For most of her career, Lebanese singer Tania Saleh has shied away from the conventional love songs that permeate mainstream music; instead, she often sings about the challenges of being a woman, such as gender inequality, the pressure to match up to photo-shopped beauty ideals, and the worries that come with motherhood.
For her next album, which she intends to dedicate to Arab women, she is also stepping away from traditional production methods; she is raising money for the studio fees by collecting micro donations from her fans online.
Globally, the idea of fan funding is exploding. In 2012, the market grew 81% to $2.7bn, according to industry researchers Massolution. But, in the Middle East, the concept is just catching on.
Production is one of the hardest challenges facing independent musicians in the region, Saleh said. There is only one “big” production company in the Arab world, and, Saleh said, her style is too unconventional to interest them. She was inspired to start an online fundraising campaign after the Lebanese indie rock band Marshrou’ Leila raised $66,000 for their new album in August using the newly launched Arab crowd funding platform Zoomaal, she said.
Saleh, who played three concerts in Cairo this week, is shy about the campaign, but she said messages of support from her fans on social media have made her feel more confident in her decision. Two-thirds of her Facebook fans are Egyptian.
“I did not want to seem like a beggar, but there is no other way,” Saleh said. “I used to produce my own music, but my sons are growing up and it doesn’t make any sense to spend my money on my music rather than spending it on them and their education.”
So far, 243 fans have donated close to $30,000 to support Saleh’s album, titled “Shwayit Souwar“ (A Few Images).
Saleh is dedicating the album to her sisters in the Arab world, she said.
“Arab men might be at war, but Arab women are at peace,” she wrote on her crowd funding campaign on Zoomaal. “A woman in this part of the world is hard working, full of hope and positive energy. Rain or shine, she has always been there for her father, brother, husband and son, spreading her endless love and showing them where the beauty is, hoping they would listen.”
In the album, she takes on heavy topics such as searching for love amidst hatred, blood, and societal divisions, and the “fragility of our existence on this planet. One of the songs will be a cover of the Egyptian folk singer, Ahmed Adaweya’s song ‘Raho El-Habayeb’ [Lovers are Gone]”.
The theme expands on her previous work.
In “Mreyti ya Mreyti” (Mirror Mirror), which Saleh wrote for the film “Caramel”, for example, Saleh draws inspiration from the fairytale “Snow White” to express the insecurities a woman has about her appearance, she said. The song imagines a woman, mourning the fact that she does not have full lips or a thin-enough waist, asking her mirror to tell her that she is the most beautiful among her peers.
“Every woman wants to be more beautiful,” she said. “That’s how we are, no matter how gorgeous we look, we are never satisfied.”
In another song, “Bala Ma Nrabeeh” (Let’s Not Raise Him Up) Saleh reflects on the thoughts of a new mother. She wrote the song after she and her husband, who is also her music producer, had their first son. “Now that he grew up, my son does not like this song anymore,” she said.
Saleh said she will not write about the Arab Spring.
“I was not here,” she said. “How would my song mean anything if it was not sincere?”
But she has been inspired by the affect the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions have had on independent music in the Middle East.
“The Arab Spring made people want to hear it all,” she said. “No one has time to hear the used up romance songs anymore.”