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Over the last two decades, a new creative class has emerged in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries challenging how the world views these states and their people. Among the most dynamic but least discussed parts of this class are the Gulf youth contributing to the independent music scene, which has a sound that is distinct from that of traditional and pop khaleeji music. Through their music and on social media, these musicians have formed fresh institutions to promote their work and what Kuwaiti American singer +Aziz has called the “alternative khaleeji consciousness” that “goes against the grain” of modern Gulf identity. Ultimately, his and his colleagues’ music is a clarion call for personal change along with sociocultural renewal from Jeddah to Manama and New Orleans.
A central figure in the rise of the khaleeji alternative scene is Ahmed Shawly. He is a veteran of the Arab music business who has worked at several leading companies, including Dubai-based Rotana records, the largest record label in the Arab world. In 2020, he co-founded Wall of Sound, an independent record label and recording studio in Jeddah, aiming to take advantage of the new music scene and lifting of restrictions on the kinds of music that could be performed in the kingdom. The company’s name harkens back to the music production formula developed by Phil Spector, an influential figure in pop music widely seen as the industry’s first true auteur. Much like Spector, Shawly and his colleagues aim to help shape all aspects of a performer’s work from production to distribution, marketing, and sales.
Today there is a talented class of musicians in the Gulf states, who, thanks to online music platforms, are more educated about global musical trends than ever before. Many of them resemble the stratum of globally minded youth whom Sidney Tarrow calls “rooted cosmopolitans” in his book, “The New Transnational Activism.” These youth seek to tie the “global with the local” and “domestic and international resources and opportunities” to realize “change at home.” They are also fluent in modern ideas and communication technologies – viewing the latter as powerful tools of “collective action” that permit them to employ “their skills and artistic talents” to further their goals. Many are also organic intellectuals, who, through the language of culture, articulate the feelings and experiences that the masses cannot easily express in other contexts.
Abdulmalik Zubailah and Faris Alsobyani, the founders of the band Skeleton Crowd, are prime examples of this emerging group of musicians. Skeleton Crowd, which signed with Wall of Sound in 2020, aims to “smash through” social barriers with a style of music that echoes Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. Their 2020 release, “Unus Mundus” (One World), draws from a central idea of Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. For Jung, unus mundus revolves around a vision of a unified reality from which everything starts and ultimately returns. Skeleton Crowd uses that idea to push its listeners to transcend “cultural beliefs passed down with history” and look at their society with fresh eyes.
The “Unus Mundus” music video shows people dancing in a darkened setting as lights flash, creating a situation akin to a dream or the subconscious. The song, using metaphorical language, says that something is wrong with the listener and, implicitly, with society, which judges the individual by a set of falsehoods. The song also calls on the listener to venture into the darkness (presumably a metaphor for the unknown or subconsciousness) to find what is wrong – even if that trip causes real emotional pain. Notably, the viewer is told at the start of the video that the reactions of the dancers to the music are spontaneous because they had not heard the song before the filming of the video, and the song never defines or hints at what the problem is or who is using falsehoods to judge. That is left up to the viewer to determine.
Another important figure in the regional scene is Ali Al Saeed, founder of Museland, a musical collective and platform based in Bahrain that puts on concerts, musical conferences, and performance nights at local bars and other venues and releases music videos from a variety of Gulf-based groups. Many of Museland’s musicians are, like Zubailah and Alsobyani, rooted cosmopolitans, who welcome non-Arab artists into their ranks. The trio Doyoureallylikeit?, for instance, has Asian performers, including Debbi Francisco, a Filipina drummer and singer. The music video for “Long Distance,” a comical and apolitical song about long-distance relationships during the coronavirus pandemic, shows a khaleeji man pining away for a Filipina woman. In a region where vast socioeconomic barriers separate nationals from Filipinos and other expatriate workers, that itself is a remarkable image, hinting at the possibility of a social order in Bahrain and the wider Gulf in which expatriates play a tangible cultural role.
The Gulf alternative music scene has extended beyond the region to North America, where an increasing number of khaleejis have studied and even relocated to pursue careers. These artists are active in the U.S. music scene but have retained Gulf ties largely through social media, especially the Clubhouse app. Clubhouse exploded in popularity in early 2021, thanks to the intimacy it provides participants and opportunities for collaboration. Among those who have taken advantage of the opportunity created by Clubhouse is +Aziz, the founder of Kuwaisiana, an indie rock band whose name blends his Kuwaiti roots and ties to New Orleans, Louisiana – a city that he now calls home. Indeed, the group has embraced these identities in its marketing, calling its brand of music “Khaleeji rock from Louisiana.”
That brand embodies +Aziz’s intellectual and musical heritage, one that mirrors those of the other khaleeji-rooted cosmopolitans – drawing on the rich artistic heritage of the Arab world and Kuwait along with the academic and musical training he received in the United States. Growing up in Kuwait, +Aziz listened to artists and groups as varied as Umm Kulthum, Nine Inch Nails, and the Smashing Pumpkins. He considered pursuing a creative career at home, with Sulayman al-Bassam, one of Kuwait’s most important playwrights, predicting that he would be a star. But the Kuwait of his youth in the first decade of the 21st century, +Aziz felt, was not ready for his work, compelling him to try his luck in the United States, first in New York and then in New Orleans.
In New Orleans, +Aziz found a group of varied musical partners hailing from places as diverse as Southern California and France. In 2019, they created Kuwaisiana, a group that is, in many ways, a mirror image of Doyoureallylikeit? and the other groups associated with Museland. Over the last three years, the band has released songs with Arabic and English lyrics that touch on family, marriage, refugees, politics, youth culture, and other themes. The group’s videos are also varied, with images from both the United States and Arab world, including a scene, in the “Bara7a” video, in which Vimto – a British drink widely consumed during Ramadan in the Arab world – is poured onto a baseball mitt.
These types of videos have helped win the band a cult following around the world, including Abdulla Mahmood, the founder of Doyoureallylikeit?, who said he and his bandmates are “big fans of Kuwaisiana!” He noted: “There are few bands around the region … that stand out in the way that Kuwaisiana does. You can genuinely tell by the COURAGEOUS storytelling direction and twisted tales of two cultures combining a sound of music that commands you to listen from start to finish.”
Still, the most striking Kuwaisiana music video is “Orange Klan,” which was released in January and seemingly focuses on U.S. politics and society, complete with references to hurricanes and the detaining of migrant children at the southern U.S. border. But part of the video is in Arabic and set in the Arab world. There, men dressed in khaleeji clothing listen to an angry figure relentlessly attack foreigners – using language similar to what has been used in the United States and voiced by some Kuwaitis during the coronavirus pandemic, including prominent actress Hayat Al-Fahad. The message of “Orange Klan” is unsettling, but it also illustrates the zeitgeist for many in the United States and Kuwait. In fact, an image depicting figures dressed in Ku Klux Klan-like hoods colored in the red and white of the kaffiyeh worn by men in Kuwait and other Gulf states has recently circulated on Twitter, and one Kuwaiti posted the image with an equally unsettling message: “Kuwait is for Kuwaitis only.”
A century after Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a contemporary of Jung, wrote his famous line calling for a new consciousness and spiritual reawakening, “You must change your life,” +Aziz and other young Gulf musicians have adopted a similar message of both individual and collective change. Through provocative songs and videos, they ask listeners to look at themselves and their world through a new lens – one that will allow them to reexamine their core beliefs and the rules that govern their everyday lives. Fundamentally, the work of these Gulf youth is less an answer to the many challenges facing the region and the wider world today than it is a fresh questioning, a reminder of the complexities of contemporary life during a pandemic. While musicians cannot alter the economic, military, or political balances in the Gulf, analysts and policymakers would be well advised to pay attention to them and their work, which seems to embody the aspirations of millions of individuals in the region and wider world.
is a professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University and specializes in the history of the Middle East and the cultural, political, and religious trends in the wider Islamic world.
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