Empire label opens new path for Arab music industry


Despite the occasional instances of mainstream success, Arab musicians have struggled to break the glass ceiling of the music industry. However, given the continued popularity of Arabic sounds, Empire’s VP of Market Development wants to change that.

According to Suhel Nafar, the time had come for Arab musicians to find their place.

An innovator best known for launching Spotify in the Arab world, Nafar was recently appointed Vice President of Strategy and Market Development at Empire. It’s a role that will see him heading a new division within the label that focuses on artists who have roots in West Asia and North Africa – or WANA, a decolonized term comprising Arab peoples, Kurds, Turks, Iranians, Amazighs, Assyrians and Suite.

Empire is a digital music distribution platform that selects talent in the same vein as a record label, and its new division WANA is considered the first of its kind in the industry (in the United States, at least. ). And he wasted no time – he has already partnered with Lebanese-Canadian singer Massari and is currently developing young Palestinian Elyanna.

“We will partner with artists of all skill levels and backgrounds – those we aim to develop from scratch to established artists looking to expand their reach globally,” said Nafar. The new Arabic.

“We want to create a funnel for artists in the WANA region to reach a wider global audience. “

“Empire’s expansion into WANA artists is part of the growing trend for majors to branch out or buy stakes in the Arab music industry.”

Although it has specialized in hip-hop since its inception in 2010 – working with Iggy Azalea, Kendrick Lamar, TI, Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes – Empire’s new WANA division is a natural next step in its strategy. commercial. After all, the label’s founder and managing director, Ghazi Shami, is of Palestinian descent, and several senior colleagues have WANA roots as well.

“It gives us a unique understanding to enter the market with care, respect and a knowledge base that no other record company can replicate,” said Nafar.

“We hope to help usher in cultural exchange and economic growth in the region. “

Empire’s expansion into WANA artists is part of the growing trend for majors to branch out or buy stakes in the Arab music industry. In addition to launching Spotify in the region in recent years to become a challenger to Anghami, Warner Music Group also recently made an undisclosed investment in Rotana Music, the biggest label in the Arab world owned by the billionaire Saudi Arabia. , Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The deal will see Warner Music distribute Rotana’s releases worldwide.

In 2018, Prince Alwaleed himself invested $ 267 million in French music streaming service Deezer through Rotana Group and his investment firm Kingdom Holding. Rotana and Deezer had also signed a long-term agreement to distribute Rotana’s audio and video content in the Arab world.

Spek, the Managing Director of Dubai-based record label PopArabia, welcomed all industry entrants interested in developing, signing and releasing WANA artists, especially those with a global vision. While PopArabia has been around for 10 years and specializes in music publishing, creative consulting and songwriter / artist rights, it only recently became a label. Spek said that in this way he shares some parallels with Empire in that he also invests in the talents of WANA.

“All the initiatives to invest in the music industry in the region are things that will help the larger ensemble, and as the market around music begins to monetize rights, we will see a lot more direct foreign investment coming in. and lead to consolidation in the industry, ”Spek said.

The success of electro-chaabi in Egypt has ushered in a new generation of musicians [Getty]

“The [WANA] region is full of potential, the data shows us a young population, well connected, very active on social networks and who have a lot to say. These are a perfect storm for a market to flourish over time. “

Palestinian singer-songwriter Rasha Nahas, who sings primarily in English and is signed to Cargo Records, believes the recent movements of Warner Music and Empire are a testament to how far the music industry has come.

“For example, a few months ago, I took part in Spotify’s Sawtik campaign in which they featured Arab female artists, including playlists and billboard locations across the Arab world.” , she said.

“It was around the time I was releasing my first album Desert, and it’s a really nice feeling to feel supported by a global company like Spotify.”

She added: “A few years ago, there weren’t so many agents, labels, distributors and promoters in the WANA region – not that there are many today, but it is. is definitely growing and expanding. And there wasn’t a wide range of diverse music in Arabic either. “

Christina Hazboun from Marsm, a UK-based producer, organizer and digital platform for Arab music events, said Empire’s new initiative could bolster efforts to increase exposure for WANA artists globally.

“This is an important milestone for diaspora artists who have made the United States their home as it allows them to present their unique mixes of local music with diasporic influences to a wider audience,” she said. .

But what about the lack of representation of WANA in mainstream Western music – aside from the usual suspects like DJ Khaled, Shakira, French Montana and Mika? Will Empire’s appointment of Nafar be the trigger that brings some much-needed changes?

Hazboun believes there is still a long way to go in terms of what needs to be done. She said that WANA’s artists did not get the recognition and exposure they deserved, and that it was essential to showcase the talents of the region.

“There needs to be more networking and curation of shows and programs alongside British and European partners,” she explained.

“We all need to forge stronger links with more music and arts organizations, associations, venues, record companies and also the media so that artists are highlighted on all these platforms.”

Over the past year, Marsm has worked to showcase a range of WANA artists and link them to UK and European festivals, events and media platforms. Hazboun said this was because the artists themselves sometimes needed support rather than being left on their own when it came to branching out across the West.

“As important players enter the market by recruiting talent, we will see the region organically develop their creative industry infrastructure around this. “

“Our own work on our latest digital platform also means that we are increasing the visibility of artists and artists through features, podcasts, musical films and playlists that provide musicological, historical and social information on the rich history of the region, ”she said.

“So we’re expanding our content to give a platform for WANA artists to tell their stories both past and present. It also emerged from the need to increase the visibility of artists in UK media and beyond chronicling testimonials and the evolution of our music scenes.

Nafar pointed out that apart from the previously mentioned heads of lists, there were already many successful WANA artists in North America, such as Faouzia, Abir, Bazzi, Ali Gatie, Raef, Kareem Salama and of course Massari, and qu ‘there are many more in Europe.

However, he admitted that this was “not yet enough”. He added that the WANA region has the youngest and fastest growing population in the world, which is expected to reach around 600 million people by 2030 – and that the constant political and economic changes in the region make them the biggest new arrivals in many northern countries. America and Europe.

Nafar believes that one of the best ways to improve the representation of WANA in traditional Western music is to start from the inside.

“There needs to be more encouragement from our own society and our families to have careers in art like music and TV / film instead of just encouraging typical people to be doctors, engineers or pharmacists. “, did he declare.

“We need more of us working in the media, behind the scenes and in front, to fight the racism that has been embedded in the Western media and in Hollywood.

“Seeing negative and harmful representations repeated daily creates the idea that it is a fact and has an impact on our children and makes them feel ashamed and embarrassed to be who they are.

“A lot of work needs to be done to unlearn these racist stereotypes and creative outlets are one of the most powerful forms of doing so.”

Spek, on the other hand, had a more optimistic outlook.

“The future looks bright for music creators in the region, and as important players enter the market by recruiting talent, we will see the region organically develop its creative industry infrastructure around that, ”he said.

“We have suffered from a lack of real investment in the region in the creative arts, but we are seeing a turnaround in part due to the opportunities around music streaming coming into the fold. It is an exciting time, and the Arab performance you mention will come. “

Elias Jahshan is an Australian journalist and publisher based in London. He is a former board member of Arab Council Australia.

Follow him on Twitter: @Elias_Jahshan


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