On the Use of English in Arab(ic) Music

Ahdaf Soueif once said that “the use of English by Arab authors is expanding at a faster rate than the use of French.” I haven’t seen any empirical evidence for this, but it seems likely — or if not exactly faster than French, than at least at an equal rate.

Watching 47soul’s recent release “Raf Etair” (or, to give it its English title, “Mo Light”), which, like their previous songs, uses both Arabic and English, led me to thinking about the place of English in contemporary Arabic music. Using both Arabic and French is long-established in music from Lebanon and the Maghreb at least, but what about using both English and Arabic?

In the case of 47soul’s songs, the lyrics are not interchangeable. The Arabic is not the same as the English, they merely exist alongside one another, without need for translating between them or commenting on the transition.

47soul is not alone among more indie Arabic bands and artists that have taken this approach recently. Among the examples of English (or more accurately Arabizi use) I can think of, there’s Jadal’s “Ana Bakhaf Min El Commitment” (I am afraid of commitment”).

On the whole though, the mixing of English and Arabic seems to be most common in the case of rap by Western-born/raised Arab artists, for example Lowkey, Shadia Mansour,  The Narcycist, Omar Offendum, and most recently, Mona Haydar. One exception for the Western-born/raised is of course DAM. In many of these songs, including Dam’s latest, English is used most, with Arabic used for the chorus or for particular “culturally-specific” terms.

Then there are the mashups, such as this one of Adele and Fairouz, or this, with Cheb Khaled’s Didi and They Don’t Care About Us.

Yet the use of English is not as wide-spread in recent Arabic music as one might expect, expecially considering that Arabic-speaking (singing?) artists and groups like Emel Mathlouthi, Alsarah and the Nubatones and Mashrou Leila do seem to have a growing audience in English-speaking countries. Both Alsarah and Mashrou Leila have appeared on NPR Tiny Desk Concert for example — surely the confirmation of  “breaking through”!

The framing of the videos for their songs is certainly very English-friendly, with subtitled lyrics provided and messages often put in English first and then Arabic.  The “synopsis” for Mashrou’ Leila’s “Roman”, for example, is provided only in English, at least on youtube (although I noticed someone provided an Arabic translation in the comments).

Perhaps the resistance to using English has to do with all the usual anxieties about authenticity,  about creating content in the “mother tongue” and also, maybe, about what is marketable as “different”?

None of the examples cited above are really Arabizi though — even those who use both langauges keep them seperate, either releasing both English songs and Arabic songs, or using one langauge or the other for the chorus. Few songs incorporate both languages in the same sentence — Jadal’s title is an exception.

Yet the reality is that many Arabs (and not only the Lebanese and those living in the Emirates!) switch between Arabic and English in daily life. A rather extreme example is given at the beginning of this clip:

So…is it possible to create more fully bilingual Arabizi music that captures the codeswitching of many Arab millenials? What would this codeswitching music look like? Is there an audience for it?

If you know of any more examples of mixing Arabic and English in music, let me know!

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