cover image

Graphic by Tom Abi Samra

Popular Music in the Arab World

Lecturer of Arabic, Corinne Stokes is teaching the class ‘Popular Music in the Arab World’ for the Spring 2019 semester. The class looks at popular Arabic songs from the ’50s to get a taste of the field of popular music studies.

Mar 2, 2019

Popular cultural engagement initiatives are frequent on campus, aiming to expose students to different aspects of the culturally diverse environment at NYU Abu Dhabi. The Arab Crossroads and Arabic Departments offer less of these initiatives to students, which reflects a trend within academic circles to focus more on historical traditions and less on popular and modern culture. The Middle East is home to a thriving music industry that has been a subject of interest here at NYUAD. Lecturer of Arabic Language Corinne Stokes is teaching the class Popular Music in the Arab World during the Spring 2019 semester.
The class looks at popular Arabic songs from the 1950s to the present and discusses what makes them popular, as well as understanding the cross-linguistic classification of genres. The class is an opportunity to expose students to Arab music and popular music studies, a relatively new field in music studies.
“‘This is a brand new class that I decided to develop for students [who] want to learn more about [Arabic-language music], whether they’re in Arab Crossroads or whether they are just interested about the region, language or culture,” Stokes commented.
The class attempts to bridge gaps between native and non-native speakers in the Arabic and Arab Crossroads departments. The location of NYUAD in an Arabic-speaking region influences the culture on campus and exposes students to a different experience than a tourist’s. Professor Stokes’ class offers an opportunity to delve deeper into the culture of the region and outside of the formal setting of a classroom.
“The reason I decided to go for the popular side of things is that students would come out of it recognizing songs when they’re out and about maybe in [Abu Dhabi] or in other parts of the UAE… It gives students something to talk about with friends who grew up listening to Arab music and pick up on the connections between the music of the decades and what was happening then,” explained Stokes.
The class also tackles the controversy in literature on defining popular music in the Arabic context. Professor Stokes believes that sometimes the definition of popular is wrapped up in a negative connotation, that it might seem not to qualify as a music of the people but rather as music somehow imposed from above. Through class discussions, students attempt to understand how popular or shaa’bi music is often one of the main forms of expression of dissent. Some students in the class come to the conclusion that there is no specific answer to what makes something popular within different contexts.
Stokes started learning Arabic herself while living in Egypt. This immersive experience helped her value the importance of exposing students who live here to Arab music.
“One of my biggest goals here on campus is to help people connect with one another and, specifically, when it comes to non-native speakers of Arabic and Arab speakers,” said Stokes.
“Most of my classes are teaching non-native speakers Arabic. When students take Standard Arabic it doesn’t help them relate to other people, but when they learn knowledge about things that are very close to people’s hearts or songs people’s parents or grandparents also liked it helps them connect and it is something that is very easy to do the other way around.
Stokes continued, “Sometimes there is a gap, if you speak Arabic or if you’re Arab you understand this whole heritage of music and if you don’t it's kind of inaccessible to you.”
The idea of the popular is dynamic across cultures and eras, sometimes equally important to understanding culture as more traditional cultural heritage. Popular music engages non-native speakers with a culture in a different way than a typical class experience.
Professor Stokes sets out to make popular Arabic music more accessible for non-native speakers. Her main goal is to give her students the motivation to keep learning about the music they fell in love with during the class. By attending this class, students can hope to engage more with the culture that surrounds them.
Haneen Fathy is Deputy Copy Chief. Email her at
gazelle logo