A heart-to-heart with Wissam Hilal
IF THERE’S ONE new musician from the region to look out for, it’s Wissam Hilal.
With dreams of international recognition and confidence in pursuing fame beyond the borders of the Middle East, the 23-year-old Syrian is looking to rewrite the rulebook on Arab singers, by building a foundation of English pop music, laden with all the brass and bravado that audiences here have come to expect and love.
It’s not an entirely new concept, though.
Arab musicians in recent years have increasingly explored Western-style pop music, often in English, with the hopes of widening their fan base. The problem, many listeners love to point out, is the overall lack of authenticity that sometimes follows feeble attempts to mimic the likes of Gaga and Usher. In other words, it just comes off as plain awkward.
With the help of Los Angeles producer Bryan Todd, who has collaborated in the past with Disney darling turned twerk queen, Miley Cyrus, and American Idol winner Jordin Sparks, Hilal has steadily been working on his forthcoming album since launching into the industry last year. But he’s already managed to create a stir online thanks in part to his music videos that are, as some critics have suggested, inappropriate and provocative.
By Hollywood standards, the videos for his tracks Single and The Last Goodbye are tame, but some conservative elements have been quick to demoralise the scenes portrayed in them, claiming they show too much skin and body contact on screen. But regardless of taste, the videos - posted to YouTube - have racked up more than a million views and many fans claim Hilal’s work is daring and refreshing.
“I’m not afraid to be risqué,” Hilal says as he gives us a preview of his latest track, Statues, a song he believes has the potential to be his major breakout hit.
“Why can’t Middle Eastern artists break into the international market? It’s because we have an inferiority complex,” he says bluntly.
It’s no secret that the Arab world churns out stars in much the same way Simon Cowell might manufacture a perfectly coiffed girl group or boyband. But in the Middle East, music almost always ends up taking a back seat to an artist’s earning potential and sex appeal, often leaving the industry little room to support anything inventive that might upset the status quo.
“No record label in the Middle East would sign someone based on their talent, that is the problem here,” Hilal explains. “There are a lot of talented people getting nowhere.”
But a lack of corporate support has only emboldened Hilal. After graduating from university last year with a degree in English Literature (his favourite writer is William Shakespeare), he moved to Dubai where his days are spent working in the studio and promoting his brand. With his eyes and ears centred on the pop world, he is working with producers to develop high quality tracks that he hopes will soon be playing in nightclubs around the world.
Hilal admits that his first two singles released online were part of a valuable learning curve; he heeded criticism for their bubblegum lyrical content and excessive use of the auto-tone feature. But he’s still developing his sound, he says, and if his latest track Statues is anything to go by, notoriety may be just around the bend.
“There are many different types of fame that feed the heart instead of the ego. That’s what I’m chasing after.”