Sultans of Swing: Arab Influences on American Music
By: Grace Friar/Arab America Contributing Writer
To the average listener, Arab music strikes an exotic and often disharmonious tone due to a difference in the structure and lack of popularity. Much of the music we hear today is based on Western European traditions of harmony, theory, and structure, but Arab music follows a distinct path of its own that has seeped through the cracks of the institution and into secular music. “Taqasim” is an Arab musical practice that we call improvisation today and can be heard in most jazz. In pre-Islamic times, Arab music was largely based on poetry and had to match the rhythm and melody of the music to be fully understood, quite like the style of American hip-hop. The oud is still used in Arab music today but was the precursor to the guitar as we know it. It is safe to say that society’s idea of music today would be totally different without the influence of Arab culture.
Jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and hip-hop would simply not be as it is today without the influence of blues, and to understand these various genres, blues is the first to be understood. Southern states like Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, are responsible for American blues which is a very distinct characteristic of African American identity. Following the heritage of slaves captured from West Africa and brought to America, upwards of 30% were Muslim and spoke and wrote Arabic. Despite being pressured by slave owners to adopt Christianity and give up their old ways, many of these slaves continued to practice their religion and customs, or otherwise melded traditions from Africa into their new environment in the antebellum South. Forced to do menial, back-breaking work on plantations, for example, they still managed to voice a belief in the God of the Quran. These slaves’ practices eventually inspired — decades and decades later, parallel with different singing traditions from Africa — the shouts and hollers that are characteristic of blues music.
The most obvious example of this relationship is sounded in the song “Levee Camp Holler,” which sounds almost exactly like the Muslim call to prayer. Many songs within the blues genre share the same sound created by switching between major and minor keys, to speak technically, which creates the same soulful and reverberating sound heard in the call to prayer. A technique called melisma, a group of notes sung together in one syllable, is also heard frequently in blues music and is a defining sound of the call to prayer. Below are recordings of “Levee Camp Holler” and the Muslim call to prayer. Play each and listen for melisma and tonal sounds shared by these two recordings.
Levee Camp Holler
Call to prayer (adhan)
Hip-Hop, Rap, and Cultural Movements
Perhaps the most popular and blatantly recognizable blend of Arab music with the American musical identity lies within the culture and style of hip-hop.
1970’s New York City played a huge role in the development of hip-hop as the Bronx was an epicenter for this artistic and cultural movement. Hip-hop became the outlet for younger Americans to express themselves as they faced life in the inner city with high crime and poverty rates. Rapping is a defining characteristic of the hip-hop movement and is strongly influenced by talking blues songs as well as black power poetry. Just a century before, Malcom X and the Nation of Islam were spearheading the Black Power movement, which was responsible for large conversion of faith within the African American community. Today there are nearly 4 million Muslims in the United States with nearly 20% of that population being African American.
True to the American melting pot, society today now sees the progression and evolution of an American cultural and artistic phenomenon caused by two cultures colliding through faith.
Noah Shebib (aka 40) is of Lebanese descent and has consistently produced tracks for Drake. Signed to Warner Bros and OVO Label, Shebib has won 2 Grammys, received 12 nominations, and worked for other artists like Lil Wayne, Alicia Keys, Action Bronson, and Jamie Foxx.
Nadir Khayat (aka RedOne) was born in Tetouan, Morocco and has produced music for Lady Gaga, U2, Usher, Nicki Minaj, Shakira, and many more. His work has rewarded him with 7 Grammy nominations and 1 win.
Khaled Mohamed Khaled (aka DJ Khaled) is Palestinian American and responsible for some of the most popular songs in American pop culture. His double-platinum single “All I Do is Win” featured legendary artists like Snoop Dogg and Ludacris and his popularity only soars as he offers the media his ever famous “keys to success.”
Songs and Lyrics
America’s hip-hop scene has been greatly influenced by both Arab and Muslim culture, mostly through the medium of sampling and lyrics within popular songs. One of the most infamous cases of sampling comes from the song “Big Pimpin’” by Jay-Z. Sparking an 8-year legal battle, the Egyptian artist Abdel Halim Hafez’s song “Khosara Khosara” was sampled in an offensive way due to the “violation of the composer’s moral rights,” lack of proper licensing, and general provocative nature of Jay-Z’s song.
Another case of sampling lies in the song “1Train” by A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, and Yelawolf feat. Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Big K.R.I.T. The song “Meshit Senin” by Assala was sampled to produce this song.
In cases of lyrics, most artists use terms to reference God, or Allah, due to exposure to familial faith and other expressions of faith. A$AP Ferg’s song “Plain Jane,” released in 2017 and remixed with Nicki Minaj, contains the lyrics “Ride with the mob, Alhamdulillah.” When asked about his faith, A$AP Ferg did not identify as Muslim but referenced his Muslim grandfather and stated it was “just another way to say all praises to God.”
Here are more examples:
“I paid my way through, praying to Allah.”
Song: “Blue Faces”, Artist: Kendrick Lamar
“He said Allahu Akbar, I told him don’t curse me.”
Song: “Bad Religion”, Artist: Frank Ocean
“Arabic ting told me that I look like Youssef, look like Hamza. Habibti please, ana akeed, inti wa ana ahla.”
Song: “Only You Freestyle”, Artist: Headie One & Drake
After looking at many different aspects from technical styles to cultural and historical influences, it is obvious that the American music scene would not be nearly as vibrant and thriving without the contributions and styling of Arab music.
Check out Arab America’s blog here!