In the last five years, there’s been an explosion of internationally-influenced music in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Driven by online youth culture – including streaming and YouTube – alternative scenes have begun appearing all over the region.
With the global success of breakout acts such as Nigeria’s CKay via TikTok, all eyes are on regions that have not historically been top-of-mind for western audiences.
“If the beat and melody are strong enough, it doesn’t matter that the lyrics aren’t in English,” opines Jeddah-based Syrian music producer Mustafa Kannas.
We uncover eight tracks from the MENA region: Egyptian hip hop, Afrobeat-influenced Moroccan dance pop, Alternative Arabic music from Lebanon, and R&B from Israel.
To find these tracks, we scoured the Shazam Top 200 charts from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Israel, discounting any track with extremely high YouTube views counts (with a couple of exceptions). Then we ran our Hit Potential Algorithm to find songs that could have a chance to cross over and find popularity with international audiences. We consider any score over 65 to have serious potential.
And while data is part of the picture, context is crucial. So, we also spoke to local and global music industry experts to learn the nuances of regional dialects and instrumentation, and find out how the songs might fare within the region and beyond. As we discover, there may be global opportunities for both artists and producers.
Donia Waelll & EL Waili (Egypt)
“El Waili is a prolific and versatile producer in Egypt,” says US-based talent buyer and A&R, Tamayu Takayama. “His art direction and branding are polished. He uses an attention-grabbing pop-art style but with local substance that makes it unique.” By giving away beats for free on YouTube, EL Waili also courts possible collaborations with up-and-coming talent.
“Donia Waelll, meanwhile, is an emerging artist with a beautiful voice that fits El Waili’s production,” says Takayama, “I can see her growing in popularity from this collaboration.”
Musically, the track has elements of future bass, alternative R&B and electronic pop. “These emerging styles are heavily influenced by western music; the way that beats are made, chords, even the song structure itself. This sound is part of the underground music scene gaining popularity among the Arab youth,” says Saudi-based music producer Mustafa Kannas.
“El 3asal” is sung in Egyptian Arabic, which differs from the dialects of Gulf countries or the Levant, but can be broadly understood within those areas.
“Donia’s Egyptian dialect conveys abstract, poetic lyrics. I can see it resonating with young Arabic-speaking audiences beyond Egypt,” says Kannas.
Hit Potential: 75
IGUIDR & Jubantouja (Morocco)
“These two Moroccan artists have a unique story and DNA,” says Takayama. The band Jubantouja represent their home base in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco, and make a point of singing in their native Tamazight dialect (also known as Berber).
Within the MENA region, Mustafa Kannas believes the local dialect may limit listeners to North African Arab youth. However, Takayama notes that the band has already amassed an English-speaking following via Instagram, possibly due to their western alternative rock sound.
For the remix (above), rapper IGUIDR adds trap elements turning the alternative source material into something more urban. “The rap and production elements make this contemporary chart material,” says Takayama. “The song has an ambient feeling and evokes CKay’s “Love Nwantiti”, so it’s on-trend with what’s happening globally.
Hit Potential: 79
“ECHO is among the busiest singer/producers in Israel’s hip hop scene,” says former Musiio Music Playlist Curator, Udi Ehrlich. “Even though this song leans towards R&B, she has brought global hip hop trends into the local scene,” he explains. Her lyrics also support feminism and female empowerment, making her a strong voice.
“Another point of differentiation for ECHO,” says Ehrlich, “is that she’s American born, and releases music in both English and Hebrew, adding to her cross-market appeal.”
In spite of language differences, we’ve seen that global audiences can be captivated with solid production, voices and melodies. “Music is a universal language,” says Ehrlich, “I believe that we’ll come across more and more tunes that will break the language barrier,” he says.
Hit Potential: 79
Abyusif Feat. Perrie (Egypt/Morocco)
Arabic hip hop has gained enormous popularity among younger audiences in Egypt in recent years. As with the Donia Waelll track, Abyusif's lyrics are in an Egyptian dialect, Kannas reveals. Although it is not the same dialect spoken in the Gulf countries, it still has enough similarities to appeal to younger audiences outside the artists’ homelands.
There’s further crossover appeal from singer Perrie – who has previously worked with producer EL Waili. Not only is Perrie (El Hariri) partly Moroccan, but she’s spent time in the UK where she gained a degree in sound engineering, music and performance. She’s not been rapping long, but this young multilingual talent is one to watch.
Hit Potential: 75
Abdulaziz Louis & Bader Al Shuaibi (Kuwait/Saudi Arabia)
“This pair is super established in Saudi Arabia, with two million Instagram followers between them,” says Takayama. Bader Al Shuaibi is the bigger star and has already reached an international audience thanks to his acting career and collaboration with K-Pop star AleXa.
The track above, translated as “We Have Arrived”, fits the traditional musical style of the Gulf region with Khaleeji dance elements. According to Syrian music producer Mustafa Kannas, these include the drum pattern, vocal dialect, and the dance style in the video. Interestingly, the music video highlights Kuwait’s national accomplishments, as the track was released with VO, a Kuwaiti platform supporting the arts.
Takayama thinks the track has broader appeal: “The hook is simple and repetitive which repeatedly calls out “Yala” in a celebratory fashion making it catchy and easy to sing along to.”
Hit Potential: 82
Yuval Dayan (Israel)
“Nearly everything Yuval does is a chart hit,” says Udi Ehrlich. He’s not wrong. Last year, she had the most-played song by a female artist on the radio in Israel.
“This track fits perfectly into the mainstream Israeli soft pop vibe which is adjacent to the local Middle East pop trend that’s ruled the charts for years,” Ehrlich explains. “From the instrumentation (oud and violin) to the production, vocal delivery and traditional romantic lyrics. For those reasons, I could see it resonating within MENA.”
Hit Potential: 78
Douaa Lahyaoui (Morocco)
In 2019, Douaa Lahyaoui made it to the quarter-finals of the Arabic version of The Voice, and since then she’s amassed nearly half a million Instagram followers. She’s now releasing original material, and her debut, “Hyati Ana” displays some interesting trends.
First, the track is heavily influenced by Afrobeat, a genre that’s “slowly gaining influence” within the music of the MENA region, says Kannas. Second is the use of English lyrics in an otherwise Arabic song – a fairly common tactic for broadening appeal – and it seems to be working. She has a throng of international fans.
Hit Potential: 85
A5rass is a huge star in Jordan and is extremely active on TikTok promoting his music, with over 275K followers on the platform. “He’s versatile in style and has released hip hop and electronic music before settling for trap-influenced R&B – which is working for him,” notes A&R expert Takayama, “He also seems to be a self-producing artist so has a consistency of sound.”
In recent years, Alternative Arabic music has started surfacing in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco, Kannas explains. A5rass is part of that trend, and because his dialect is understood by all Gulf countries, he has strong cross-border appeal.
Hit Potential: 83
What do you think of the list? Which artists stood out to you? Are there other regions you'd like us to explore? Or are there specific countries in MENA you'd like us to take a deeper dive into? Let us know!