x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pop star takes aim at 'war on terror'

The first UAE singer to record international hit says the song refers to the 'lies' that were told to Americans to 'make them afraid of Arabs'

Kaylif has a British mother and Emirati father.
Kaylif has a British mother and Emirati father.

ABU DHABI // Layla Kaylif, the first UAE artist to have international chart success, has given her work a political edge with a new record criticising America's "war on terror". In Body of Lies, Kaylif reflects on reasons for US foreign policy and challenges misconceptions about Arabs. She hopes the release can help propel a larger social movement, one that she says the Middle East needs.

Kaylif wrote the song after reading David Ignatius's book of the same name. The song refers to "the lies that were told to the American people by their government in order to make them afraid of Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims in general to justify their continued war effort", Kaylif said. "I worried at first it might be too abrasive but recently it has been acknowledged, even in American media, that the initial reasons for the Iraq war were lies."

Kaylif, 30, who studied Middle Eastern and Arabic Literature at Oxford University in Britain, said she had always been interested in politics and the concept of protest music. "There is great power in music that is used constructively, but in the Arab world there is no real culture for this," she said. "We don't have a political or social movement within the arts world. My attitude is that needs to change and I hope that by producing music like Body of Lies, I can help lead the way."

Since beginning her music career Kaylif has encountered many obstacles. In 2004, with her single Shakespeare in Love, she had chart success in many countries including Lebanon, Denmark, Turkey, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore. Although being the first UAE artist to record an international hit was considered by many to be a significant achievement, her success also attracted criticism. "There was a lot of pressure on me to take myself out of the spotlight," she said. "There was a view within my community that it was not considered respectful if I pursued a career in performance music and drew attention to myself."

So Kaylif refrained from public performance, instead releasing two albums over the internet. Now she is back and hopes her new single helps "bridge the cultural divide". "Some years have passed," she said. "I have a strong internet presence so I know I have the audience. I also think my music and my voice is important now and is bigger than parochial cultural concerns. I want to be a sane voice in the dangerous times we are living in."

Kaylif said having a British mother and an Emirati father has given her a rare understanding of both cultures. She divides her time between Dubai, London and New York; as a result, her single has been aired on US and UK radio and the video will play on MTV Arabia. She hopes eventually to be able to tour the Middle East with a live band. "People say a tour like that won't happen but I am holding out hope. My goal is to open a space for serious artists in the Arab world. There is a schizophrenic culture of trying to avoid anything that is too Western, which is contradicted by the many ways in which we are already Westernised. I think protecting ourselves is an illusion because it stops new ideas being allowed to blossom and then we will never create anything new.

"In the Arab culture there is a lot of creativity and expression and much of it comes from religion, say, for example, with Sufism. I think we need to embrace that and maybe move away from the idea of East and West and focus more on individual stories." Body of Lies was meant to reinforce her conviction that no one fits completely into one culture or stereotype, she said. "It touches on the idea that nothing is real," she said. "I'm not saying that everything is a lie more that the truth is very hard to define. Perhaps messages like that can help open people's minds and make some change."

Ignatius's book was adapted for a feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The film closed the recent Middle East International Film Festival. @Email:aseaman@thenational.ae