Elyanna, the Future Sound of Arabic Pop

As Elyanna steps into a warehouse in downtown Los Angles for Billboard Arabia’s February cover interview and shoot, the weight of anticipation hangs heavily in the air. Despite battling nerves a mere 24 hours before her Dallas gig, the first show in her debut North America tour, Elyanna exudes a quiet determination characteristic of her rapid ascent in the music industry. With only two EPs to her name and a handful of singles, she’s already achieved the remarkable feat of selling out nearly every venue on her tour circuit – a testament to her burgeoning fanbase, undeniable talent and her unique sonic proposition, driving a future sound of global pop music unbound by language.

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Guided by her artist management team at SALXCO and her family, Elyanna navigates the shoot with a delicate balance between preparation and preservation, immersing herself in a playlist with unreleased tracks off her forthcoming LP, shuffling alongside tracks by Ice Spice, Sherine and Doja Cat. The 22-year-old artist starts to find her groove, but she does this silently. In the hush of a prescribed, pre-tour vocal rest, moments of introspection emerge – and it is in these moments of silence we hear Elyanna’s message to the world.

Elyanna aims to elevate Arabic pop music onto the global stage while using her art to depict her homeland and culture beyond the lens of conflict. Born in Nazareth, Palestine, and moving to L.A. with her immediate family at the age of 15, she seeks to showcase her culture’s beauty in its entirety – its layers, textures, multi-colors and history – countering the media’s portrayal, dominated by the specter of war and destruction.

This carries into every one of her songs and live performances. Whether expressed through her instrumentation, lyrics or Arab-inspired fashion and accessories, we see Palestine through Elyanna’s eyes but also through that of her family. One cannot tell the story of Elyanna without also talking about how each family member plays a pivotal role in her career. Her sister Tali is her stylist, her brother Feras is her co-producer and video director, whereas her mother Abeer contributes to her songwriting. Meanwhile, her father, Amer, is the glue that holds the operations together.

“I would say that takes people who believe in you,” says Elyanna. “So I just surround myself with people that believe in me…. Like my family, like my friends, the people that believed in me and put time in me.”

It is not an exclusively Arab thing to keep your family close by, but it is very Arab to tell a story of generations in one song. We hear this in many of Elyanna’s tracks, first with the ambitious cover of Abdel Halim Hafez’s “Ahwak” (I Love You), a song that consistently permeated every generation since it was released nearly six decades ago. Elyanna’s rendition of “Ahwak” is a mesmerizing homage that breathes new life into the classic by setting the original lyrics against an acoustic piano, as her reverent vocals feel as though they are coming from another time.

“I know it’s a cover,” she says. “But I felt I brought it into my own world. I think that was the point where I knew what I should do next.”

On her 2019 debut original release, “Oululee Leh” (Tell Me Why), Elyanna unveiled her sonic potential to the world. Co-written by her mother Abeer Margieh, her brother Feras Margieh and songwriters Nasri Atweh, Sari Abboud and Martine Sinotte, the song delves into the profound loneliness born from loss and distance. Its poignant lyrics and haunting instrumentation evoke an intimacy that resonates with anyone who has ever felt like a stranger, offering solace in shared experience through a chorus that sings, “Ouloulee lee” (tell me why).

When I asked Abeer, her mother, whether the song was about the loss of a place or a person, she quickly responded with “a place.” But for Elyanna, it has a double meaning, one that the listener is left to decode independently. It is in this co-writing with her mother and brother that Elyanna’s songs cut across the temporal spectrum, collapsing past, present and future in a single note.

In 2020, Elyanna released her debut album, a self-titled body of work made up of six songs, including “Ouloulee Leh,” “Ahwak” and viral hit “Ana Lehale” (I’m on my Own) feat. Massari, showing an artist on the brink of finding her voice. Two years later, Elyanna dropped her follow up EP, Elyanna 2, driven by hits like “Ala Bali,” also featured in Mo Amer’s Netflix show, and “Ghareeb Alay” feat. Balti, which went on to amass over 50 million views on YouTube with its blend of Latin rhythms and relatable lyrics. With a steady flow of singles, including Elyanna’s 2023 release of “Sokkar,” an Arabic cover of the song by Zubi and Anatu, followed by “Mama Eh,” she continued to underscore her budding pop prowess.

In a short time, the artist managed to land a coveted spot in Coachella’s April 2023 lineup, where she performed the first ever complete Arabic set in the festival’s history. In another milestone moment, Elyanna’s heart-wrenching original song “Olive Branch” (co-written with her brother Feras) was performed live at the 2023 edition of the El Gouna Film Festival. It spotlighted the artist’s unique ability to use her music to drive awareness, while celebrating the richness and beauty of Palestinian culture.

When asked about her role as an Arabic artist, Elyanna articulates a pressing imperative: to disseminate her culture worldwide. While such inquiries often provoke polarizing responses, she gracefully infuses each of her songs with glimpses of cultural richness of her heritage, but she does so in an accessible way.

Much like the intricate stitches of “tarteez” (Palestinian embroidery), Elyanna’s music weaves various influences into a harmonious whole. Each musical passage is akin to uncovering a hidden image as if each thread holds a story waiting to be explored, inviting listeners around the globe to find the patterns that speak to them while resonating with the whole. Now, on the brink of releasing her debut LP, Elyanna continues to blend her multiple cultural influences, be it the Latin textures inherited from her Chilean grandmother or the power of her Palestinian grandfather’s pen, all the while creating an entirely new pop sound.

“It’s really just taking things from life that I love, and now I want to do it in a project that I would call a piece of art,” says Elyanna. “And this project is really experimental.” Lead single “Al Sham” from her upcoming album embodies various cultural elements from the region, showcasing her spirit of experimentation. Fueled by electronic-dabke rhythms, she ingeniously interprets lyrics from Syrian singer Sabah Fakhri’s classic “Khamrat El Hob.” In Elyanna’s version, we dive into the song’s iconic line, “A life without love is like a river without water.” But it’s somewhere within the music video where we get a sense that Elyanna is not a victim of unrequited love or anything else. Instead, she is a formidable force, surrounded by her crew and imagery evoking empowerment, marking a pivotal moment in the lead-up to her debut North America tour.

“I’m on a Billboard cover, and we have a sold-out tour, and I have an album coming,” says Elyanna. “It feels insane to me. I’m doing things I dreamt of my whole life.” She goes on to mention that the tour has the ability to gather Arabs in America together, which is something she looks forward to most.

After postponing her debut tour due to the war in Gaza, Elyanna eventually announced new dates, with 10 stops through the U.S. and Canada. Within 20 seconds of watching her perform, Elyanna’s star potential is undeniable. It’s not just her voice, message or rich influences, but the combination that shapes her artistry, its impact and the future sound of Arabic pop.

This is a translation of a cover story that originally appeared on Billboard Arabia.

Elyanna

Elyanna

Billboard Arabia

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