Methal Al Hammadi and her music is the product of the Arab revolution and riots known as the Arab Spring. But the cultural liberation and freedom of expression that was sought through the Arab Spring has been farcical, in that it has been incomplete. Methal’s dislocation to Montreal, Canada is an example of that.
It is difficult to think of a country that would be unaccepting of a voice like Methal’s, that wafts through the air soothing and calming like incense; dark and hollow melodies that end with high notes that inspire hope. But in her home country of Yemen it can still be interpreted that way because although the Arab Spring was a push forward in the right direction, the freedoms accomplished through it are ones of legal standing, not necessarily cultural victories.
Methal said, “there were so many youth that wanted to do something different, so after the revolution it was kind of easier for artists and musicians to actually have a space to play. People were kind of accepting to the idea, but usually when it comes to where in Yemen, the society is not open about it; but there were more small places for women to play, but not like all publically. They were not allowed to go any place and play. They would be attacked.”
While it would be inaccurate to say that culture in the Middle-East and specifically in Yemen is exactly as it was five or six decades ago, society and culture are still very traditional.
Methal still has family in her home country. In today’s Trumpian era of “Muslim bans” and focus on hyper-nationalism and highlight of religion, it is difficult for someone to dissociate themselves entirely from a stereotype in their endeavors.
Methal, like so many of her generation, only want to live their lives, whether it’s through playing music, going to school, or just being themselves without persecution or being associated with any negative stigmas. It’s not about labels. Being confined by labels enforced by others is very frustrating.
“They usually say it’s a religion thing, but it seems more like a tradition thing,” she said. “People started by being very unopen to the idea of expressing music, especially music. They consider it a sin, so if you were to tell your parents that you want to follow music as an art, they considered it a distraction from God, so they don’t actually encourage it.”
Methal left her friends and family in 2014 to pursue her love of music. From Yemen, she traveled through Djibouti, Turkey, and Canada, where she is today. The wide travels and change of scenery and culture have taken her time to get comfortable with.
Traveling for touring can be such a tedious act for so many musicians, so it can only be more tiring and stressful needing to do that just to be able to play music at all and develop as an artist.
About being in Canada, she said, “I kind of got used to it, going from one place to another, but then it kind of freaked me out that this is my new place. This is going to be my home. I started having this conflict of ideas and it was kind of exhausting in the beginning, but I got used to it. I like it.”
In 2017, Methal was accepted in the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Berklee has always been a dream for her, as she spent so much time studying online videos she had signed up for, to help herself learn how to play music and to learn about production.
She began playing the guitar in 2009 by watching tutorials on YouTube, teaching herself.
In June of 2017, Methal was contacted by a producer in Lebanon who worked for Spotify. It was through this contact that Methal was able to work with U.S. alt rock band, X Ambassadors and created the song, “Cycles.”
The song was part of a playlist that Spotify curated called “I’m With the Banned.” The playlist was created as a response to the current U.S. administration’s ban on refugees from certain countries in the Middle East.
Methal said, “I knew that there was going to be collaborations which was very scary when they told me X Ambassadors because I used to listen to their music in Yemen and I never imagined something awesome like that would actually happen, not in a million years!”
The pop/alternative sounds so customary with bands like X Ambassadors have been a huge influence on Methal, who has a unique pop sound herself. She says artists like Tove Lo are ones she spent a lot of time listening to back in Yemen.
As her academic career at Berklee draws closer and closer, Methal can only reminisce about being alongside her friends and family in Yemen. But music continues to give her hope and strength. Currently Methal has an untitled EP available to stream on Spotify and says she plans on having an album out by the end of 2018.
By Enrique Rangel and Antonio Villasenor-Baca