Arab artists urge MENA music festivals to favor local talent after Soundstorm success

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Saudi Arabia’s investment in music and the local population’s passion for discovering and engaging in regional content is acting as a catalyst for up-and-coming Riyadh-based musicians to pursue the art as a career.

Speaking to Al Arabiya English before performing at last week’s music festival Soundstorm held in Riyadh, 41-year-old Alaa Jazaeri said that living in Saudi Arabia is allowing him to pursue his musical career because there’s a passionate thirst for music.

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“I get regular bookings, I play at multiple places, I get to organize my events, and the energy is pretty high,” Jazaeri said.

Jazaeri entered the Saudi music scene after a 17-year-long career in advertising and event management.

Alaa Jazaeri pictured at the MDL Beast Soundstorm music festival in Riyadh on December 3, 2022. (Ayush Narayanan, Al Arabiya English)
Alaa Jazaeri pictured at the MDL Beast Soundstorm music festival in Riyadh on December 3, 2022. (Ayush Narayanan, Al Arabiya English)

Hailing from Jordan with roots in Algeria, Turkey, Lebanon and Palestine, Jazaeri, like many Arab artists, uses his past experiences to complement his sound. He said it “adds depth to the musical journey” when he performs.

He emphasized that Saudi Arabia offers a wide range of opportunities to perform, allowing local artists to shine. He added that the MDL Beast brand has a global recognition that musicians can use to “reach global standards.”

“When I post on my Instagram that we’re playing there, I get reactions from many people globally and even from important international artists. They feel this is great,” he said.

Jazaeri believes many international artists would want to perform in the country. “The development is enormous, and I know for sure that the international music community is talking about this event,” he said.

“I hope collectively, as artists, we deliver on this for the better of the community. Music has a different purpose other than just dance - it’s a healing tool as well. It brings people together in a way that makes you feel not alone,” he added.

A-list musicians DJ Khaled, Hardwell, and Elyanna, who attended the XP Music Futures conference held before Soundstorm in Riyadh, told upcoming artists in Saudi Arabia to believe in themselves and develop their unique sound to achieve global success and recognition, a reflection of Jazaeri’s thoughts.

DJ Khaled makes a surprise appearance at XP Music Futures conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Instagram)
DJ Khaled makes a surprise appearance at XP Music Futures conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Instagram)

Choose local

During Soundstorm, Arab artists emphasized to Al Arabiya English that the MENA region needs to identify and spotlight local talent more.

“Saudi Arabia is doing it right. MDL Beast is doing it right,” said Moroccan electronic music star Amine K. “There are a lot of Arab DJs, many who have amazing slots and not just openings like ‘we need to have a quota for Arabs, let’s give him a 2:00 p.m. slot when there is nobody,’” said Amine, who lauded the organizers for providing prime-time slots and a large venue to display their act.

He said that other countries in the MENA have a crucial problem, noting that: “they still have this idea that it’s always better to bring a white dude. That’s sad,” but he is optimistic that it might change in the future.

Moroccan artist Amine K pictured in Riyadh at the Soundstorm music festival. (Ayush Narayanan, Al Arabiya English)
Moroccan artist Amine K pictured in Riyadh at the Soundstorm music festival. (Ayush Narayanan, Al Arabiya English)

Amine explained how regional shows need to identify and feature local talent. “Ninety-five percent of my gigs are not in the region, which is crazy. I am from the region,” Amine, who has claimed the title of ‘Morocco’s ambassador for electronic music,’ said. He has gigs in the pipeline including in France, Indonesia, Switzerland and Israel.

In Saudi Arabia, Amine claimed that his streaming figures have historically been high. “Way before, more than ten years ago when there was just SoundCloud, I would see huge streams for Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“Back in the day, I didn’t know there was a huge, beautiful underground scene here,” he said, crediting the discovery to Saudi Arabia’s underground DJ and music legend Baloo, who is also the Chief Creative Officer of MDL Beast.

In a previous interview with Al Arabiya English, Baloo had said that Saudi Arabia’s music scene was evolving - and at a crazy pace. “People are very inspired. Everyone is passionate about creating music labels. Everyone’s passionate about building their music collection,” he noted in the interview.

Amine agrees with Baloo’s view of the country’s music scene. “We just need to believe in ourselves and help each other. The guys at the top take the guys at the bottom and pull them up. I do that all the time.”

“I’m not doing it because they’re Arabs. I’m doing it because they’re really good and they deserve to have recognition all around the world,” he added.

Shadi Megallaa, a veteran DJ in Dubai’s music scene, made his debut appearance at the Soundstorm music festival on Saturday.

“I came here with no expectations. My mind’s blown. If I had any expectations, they would have been exceeded many times over,” he exclaimed. “It’s refreshing coming from Dubai,” he added.

Record store owner and DJ Shadi Megallaa. (Supplied, Jalal Abuthina)
Record store owner and DJ Shadi Megallaa. (Supplied, Jalal Abuthina)

Megallaa, who owns Flip Side, one of a handful of record stores in the UAE and attracts enthusiasts from the Gulf state’s underground scene, said the music community in Saudi is more “close-knit because they’ve always had to party privately.”

As for a possible expansion of his record store into the Kingdom, he said: “There’s definitely a demand for it; the population is way larger than the UAE; records are spreading everywhere, so why not bring them to Saudi?” He held short of a commitment owing to difficulties with licensing and logistics.

The beating heart of the Saudi music scene has the country’s youth at its core. According to official statistics, the below 30s make up slightly under 70 percent of Saudi Arabia’s total population.

‘Home is changing’

Music can connect the Saudi youth with the rest of the world, 22-year-old Mishaal Tamer told Al Arabiya English. “The Arab world could use more of talking about our feelings. That’s what I do as well in my music.”

MDL Beast events like Soundstorm, Tamer said, are a place for Saudi youth to “walk around, listen to different kinds of music, and find what they like,” Tamer said.

“I think there’s a lot of incredible young Saudi talent. The only reason why I think we haven’t reached the global platforms yet is that not everybody speaks Arabic.”

The Jeddah-raised singer with part-Ecuadorian roots added: “Alhamdulillah, I was born in a place in a time where I can make music as a Saudi artist, and then also be able to make it in different languages like Arabic, English, and now Spanish.”

Mishaal Tamer pictured at the MDL Beast Soundstorm music festival on December 3, 2022. (Supplied)
Mishaal Tamer pictured at the MDL Beast Soundstorm music festival on December 3, 2022. (Supplied)

“We need people to look at us differently, not see only the political side… Now we’re opening up. Home is changing. It’s good to show that we make art, too, you know, we make music, too,” he said with pride.

Tamer never doubted his journey as an artist: “I’ve always wanted to be a musician, but I never wanted to be on stage. I always was scared of that. I grew up very shy and socially anxious, and I still am that kid.”

“I think just realizing this is, you know, it’s now or never. This is the perfect time. Even our country is for it. Even our Crown Prince is for it. It’d be selfish and wrong not to do it,” he said.

Read more:

David Guetta describes Saudi Arabia’s evolving music scene as ‘witnessing history’

‘Believe in yourself’: DJ Khaled, Hardwell, and more tell new artists in Saudi Arabia

MDL Beast Soundstorm 2022: Fans descend on Riyadh to witness ‘loudest’ music festival

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