Director, songwriter and provocative pop star, Jad Shwery represents a generation of young Arabs too cynical to unite in rebellion and to cool to unite in conformity. Following the recent release of his chart-topping English-language single Funky Arabs (a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the exegesis of the Arab World) he’s courted controversy and cool in equal measure. In this Enigma exclusive, Managing Editor Amy Mowafi gets to the bottom of Jad’s eccentric vision…
Let’s kick off with the controversy surrounding your Funky Arabs single and video. Some have viewed it as an ironical look at the extravagant party lifestyle of a certain segment of Arab society. Others have taken it at face value, insisting you meant it as a serious, and thus demeaning portrayal of Arab culture. Tell us once and for all, what were your real intentions and how are you responding to the criticism?
Funky Arabs simply represents one particular segment of Arab society. It’s definitely not meant as a generalisation. The portrayal itself is meant to be taken with a pinch of salt. I wasn’t on some serious mission; you’ve got to have a sense of humour and be able to laugh at yourself to tolerate such a depiction. On the other hand, I was also trying to dispel the negative media-driven stereotypes the international community has about the Arab World; where we are viewed as backward terrorists. Like I say in the song – we’re not just what you see on CNN and BBC. And to prove that you have to go to the extreme and show the absolute flip side of that. Imagine me trying to do that by creating a video featuring ‘moderate’ Arab lifestyles. Or imagine a pop music video that tries to prove we’ve got ‘culture, principles, civilisation, love and family values’ etc. It would turn into a documentary… not something you can dance to and have fun with! You can’t talk about Khalil Gebran and Naguib Mahfouz and preach about literature in a pop song. You should be jamming about fashion, irony and plastic!
At the same time Arabs have to stop pretending that the partying lifestyle I show in my video only exists in the West. We see it in cities all across the Arab World, and we also see it in the way Arabs party in Paris, London or LA. I don’t understand why people find that demeaning. Of course it’s not the only thing we’re about, but even this kind of superficial lifestyle sends an important message; it shows we have liberated women, we’re tolerant, open-minded and respect others’ freedoms. Just because someone is living the Funky Arabs lifestyle, it doesn’t mean they’re brainless; you can be very educated and interesting and still have fun. I don’t want to hear about politics and civilisation when I’m in a club; but try me during the day about evolution, religion and economy.
Funky Arabs was of course in English. Why did you decide to do it in a foreign language? And if, as most have assumed, it was intended for a Western audience, how has it been received in international circles?
I chose to sing in English because it gives me the opportunity to open a path to different audiences. I’m not pretending I’m going to be able to break through to a Western audience overnight, but this song is an entry to that market. The whole project is more of an experience for me than just a music release, so I chose to forget about the market and create something I believed in.
For Funky Arabs you worked with a slew of international producers, including Guy Manoukian (who works with the likes of Wyclef Jean). How did those collaborations come about?
Originally it was just Tony Bou Khalil (who did the song’s original arrangement) working with me in Beirut on this project. Then I flew to New York with Guy Manoukian who introduced me to Platinum studios and a bunch of producers that he met when he worked on Wyclef Jean’s record. Suddenly I found myself recording in the same studio where Janet Jackson was a couple of days before. And Shakira and LL Cool J’s lyricist was recording in the room next to mine! It really felt good especially when Logic from Ear Candy rapped on my record! The whole thing was a huge learning experience, although ironically, I came away feeling that I no longer need to travel the world for a good sound. In this day and age, it’s all just a click away.
And how was the experience as compared to working with Arab music producers?
In the West, no matter how big the producer, they still want and respect the artist’s input. But of course I was paying loads more money than I would in the Middle East!
You’ve taken a lot of slack for your provocative personal style… and all those tattoos, especially as a lot of young Arab men try to emulate your style. Is that a complicated position to find yourself in?
I am aware my style bothers some people. But I’d rather have half the audience like me for who I really am than all of them applaud something that doesn’t represent me at all. Anyway it would be boring to have everyone’s approval. I’m here to ask questions and push boundaries. And I understand that some people will always find that annoying. As for the role model thing, I’m not going to give you the cliché answer that ‘it makes me feel responsible’ because I still make a lot of mistakes and learn from them. I am experiencing life, fame and the music industry and I want to live it fully without being extremely cautious. It does flatter me when I see teenagers copy me. I was once one of them. Looking up to artists helps you find your own style when you’re growing up. At the same time I have a big sense of humour and know how to laugh at myself !
How do you handle the constant rumours about your personal life?
I’ve learned to live with it. I’m a controversial artist in a conservative environment, so what do you expect? You can’t believe anything that’s written about me. Two years ago a rumour was spread about me opening a porn channel and I had to release an official statement because it was so damaging. I understand this circus is part of the job but it can be really tiring.
You were the first Arab star to kiss a girl in a music video. Was it your intention to shock? And were you surprised by the subsequent public reaction?
I do not intentionally decide to shock. I come up with ideas and only afterwards do I realise that because of our society it’s going to have a disproportionate impact. Half the stuff I do would hardly be called innovative in the European market. But in the Middle East it did break boundaries. I was aware of that and my production company was scared my bookings would decrease but I still wanted to do it. If I don’t, who will?
Who has had the greatest influence on you?
I’m a big admirer of anyone who has the guts to fight for their rights and opinions – from Martin Luther King to the smallest journalist in an unknown magazine.
What does the word ‘celebrity’ mean to you?
Celebrity is a tool. It’s also a drug with its ups and downs.
What does the future hold for Jad?
My new album is coming out soon and my next single Stop Popping Pills, also in English, is going to be released this month.
What is your ultimate dream?
To be able to use my fame for causes that are important to me, like human rights, adoption and organ donation. I also want a lot of kids; some of them will definitely be adopted. Though I still have to figure out who I’m going to have them with!
What would the title of your biography be?
You can’t choose a title when you’ve only written the first few chapters!