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In Conversation With Danny Hajjar, the Unofficial Ambassador of Arabic Music

with the man, the myth

If you’re into the region’s music scene, the name Danny Hajjar should ring a bell. If you’re not already subscribed to his weekly playlist, odds are, you’ve probably read a couple of his interviews. Or perhaps, you came across his recent Rolling Stone article–The 50 Best Arabic Pop Songs of the 21st Century–which made a lot of noise. And if this still doesn’t sound familiar, we regret to inform you that you’re missing out on some of the most detailed and in-depth content on modern Middle Eastern culture available today.

As media outlets across the Arab World compete to be the ultimate destination for all things music, the Lebanese journalist is slowly owning that status without a formal structure of that size. Over the past few years, Hajjar has established himself as a go-to authority for profiling artists and spotlighting their respective craft, generating a loyal social media following of 17,000 across Instagram and X. With words in some of the world’s most esteemed and respected publications— including The New York Times, Pitchfork, and more — the Washington-based writer is not only keeping his finger on the pulse of the region’s music scene but also bringing it to a global audience one byline at a time.

“I don’t think I have more weight than that,” Hajjar humbly tells MILLE. “My focus is getting a story out in a Western publication, not because I value them more or need their validation, but because that side of the world needs to know what’s going on. People in the region already have a general sense of awareness about who I’ll be talking with or about. For others though, they simply might know of them at all, or worse, not ever listened to any Arab music ever,” he said.

“There’s a fine line between writing about an artist and their creativity, and introducing them to audiences that may not have heard of them,” the Lebanese media professional revealed, explaining how members of the Arab Diaspora in the US are also concerned by the limited exposure of Middle East and North African artists.

“They often see the same artists promoted repeatedly and that’s probably because those artists have connections in the world of media, can speak and express themselves in English while some can even have an allocated budget to secure stories and opportunities. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking a dig at them, but from my perspective, I don’t think they need me to write about them. They already have people doing that for them. My focus is to spotlight other artists, like Stormy for example, in spaces they may have never imagined accessing before,” he expanded.

The North African rapper he mentions is a star in his home country, but like many, suffers from a lack of visibility despite having the talent and sound to reach an audience beyond his native Morocco. In a recent story for American music publication Spin Mag, Hajjar highlighted how Stormy, who arguably produced one of the best albums of the year so far according to him, is scarcely covered outside of specialized publications— and that’s where Hajjar thinks his work becomes needed. And while we can celebrate him for his dedication, juggling freelancing with a regular job and building his own platform (Saalouni EL Ness), it is worth wondering how and why is the region all of sudden under such a global spotlight.

Over the past five to ten years, for the first time in our lives, and perhaps in modern history, being Arab is cool, and we’re finally at the forefront of numerous cultural and creative movements inside and out our region. Without wanting to take away from his hard work, we asked Hajjar how he explains both his and the region’s current momentum.

“I think many of the traditional gatekeepers of our music—whether it’s DJs, major labels, radio stations, or certain industry executives—have either completely disappeared or eroded to the point where music has now become much more global and vast. There’s a growing appreciation, recognition, and desire to hear what’s happening in different parts of the world. Latin music was perhaps the first to break through, but that came after decades and generations of effort. Once Latin music achieved that, K-pop followed suit. For me, and probably for many others, it sparked a feeling of  ‘why not us?’ Let’s be visible, and make ourselves heard,” he mused.

“It’s also worth noting that the current crop of artists are building on a foundations of OGs that came in when today’s structures didn’t exist. This probably helped pave the way for all that we’re experiencing today,” he added, before expanding on the role of social media in this process.

“Social media plays a crucial role by providing wider reach and broader access to artists. However, it has also introduced its own challenges; now, simply making good music isn’t enough—you need a curated social media presence to stay relevant and not be forgotten. There’s this constant pressure to release music, which feels uncomfortable to me but which also keeps the mill going. On my side, it’s been just as important, it allowed me to connect with artists, writers, content creators, and curators, which has been incredibly helpful. But I emphasize with artists as for writers, it’s also not enough to just write; we have to build our own brands, do our own promotion, and create more opportunities—it’s a lot. And to be honest, it’s not my thing, I didn’t come into this field to become a famous writer; I just want to contribute to archiving our scene and tell stories.”

His first steps as a writer began with the launch of a newsletter named after Fairuz’s iconic track, Saalouni El Nas. Since August 2020, Hajjar has introduced a prominent industry-figure from the Middle East and the songs that best represent them every Friday. He also curated a playlist each week, featuring some of the best releases from the Arab world and other typically underrepresented regions. Although the Substack-sponsored project has now grown into a “digital music ‘zine” of its own, his mission to catalog Arab music is now echoed by publications with a much larger reach. Notably, he collaborated with Rolling Stone to create a list of 50 songs that defined Middle Eastern music in the 21st century– an experience he recalls as both fulfilling and “agonizing.”

“When I first got tasked with this assignment, I felt a lot of anxiety. I had been pitching them since June 2023 to create a list around Arab music. I didn’t know what it would be, but I noticed they covered Latino music and K-Pop, so why not the Arab World?,” he revealed.

“I kept having conversations back and forth with them, and in March 2024, I reached out again, saying, ‘Listen, April is Arab Heritage Month in the US; don’t fall behind.’ They agreed, but the idea of focusing on Arabic pop songs of the 21st century was theirs. That’s probably where the anxiety came from,” he confessed, explaining that he felt a substantial amount of pressure to “get it right” by featuring the most relevant artists and songs. “I didn’t want to be the person who claims to cover the region but only highlights Egypt and Lebanon,” he added.

To bring this ranking to life, Hajjar explained gathering many opinions from academics, music historians, producers (including Haifa Wehbe’s) and people from Spotify, and Anghami. It was all compiled on a Google Sheet where everyone could and would type in their thoughts,” he shared. Over three weeks of stress, wondering who would be included, who wouldn’t, and what the controversial choices would be, his top 50 was finally set. For that, he explained having had to draw a line as “even if it was the most scientific list, someone would have something to say about it.”

“As long as it is generally accurate and people, even those who disagree, can see that it makes sense, that’s what matters,”  he added, emphasizing on how sometimes following your instinct is key.

With so much experience and insights to share, Hajjar expressed his eagerness to help others tell their own stories, concluding: “Honestly, if anyone wants to write, my DMs are open. Come talk to me; I will tell you everything I’ve learned and share editor contacts with you. I’m not a gatekeeper. I want to play a mentorship role. I acknowledge that I’m older and I want to own up to it. I’m cool with that and grateful for it.”

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