When music reflects identity

Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 8:55pm

Family friends playing traditional Arabic instruments at my grandparents’ wedding in Beirut, Lebanon (1972)

Family friends playing traditional Arabic instruments at my grandparents’ wedding in Beirut, Lebanon (1972) Buy this photo
Courtesy of Vivian Moughni

I tend to see myself in the art I consume. It’s not my intention to make things about myself, but the ambiguity of art forces me to explore deeper within. Any room left for interpretation becomes a mirror of my experiences — a window into my story. I apply what I know to what I see, and soon enough, I see myself. 

 

This tendency is especially present when I listen to American songs that sample Middle Eastern music. In this niche genre of music I find a reflection of my Arab American identity and representation of my cultural duality. Sounds of the oud and darbuka coupled with English lyrics mirror the intersection of culture and language within me. The structure of these songs beautifully resemble the unique essence of the Arab American identity and encourage me to embrace both sides of my identity. 

 

Of these songs is Earl Sweatshirt’s “EAST” which clearly samples instrumentals from an Arabic song, but it is not clear which song. Some fans speculate “EAST” samples a song by 20th-century Egyptian singer Abdelhalim Hafez, and others think “Alf Leila We Leila” by Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. The fusion of traditional Arabic instrumentals and Sweatshirt’s blunt raps in this song create a sound some describe as choppy and bizarre. While it is undeniable that the lyrical and instrumental ideas of this song do not flow in a conventional sense, the unique nature of “EAST” symbolizes the uniqueness of the Arab American identity. Just as Sweatshirt’s lyrics clash with the instrumentals in this song, aspects of my Arab and American cultures don’t always agree. While some may consider the contrast in languages, foods and mentalities confusing, there is an original perspective that living with both cultures produces. Similar to Sweatshirt’s innovative production of music, the blend of my Arab and American cultures allows for an innovative approach to life.     

 

Similar to Sweatshirt’s song, A$AP Rocky’s “1Train” (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson and Big K.R.I.T.) samples Syrian artist Assala Nasri’s “Meshet Senin.” Rocky’s song is a posse cut of seven other rappers who share a similar music vision as Rocky. All eight artists convey their passion for music with the emotional instrumentals of  “Meshet Senin” saturating the background. This joining of two impassioned elements illustrates my emotional connection to both America and the Middle East, and where they intersect. I feel deeply about politics, people and cultural norms in America, and I share similar feelings about the Middle East. Comparing the experiences of my family in the Middle East to my life in America, I recognize that there are faults present in every nation. This paired passion has expanded the scope of my awareness beyond America and just as the individual artists on “1Train” joined forces to create a powerful and brilliant song, my passions about America and the Middle East join together to form a more holistic and grounded understanding of the world.

 

Some other honorable mentions include:

 

  • The Beatles’s “Revolution 9” sampled Syrian-Egyptian singer Farid El-Atrash’s “Awel Hamsa” towards the end of the track.

  • Madonna’s “Erotica” sampled Lebanese singer Fairouz’s “El Yom Ollika” also towards the end of the track.

  • Nas’s “Dance” features samples from Algerian Musician Cheb Khaled’s “Aicha.”

 

 

While these songs have allowed me to better see the beauty in my Arab American identity, I must acknowledge a less positive element of this genre. Oftentimes when American artists sample music from the Middle East, they do not give credit to or provide any compensation to the artists whose music they sample. One of the most notable examples of this is with Jay Z’s song “Big Pimpin” in which the nephew of Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi-- whose song “Khosara Khosara” was claimed to be sampled in the song-- sued Jay-Z; unfortunately he lost the case and never received compensation or recognition. 

 

As unfortunate and common as these instances are, they actually reflect another element of my identity: the power struggle between being Arab and American. For most of my life, I fed into the bias and misrepresentation of Arabs in America in that I considered my American side superior and abandoned elements of my Arab identity. My preference to speak English in public, my apathy towards Lebanese culture and my avoidance of Arabic foods exemplified my internalized inferior view of my Arab identity. 

 

I am currently learning to accept and embrace both aspects of my identity, however the power dynamics are still present and the sampling practices among American artists with Arabic songs are a perfect portrayal of this. Much like the Arab American identity, these songs embody beauty and uniqueness, but balance is not always present among the elements. This imbalance, in addition to the unique combination of Arabic and American music has pushed me forward in my journey of appreciating both aspects of my identity. This music has proven that beauty exists even at the intersection of differences.