Meet the women shaping the future of Saudi Arabia’s music scene

Loulwa and Jara are taking the music scene by storm (Pictures: @theycallmejara/@loulwa_music)

‘I want to empower other women to be who they are and do what they want to do.

‘Any time I’m on stage I get messages from young ladies, and sometimes even older women, saying thank you.’

This is what Loulwa, one of Saudi Arabia’s most successful blues and soul singers, told about finally being able to perform freely on stage.

Up until very recently, artists had to rely on an underground scene to play music for live audiences.

Concerts were banned in the conservative country, with authorities previously stating they could encourage the ‘mixing of sexes and open doors to evil’.

But things are changing ‘incredibly fast’, after His Royal Highness the Crown Prince announced his Vision 2030 in 2016.

The idea is to ‘open Saudi Arabia to the world’ with unprecedented reforms which included allowing women to drive for the first time ever in 2017.

EXCLU: Meet the women shaping the future of Saudi Arabia's music scene Credit Instagram @loulwa_music

Loulwa is one of Saudi Arabia’s most successful blues and soul singers (Picture: @loulwa_music)
Jara is Saudi Arabia’s first female rapper (Picture: @theycallmejara)

The changes have also shifted everything about the music industry, with the country seeing its first-ever General Authority for Entertainment in government.

Loulwa and Jara, Saudi’s first female rapper, are two of the 10 exciting artists featured in a new docuseries called Herstory, currently airing on Arabic streaming platform Shahid.

They spoke to about how quickly their careers have transformed in what locals refer to as ‘the change’.

Loulwa, 35, was once only able to sing at underground shows hidden in someone’s house or garden in the port city of Jeddah.

At other points, she performed at cafes in compounds – private residential districts where many western immigrants choose to live.

Loulwa was one of just two women who regularly played at these events, which were dominated by men.

She told ‘Back then, you used to feel anxious and be worried you could get caught but now the change is unbelievably crazy and beautiful.

‘Women used to be worried about what their families might think because they couldn’t see anyone else doing making music, but now you can see so many more female artists performing and singing.’

Jara, 25, feels ‘very blessed’ to have a dad who supported her career as a rapper.

She said: ‘He would take me to all these shows and make sure I felt protected as the only female rapper there.

‘There is no other female in the industry and I think that if my dad wasn’t with me I wouldn’t have been able to reach where I am. 

‘Everywhere you go, it’s just men everywhere – having my dad protect me by my side helped me focus on what I want to do and on my craft.’

Jara is still the only known woman rapping in Saudi Arabia but the music scene is changing at such a pace, she summed it up as ‘surreal’.

She told ‘If you think about how it was before and how it is now, I can’t believe this all happened in less than five years.

‘For me, or any other female in the industry, you used to feel like you were doing something wrong or that, as a woman, you shouldn’t be doing. 

‘But now I feel like it’s something you do with respect, with your head held high.’

Loulwa echoed similar thoughts when she said the most important thing ‘the change’ has accomplished is that women no longer have to feel shame.

Both artists want their work to inspire other women, and young girls, to do what they love.

Jara said: ‘I want a young girl to see me rapping and feel empowered to do whatever she wants to do, whatever talent she has.’

Speaking directly to any women reading, Loulwa said: ‘What do you want to be? You want to go to space? You can do that.

‘Whatever you want to do, you can do that. They will feel powerful when they choose for themselves and not let society choose.’

She went on: ‘I’ve always believed that Saudi women are the strongest, they manage to cope with all situations and they’ve always been creative and very ambitious.

‘All they need is for people to believe in them and give them the chance to bloom.’

Saudi Arabia had its first-ever mixed-gender concert in April 2018, when the Egyptian Opera House played in the capital city of Riyadh.

In December that same year, Lebanese singer Hiba Tawaji became the first female musician to perform her own concert in the country.

Now, just five years later, it is becoming much more common to see women on stage.

Herstory: Music scene in Saudi Arabia changing for women there

Co-creator of Herstory, Ruby said ‘the change’ has brought on ‘a whole new world’ (Picture: 823 Productions)
Co-creator Hannah George has been working on the show for three years (Picture: 823 Productions)

The co-creators of Herstory, British Hannah George and Lebanese-American Ruby Malek, have seen ‘the change’ take place in just the three years they spent making the docuseries.

When they started looking for female artists to feature, they ‘could barely find any’ but have seen ‘amazing progress’ since.

Ruby said: ‘Every single one of the artists we spoke to were thinking about moving to pursue music in a different country.

‘It’s an incredibly difficult decision to choose between their career and their community and it’s not an easy thing.

‘But now it’s a whole new world. Now they want to make it from Saudi because it’s their country and their culture’.

Dina Dahboura, who commissioned Herstory as the first-ever docuseries featured on Shahid, said: ‘These female artists are in the infancy of their careers but they are part of a historic time in Saudi – in the music scene and beyond.’

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