At first glance, it seems as though pop music and Arab music — originating in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria — do not at all belong in the same category.
The deeply melodic singers in Arab music belt melodies consisting of complex rhythmic structures, generally tense vocal tone, and high-pitched notes. Arab music is rich with regional instruments like the oud, quanun, and the percussion instrument, riq. On the other hand, pop music of today has been popularized by the likes of Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and Beyonce, and is reminiscent of strong beats, catchy hooks, and simple, rhymed lyrics that roll easily off of the tongue. Arabic music is steady, representing centuries of revered tradition, while pop music aims to be at the forefront of the rapidly changing music scene, constantly shifting and evolving. The two genres are so uniquely distinct that it seems impossible for them to coexist.
ABIR, a Moroccan-born pop singer, has seemingly done the impossible: married the two genres into a cohesive one: Arab pop. ABIR bares her thoughts on coming into her womanhood, unique personhood as an Arab-American, and the many trials of keeping and losing love in her EP Heat, which was released under Atlantic Records earlier this month.
Identifying as Arab-American and Muslim herself, ABIR represents a contemporary mix of these two seemingly opposite genres, blending the upbeat hooks in pop music with traditional Middle Eastern instruments; infused with lyrics detailing her experience as a strong, independent Muslim American woman.
How many Arab singers can you name in American pop music? Seemingly one of the first people of her background to break into mainstream American pop, ABIR has struggled with defining her identity as an artist, while constantly battling the stereotypes that people place upon her cultural and ethnic identity. Especially as a pop artist, ABIR is shattering the image that comes to the average person’s mind when they picture a Moroccan-American, Muslim Arab woman.
“This has got to be the coolest experiment, trying to blend pop music with the beautiful melodies in Arab music,” ABIR said in her initial reflection of her latest project, Heat. “I want to incorporate instruments into pop that I grew up seeing around the house. When you bring something that’s foreign to someone, it’s not always as well received.”
‘HEAT’ by ABIR on Spotify.
Born in Fes, Morocco, and moving almost 4,000 miles to the United States when she was six, ABIR grew up in Arlington, Virginia. Although she wasn’t an “outsider,” growing up in a mostly diverse community, ABIR admits that there weren’t people that looked like her in positions of power in entertainment, politics, or mainstream culture. There were few examples of her people being represented in American culture aside from the stereotypical shy, oppressed, and rigid Arab-American women in television shows.
“I’m an American. I’m also a Moroccan. I’m also a Muslim,” ABIR explained. “All those identities define me and are a part of me, and define the ways that I move, think, and exist in the world. They guide my life.”
Writer Randa Kattan, an Arab-American reporter for the Guardian, asked Americans not to call her oppressed, as it denies her the right to her own experience. “When we stereotype and overlook the rich and diverse experiences of people we come up with one-size-fits-all technical solutions that buy into the “them” and “us” rhetoric,” Kattan states. “As such, we limit our ability to truly engage and connect with people, especially women and girls from vulnerable communities.”
ABIR got her start working with up-and-coming jazz, R&B, and hip-hop musicians based in New York and L.A. Previously, ABIR has worked with legendary saxophonist Masego, and opened on tour for English singer-songwriter Jacob Banks in 2019 – but this project is the the first time Abir has incorporated her experience of grappling with her identity in her music. It is solely and uniquely her. Sharing some of her deeply personal and often uncomfortable experiences, Heat lays ABIR completely bare to the world.
On the fourth track of her album, titled “Searching,” ABIR sings, “My calling, find peace, find harmony/ So baby, I’m searching/ See too much to learn, gotta open eyes wide/ So baby, I’m searching.”
ABIR admits that until she sat down to write this record, her experiences as an Arab-American woman were not at the forefront of her artistry. When she met her producer, Mick Shultz (who has produced for artists like Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, and Zendaya), she immediately felt seen and heard. ABIR recalls Shultz’s excitement to tell her authentic story and make her identity the forefront of her next project. In a year beginning from Shultz and ABIR’s collaboration in February 2019, Heat was finished.
The quick, 20-minute, 7 track EP starts with the powerful ballad, ‘Pray for Me,’ where ABIR makes her place in the music industry clear: her strong, powerful soprano bounces over Arabic percussion instruments and hip-hop infused production. One of ABIR’s favorite tracks, ‘Yacht,’ talks about overcoming heartbreak, and using one’s pain as their ultimate power.
“If there’s lonely nights where I feel all alone/Hope it writes a good song that will buy me a house/If the tears come out, they gon’ cry me a river/That leads to an ocean I can sail in a yacht,” ABIR sing-raps over an instrumental electronic beat. She speaks to her power as a musician, being able to use her emotions and cathartic experiences as a weapon.
In her 26 years, ABIR has become more comfortable and confident in her own definition of what a strong, Arab-American Muslim is. As ABIR says, “I can’t say every other Arab-American woman will agree with my thoughts because not all Arab-American women are the same.” She emphasizes that her music is reflective of her own unique experience, and is not necessarily what all Arab-American Muslims would identify within their experience.
“This is my womanhood and me coming into who I am as an Arab American, and as a woman,” ABIR says of finally displaying her vulnerability in her EP, Heat. “When you bring something that’s foreign to someone, it’s not always as well received. You want someone who is as excited as you are about your music.”
ABIR talks about these themes and becoming confident in her own individual definition of an Arab-American woman. She is not afraid of showing exactly who is she. She wants everyone to see that her three unique and distinct identities can exist in harmony.
“I’m here to disrupt. I’m here to break the barriers that society has set on me.” Although ABIR proudly dons her Arab-American heritage, she doesn’t want America’s rigid stereotypes about Muslim women to define her. Her goal is to continue making music that furthers the conversation on the immigrant experience in America. “I’m breaking the barriers that society has set on me.”