Lebanese music star Tania Saleh: ‘Being a woman has been a blessing, not a problem’

Tania Saleh has flourished as an independent musician in the Middle East. (Photo supplied)
Updated 04 March 2018

Lebanese music star Tania Saleh: ‘Being a woman has been a blessing, not a problem’

DUBAI: Surviving as an independent musician in the Middle East takes a level of determination and, occasionally, stubbornness that many would reasonably feel was just too demanding. Tania Saleh has survived for more than two decades. Not just survived, but thrived.
Saleh, who first gained recognition in Lebanon in the late Nineties, when support of any kind for non-mainstream art was practically non-existent, is now hailed as a pioneer of the alternative Arabic music scene. She’s lauded for her singular, emotive vocal style and her heartfelt, unflinchingly honest lyrics that have tackled both the personal and the political. And she has made her name without the backing of a label, or even a manager.
You might expect Saleh’s struggle to have been all the greater because she’s a woman. But, as she tells it, that’s not the case. If anything, as an artist, she feels it’s been a blessing.
When she spoke to Arab News on the eve of her appearance at Wasla music festival in Dubai in early February, Saleh had recently attended a workshop in Sweden about how women in the MENA region are making themselves heard in the music industry.
“Sometimes (at these events), the conversation veers into ‘Oh, poor woman. It’s so tough …’ But, in my case, I never felt like I was mistreated because I was a woman or I didn’t get certain offers because I was a woman,” she said. “I always felt that I wanted to be a good musician before my gender even came into it.
“So, I never felt like being a woman was my problem,” she continued. “I felt that the market was the problem. The people were the problem. People were used to listening to a certain kind of music; either the traditional, like Fayrouz or Umm Kulthoum — old but good material — or the mainstream on TV or the radio. The majority of people didn’t want to look for something new, but those who did found us. And they realized there was something there.”
The real struggle for independent artists in the region, Saleh feels, is unrelated to gender. It’s simply the restrictions on self-expression.
“In general, in this region, it’s not as easy to express yourself, because of religion, because of society, because of how people view you as an independent person,” she explained. “When you can’t express yourself, whether you’re a woman or a man, it’s a problem. And it’s not because you don’t have enough guts, it’s because whatever you say isn’t going to be accepted.”
In her latest project, the album “Intersection,” released in October last year, Saleh uses classical Arab poetry, and also produced a number of street-art pieces around the region, to examine some of these themes. It is, she said, “an ode to the Arab streets.”
It started with one of the two tracks from the LP for which she wrote the lyrics herself, “Show Me The Way.”

Lovely meeting you @majaz_music from #bahrein at the @waslamusic backstage

A post shared by Tania Saleh (@taniasaleh) on

“The song is a question about the Arab world. Like, ‘Is this really the Arab world? Are you still brothers? Or are you killing each other?’ That’s the main question,” she said. “So I chose poems and poets related to this topic. Poets who talked about their societies and their streets. And nothing has really changed. If you hear these poems today, you’d think they were written today.”
Setting the words of legendary poets including Khalil Gibran, Mahmoud Darwish and Nizar Kabbani, among others, to song was, Saleh said, “a big responsibility.” It was also a chance to bring a feminine perspective to traditionally male-dominated Arabic poetry (although, she pointed out, most of the poets she selected were “very open to their feminine sides,” and two of the poets featured — Nazik Al-Malaika and Joumana Haddad — are women).
For Saleh, the importance of a female perspective in art cannot be overstated.
“Man is a hunter. In every way. Hunting food, war, women … The woman is not a hunter, and that shows in her way of expression,” she said. “Women can bring something to poetry — to art of all kinds. The ways women express their emotions are different from men. That’s why it’s so important to have more songwriters who are women. It’s not because of feminism, or equality, it’s because the feelings we bring in are different. The way we see things is different. Particularly when we become mothers. And it’s important to see that perspective on things.”
The guiding principle behind Saleh’s long music career has been integrity. The emotional honesty of her vocals and lyrics is mirrored in her actions. And sometimes in her lack of action. Like turning down big-money offers to perform for, say, “a TV show that supports stupid stuff.”
“It can be a statement to say no,” she said. “When you see how your image has remained intact because of all those decisions you’ve taken, you’re fine. And you know people will remember you how you want to be remembered.”
It’s the reason she still fights to control every aspect of her career. “I’m not making a lot of money, but I’m fine,” she said, while admitting she’d “maybe” like to own a small boat one day.
“I don’t dream of having a lot of money. I don’t like expensive stuff. To me, it doesn’t matter,” she explained. “What matters is how I feel and the integrity of my work, and having honest relationships with people.
“After all, you write your own story,” she continued. “You don’t want someone else to write it for you.”

Egyptian start-up teaches artists ways to monetize their work

Updated 16 June 2019

Egyptian start-up teaches artists ways to monetize their work

  • More Of was started by Sara Seif and Hania Seif partly to change society's attitude towards a career as an artist
  • While the company is still at an early stage, the two founders have no plans of slowing down

Art is for the soul what food is for the body. Yet it’s a fact that artists all over the world struggle to make a living out of their creations.

This is especially so in the Middle East, where it’s rare to find a family willing to support their child’s artistic endeavors, since more academic careers tend to take priority.

But two sisters in Egypt are aiming to change that particular mindset. Enter More Of, a startup focusing on the arts, helping those in relevant fields make a living out of it.

“It all started three years ago. My sister and I used to study theater and marketing, so we both had artistic and entrepreneurial sides,” said Sara Seif, co-founder and CEO of the startup.

“We were always surrounded by artists, and we always saw the struggle they faced, with so many talents out there and so little revenue. The artists can’t monetize their art, and it’s not because they’re not good. It’s because they don’t have the business skill set.”

Sara and Hania Seif want to introduce a entrepreneurial mentality into the world of art. (Supplied)

It wasn’t until Sara stumbled on an Injaz Egypt startup competition — just 12 hours before the deadline — that the idea started to take shape. She scrambled to put her ideas into words and called her sister and business partner Hania to help.

Invited to attend a pre-incubation program, where they learned how to turn their idea into a business model, they ended up winning the competition, receiving EGP 100,000 ($6,000) in seed funding, as well as a trip to Silicon Valley.

For More Of, there was a very specific problem they were trying to solve, said Sara: “There was this gap between the talents and the marketplaces; people didn’t know where or how to look for opportunities.”

The company works in two ways; the first is geared towards people who have creative end products.

“Creative artists have something you can actually buy, like wall paintings, fashion, jewelry, and so on. We offer them a talent management platform; we’re like a talent incubator for them,” Sara said. “What we do in this incubator is try to build capacities on the business side.”

They started doing so by conducting a series of workshops with topics including how to turn art into a business, sales for creative artists, and personal branding.

“Our part is to teach you the business side. If you’ve got the talent, now let’s sell your art,” said fellow co-founder Hania, who serves as More Of’s chief creative officer.

The second area they are facilitating is the performing arts.

Sara elaborated: “We’re going to build an online platform for performing artists — theater, dance, and music — and it’s going to work like an online casting agency, where there’ll be a lot of opportunities posted for the artists.”

The two plan on making the platform free so that any artist could use it, but there will also be a premium option.

“Premium users will have an edge, where we’ll be their own consultants and manage their talent. We’ll basically be an agent for the artist,” Hania said.

“Our part is to teach you the business side. If you’ve got the talent, now let’s sell your art,”

Hania Seif

While the startup is still at an early stage, they have no intention of slowing down.

“We want to collaborate with as many people as possible, to create as many initiatives as possible, and pull all resources out there so that the artists and art community could come together and establish an ecosystem,” Sara said. “We see ourselves becoming the leading talent-management platform in the MENA region and then internationally.”

Their plans to expand on an international level mean they could potentially land local artists opportunities on the global stage.

“People want to reach talent in Egypt and they want figures to address, and we plan on becoming that figure,” Hania said.

Making money out of being an artist might have seemed like a long shot at some point, but with initiatives such as More Of, it is changing.

“It’s no longer a hopeless case for artists to turn their art into an everyday career,” Sara said.

Hania added: “We want to empower artists to do ‘more of’ what they love. And that’s how we (came up with) our name.”


•  This report is part of a series being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region