Nooriyah Brings Arabic Music to the Dance Floor

The Saudi DJ splices genres and shows how regional classics have influenced modern musical hits

Nooriyah Brings Arabic Music to the Dance Floor
Nooriyah performs alongside her father at Boiler Room in London, England. (YouTube)

Abdel Halim Hafez’s tender voice and romantic melodies make up the hazy core memories of the milieu of my childhood, always there in the background. The Egyptian singer, known affectionately as “The Nightingale,” was the sweetheart of the Arabic-speaking world, loved by young and old. His name would evoke an expression of deep longing in people’s eyes, and many lamented his early death. There was also the playful way my father would tease my mother about him, because of how handsome he was. My mother would laugh and tell me about how crazy young Egyptian girls were about him. Whenever he released a new song, her friends sat waiting by the radio to write down the lyrics so they could memorize it and sing it together at school the next day.

Growing up outside of Egypt, I understood from a young age that I had to traverse two worlds. No matter the grandness of Arab musicians like Abdel Halim and Umm Kulthum (sometimes referred to as the matriarch of Arabic music), the world outside my home had no idea who they were. I could never conceive that those worlds would ever overlap.

But one day, when I heard Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” on the radio, I thought maybe one of my mother’s records had started playing by accident. She shouted, “Abdel Halim!” just as I heard Jay-Z’s voice start rapping. The high-pitched, soulful sound of the ney, an Arabic cane flute, in the intro, was unmistakable. Confused excitement ensued. I would tell anyone who would listen that the sample behind Jay-Z’s new song was a famous Egyptian singer’s song, “Khosara” (“What a Loss”).

What I didn’t know then was that Arabic music had always had an influence on Western music and pop culture. I discovered the depth of this influence through a rather unlikely source — Nooriyah, a Saudi, London-based DJ/producer, who launched an Instagram video series that went viral in early 2021 exploring the phenomenon.

Her multipart video series explains how Jay-Z sampled Abdel Halim and how Aaliyah’s “Don’t Know What To Tell Ya” sampled “Batwanes Beek” by Warda, another icon of Arab music, among many other tracks that sampled from Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) songs. Her video series includes Arabic songs that have influenced music in other parts of Asia, as well as South America, starting a conversation about similarities in rhythms, melodies and, most importantly, spirit, and contributing to a kind of Global South musical solidarity.

In her own sets, however, Nooriyah goes beyond the familiar, blurring the lines and blending genres to create a culturally diverse and explosive mix of music from around the world. While she champions new Arab artists and sounds like Wegz’s Arabic trap, Omar Suleyman’s eclectic Syrian wedding dabke music or the heavily autotuned sounds of popular mahraganat songs, she also sprinkles in the nostalgic with all the old pop favorites like Nancy Ajram, and the Golden Age classics of the previous generations, like Umm Kulthum. She does her own mix of a hip-hop-infused “Khosara,” blending it with Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow,” which should be wrong, but works somehow, as if they were born to be together. Another of Nooriyah’s surprisingly dynamic edits is of Hisham Abbas’ early 2000s song “Fenoh” over a track by the British dubstep producer Lil Silva, taking what could be considered a corny Arabic pop song and effortlessly making it current.

While her video series caused a stir online, restarting a conversation about ownership and the ethical use of other artists’ music without credit, Nooriyah explains in an interview with The Qonnect podcast that she made those videos to spread an appreciation for the artists and the sources behind those samples (Nooriyah did not respond to New Lines‘ request for an interview). These were songs or artists she grew up with, that her mother hummed along to on the radio. Arabic music was always a part of her life but, as she grew up in different places, she realized just how much it contributed to global music and how little people knew about that.

She explains that many people don’t know that major American music producers like Timbaland and Scott Storch, for example, use a lot of Arabic scales and microtones from the region in their music. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, so much music has Arabic influences ingrained in it. To her, credit is important, especially because the people behind these sounds were being demonized in the media for years. “I feel like our love and passion for art, culture and music has really taken a back seat because of all the political events that happened in the region,” she says.

It’s not accurate to claim that she became an “overnight success,” since she had been working in radio and music for years. But when her video series went viral, it raised her profile in the minds of many as a DJ, music selector and producer. It made her Middle of Nowhere parties, a SWANA-focused event series curated by Nooriyah, one of the most popular U.K. dance events. Middle of Nowhere is Nooriyah’s musical playground, which she describes as “where unlikely genres meet.” She performs her genre-bending sets, giving the spotlight (but not exclusively) to Arabic music tracks, and invites other DJs who bring the same spirit to the scene. Her mission is to create a sonic experience that is as diverse and enriching as the people attending. You can expect to hear everything from Japanese hip-hop to Maghrebi trap, reggaeton, South African house music and more. She believes that it’s natural for Arabic music to exist among other genres.

Since then, she’s taken the events on the road, all over Europe, with a mission of celebrating pride in Arabic music and identity in a space that has been dominated by European electronic music and on a continent with growing and seemingly perpetual anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments.

With her recent explosive performance at the famous Boiler Room, which had over 1 million views online in just three months, Nooriyah has solidified herself as a cultural phenomenon. The music platform, which has a cult following, hosts live dance parties that are broadcast online, bringing audiences the latest in the underground dance scene by featuring emerging fringe artists, often making an artist’s career in the process. Being the first to lead a SWANA music lineup at Boiler Room U.K., Nooriyah not only skyrocketed herself into stardom but brought other SWANA artists with her, like the Tunisian producer Pekodjin and British-Lebanese DJ Saliah. The gritty warehouse-type building was packed with people from all backgrounds, with one thing in common: energy.

The set begins with her father playing the oud, dressed in the full traditional thobe and shemagh. He starts his performance by commenting on the intense heat, joking, “Nooriyah didn’t tell me it was a real boiler room.” Nooriyah, who has been looking at him expectantly, immediately shushes him with an embarrassed, “Baba!” This tender moment was shared online as people laughed at the typical dad/uncle joke, seeing their own fathers and uncles in him.

The rarity of witnessing this moment of cross-generational togetherness is at the heart of its beauty. For an Arab woman to be a DJ is already quite unusual, with taboos attached to working in nightlife, especially for a Saudi woman whose country, though reforming, has some of the strictest rules about the role of women in the public sphere. Seeing her onstage with her traditionally dressed father, who not only accepts his daughter’s DJ career but is actively participating in it, signals quite the cultural shift. However, it’s no surprise that Nooriyah wanted him on stage with her, since her father has been one of the greatest musical influences in her life. Nooriyah has spoken about his devotion to playing the oud, even playing it on the toilet, she humorously recalls.

On stage in the hot Boiler Room venue, he masterfully starts picking the oud strings, playing to a room that has become deathly quiet, watching him with reverence. There’s an immediate juxtaposition between hearing such familiar sounds and being in a club space that is so unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before, let alone the impending wild dance party in the presence of an Arab elder. As Nooriyah begins a beat to accompany her father, the crowd begins to dance, and even more heat rises. Suddenly it seems like all the worlds that exist in my life as a diaspora kid can come together in one room. No need for a back-and-forth cultural translation; I can be my complicated self in communion with others, in a space that has brought together different facets that I’ve previously felt were exclusive.

While the European dance scene has always been defined by whiteness and (mostly) maleness, Nooriyah’s parties are the antithesis. This party is Arab, African, immigrant, queer, body-inclusive and unapologetically loud.

One comment on YouTube captures the overall sentiment: “Don’t know why but it literally brought me to tears. To see this younger generation bringing their dad, and this dad was obviously proud of his daughter … and all those kids were proud of their north-African and Middle-Eastern heritage. My generation just always lived low-key ashamed and cut off from its roots.”

Following the powerful performance between father and daughter, Nooriyah plays “Dammi Falastini,” a song by Mohammed Assaf that has become a rallying cry for solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. The eruption from the audience, shout-singing “My blood is Palestinian,” is a moment of joyful resistance. A few weeks earlier, the song had been removed from Spotify with many speculating why this had happened. Assaf explained that he received an email from Spotify saying that his song was removed for “inciting against Israel.” The lyrics of the song’s chorus — which, directly translated, mean, “You will find me on my land, I belong to my people. I sacrifice my soul for them. My blood is Palestinian” — are about loving Palestine and its people, making no mention of Israel. The song was reinstated on Spotify after numerous people took to Twitter to complain about censorship.

Nooriyah started the Middle of Nowhere parties after years of championing Arabic music and SWANA artists on the various radio shows that she’s presented in the U.K., as well as being a features editor for Azeema, a U.K.-based magazine that centers women and nonbinary people from the region. She got tired of seeing the limited and repetitive curations or representations that existed, especially in the club and dance scenes. While she always had diverse music from all over the world in her repertoire, she found this wasn’t mirrored elsewhere with Arabic music. In a recent interview on the Al Empire podcast, Nooriyah recalled that “my peers and DJ friends didn’t have any SWANA music in their USBs and I kind of want to change that. I’m like, why not? Why can’t those sounds be on global stages, whether it’s Glastonbury or elsewhere in DJ spheres.” She also found that SWANA music existed in silos. While people outside of that might have wanted to access it, they didn’t know how, and many of her DJ friends would ask her for music recommendations. “My vision is that those sounds are just naturally part of the global tapestry.”

She decided to create the space that she wanted to see, and for others to find a place where they could hear and learn about SWANA music. But she didn’t limit it to SWANA music only, because she didn’t think that would help progress the SWANA music scene and engagement. Instead, she played the sounds that she found worked well together naturally, regardless of origin. What she asks of people is that they come with an open mind to all genres. Her sets are musically inclusive and infectious.

Nooriyah’s background has enabled her to be open to different sounds. Growing up between Saudi Arabia, Japan and the U.K., she was exposed to a range of cultures and music from a young age, which attuned her ear to difference. Yet this wasn’t something she found in Western musical spaces. Nooriyah demonstrates this concept in a BBC documentary that she produced, called “A Little Flat: The Music Our Ears Overlook,” featuring the musician, DJ and producer Nabihah Iqbal as she explores the notes and scales used in music in different parts of the world, and why our ears might hear some music as in or out of tune. Traditionally, Arabic music is tuned differently than Western music, adding a deeper complexity to the sound, making it seem “a little flat” or out of tune if one is only accustomed to Western tuning.

This is the case for music from many other parts of the world too. The documentary explains that musical notes are also much more flexible than the keys found on a piano. Arabic music in particular is known for the use of microtones, which are the sounds in between the notes in the Western musical scale. This applies to both instruments and vocals. Great pleasure is often taken in the movement and oscillation between notes, rather than simply hitting them squarely. Hearing from musicians and experts on how different sounds exist in different musical cultures, Iqbal asks what we might be missing out on by only listening to musical sounds with which we are familiar.

Her documentary makes clear what Nooriyah’s mission is. But while she hopes for the global music scene to become even more diverse, she explains on the Al Empire podcast that it’s a systemic problem. As the documentary says, not only are our ears conditioned to want to hear the sounds we are already familiar with, but the use of algorithms on music platforms like Spotify can perpetuate the problem of only hearing what you know. It tends to shape what a lot of people listen to according to certain measures of popularity, which is in itself limiting. Additionally, a Western-centric musical worldview is built into a lot of the open-source music production software that is available to people.

“If you take, for example, the golden standard software that producers use to create music, they really highlight, emphasize and support the use of Western scales. This makes it quite hard for the producer to have an open canvas to create diverse music, to begin with,” she says. Musicians and producers from different parts of the world, who are used to music that focuses on microtones, different tunings and whole other systems of musical scales and rhythms, have to find a way to adapt and conform to the Western system of tuning and notes that is available on music software, losing a lot of the complexity of their sound.

The benefits of having accessible production software then come at the cost of watering down certain musical traditions when people can’t find the sounds and scales that they need to create their style of music. This can then create homogeneity in the production of new music. “In fact, research and literature show that a lot of the scales and the traditions across the world are migrating towards the Western scale,” she says. While Nooriyah is no musical purist and believes in the benefits of musical cross-pollination, the concern is that this is mostly happening in line with Western standards. “So lots of traditions are being lost.” For example, Arabic, African, Latinx or East Asian producers are more likely to infuse their music with Western styles than with each other’s.

The musical diversity that exists today is at risk of being lost over time, as music from different parts of the world shifts to Western scales. The result is that music production may all begin to sound the same over time, unless software, computer programming and algorithms are created with more global musical systems in mind. This requires that programmers and software engineers themselves be from these backgrounds, possessing this inherent musical knowledge. For Arabic music, this means that a whole distinct system of music and sound could begin to dissolve over time unless a conscious effort is put into preserving it.

Nooriyah doesn’t only play modern Arab dance music but demonstrates the rich and dynamic range of music that exists across the SWANA region. She blends the traditional and the folk, like dabke or classical Arabic songs, with the modern, like Arabic electronic music or hip-hop, combining different genres and artists, showcasing how diverse Arabic music can be. She plays “Abdel Kader,” a traditional rai song by the Algerian music legend Khaled, but chooses the Maghreb Gang mix of it that features the German-Moroccan rapper Farid Bang and Moroccan-American rapper French Montana, followed by a snippet of the classic orchestral arrangement of Umm Kulthum’s “Alf Leila We Leila,” then the Basbousa remix, a viral TikTok song. There’s no snobbery, it’s all valid and it’s all exciting.

While she is able to bring the crowd favorites and play the immensely popular tracks that people might know really well, she doesn’t stop there. Nooriyah speaks on numerous occasions about having a healthy fear of playing something that might be different from what people are used to. She’s been petrified at times to try new things and that never really settles down because the stage keeps getting bigger. It would be easier for her to play club favorites and have people dance to what they already know and love. “It takes a bit of bravery to challenge and educate on the dance floor,” she says.

Now, it feels like Nooriyah has both influenced and been part of a bigger movement of Arabic music in global music and culture. The music writer Danny Hajjar has written in Pitchfork that Arabic music seems to be on the verge of a global breakthrough, given the exposure to Arabic music at the Qatar World Cup, how the 2022 Marvel series “Moon Knight” had an entirely Arabic soundtrack selected by the Egyptian composer Hesham Nazih, and with the historical performance of the first full Arabic set taking place in Coachella recently by Elyanna, the Palestinian-Chilean singer. Elyanna not only sang completely in Arabic, but her bandmates played Arabic instruments like the oud and tabla/darbuka, which have never been featured at any stage at Coachella. Hajjar writes that emerging Arab artists are breaking out of the old musical categories and playing with different genres, and this has helped the music’s expansion to different listeners globally. Elyanna has collaborated with the Tunisian rapper Balti and Nigerian singer Tems, while Wegz, the most streamed Arab artist, has embraced various rhythmic styles from across the African continent. Hajjar also attributes the growth of Arabic music globally to the access that streaming platforms like Spotify and Anghami, and even the social media platform TikTok, have provided. He includes Nooriyah’s contribution to this rise in the popularity of Arabic music, especially when it comes to her influence on the dance scene.

Nooriyah herself embodies a representation of Arab women in a way they’ve never been represented before, especially in the West, where Arab and Muslim women never get to be arbiters or partakers of lightheartedness, dance and fun — especially women from Saudi Arabia, who are held up as the epitome of the oppression of women, depicted as submissive and desperately in need of saving. The view that sees Saudi society as ultraconservative or lacking in music and art is something that Nooriyah has said that many Saudi artists have had to challenge when performing abroad.

Nooriyah has performed in parts of the SWANA region too, with the same energy and warm welcome. Since then, she’s also been involved in teaching other women to DJ. One thing is clear from witnessing her Boiler Room sets and other events: Nooriyah’s dance floor is an affirming place to exist and be taken on a sonic journey.

“Spotlight” is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers twice a week. Sign up here.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy