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9 Burgeoning Female Arab Musicians Ushering a New Era of Music in the Middle East

Ushering in a new era, these burgeoning Arab artists are magnifying the future of the Middle East’s music industry. As women moving to their own beat, they reveal their aspirations and challenges.

Photo: Esra Sam

This summer saw Spotify spotlight Palestinian-Jordanian singer Zeyne on a billboard in New York’s Times Square. Earlier this year, Egypt’s Laura Mekhail captivated a Jeddah crowd, having become the first Arab woman to receive the prestigious Bocelli- Jameel scholarship in 2021. Meanwhile, in March, Saudi Arabia’s first female DJ Cosmicat had her US debut performance at Ultra Miami, one of the most renowned electronic music festivals. It’s evident that there has never been a better time for Arab musicians across genres. Through the decades, some of the Middle East’s greatest musicians have been women, be it Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, Warda, or Sabah, among others. Overcoming societal pressure and stigmatization related to the profession, these artists have left – and continue to leave – a lasting impact on the regional industry.

In the past, becoming a musician wasn’t widely accepted, given the various cultural nuances. “Being a female Arab artist poses daily challenges because you can feel like you’re being judged. You need to navigate the unique cultural and religious contexts that shape how our community perceives women,” says Moroccan songstress Manal Benchlikha, who counts an impressive almost four million following on Instagram. Now, there’s a new breed of artists on the rise who are shaping the region’s music industry and capturing the zeitgeist like never before. For instance, Cosmicat’s success is a testament to the progression of Saudi Arabia, while Emirati rapper and singer Almas highlights the evolution of Khaleeji pop music. “In recent years, there has been a significant upsurge in female Arab artists, particularly in alternative music. This marks a stark contrast to the situation a decade ago when they were few and far between,” says Zeyne. She adds that social media has played a pivotal role in bridging the gap between artists and their audiences, making it much easier for people to connect with and follow their favorite figures online. Additionally, streaming platforms such as Spotify and its pioneering vision in recognizing artists has increased the representation of female Arab artists. Their initiative Sawtik, which launched in 2020, helped female musicians through education, networking, and marketing support to amplify their voices and obtain a larger outreach. From pop to western classical and electronic music – Vogue Arabia speaks to nine Arab female artists changing the narrative of the Middle East’s music industry.


Jacket, dress, Dolce & Gabbana. Photo: Esra Sam. Vogue Arabia, December 2023

“When I was releasing my first song, I was worried about the backlash from people finding out I’m an Arab woman, so I wanted a universal name,” says singer and songwriter Tamtam. The Saudi Arabian artist always enjoyed singing as a kid, and when she turned 11, she envisioned herself on stage, eventually making it her reality. “My father always called me ‘doctor,’ and when I told him I wanted to be a singer, I was so nervous – I still remember the feeling.” She moved to Los Angeles to pursue music before there was an industry in Saudi Arabia, and battled her own demons along the way. She explains that at the beginning of her career, her challenges came from within – ideas about what she would or would not be allowed to do as a woman. “That’s when I wrote my song Gender Game. However, I learned quickly that I am the only one who can either stop myself or keep going. I chose the latter, which opened my eyes and widened my horizons; I realized I control my barriers.” Her music is a blend of alternative pop and R&B with Arabic influence, and she is currently working on a full album, which she hopes to take on tour globally.

Nouf Sufyani aka Cosmicat

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“Music has always been the catalyst to my fire – it speaks to me and transcends me into a different state of mind,” says Nouf Sufyani, Saudi Arabia’s first female DJ. Born and raised in Jeddah, the former dentist was always musically inclined. As a child she often collected cassettes and recalls working with music production software FL Studio in high school. After getting her Bachelor’s degree in dental and oral surgery she started connecting with the local electronic music scene in 2016. “It was very niche at the time and inspired me to have my own experience – mixing dance music as an underground DJ.” Naturally, leaving her career as a dentist was scary given the music scene was limited at the time, but as a believer in calculated risks, she took the plunge. “When I was a dentist, I was assisting an orthodontist professor and he noticed I brought my laptop to the office daily and created music in between appointments. He told me, ‘My daughter, you should be a DJ… it’s better for you.’” Sufyani has since performed at some of the most renowned music festivals including Ultra Miami, Exit Festival, and Soundstorm. “I enjoy the look on people’s faces when I tell them I’m from Saudi,” she says.


Coat, pants, shoes, Balenciaga. Photo: Esra Sam. Vogue Arabia, December 2023

“Breaking into the industry as a woman is pretty nerve-wracking – you have all these men around you, some of whom feel entitled to tell you what to do and how to do it,” says synthpop artist Nour. The young creative grew up in Cairo and is currently studying fashion design; she developed a keen interest in music at a young age. Often performing in school talent shows alongside other gigs, she knew she wanted to be a singer. Nour started releasing songs in 2021, with her first single Purple Heart, and her career kicked off from there. She is vocal about her challenges and adds that she often felt alone in her journey. “I had to motivate myself all the time. People would cheer me on, but I never had that one friend or family member who would say, ‘You can do this,’ or ‘I can help you.’ It was all me, and looking back, I am super proud of it.” Despite feeling like giving up on some days, she persevered. And it paid off. Her latest single, Wana, co-produced by Egyptian producer Ahmed Kubbara, focuses on grief. She explains, “I wanted this reassurance that you’re going through the same pain as I am – that means my grief means something because it meant something to you as well.”


Top, pants, skirt, Givenchy; shoes, Balenciaga. Photo: Esra Sam. Vogue Arabia, December 2023

Born and raised in the UAE, Emirati singer Almas started her singing career at just 15. She grew up in Khor Fakkan and reveals that being near the beach and mountains inspired her musical journey. “I studied multiple things in university, including musical theater, but I dropped out to focus more on my music career,” says Almas. The young Emirati started by singing Khaleeji pop and Iraqi songs, releasing multiple hits – one of them being هيب يوسش . She then decided to explore different genres and started experimenting with rap, producing her own beats, and collaborating with young music producers. “I’ve been in the rap scene for three years, so I can sing and rap.” While she doesn’t think she has broken any boundaries as an Emirati rapper, Almas believes her music has helped changed the face of Khaleeji pop through her experimentation with new sounds. Almas also performed at the Expo 2020 opening ceremony alongside industry heavyweights like Hussein Al-Jassmi and Mayssa Karaa, where she sang the official theme song This is Our Time. “This was one of my biggest achievements – I had heard about Expo 2020 and wanted to be a part of it. I worked hard for it.”


Blazer, Balenciaga; abaya, 1309; shoes, Givenchy; necklace, Begüm Khan. Photo: Esra Sam. Vogue Arabia, December 2023

Qatari singer Aisha has a voice that enchants you immediately. Hear her sing Lana Del Rey’s Radio on her Instagram series and you’ll get goosebumps. “I started that series after a long break from social media – it was a way to connect with my followers again,” says Aisha. The young singer, who grew up between Qatar and the UAE, holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, majoring in painting and printmaking with a minor in art history from Virginia Commonwealth University in Doha; she never initially thought of singing professionally. “Qatari composer Dana Al Fardan approached me to work together on her music after seeing a video of me singing on Instagram. I accepted her offer, and the rest is history.” Since then, Aisha has achieved significant milestones, like being a part of the Fifa World Cup 2022 official soundtrack Hayya Hayya, and performing before millions at the World Cup final. “I am grateful and honored to have had such an experience very early in my career.” After taking time to focus on her well-being due to a tough time in her personal life, Aisha is back with a bang. “I am releasing my music internationally and currently working on some very exciting new projects that I can’t wait to share with the world,” she says.

Zein Sajdi aka Zeyne

Dress, Ferragamo; earrings, stylist’s own. Photo: Esra Sam. Vogue Arabia, December 2023

“Music has always been a huge part of our family – my sisters grew up playing the piano, and my mother and grandmother both have beautiful voices,” says artist Zein Sajdi. She adds that her parents noticed her love for music at a young age and enrolled her in piano and singing lessons to nurture her talent. “A few months ago, we watched some home videos and came across one from when I was five. In the video, my father playfully assumed the role of an interviewer and introduced me as a world-renowned singer, dancer, and even a toy maker. It was surreal – utterly almost as if he had predicted the future and recognized my destined path.” The Jordanian singer, whose roots trace back to Nablus, Palestine, was living in London when the pandemic put her career plans on hold, and she moved back to Amman – a blessing in disguise. She started creating cover songs and sharing them on her Instagram, subsequently meeting producer Nasir Al Bashir and embarking on creating her first original track. Since then, she’s released multiple hit singles, including Minni Ana. The next few months are exciting for Sajdi as she is busy creating her upcoming EP and planning a mini tour across select regional cities.

Manal Benchlikha

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“As a female artist, you often must put in much more effort to earn respect and recognition,” says singer Manal Benchlikha, on the gender imbalance among artists. The first Moroccan to sign with Sony Middle East, Benchlikha’s achievements include being the first Arab artist to perform in the Colors studio, contributing to Fifa World Cup 2022 songs, and performing at the World Cup finale. Her love for singing began early, with her family always encouraging her. “When I was a child, I used to sing so loudly that my neighbors would often come to my mom to complain about the noise and how annoying my singing was. I can only fully grasp their perspective now,” she smiles. Being an artist is a constant emotional, personal, and professional rollercoaster, Benchlikha says. “It means pouring all your passion and experiences into your art. My personal life strongly influences my music.” Her latest album, Arabian Heartbreak, holds a tremendous significance to her. In this project, she aims to shed light on the pain that women endure throughout their lives, encompassing not just romantic heartbreak but all forms of emotional turmoil caused by society and family. “I want to highlight how this pain can become a source of strength for women. I’m tired of women being portrayed as victims; in this album, they take center stage as fierce, fearless, unapologetic individuals ready to overcome the forces that initially broke them.”

Yara Mustafa

Dress, boots, earrings, Givenchy. Photo: Esra Sam. Vogue Arabia, December 2023

Born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Kuwait and Jordan, the trained soprano singer and actress dedicated four years to musical theater singing. “I always knew I could sing but never fully understood the extent of my vocal ability until I met my mentor Alison Trattner when I was 14,” says Yara Mustafa. She spent countless hours training to build her stamina and adds that being on Broadway has always been her goal. The young musician was cast on Netflix’s AlRawabi School for Girls at just 17, which she credits as her biggest achievement. “When the creator of the show knew I could sing and asked me to record a theme song for the show, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I was in my dorm room when I got the call and started jumping up and down as soon as she hung up!” Mustafa says that in her journey so far, she has often struggled to overcome societal expectations that sometimes discouraged her from pursuing her musical career, but she persevered. “This further pushed me to challenge the established expectations put on me as an Arab woman in this industry.” The songstress recently shot her first music video and is excited about its release date.

Laura Mekhail

Top, pants, Valentino; earrings, Givenchy. Photo: Esra Sam. Vogue Arabia, December 2023

Earlier this year, Egyptian soprano Laura Mekhail shared the stage with Andrea Bocelli in AlUla in an enthralling performance of Canto della Terra. The first Arab woman to receive the prestigious Bocelli-Jameel scholarship at the Royal College of Music, Mekhail’s journey has been an inspirational one. “I’m from a small city called Minia; my father is a doctor, and my mother is an engineer. To opt for an unconventional career like classical singing was uncommon,” says Mekhail. But she was adamant and sought a scholarship for singing abroad despite the “what are you going to do with this degree” questions. The soprano has had a passion for singing since she was a little girl and recalls getting a standing ovation at her church choir as a soloist during an Easter service. That very moment is when she decided to become a classical singer. “It’s an honor to be the first Arab to receive the Bocelli-Jameel scholarship. But it comes with a responsibility – many young classical singers look up to me and ask me questions about how I got there. I must always improve in what I do as an opera singer.” Next, she will perform a recital at Dubai Opera for her first title role as Jane Eyre with the Green Opera Company in London.

Originally published in the December 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

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