A&R Spotlight #03: Nadia Lebdar about Music, Activism, and Fostering a Thriving Industry in Morocco and the MENA region

The growing opportunity in Morocco and MENA region through an interview with Nadia Lebdar from PopArabia

A&R Spotlight #03: Nadia Lebdar about Music, Activism, and Fostering a Thriving Industry in Morocco and the MENA region

As an A&R myself now, one of my favourite interviews to share is those with other A&Rs on their perspective on music, creation and promotion, but most importantly, culture.

In today’s conversation, Nadia Lebdar, A&R for PopArabia, shares her journey from being a Hip-hop enthusiast in Morocco to becoming a pivotal force in the Middle Eastern music industry. Exploring topics ranging from the challenges of promoting female artists in the Hip-hop scene to her involvement in impactful projects like 'Rajieen' for Palestine, Nadia provides a unique perspective on the ever-evolving music landscape in Morocco and the Middle East. Her commitment to educating artists about the industry and fostering growth reflects a passionate approach that goes beyond traditional A&R roles.

The last time Nadia and I spoke, she and her colleague Rani Victor (Digital Operations @ PopArabia) introduced me to Mahragant, which you may have encountered in a few previous posts. So we started off with that.

Srishti Das: Did I mention that I listened to many Mahraganat after our last catch-up? I have become a big fan, and Molotof is one of my favourite producers.

Nadia: That's cool! It's interesting to watch how the people who don't understand the lyrics listen to the music. Sometimes, I or others hear a song and like it because of the lyrics. It's always interesting to hear the other side's opinion. My husband is French, for example. When I listen to an Arabic song, he's like, ‘Oh, this one I don't like,’ and it will be a song that I'm a big fan of - sometimes because of the lyrics. Then there are other songs he likes just because of the mood. This is interesting and just so crazy, you know? That a song can be viral outside of the country it's from!

Srishti: I've been listening to a lot of music in languages I don't understand, like Amapiano, Latin, and Reggaeton. Even with English or Hindi songs, I no longer focus on the lyrics. It's like the vocals are just another instrument. For example, I sensed it was serious in "Jaw Ard" by Molotof with Shabjdeed, so I looked up the meaning. You can always find out what songs are about loosely. Overall, it has completely changed how I experience music.

Alright, let's kick it off. Tell me about your musical journey so far.

Nadia: Yeah, so my journey began as a huge Hip-hop fan, encompassing all aspects of the Hip-hop industry. I was 16, living in Morocco around 2016, right at the onset of the rap scene emerging on the internet in the country. That's when I was involved with the launch of the first Hip-hop website in Morocco called "MMD Rap". I would basically reach out to international artists, asking them to share their music on my website, and they were always surprised at the thriving Hip-hop community in Morocco, which they usually had no idea about. We got exclusive content from big stars like IAM, Mafia K'1 Fry, Lla Fouine and others.

Our website gained traction, featuring the latest and most exclusive rap songs, leading Moroccan radio stations to contact me for news and even asking me to create jingles and have artists record greetings for them. It all started with me, a rap fan, running a website. Later, I connected with people from Jordan and Palestine who proposed working together on the website. 

It was eye-opening because I initially thought Moroccan artists were influenced by French rap due to proximity. But through MMD Rap, I discovered that Hip-hop was thriving across all regions. My first big project involved bringing IAM, the prominent French Hip-hop group, to Morocco for a concert. They agreed, and I also collaborated with Murat Music to organise the first music awards in Morocco.

Srishti: Wow, how did that shape up your career in music?

Nadia: I organised a concert in Rabat that gained attention, and I started becoming known for creating such events. It was more about luck and connecting with the right people than anything big. That's when I began meeting rappers who asked if I could find them gigs outside of Morocco. So, I reached out to festivals and concerts abroad, pitching Moroccan rap, and it worked. My involvement expanded from the website to booking.

Then, I initiated my first big event called MAROC HIT PARADE (World Music Day), a 4-year music marathon with 12 hours of non-stop music (over three days) featuring major Moroccan and International artists. Following that, I transitioned to artist management and moved to Paris, marrying someone deeply involved in the French music industry. However, it was challenging starting anew as I had to rebuild my contacts.

Upon returning to Morocco, I observed changes in the music scene and the rise of monetisation on platforms like YouTube. This led me to step into the realm of contracts. I discovered that many artists were being sent contracts, often without understanding them. Artists were seeking help to navigate and improve their contracts. This prompted me to assist artists in negotiating better deals and understanding the industry.

Srishti: Interesting. I’m guessing this led you to A&R? What is your focus for the future with PopArabia?

Nadia: Currently, I'm focused on educating artists about the different facets of the music industry, from contracts to publishing, aiming to foster a robust music industry in Morocco. This knowledge gap is prevalent not only in Morocco but also across the region. We have incredible talents, but understanding the business side is crucial.

Regarding PopArabia, my involvement began when a rapper asked for advice on their contract with PopArabia. I assisted and eventually met Spek, who offered me a role. However, my commitment to PopArabia goes beyond a job – it aligns with my passion for developing the music industry in my country. I don't see my role as an A&R in the traditional sense; it's more about helping people understand the music industry and fostering its growth. If every artist and professional comprehends how it works, we can achieve significant things in our region. There's immense potential waiting to be unleashed.

Srishti: I wholeheartedly agree. One observation I've made while navigating playlists and recommendations on both Apple Music and Spotify is that a majority of the artists promoted to me are predominantly men. I'm curious if this reflects the actual landscape or if it's more of an algorithmic bias. Considering cultural factors, it seems like there might be fewer women making music across the Middle East. What, in your opinion, could be done to encourage and involve more women in the music scene?

I believe it varies depending on the genre. In Hip-hop, there seems to be a perception, at least in our culture, that the audience doesn't gravitate towards female Hip-hop artists. There's a stereotype that you need to project a certain toughness, and women are not often seen as fitting that mould. It is definitely a misconception, but it's the prevailing idea in the region. The genre associates being a "gangster" with authenticity, and that image is not readily attributed to women.

In other music genres, like Pop, you might find a more balanced representation of both genders. In Morocco, for instance, I've come across Metal bands but haven't encountered any female Metal artists. It could be that certain styles are ingrained in our minds as male-dominated, making it challenging for women to be accepted in those spaces.

Personally, I always advocate for more representation of women in the industry because their stories, perspectives, and ways of looking at life are unique. Rap, being a form of written and spoken poetry, has a different flavour when it comes from women. Their narratives, experiences, and outlook enrich the overall musical landscape. The challenge lies in shifting the mindset of the audience. It's about encouraging people to appreciate and seek out music from women, not because of any quota, but because these artists bring a vital and distinct perspective. Without their voices, something essential is missing from the musical narrative. It's a collective effort - listeners, promoters, and the industry at large need to be open to embracing and promoting talented women in music.

Srishti: I sense a positive shift now, with artists like Doja Cat, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B gaining prominence. It seems like the narrative around women in music is evolving.

Nadia: Exactly. They are still a minority, and that's where the challenge lies. Even though there are talented female rappers in Morocco, they may not receive the recognition they deserve because of the prevailing notion that rap is primarily for men. The vision or societal expectations might not give them the encouragement to pursue a career in rap. Unlike in Pop, where we don't distinguish it as "female Pop," in Hip-hop, there's a tendency to segregate and label it as if it's a separate entity. This labelling reinforces the idea that there's a distinction between male and female contributions to the genre, perpetuating a divide within Hip-hop. It's a systemic issue that needs to be addressed.

Srishti: It's the same situation in the Metal scene. Many women question the need for distinctions like "metal band" and "female-fronted metal band." The awareness needs to be raised about our biases, especially outside Pop music. 

Nadia: The issue lies in the disproportionate representation. For every hundred tracks by male artists, there might be only two by female artists. It's not a platform bias but a reflection of the limited number of female pop artists in the region. Algeria has around six, Morocco has more, and Egypt has approximately ten. When compared to the male-dominated industry, the percentage is capped at 10%, highlighting the problem. Understanding why women might not be pursuing rap is crucial. It's not a legal constraint, but perhaps the style is perceived as less 'girly,' and women may be more inclined towards Pop.

Srishti: I also believe that women might be hesitant to pursue Hip-hop because it's often seen as an all-boys club, making them feel unsafe or unwelcome. The industry needs to address this.

Nadia: In our region, there are more female DJs than women in rap; being a DJ has become a new trend. If you have the knowledge to create music, especially if you're a fan of rap, you can be a good DJ. Some DJs start by creating mixtapes from YouTube, and there's an audience for that.

Srishti: It's interesting how DJing has become so accessible, with many people doing it for fun and discovering new music. 

Nadia: DJing and music streaming platforms have different impacts. I have a friend who is a DJ from France, and when he plays live, people are thrilled. However, when he shares his mixtapes, they don't receive the same engagement on platforms like SoundCloud. The challenge is how being a DJ, with the potential for touring and live performances, can sometimes be distinct from being a musician on streaming platforms. It's something worth pondering - why DJs might not receive the same attention when it comes to online platforms.

Srishti: Maybe it's because the music is not for consumption, but it's music for the experience.

Nadia: Discovering new music with a DJ goes beyond playing familiar songs; it's exciting when you have to Shazam during the DJ set.

Srishti: Sometimes, you can't even find the music on Shazam because it's a unique mix shared by someone, and it's really cool.

Moving on, I wanted to discuss ‘Rajieen’, the music collaboration for Palestine, a project supported by many artists from the Middle East. How did this project come about, and what was your experience working on it?

Nadia: For me, it involved reaching out to artists and connecting the dots to make the project happen. While not the central role, my contribution played a small part in getting the project done. Marwan Moussa initially came up with the idea, reaching out to artists from Egypt and beyond. The director approached me to assist in adding more artists. Although the initial selection included more artists, time constraints forced us to choose those who could contribute quickly. The shooting took place in both Jordan and Tunisia.

However, we encountered issues after releasing the song - it got banned, and lacking content ID, others uploaded it to their YouTube channels. Our channel faced a ban, impacting our ability to collect funds for Palestine. Now, other channels have surpassed the original in views, accumulating 5 million. Despite these challenges, the project is remarkable. Listening to the song, you can sense each artist recording from their country, creating a unified feeling as if we all collaborated in the same space. There's a synergy that we're proud of. While I played a small part, I believe someone more deeply involved, like the director, could offer better insights and discuss the significant work done on the project.

Srishti: I think everyone in a team has a part to play, and I congratulate all of you for using music in such a noble way.  

Nadia: Yeah, when I was younger, I embarked on projects like 'Peace is my religion; Music is my weapon.' It was a mixtape where we collected funds for Africa. It involved 10 countries and 22 artists, marking the first of its kind. For me, it's not just about letting people listen to music; it's about prompting reflection on the world through music. That's why incorporating activist projects into my work has always been a part of my approach. 

Srishti Das: We at Hivewire are huge fans of music for social change. This is how some of the greatest music in the world came to be. So, tell me about your approach when entering a project. What are some things you like to do in every project, and what are some things you definitely don't like to see others doing, thinking it's not the right way?

Nadia: This question is intriguing because there are various aspects to A&R. When reaching out to an artist, the challenge is whether to approach them as a person or a label, given the scepticism artists in our region have towards labels. They often question the label's role, payments, and negotiation terms. What I dislike is when the initial contact revolves more around business and money rather than focusing on music or art. That's why I aim to build strong relationships with artists before delving into business discussions. Establishing trust is crucial to understanding if the artist is serious, reliable, and aligned with the label's goals. This process takes time, but it's essential. I also have a unique approach - I may test an artist by working on a single project from my own label to gauge their reliability and commitment. It might seem unconventional, but it helps me identify artists I can trust for more significant projects. 

Overall, as an A&R for PopArabia and my own label, creating trust between the artist and A&R and finding a productive dynamic are the challenging yet crucial aspects of my role. Sometimes, I might genuinely appreciate an artist's music but realise that our label isn't the right fit. In such cases, I offer to assist them in pursuing their project independently. That's how I navigate the complexities of A&R work.

Srishti Das: That's really interesting. If an artist does a good job working with you initially, it gives you a way to convince the label that they're excellent and have a strong work ethic.

Nadia: Absolutely. Sometimes, creating that initial trust is key. I've employed this approach with many Moroccan artists, establishing a significant level of trust. So when it's time for a deal, they know it's a good one because of the relationship we've built. However, in the fast-paced industry, sometimes we dive straight into projects, and I end up being a bit of a babysitter, overseeing everything. It's all part of the job.

Srishti Das: Yes, the relationship between an A&R and an artist is both simple and complicated, revolving around the creative process. Trust is crucial, as doubts can hinder the honest creation of great work.

Nadia: Absolutely. If the A&R brings talent to the label, invests time and effort into the project, and the artist doesn't deliver or engages in unprofessional behaviour, it reflects poorly on the A&R. That's why I focus on building relationships even when a deal might not be on the table immediately. Knowing people in the industry and creating connections with managers and artists helps streamline future projects. It's my way of navigating the complexities of the industry, and while it might not be the standard approach, it works for me.

Srishti: A big chunk of an A&R job has a lot to do with the studio and project management. What is your approach to these like?

Nadia: For PopArabia or my label? Either way, I always leave it to the artists. Generally, I can give my opinions, but ultimately, artists in our region have the power over their music. They deliver the final product, and sometimes we provide ideas, but they generally present the final version. The most significant discussions revolve around the promotion, release strategy, and overall project strategy rather than the studio. We leave the creative decisions to the artists. I think that is the right way.

Srishti: I agree. I strongly believe that going into the studio with the mindset of creating a hit song adds unnecessary pressure. It's crucial to let the artist guide their work, especially in the studio where they have a particular dynamic with the engineers. So, I concur with your approach of leaving studio decisions to the artists. What other qualities do you think are required to be a good A&R?

Nadia: A good A&R should possess a diverse set of skills and knowledge about the industry. They need to stay informed about the constantly changing landscape of digital platforms, algorithms, and industry trends. A successful A&R should be a continuous learner who understands communication, social media, platforms, stats, data analysis, sound engineering, and even artificial intelligence. The role involves not just selecting good music but navigating the complexities of the industry after the creation of good music.

Srishti Das: What are some music trends and genres that you see coming out of Morocco and the Middle East that you're excited about and think might take on the world in the next few years?

Nadia: One trend I find exciting is the fusion of old and new in music. Many artists are incorporating traditional elements and instruments into contemporary beats, creating a nostalgic yet modern sound. This mix of heritage and new music is gaining popularity in Morocco and Egypt. Additionally, the use of sampling old folk music is becoming more prevalent. It is expected to continue growing globally, contributing to a renewed interest in Arabic music beyond just using American beats. This is contributing to new sounds that are more authentic but simultaneously represent local cultures and stories very well.