on their records – the city’s reputation for decadence inevitably endears it to hip-hop’s moneyed superstars – but there has been a lack of home-grown talent to really get excited about.
For a number of years, however, one man has been threatening to change all that. And at last, Fadl Saadeddine, aka FADL, who was born in Palestine but raised in Dubai, has released the kind of EP that deserves serious attention. It could, FADL hopes, even inspire a whole generation of young people in the region to start making music. “There is a lot of untapped talent,” he says. “It just needs developing like any other art form.”
Stars Aligned, which FADL describes as his “defining moment”, combines elements of hip-hop, soul, jazz and classical music. It is softer than the 28-year-old’s three previous albums; there is less rapping – even if tracks such as Incognito retain that abrasive edge – and a greater emphasis on melody. FADL explains that Norah Jones and Coldplay were both influences.
“Hip-hop has evolved,” he says. “We have gone from [the era of] Eminem and 50 Cent, to where we are today, with artists such as Drake and Future. My music has also been an evolution leading up this point.” It should be said that falling in love helped a bit, too. “I’ve never really rapped about my feelings for a girl before, so maybe the gentler sound was a nod to that,” he says.
FADL, whose parents are both Palestinian immigrants, started rapping at a young age. He was inspired by the lyrics of Tupac Shakur and Eminem and would attempt to emulate his heroes during rap battles at school. But it wasn’t until 2008, when he moved to London to study at university, that FADL realised he wanted music to be more than just a hobby. “It wasn’t really about fame or money,” he says. “It was about my passion for music.”
It has been a long journey – he laughs as he recalls performing to just a handful of people in some of London’s grimiest bars – but that bold decision is finally starting to pay off. Circle, the lead single from Stars Aligned, has already accumulated hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, and FADL, who recently collaborated with rapper Travis Scott and producer DJ Khaled, is planning to play a series of major shows in the UAE, Canada and across the United States later in the year. Not that he has allowed these achievements to go to his head. Apart from anything else, his mother wouldn’t stand for it. “She would still shout at me if I did something wrong,” he says.
FADL now hopes that his success will help to cultivate a bigger, more vibrant music scene in the UAE. “In the year or two before Stars Aligned came out, I was back and forth a lot between the States, LA and Miami, mostly, where I was getting a lot of inspiration,” he says. “But it’s not easy ‘making it’ out there and I realised that instead, I could be at the forefront back at home. I thought, ‘If the industry goes for it, I will be one of the pioneers.’”
But FADL will be the pioneer of a very different style of hip-hop from the kind his childhood idols were making. From NWA to Tupac, Nas to Eminem, the history of hip-hop is full of rappers whose music is rooted in hardship, disillusionment and a feeling of alienation. These are not – and are unlikely ever to be – the themes that underpin FADL’s music. Does he worry that what he is creating will be less powerful as a result?
“That is not where hip-hop stands now,” he says. “It’s shifted towards where rock ’n’ roll was in the 1970s, the extravagance and the lavish lifestyle.” Besides, he explains, there are people struggling everywhere – financially, perhaps, or in their personal lives. That is not unique to America. “Yes, that is where hip-hop started, but struggle is relatable to every person in the world,” he says.
Whatever the subject matter, one thing is clear enough: people in the UAE are responding to the songs that FADL and his peers – Hamma Santino; Moh Flow; ABRI – are putting out. Music here is thriving. “Year in, year out, the music scene in the UAE is developing. Even six months ago, it was very different to where we are now,” he says. “The Design District in Dubai was made for the visual arts and fashion, so those scenes are much more developed. But this was the year when we finally had a lot of kids coming out with tracks that have resonated through the city.”
What took so long, though? Why, in a country that has developed so quickly in other areas, did music get left behind? Part of the problem, FADL explains, is that historically, a lot of people have arrived in the UAE on short-term visas. Those comings and goings inevitably hamper the creation of a cohesive music scene.
Added to this, venues have, in the past, often failed to give young musicians the opportunity to perform. “The lounges and clubs tend to be run by companies who have investors on board, so they are hiring people [to perform] for monetary reasons,” FADL says. “We need to support local talent. That’s when things will start making sense.
“Five years ago, it was unheard of to get a gig at a club and if you did, nobody would show up,” he says. “Now when I perform, I’m seeing kids in the crowd in their early twenties. Five years ago, those kids were 15, so it just takes time to develop. Once you set the right platforms and you give the right tools to the kids, they are going to come up with something great.”