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A person wearing a black beanie and white and black keffiyeh scarf faces away toward a packed crowd on a dancefloor, dimly light with dramatic blue rays of light.

Ibrahim Abu-Ali, known on the turntables as DJ Habibeats, DJs at his Habibi’s House party at Academy LA in July 2023.

Photo by Bryan Miraflor

  • How the Arab Diaspora Reconnects to Culture on the Dance Floor

    Since 2018, Arab American DJs, event planners, and party promoters have cultivated a growing nightlife space for the diaspora to dance and celebrate, honoring the music they grew up with in the popular club music scene.

    Today, this new wave has taken over the nightclubs across North America: a partying subgenre dedicated to Middle Eastern and North African mixes. These blends have gained traction for their innovative beats and dance floors with dabkeh lines, throwing the celebratory Palestinian traditional dance into a contemporary context. Partygoers, who constantly sell out these events, can’t get enough. With multiple party collectives, entertainers, and DJs now emerging, Arab Americans have found a new sound to party with.  

    The elements of traditional Arabic music—its rhythms and maqams, or melodic modes—may feel very different to Western-trained ears. That’s what excites musician and producer Philippe Manasseh about fusing it with other genres.

    “A lot of Western electronic music feels like it’s on a grid,” he said in a recent interview. “I would argue Arabic music is much more complex, which open doors to explore how we can play music isn’t so rigid.”

    Manasseh started creating electronic music with Nadim Maghzal as Wake Island in 2006, after they both emigrated from their native Lebanon to Canada. The duo often found themselves reckoning with a disconnection from their identities in their new home.

    Three Arab men pose on a rooftop, smiling at each other, with a low city skyline and gray skies in the background.
    Laylit founders Philippe Manasseh (in orange), Nadim Maghzal (in green), and Saphe Shamoun
    Photo courtesy of Laylit

    “We felt through the years that we weren’t really expressing who we were, particularly as Arabs, after 9/11,” Manasseh reflects. “We started making art and music, but even there, that side of us was very suppressed. That led us to start thinking, how does one reconnect to their culture? Since we’re musicians, music was the first thing we thought. Let’s just rediscover the music from the region that we have heard all our life but we never contextualized.”

    Soon after, the duo got an interview request from Saphe Shamoun, who at the time was pursuing a masters in Middle Eastern studies at New York University and hosting a radio show on WNYU. Manasseh described Shamoun, a Syrian living in New York City, as “an extensive encyclopedia of Arabic music.” Very quickly, they connected over their shared heritage and goals for incorporating their identities into their work.

    In the fall of 2018, the trio launched Laylit, a party collective with the goal of showcasing the rich musical genres of the Middle East mixed with electronic dance music. Their first event was at Mood Ring, a small venue in Brooklyn with room for fifty people on the dance floor.

    “It was a Wednesday night, and it was completely backed up—and that’s when we noticed there’s something there,” Manasseh reflected. “There’s a thirst for these types of connections and these types of community gatherings. Next thing you know, it moves from Wednesdays to Saturdays. Then, the venue got a bit overwhelmed. We had to move to another venue, and then that venue got too full too soon.”

    Laylit and other Arab-focused electronic nights immerse attendees in a blend of popular Western music and nostalgic music from the region. Manasseh described his physical reactions to hearing the different sounds together.

    “Something is coming together in complex ways that is just hitting me differently,” he explained. “It’s not the rhythm I’m used to. It’s like this other rhythm. A lot of people, me included, are a bit uneasy—how is my body supposed to move to this? I’m not quite sure. Then you try to let yourself go to the music.

    “People coming to our party long term developed this new sense,” he continued. “You see people belly dancing. You see people raising their hands. You watch people on the dance floor and try to learn new moves. Sometimes, I find myself going to a techno rave, and suddenly I’m raising my hand in the same way.”

    After a COVID-imposed hiatus, Laylit came back in July 2021 to an even larger venue. It soon expanded to events in other cities, including Montreal, Washington, D.C., and Detroit—a top destination for Manasseh as the birthplace of techno and house music.

    “Personally, as a queer man, I’m very interested in the culture there,” Manasseh said. “All these music movements started in queer and Black culture, and that’s something that resonates a lot with me, because I feel a lot of similarity and kinship with these experiences and marginalization. Also, it’s the largest population of Arab people in North America, which I had no idea about.”

    Since 2021, Laylit has expanded to Toronto and Ottawa, hosted a Boiler Room party, and is currently planning for parties in Boston, Los Angeles, and Europe. They’ve thrown over seventy parties since their commencement.

    “I think we’re part of a movement that encouraged a lot of people to start doing this. I can’t help but see the effect of our presence and the presence of other parties and artists in our scene that are just encouraging this versioning of new artists and new DJs and new parties. We were not the first party to do this. We’re not the last, but we, I think, came at a time where things were very much not existent in North America.”

    An Arab man with dark beard and tatooed arms smiles, standing at a DJ mixer. People around him whistle and cheer.
    Ibrahim Abu-Ali (DJ Habibeats)
    Photo coutesy of Ibrahim Abu-Ali

    Meanwhile, on the West Coast, one Arab American DJ has been bringing his own remixing style to L.A.’s competitive nightlife scene and soon, to the world. Ibrahim Abu-Ali, more commonly known as DJ Habibeats—a play on the Arabic term of endearment habibi, “my love”—is a Palestinian American DJ originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. Learning the art from his uncle, who was always DJing at family events, Abu-Ali began DJing himself around the age of thirteen.

    After several years of playing various parties, weddings, and other events, Abu-Ali entered law school in 2018, when he took a break from DJing to focus on his studies. However, halfway through his law school career, the pandemic hit. Locked inside and in search of a creative outlet, he began posting videos to TikTok: making musical mash-ups, scratching, and breaking down American pop songs on his turntables. Within three months, his videos were going viral.

    Today, DJ Habibeats’s TikTok account entertains over one million followers, with his most popular videos garnering over two million views. After the success of the mash-up videos, Abu-Ali began releasing remixes. His first was a mix of Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram’s “Ya Tabtab,” an Arabic pop song from 2006, with Brazilian baile funk and Jersey club sounds.

    “I made this remix that was all three of those things, and, to me, I felt like this is so niche. I was thinking that many people wouldn’t like it, but I like it. To my big surprise, people loved it. That was the moment where I thought to myself, well, I kind of have something here. People are down with my sound.”

    In October 2022, Abu-Ali launched his party series Habibi’s House in Los Angeles, creating a space for Arabic mixes alongside sounds and styles from other cultures. What started as an eighty-person monthly event became a sold-out 1,200-person show in L.A.’s historic Avalon nightclub, all in seven months. Since then, DJ Habibeats has brought his unique blend of Arabic tunes and electric beats around the globe, with performances in Australia, India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. He is currently on the second leg of his second U.S. tour of Habibi’s House.

    While both Laylit and Habibi’s House anchor their sounds in Arab remixes, both parties champion multiculturalism in their values.

    “It’s very important for us that people from the outside come and visit and share, the same way we’ve shared everyone else’s culture,” Manasseh describes. “We’ve been to salsa parties, and we’ve been to reggaeton parties, and we’ve been to techno parties, you know, and I don’t want people to come to our space and be like, ‘Oh, this is the Arab party.’ That’s definitely something we like providing, this idea that we’re shattering some expectations about not only what music is playing, but who’s in the room, and how they behave and seeing this Arab joy.”

    A man at a DJ mixer, with a crowd waving behind him, raises one arm to wave a keffiyeh scarf.
    Ibrahim Abu-Ali (DJ Habibeats) waves a keffiyeh, a traditional headscarf in parts of the Middle East and an iconic symbol of Palestine.
    Photo coutesy of Ibrahim Abu-Ali

    Abu-Ali credits his upbringing in the ethnic diversity of the Bay Area for his multicultural lens: “I could see if you only grew up with American pop music and then you, all of a sudden, get exposed to something else, that might feel a little hard to connect to. But growing up with Arabic music, when I heard all these other types of cultural music, I feel like they’re just easy to connect to. For me, music is the number one way that I connect with culture and people. It’s my favorite thing in the world, when you, as a DJ, play a song and then someone’s face lights up and they go like, ‘Whoa! How does he know this song?’”

    The undeniable connection between the nightlife scene and cultural heritage has seen reverberating effects of those outside the community accepting and celebrating an Arab identity in North America. With this rise in the music world, Abu-Ali shared his musings on the growing appreciation.

    “Let’s say fifteen years ago, if you were playing reggaeton in a nightclub, you would probably walk in and think, ‘Oh, did I walk into Latin night?’ But with the rise of reggaeton and artists like Bad Bunny, that’s just normal. Then the next song could be Future and the next song could be Drake. On top of that, half the room, maybe more, doesn’t speak Spanish, and that doesn’t matter. They’re still one hundred percent vibing to Bad Bunny, and they love it. As a result, they’re vibing to more Latin music as well.

    “Why can’t Arabic music be that way? Why does it have to be this foreign thing? Why can’t it be just as normal as anything else? Granted, I know that’s because of America’s proximity to Latin America. There’s a huge Latin American population in the U.S., but there’s a huge Middle Eastern population in the U.S. too.”

    According to the Arab American Institute, there are an estimated 3.7 million Arab Americans in the United States, equal to about one percent of the population. However, a federally recognized estimate may be available soon, now that the U.S. Office of Management and Budget has released new standards for racial/ethnicity data collection in federal agencies, including a newly designated “Middle Eastern or North African” category. This change is set to be finalized by summer 2024, and, if established, Americans can expect to see the new category in the 2030 Census. 

    Abu-Ali added that Arab representation is expanding in multiple entertainment sectors. “ There’s artists like Saint Levant and Elyanna. There’s DJs like myself and Nooriyah out in London. There’s comedians like Mo [Amer], Ramy [Youssef], Bassem Youssef. Then you have TikTok, on top of all of that, which connects people with the world.”

    So far, the growing wave of Arab DJs and dance music has left its mark in club culture. For Manasseh, that may be enough.

    “It’s not like we’re changing the whole world, but we’re bringing something to the table, as a dance party and as artists.”

    Sharon Arana is the festival services coordinator for the 2024 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She received her BA in history of the Middle East and North Africa at Sarah Lawrence College and loves a good party.

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