Change-Makers: Empowering Communities In The Diaspora With Shirine Saad 

Shirine Saad is not your typical DJ. With a background in journalism and a penchant for activism, her work has always been rooted in empowering her community.

Shirine Saad is not your typical DJ. With a background in journalism and a penchant for activism, her work has always been rooted in empowering her community. Specifically, those who, like her, create thought-provoking art that speaks to the experience of Arab women.

In March 2021, she and her partner Natalie Shooter launched Hiya Live; a two-day 12-hour live stream marathon featuring cutting-edge, progressive female artists from 10 different countries across North Africa and southwest Asia. While the project itself had lived in her mind for years, it was the pandemic that pushed her to make it happen — especially for her wellbeing and that of the community.

Despite the fact the music industry in the region is bursting with potential, the market as a whole is weakened by a lack of resources and governmental support. So as part of our Change-maker series celebrating boundary pushing creators, we wanted to highlight the impact that Hiya has had by empowering these women stay creative and active in their craft. What’s more, it was an artistic statement against the patriarchy, against the monopoly of commercial music, and the western gaze of Arab women. We sat down with Shirine to discuss Hiya — how it came to be, how it was executed, and how she sees the future of live-streamed events.

For those that don’t know about HIYA Live, how would you describe it and how did the idea come to be? 

In a way, I’ve been working on this project for years, looking at underground movements, first of all, for my job as a journalist. And now, as a programmer. My focus has always been on the Middle East, and I’m very close to and connected to Beirut. So I knew of most emerging artists and underground parties happening there, and they were all taking over abandoned spaces like factories or homes. As you know, there aren’t societal structures or resources to support a more… “solid” music industry in the region. So everything felt really DIY and radical. Anyway, when all the protests and revolutions developed in the region, I noticed that a lot of women were at the forefront. In Cairo for example, it was Maryam Saleh. In Tunis, it was Emel Mathlouthi. In Palestine, there are so many, Makimakuk for one.

My work was already rooted in women’s creativity, especially as an Arab myself, I wanted to spotlight how these women were becoming icons, and voices of revolution, embodying this radical force in our society. And musically too; the musical expression itself was revolutionary. Feminism isn’t new in our region and I wanted to remind the world of that. There was always this profound sort of feminist and poetic sort of radical tradition in our region. And HIYA tributes that, it’s in admiration of the feminine. And I also want to mention that I didn’t do any of this alone, my business partner Natalie Shooter (who’s also a DJ with Beirut Groove Collective) was a big part of the programming. We started HIYA as a podcast on Radio Al Hara and a series of interviews, and with COVID it evolved into the live sessions. We were all so isolated, I thought this would be good for our community to feel connected to all these musicians around the world.

What’s the common denominator between journalism and DJing for you? 

I was always passionate about art and the social context it comes out of. Especially being from Beirut myself. After the war, the creativity that came out of the city was very interesting to me. I wrote a book about it, and I spent a lot of time interviewing artists — it was just intuition for me to chronicle what was happening. So there’s never really been a separation between music and journalism or storytelling. Through music and through storytelling we’re disrupting narratives, in both mediums we can liberate ourselves. Beirut is a very sexually liberated city, well the underground is, and music plays such a different role in that part of the world. At these parties, clubs, it is the only place where people could go and be free from whatever was going on. Whether that’s a bomb or another protest, or a limiting society. Music is consumed in a way that’s a far more necessary way for the survival of LGTBQ communities for instance.

So yeah, I’ve been a journalist for over 20 years now and I’ve always been fascinated with the way people come together to find themselves, to find community, and in many, that’s part of what I do as a DJ as well. I always say that I’m not playing music so people can lose themselves, get laid. No, I’m playing revolutionary music. When I spin Fela Kuti or Bob Marley… or specifically the new Palestinian music that talks about bombs and destroyed buildings. You know it’s consumed differently. I play the music that I hope will open people’s minds, and as a journalist, I do that too.

As an Arab DJ, how has it been working and creating in New York City? Since you’ve spent 20 years there now. 

I mean, it’s a tough one. Our culture isn’t well represented here, and even though I lived here for 20 years I still find it difficult to talk, let alone share my cultural interests in an authentic way. There are so many taboos and stereotypes, or orientalism that affects people’s perception of our culture. And I’ve always felt isolated that way. That’s not to say that there aren’t SWANA communities here and I’m grateful for them. But in my case, what I’m interested in is quite experimental and underground, and when I DJ’ed or attended some of these parties I felt that they were sort of fetishizing all this pop music from the region, which I’m not really into. And yeah creating this fantasy of Arab culture. When in fact that’s not what’s happening back home, it’s more noisy avant-garde DIY, you know, sort of hardcore, political music mostly.

I’m interested in that, but not everyone has the tools to understand, for example, Liliane Chlela’s music. When I listen to Liliane Chlela, I hear the noise of Beirut, I hear the angst that we have to live with, I hear bombs, I hear the sound of the underground. I hear being in these clubs in Beirut with his really loud, sound system trying to forget everything, but somebody in New York may not have these references. So to them, it’s very hard to penetrate. I’ve yet to find spaces and places that are showcasing these sounds coming out from our region, sounds that are not necessarily pretty, sugarcoated or easily consumed.

What were the logistical difficulties you came across hosting HIYA? 

Oh my, too many to list! Funding is a big one. We had to raise funds to start off; Hiya wasn’t going to happen without it, we needed to support each artist and their team as they all needed a videographer and editors. This was hard because there isn’t much industry support in our region, so we have to turn to support in the West. And many of the bigger, music organizations in the U.S are problematic and have a lot of censorship issues with the music of our region. As you know, it’s more specifically Palestine, and we don’t feel that ethically can we can pursue these funding sources.

But, we did receive a lot of support from Ballroom Blitz, which is a big club in Beirut. We received a lot of support from Scene Noise which is essentially the reference point for Middle Eastern music. We also had help from Studio Safar who designed our beautiful logo. Anyway, all the artists were paid, but we weren’t. In terms of technical stuff, the editing was very precise work, and more importantly, these files were huge and sending files over email. It was tough, and the internet isn’t always reliable in that part of the world.

We also had some issues with copyright, which ended up being a huge challenge for us as well. Even though most of the content was original content from the artists, we didn’t have too many DJ sets, we were getting muted on platforms like Facebook Live and Youtube. These bots essentially would recognize the song and assume that we didn’t have the rights cleared and mute us. This is really unfortunate because we weren’t doing anything unethical, it was within our rights, but these major platforms end up favoring bigger artists, and these other DIY artists who need to be heard, end up silenced. That’s why no one knows about them.

It’s clear nightlife is fairly limited in parts of the SWANA region, and especially difficult for women. How did HIYA help their artist careers?

Well, the industry is so weak there in general, so honestly, it’s really hard to answer that question. And also that wasn’t our goal; it was the middle of covid and the point was really to bring people together, not necessarily to give exposure. It was to create something spiritual and community-driven. For the community, by the community, because we were isolated and lonely. You know, we also observed there was a difference in enthusiasm within our community versus in the wider viewership and that’s something we want to address. But there are so few spaces for our culture to come together exclusively and unapologetically in the first place, I felt this is what we all needed.

Do you think live streaming is going to change how we book and curate events in the future? 

That’s so interesting. I mean, I think it changed everything. It changed the possibilities of how we think about a “show” in the first place. You know, it’s not, I really don’t adhere to the mindset that live streaming and a show are two separate projects. For me as a journalist, especially right? If something’s happening. I want to record it. I want to archive it. I want to share it with the world, especially with social media, we have such easy ways to achieve that. So now every time I organize a concert, I’m always like, hey, can we film it? Can we live stream? Can we record the audio? Can we just take an Instagram Live? And it’s still a mentality that’s not always sort of embedded into our processes in the music industry, but I think it can help a lot of people if we do that because instead of especially for example with audience limitations. If you have 50 people watching a Felukah concert, but then you’re live streaming and filming, then all these kids in Cairo that can’t afford to come to New York. Can experience it, experience the venue, and for me, that is so magical. And then it also becomes an archiving or mapping project — archiving and mapping the creativity from the region. So it can live on and it can be a resource for people for researchers, for other musicians, to go and see what’s been done, and for young artists to see that this is possible. So live streaming needs to be is just a part of the intuitive impulse sharing art music. 

If you were to advise a DJ just starting, specifically a woman in your shoes. What would you tell her?

Find a mentor, and stick with your mentor. Natalie is my mentor and I share everything with her, and wouldn’t have been able to do HIYA without her. And there’s not one thing I do professionally without asking for her input.