How Arab pop culture is making waves in London

How Arab pop culture is making waves in London
Since the turn of the millennium, Arab musicians have been an increasingly popular draw in the British capital, and are performing to increasingly diverse audiences. (AFP/Shutterstock)
Updated 16 July 2019

How Arab pop culture is making waves in London

How Arab pop culture is making waves in London
  • Swimming against the UK’s political tide, Arabic culture is becoming increasingly influential in the English capital
  • “Arab artists and Arab culture have always been present and influenced the cultural offer in London,” says Shubbak’s artistic director Eckhard Thiemann

LONDON: Over the past five years Arabic popular culture in London has had something of a golden age .From ambitious multi-arts festivals to Nineties club nights, an increasingly diverse audience is engaging with emerging culture from the Middle East. Oddly, this deepened engagement with Arab culture comes at a time when Britain has entered an isolationist phase politically. Even socially, surveys such as the Arab News/YouGov poll in 2017 have shown that overall attitudes towards Arabs in the UK are particularly negative and unwelcoming. So what can account for the current richness of the Arab cultural scene in London?

“It can be traced back to both the Arab revolutions from 2011 onwards and the digitization of media” says Christina Hazboun, PR and communication coordinator at Marsm, an organization set up to “promote the rich and diverse culture of the Arab world across the UK.” In recent years it has provided a platform for alternative Arab musicians including Mashrou’ Leila, Autostrad, Emel Mathlouthi, 47Soul and Yasmine Hamdan. Hazboun believes that the digitization of both the production and distribution of music allowed new genres to gain prominence and traction during the revolutions, while also allowing those in the diaspora to engage with them. In turn, this created a demand to experience these new forms of culture live in the West.

Mashrou' Leila perform at London's Barbican in 2017

Ali Matar produces Arab-themed musicals that start in their run in London’s West End before going on tour in the Middle East — most recently “Broken Wings,” based on Khalil Gibran’s eponymous 1912 poetic novel, which will be playing at the Beiteddine Festival in Lebanon this July following a run at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket last year. He says the Arab Spring is “one of the big reasons artists from the Middle East feel the need to relay messages with their music, including through social media.” He also credits it with creating an interest among non-Arab audiences in the capital.

One of the most visible and important expressions of contemporary Arab arts & culture in London is Shubbak Festival, the fifth edition of which is currently underway. Over two weeks, 150 events across film, theatre, literature, and visual arts take over the city.

“London is immensely well-connected with the Arab region. Arab artists and Arab culture have always been present and influenced the cultural offer in London,” says Shubbak’s artistic director Eckhard Thiemann. “I think what Shubbak has been able to do is galvanize and amplify these presences and voices.”

I ask him if it seems contradictory to him that the festival’s biggest edition to date coincides with a particularly toxic time for foreigners in the UK. “Xenophobia and prejudices against Arab and Muslims unfortunately do exist in London and the UK. But, equally, the UK still has a multicultural society, which is based on values of tolerance and internationalism,” he says. “What is important for me is that we don’t define what these cultures are, but let the artists and creatives speak for themselves. I want to spark curiosity into new artists and new artistic expressions.”

Others in the Arab ecosystem agree with both those worries and hopes. “The statistics on the perception of Arabs in the UK are quite alarming. The only way to combat those perceptions is to continue to put on cultural events. Bringing people together, bridging the gaps.” says Amani Hassan, program director at the Arab British Center.  “In the past three to five years there’s been a surge in Arab cultural platforms in London, and across the UK.”

The Arab British Center was founded in 1977, but the cultural program has only been running for a decade. And in that time Hassan has noticed that the audiences have changed, gradually skewing younger and more diverse.

The statistics from Shubbak Festival confirm what Hassan is saying. Only around 20 percent of the festival’s audience identifies as Arab — although that is a much larger proportion than the demographic percentage of the Arab population in London — and the majority of their audience is under the age of 35. And at Marsm’s events, Hazboun has noticed a similar pattern, stating, “Even though it started with (Arab) expats, it has become much more mixed over time. Now it’s Brits, Arabs and even visiting tourists,” she says.

For Matar, when he first started organizing concerts for mainstream Arab pop stars like Ragheb Alama, Nancy Ajram and Assi Hillani at the Royal Albert Hall in the early 2000s, it was an uphill battle. “Without social media and accessible advertising, we had to rely exclusively on Arab expat networks” he says. These days, he has also noticed audiences changing and diversifying — and demanding a greater variety of acts from the region.

Nancy Ajram performs in London in 2018

The root of Arab culture’s presence in London and across Europe, can be found in the movements of people across continents as well. As Shubbak’s Thiemann says: “Especially after 2011, (there are) artists who have migrated, or find existences between different cities, cultures and identities.” Hazboun at Marsm has seen the same with its artists, noticing that the more they tour, the more their sound becomes intertwined with that of the cities they visit.

For Arabs in the UK, consuming their ‘home culture’ has a strong identity-building quality as well. That nostalgic connection to homelands feeds into events like Marsm’s “Hishek Bishek” club nights, where DJs play a mix of Nineties Arab pop, the bass-heavy sounds of the contemporary Arab underground & mijwiz-infused dabke music. What started as a small event at SOAS University, has grown into a regularly sold-out event attracting all kinds of people. “There’s definitely nostalgia. It’s like an Arab wedding without the social restrictions!” says Hazboun.

The revolutions, coupled with digitization, changed the forms of cultural production in the Middle East, and meant those expressions could now find their audience outside of traditional arts and media structures. Simultaneously, the political situation in many Arab countries means that, in order to survive, a lot of these alternative forms of arts and culture had to travel to become sustainable. This goes some way to explaining the current situation. But what might happen after Brexit?

Besides the worries that come from losing EU funding for projects, Thiemann says, “For artists and cultural operators the UK is beginning to become a less important destination. It is inconceivable that London will not have a rich international cultural offer in the future, but I am very concerned it will lose some of its current status and desirability for artists and audiences.”

In the meantime, the Arab cultural ecosystem in London is strong and characterized by a joyful collaboration. Everyone we spoke to highlighted partnerships as the cornerstone of Arab culture’s successful run in London. For instance, Shubbak Festival works with Marsm for their music programming, and the Arab British Center provides the festival with subsidized office space.

There is a sense among artists, organizations, festivals, venues and — most importantly — audiences that this is a special time both in terms of cultural production in the Middle East and its ability to travel and find audiences in London and beyond. Long may it last.