A century after legendary Umm Kalthum made her debut, women remain the lynchpin of Arabic music. Across generations, from folk to commercial pop, it’s Fairuz, Sabah, Warda, Nancy Ajram and Elissa that stand on Arab music’s highest pedestals.
But as Arabs welcome hip-hop as their preferred genre, its American male mold was adopted too. From the Maghreb to the Khaleej, men rule the scene.
Egypt, home to one of the region’s biggest rap scenes, leapt at the new genre without exception, with male rappers Abyusif, Marwan Moussa, and Marwan Pablo raking in the most streams. But, Felukah, born Sara El Messiry, might just reconfigure Arab rap’s fate to one that’s more in line with Arab music’s female-led history.
She might be just 22-years-old, but her music staunchly stands on its own as testimony to that possibility. In October, Felukah dropped her debut album ‘Citadel’, and Arab hip-hop enthusiasts compared her neo-soul sound to that of Lauryn Hill and Erykah Bad, flocking to hear more.
As her fanbase grew, Felukah caught the attention of Spotify, with her songs playlisted alongside Abyusif and Marwan Pablo on the platform’s Egyptian Rap playlist. Most recently, the young rapper covered the streaming giant’s coveted ‘Arab X’ playlist. With a new album ‘Dream 23’ having just dropped, her list of accomplishments is bound to grow.
To celebrate her latest release, we caught up with the artist to chat about creating it in the midst of a pandemic, her love for writing, and how Cairo influences her music.
To start off, your name immediately stands out. Can you tell us the story behind it?
I was sitting with my mom in our balcony back in Cairo bouncing stage names back and forth when she thought up Felukah. The philosophy around the name unfolded organically after that. Just like a felucca that’s sailing along the river, I want to embody an ebb and flow in my verse.
Clearly, Cairo has served as an influence in your art. What was it like to grow up in the city?
Growing up in Cairo was interesting because we had a very Western experience in a Middle Eastern context. I can only speak for myself and my own circle, but it feels as though my generation and the next are waking up to a certain postmodern pride in the dynamic nature and true evolution of Arab music and culture. We are not bound by tradition, we are fuelled by it and moved to the point of crossover: where Middle Eastern essence meets Western delivery.
But now you’re based in New York City. How do you stay connected to the region being so far away?
I currently live in New York, yes, but I never really feel far from the Arab world. I’m always connected through music, culture, and the diversity of the people around me. Cairo is my home-base and that goes without saying.
You moved to NYC to study creative writing. Does that experience influence your music?
Writers like Radwa Ashour, Haruki Murakami and poets like Nayyirah Waheed and Ocean Vuong inspire me deeply. Their prose and poetry speak volumes to me, so much so that it pushed me into the studio.
One thing that sets your music apart is your dexterity in rapping in English and Arabic. What does that writing process look like?
I do like fusing languages, genres and concepts in my work. It actually hasn’t been challenging from a production standpoint; I think and feel in this way so I’m just staying true to my process. The difficulty might be in how people receive the material. But I don’t make music for streams or followers. I have to just stay true to my creative process; and the fact is that both come naturally to me.
You have new album out, ‘Dream 23’, what inspired you to create the record?
“Dream 23” was an amalgamation of experiences felt and processed during early 2020. The inspiration was a long time coming, though. I drew on artists like Lauryn Hill, Mac Miller, and J Cole. [My] inspiration is a combination of air and earth, elements highlighted in the album.
You wrote and recorded the album in the midst of a pandemic. Did you find the experience challenging?
The entire record was written and recorded during the pandemic. Honestly, I found it easy to zone in and surrender to the craft. I didn’t lock myself in a space and time as much as I let it flow through me. Spending my time halfway between Harlem and Brooklyn, recording and exchanging beats and notes with producers, then polishing it all was a beautiful experience.