Bahraini entrepreneur Esra’a al Shafei founded Mideast Tunes in 2010 to promote underground musicians from across the region. The independent music scene is supported, more officially, by government-sponsored events, such as the Spring of Culture Festival, which brings together international and local musicians for public performances and educational programming.
Similar events empowering musicians and entrepreneurs in the region have taken place in neighboring countries, including Saudi Arabia. Hosted annually, XP Music Futures is a three-day music conference with workshops, panel discussions, and nighttime performances in Riyadh’s JAX District. Founded by MDLBEAST, a music entertainment company based in Saudi Arabia, XP Music Futures exposes musicians, entrepreneurs, and policymakers to the biggest trends and technologies in the field. With the Middle East and North Africa the world’s fastest growing recorded music market, seeing 35% growth in 2021, the exposure and engagement provided by these events, platforms, and collectives enable local musicians to reach wider audiences.
AGSIW spoke to Sarah Nabil, Bahrain’s first female hip-hop and R&B music producer, who is DJ Outlaw’s partner at Outlaw Productions, to learn more about the distinctive genre of khaleeji hip hop and R&B, the growth of the Bahraini and regional music scene, and what she hopes to see in this space in the next few years.
AGSIW: How did you first get into the music industry?
Sarah Nabil: Music is more or less something I’ve always been interested in. I’m self-taught on the piano and started teaching myself at a young age. At around 17 I met DJ Outlaw, who became my mentor. At that point, he was already a music producer and the biggest DJ in Bahrain. We started working together then built Outlaw Productions, which is a hip-hop record label, agency, and production house.
When I met Outlaw, I wasn’t really listening to local or regional hip hop. I didn’t even know it existed until I heard the album that he dropped at the time, “History in the Making.” The album featured international names along with local artists, and it sounded super dope. It had Arabic percussion and sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before, so that definitely sparked a huge interest for me.
On the production side of things, I was also self-taught and learned a lot with Outlaw. I first worked on music production and slowly got into mixing later, I then got into the management and executive side of the company when it began growing. The artists signed under us, which I manage, are Flipperachi, Daffy, and Lil Eazy. My favorite things are being a producer and an artist – that’s what I set out to do in the beginning. The management, financial, and legal side of things just came with the package because somebody had to do it since it’s just me and Outlaw. But I genuinely enjoy doing everything.
At Outlaw Productions, Outlaw and I have worked on a lot of songs that are not hip hop, including khaleeji pop and Arabic pop, and we produce songs for artists other than our own. For example, we produced a couple of tracks for the MBC show “Boulevard of Talents.” We’ve also worked on orchestral music and musical theater too, so we’re not really confined to hip hop. Hip hop is just the main style of our own artists.
AGSIW: What do you feel has changed since you first came into the music scene?
Sarah: Oh, it’s a whole new scene now, in a good way. A lot of stuff is shifting across the region. When I first started out, there was a scene, but it was hardly anywhere close to becoming an industry. Now we are at a point where, especially with everything that Saudi Arabia is doing, it’s slowly turning into an industry. Saudi Arabia is starting to legalize things and take music seriously, establishing more record labels and associations. In the Gulf region, we’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve definitely come a long way. When I started out, nobody would take you seriously if you said that you wanted to become a producer, especially in hip hop or R&B. But now it’s becoming more of a viable career option.
Eight to 10 years ago, we were very focused on hip hop and R&B music that sounded like what you’d hear out of the West. Once we shifted our mentality to thinking about how we could bring this music closer to the region and to the audience here, that’s when we flipped the switch. That’s when people started to like a new genre of music like khaleeji hip hop. That was Outlaw mostly – he created what evolved into Outlaw Productions’ signature sound. Even with R&B, using Arabic elements or khaleeji instruments or percussion, it’s not as easy as it sounds, but I feel like we’re close to perfecting that sound.
AGSIW: What do you think are some of the characteristics of khaleeji hip hop and R&B?
Sarah: It’s mainly the percussive elements and sounds of the Khaleeji instruments more than the melodic side. You can use an oud or Arabic strings, but what gets people is the groove of the track. Timbaland and other Western producers have used Arabic elements in their music, and it’s sounded super great. But what sets us apart is knowing the rhythms and the grooves that stem from Arab countries and cultures.
Language is actually one of the most important characteristics, though. When our tracks used to be mostly or completely in English, people wouldn’t really get into it. If you’re trying to target the mass audience here, you have to speak their language, which is Arabic. Once we switched to 90% to 100% Arabic in our tracks, that’s when the songs started going viral. People would start coming to the concerts, and the fanbase grew. The language is the most important thing, because that’s how you become relatable to people.
AGSIW: Generally speaking, what are these artists’ songs about?
Sarah: Typically, the most important thing to us is that the music feels good, is fun to listen to, and can play in any setting, so they are mainly party songs about having a good time. In “Khameeskom Falla,” for example, it’s Thursday – it’s the weekend – so what are we going to do? We’re going to party! “Laywagef” is a bit similar: The DJs are about to blast the music and it’s about to become a party. That’s what people want to hear, but every song has a different flavor to it and, obviously, the content of each one is different.
AGSIW: As a producer and agent, how do you represent your artists to an international audience?
Sarah: The way we see it is that we have to make it in the region on a major level first before looking to an international audience. If you have an audience behind you at home, they’ll push you to the outside. We just dropped a collaboration between Shaggy, Flipperachi, and Daffy – it’s a huge one for us. So, we have been starting recently to put together collabs with international artists and just growing the fanbase. In terms of representation, Flipp and Outlaw are Bahraini, and Daffy is Kuwaiti. We always make it a point to say “Bahraini” or “Kuwaiti” or “Saudi” because that’s super important now. It’s not how it used to be, where people wouldn’t care if you were from the region. Now that the music scene is growing, and it’s being taken more seriously, it is important to highlight where you’re from.
AGSIW: Is there anything that you’d like to see happen more in Bahrain or in the Gulf music scene in general?
Sarah: I’m going to talk about the boring stuff, which is the legalization and regulation of the industry. That is the major change that needs to happen across the region – not just in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia – because the region doesn’t have any music lawyers or entertainment lawyers. There is no music law to begin with. Saudi Arabia is leading on that, and I hope it has a domino effect on the rest of the region. I think it’s going to help bring out more artists and allow more artists to be able to do this for a living rather than just make music on the side.
The panel that I spoke on recently at XP Music Futures was about how to start a record label, including what you need to think about when signing new artists, the steps you need to take from a financial and management perspective, and building a business plan – it was very business centric. I was excited for this one because we never get to talk about these things and a lot of people are really interested in knowing them. We are also planning on doing some more workshops on this topic soon in Saudi Arabia.
AGSIW: If you could give one piece of advice that you wish you had received when you were first stepping into the scene, whether from the production side or from the music side in general, what would you say?
Sarah: Go into everything with an open mind. Don’t restrict yourself to a specific type of music at the very beginning of your career, unless you have it figured out and you have an exact sound. Don’t shut the door on opportunities, especially opportunities to learn things from people you wouldn’t expect to be able to teach you something because they do a whole other genre. I’ve seen a lot of people do that, but when somebody else has a lot more experience than you, they can always offer you advice and help, regardless of the type of music that you’re doing. Try and soak in information from all around.
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