The world is witnessing a new revolution in the region and beyond, with Arabic releases going more viral than ever.
Music is a powerful and essential tool in our daily lives. It can help us time travel, remind us of a person, create foreign scenarios in our mind and serve as a ticket to another country.
For 24-year-old Palestinian-Jordanian singer Zeyne, her latest hit “Balak” (“Without You” in Arabic) was able to connect her to a new audience in Qatar—where she hopes to perform someday.
“I didn’t expect it to succeed at this pace, because I feel like it still has a long way to go, but the fact that it was charting in Doha, Qatar on Shazam, and I never entered a chart before is a huge milestone,” Zeyne told Doha News from her residence in Amman.
The young artist is among the leaders of the latest musical revolution in the Middle East, with new, fresh beats dominating charts in the region and beyond.
Zeyne’s latest single Balak deals with the hardships of long-distance relationships, allowing her to establish a bridge between herself and listeners, also from a far distance.
Despite being based in Jordan, the top listeners of her song on Spotify are in Egypt and the second of which are in the US, noting that some of the listeners are likely to be of the Arab diaspora.
“I thought only people around me would hear my music. If you had told me the US would be the second on the list I would’ve told you that’s impossible. Like who would listen to my music in the US? I’ve never [been] to the US in my life to begin with,” she said.
The singer’s hit is a reflection of her song-writing approach, that comes based on personal experience, rendering it more relatable.
“My approach to song-writing kind of exposes me because I end up singing about everything that I’m going through, but I also feel that it is the only way I can be authentic to my listeners,” Zeyne told Doha News.
The writing process of Balak came after a conversation with her friend and Jordan-based musician Nasir, who produced the song.
“I was speaking to Nasir about a few things that I was facing, so he said ‘let’s write a song’,” she said.
Balak was written within a week in January and was not released until July, after adding the voice of Palestinian/French/Algerian/Serbian artist Marwan Abdelhamid, known as Saint Levant.
The addition came after Zeyne’s friends and family recommended adding a male’s perspective to the song, given that it focuses on the relationship of both the male and female.
“They said they didn’t want to only hear my part, and I said ‘okay, ouch’,” Zeyne joked.
Having multiple perspectives added more depth to the song, contributing to its relatability whilst simultaneously tearing down the taboo in opening conversations about social difficulties.
The song eventually expanded Zeyne’s fanbase globally, reaching to Doha.
“I’d really like to come [to Qatar], especially after Balak I felt that my fanbase in Qatar really grew because I keep getting direct messages from people in Qatar because of this song,” added Zeyne, saying people were asking if she would perform in the Gulf state.
‘Who is Zeyne?’
The Palestinian-Jordanian artist commonly gets asked “Who is Zeyne?,” which she has made her Instagram handle, a key witness in the artist’s musical career path.
Instagram was the launch point of Zeyne’s journey, at a time of sudden life changes that directed her to a path she never thought she would ever take.
In 2020, Zeyne was heading back to London after graduating with a degree in Media Communications and Sociology at Sussex University in Brighton, to work in a public relations firm where she had landed a job offer.
At the time, she returned to Amman to renew her papers and travel documents when the waves of Covid-19 swept over, putting the entire world on pause.
“I worked super hard to get a PR job, I worked so hard for years and felt as if all my effort went to waste. So I was not in a great place mentally at the time, I was very, very down, especially that I also lost the job offer that I got,” Zeyne recounted.
Like most people around the world, Zeyne thought the lockdown would only last for two weeks, creating an Instagram with the handle “14 Days of Quarantine”. On her page, the artist posted a song cover everyday, showing half of her face, with the intention of deactivating the account by the time the two-week period was over.
By the end of the 14 days, she turned the account to “Tunes With Zeyne” where she uploaded covers of herself for around 10 months. That page opened the door for her to meet people in the Jordanian music scene, including her producer and friend Nasir, who encouraged her to write her own songs.
“I ended up writing my first song ‘Minni Ana’ and I actually had the talk with my parents around the same time about me going into music and they were extremely supportive, because I come from a musically-inclined family,” said Zeyne.
Her mother, who also sings around her family, had revealed that she wanted her children to choose music after supporting her talent since the age of four. Zeyne would sing in school assemblies from this young age, before taking piano classes at the age of six, then vocal classes at the age of nine.
“It [singing] was always a thing between myself and I, nothing that I ever shared with people. Even my mother, who enrolled me in these classes since I was a child, barely heard me because I didn’t like singing in front of people,” Zeyne told Doha News.
Part of being an authentic artist involves Zeyne’s closeness to her identity as a Palestinian, using the soft-power of music in resistance.
“I’ve always been very connected to my roots. At the age of five, I enrolled in a Palestinian Dabkeh group and it’s so funny because I was tiny and would just move my legs, even if my moves are wrong,” she said.
Last year, Zeyne’s cover of Palestinian song ‘Yamma Mweel El Hawa’ alongside her mother went viral. At the time, the Israeli regime had launched a deadly offensive on the besieged Gaza Strip, killing 260 Palestinians including 66 children.
The song was the first of which Zeyne learned how to sing and harmonise with her mother, and have continued to sing it as part of their almost-daily routine.
“We have a platform to deliver our voice to the rest of the world, especially among people who do not know what’s happening in Palestine. It’s extremely important, even if we get shadow-banned and our views go down on Instagram,” she said.
In exploring another layer of Zeyne’s identity, her song “Nostalgia” last year echoed the internal conflict of longing for something she never experienced.
In the music video, the oranges of the occupied city of Yaffa are seen vibrantly existing around a family enjoying their daily lives before being taken away from them and turning into a memory.
The song reflects the stories Zeyne listened from her mother and grandmother, who were displaced from Palestine by the Zionist state.
“It’s like there’s this inherited grief and loss of Palestine and we have to live with this feeling even though we have no memories of it. This is something that I’ve struggled with, especially over the previous years when I’ve been more aware of it…hopefully it’ll be free while we’re alive,” Zeyne told Doha News.
The Palestinian artist was only able to visit her homeland for a brief period of time at the ages of 16 and 20. The painful feeling of longing struck the singer as she roamed the streets of a country she was supposed to grow in, without the presence of the illegal Israeli occupation.
“While we were walking in Ramallah, my first night in Palestine, my father told me to inhale the air because I won’t be able to experience it again. I started crying in the middle of the road. I couldn’t comprehend the fact that this is our life and we’re deprived of it,” she said.
A musical revolution
Despite it only being a couple of years since Zeyne entered the world of music, her songs have already joined the voices of a new revolution in the region, with Arabic releases going more viral than ever.
“I’m getting goosebumps. Nasir and I were talking about this sort of revolution and movement when we first met in 2020. He was convincing me to get into music and write my own songs because now is the time,” said Zeyne.
Nasir has been producing successful hits that lead in musical charts and serve as a key to unlock one of many doors into the rich Arab culture, merging heritage with modernity.
Last year the focus was directed towards Jordan, with a new beat rising by multiple youthful voices, such as Issam Alnajjar, Dana Salah, Noel Kharman and Silawy, among others.
“In my head it was far-fetched, I said ‘no way people would be interested in hearing us,’ and it’s funny because almost two years later, here we are. It is so overwhelming and beautiful to see the amount of artists rising from the Levant,” she said.
Describing the latest movement, Zeyne believes Arabic music is going to be the next mainstream in three years’ time, following the K-Pop movement and virality of Afrobeats.
“We owe a lot of gratitude to digital streaming platforms such as Spotify and Anghami that are giving us a voice, placing us in playlists that enable people to recognise us and discover new artists,” said Zeyne, adding that major labels such as Universal Music are reaching the Arab world.
Emerging from a demoralising place two years ago, a more hopeful Zeyne now is determined to continue joining the voices of the Arabic music revolution, with three-to-four songs currently in the making.
“We’re witnessing something that never happened before and mark my words, two years from now you’ll hear Arabic music on the radio.. hopefully we’ll have our own slots in the Grammys, because we deserve our space there,” she said.