Suhel Nafar understands the impact that music can have around the world.
Born in Lod — a city about 25 miles from Jerusalem — to Palestinian parents, Nafar learned English by listening to Dead Prez, 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. The influence of these artists was so strong that in the late 1990s, he — along with his brother Tamer Nafar and their friend Mahmoud Jreri — started the first Palestinian hip-hop group, DAM.
“Listening to hip-hop and seeing music videos of artists being chased by police and feeling their oppression and their anger without knowing what they were talking about because I didn’t speak English — I felt they were talking about me,” Nafar tells Billboard over Zoom from Lod in late October.
He spent 20 years touring the world with DAM, whose lyrics focused on such topics as inequality and oppression. Through his travels, he saw a need in the market and is now working behind the scenes to fill it.
“There aren’t enough of us,” Nafar says, “Arabs, Muslims, brown people and people of color in the music industry to support the artists in the region and around the world.”
Nafar started working on videos, films and other jobs that focused on artists in the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region, which includes the Middle East, and helped its music scene coalesce. He moved to the United States in 2013 and taught as an artist in residence at New York University and, in 2018, began a three-year stint at Spotify. There, he helped establish WANA content on the platform and worked in its artist and industry partnerships division.
As vp of strategy and development at EMPIRE, where Nafar started in early 2021, he is leading the company’s expansion into the WANA region, which is rich with talent. Nafar says the generation of musicians he is fostering can help heal “the wound” inflicted by the conflicts there and their far-reaching repercussions.
He sees “glocalization” — global music genres such as pop and hip-hop adapted to WANA cultures — as the ideal delivery system and cites “Rajieen,” a direct response to the crisis featuring 25 WANA artists as an example. Nafar says the song and its powerful video have reached almost 10 million streams across all platforms.
What is EMPIRE’s West Asia and North Africa strategy?
I decided to move to EMPIRE because I felt that the technology of Spotify is great but that artists needed more behind-the-scenes support. [I needed] to be closer to artists and work with them on strategy. As a person that had the artist background, the [digital service provider] background and the content creation background, I thought I would help artists more from the label side.
At EMPIRE, I handle the strategy and development for the region. It means working with a lot of artists on signings and signing labels as well. I’m also developing the market. There’s a gap [in the WANA region] because we don’t have enough people behind the scenes. We don’t have enough managers. We don’t have enough labels.
How does EMPIRE’s independent approach to business influence your efforts?
My whole idea was how I could create a more independent mentality for others so that they could create their own EMPIREs and build their own rosters and executive teams. We signed a lot of labels from the region, along with good people who love music and are just missing skills, or people who have the skills but are missing people to be on their team. We’re providing this infrastructure to a lot of people here.
You’re saying that you’re building the industry itself, to a certain extent.
It’s supporting to amplify what’s already there more than building, I would say.
What have been your biggest successes so far?
The number of female artists we have is amazing. We had at least four Arab female artists on Spotify’s Times Square billboard. My team and I are supporting voices of females from Morocco, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and the diaspora. This type of excitement inspires other female artists to grow. I’m really proud of that.
Who are some Arab artists you’re most excited about?
Maro is a half-Lebanese, half-Ukrainian artist who speaks Arabic, English, French, Ukrainian and Russian and can sing in every language. He was raised in Beirut, where he grew up playing guitar in the streets as a busker. When there was violence in Lebanon, he had to move to Norway … We got an opportunity to bring him to the U.S., where he’s living now.
What about hip-hop artists?
MC Abdul, a 15-year-old kid from Gaza, is a genius who started rapping when he was 9. He learned English from hip-hop and speaks it better than a lot of Americans I know. A few months ago, we finally got him out of Gaza and flew him and his dad to San Francisco on an artist visa. He performed an amazing show there for over 20,000 people. He was in the studio and taking meetings to start his album rollout and was supposed to come back to Gaza [a few] weeks ago. Then the whole situation started, so he couldn’t go back to his family.
Another artist I love is Soulja, a rapper from Sudan. When the war in Sudan happened, we had to help him escape from Sudan to Egypt, and now he’s in Saudi Arabia. His recent release, “Ayam,” is a breakup song where he’s telling his love he doesn’t want to see her anymore, but his love is actually Sudan. He wrote it the day he escaped and was almost killed.
Name one of the women artists you’re supporting.
Nai Barghouti is another amazing artist. She’s a traditional Palestinian folk artist who recently did a song with Skrillex, “Xena.” Her vocal skills are unbelievable. Sometimes we’re like, “Are you human?” Because sometimes it feels like her voice is just an instrument. We’re working on a few projects with her.
Developing Arab artists and promoting the region globally must feel like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
There are people who’ve been in this field before me that did a lot of great work and other cultures that inspired us a lot. My days at Spotify inspired me so much because I worked closely with the Latin team, the Afro team, the Desi team. I watched how K-pop started from the early stages. I just localized what I learned from all those different cultures.
How have things shifted since the recent conflict started? What are your workdays like?
Artists are not feeling like they want to release music. That’s the biggest hit. The department I’m running [went from releasing] at least 20 songs a week to almost no songs. The first week, it was the shock of “What the fuck is going on?” and then canceling shows. A lot of festivals all around the Arab world were canceled.
As an artist myself, this is not the first time I’ve gone through it. There have been many times when we were about to drop an album, then Israel invaded Gaza, or there was some protest, or people were getting killed. We learned how to maneuver in these unfortunate situations.
What’s the first move in that maneuvering?
Before business is people. A lot of it is mental support because many artists are going through a lot of emotional pain right now. Everyone knows someone in Gaza. Every family knows a family. I know a hip-hop producer in Gaza that lost his entire family.
If this becomes a long war, how do you foresee it affecting your business?
Music is like history books. The artists will be the ones telling the stories. They will document what’s happening better than the Western media. They will do better songs than Taylor Swift and not do a post about Taylor Swift’s bodyguard. I just hope this won’t get to a point when it’s normalized and [people] will forget about it.
The story of Taylor Swift’s bodyguard returning to Israel to serve in the Israel Defense Forces was widely covered by the media, including Billboard. What are your thoughts on that story?
From my perspective, showing how cute this bodyguard is [who is] going to join the army is not something to make cool at a time when thousands of kids are being killed. [Humanitarian organizations] consider the IDF an illegal army that has done a lot of illegal activities. We as people who are working for music and culture should be uplifting the voices that would heal this wound and not say, “Look at this Taylor Swift bodyguard.”
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I wish this interview was in a different time [with me] talking more about the business. I actually almost canceled because it’s overwhelming watching my family and friends going through genocide. I want to represent the new generation and the music that is fucking amazing; not the situation where there’s an oppressor bombing families as we speak.
I also want to say that from a music and culture perspective, we’re entering a very unique era of the glocalization of a new generation. The culture is morphing. There isn’t one culture anymore. There’s no one genre anymore. This is the voice that I would like to amplify more than anything.