Lebanese American singer-songwriter Mayssa Karaa is mindful about centring empowerment in her music — and everything else she does.
It’s evident in her latest song ‘TiTi’, which is a funky and bubbly ode to loving yourself no matter what.
“The idea is to deliver a message to all women; it’s more of a message of self love and realising that today there’s so much tension between our inner selves and our outer selves,” Karaa said in a Zoom interview with Gulf News.
With the pop track that’s sung in English and Arabic, Karaa continues her streak of doing things a bit differently, and with a spirit of someone who was made to do music.
Karaa, 32, has been performing since she was a child and gained widespread acclaim for singing the Arabic version of the song ‘White Rabbit’. She then charmed Indian audiences when she featured on the Tamil track ‘Hayati’, composed by Oscar-winner AR Rahman, that was part of the soundtrack of the 2018 film ‘Chekka Chivantha Vaanam’.
In the UAE, she made her mark by performing at the opening ceremony of Expo 2020 Dubai alongside Emirati singers Hussain Al Jassmi and Almas, where they sang the venue’s official theme song ‘This Is Our Time’. All this from a woman who almost became a civil engineer... more on that later.
The news of the hour is ‘TiTi’, which she says is a blend of genres as varied as her background.
“I grew up in Lebanon... so I grew up listening to and singing Arabic music. But then I moved to the US and lived there for over 15 years so I was also exposed to all styles of music. In terms of artists, finding your sound is definitely difficult when you get exposed to so many different things. It’s been a journey so far, but I found myself in this place in between,” she said.
She said the upbeat track is a departure from her usual musical style.
“I wanted to deliver a strong message and I felt the best way to deliver a strong message would be by being subtle... by not making the subject too serious. That’s the way it hits the heart in the best way possible. So we thought about doing a song that is a blend of Arabic music with pop, with a little bit of a reggaeton rhythm and EDM,” Karaa said.
She added that the song encourages women to rediscover themselves amid a culture that places emphasis on beauty and changing oneself to suit the status quo.
“Sometimes we lose who we are as people through this process. So the idea is just embrace your true self and you are you regardless,” she said. “It’s not lecturing women not to make changes — you do you — but don’t forget who you are and embrace your identity and who you are as a person.”
One of the most appealing things about the song is the trilling lyrics ‘Titi Titi Titi’ that add a unique colour and texture, and have a meaning behind it.
“The message — Titi Titi Titi la rehti wala jiti — is a well known saying in the Arab world. It is very difficult to translate it but the idea is that you’re still where you are,” she said. “The exact translation is ‘you didn’t move forward and you didn’t go backwards’... I used it in the context of ‘whatever you do, you’re still you’.”
Her foray into music
Karaa grew up being surrounded by music and as a child she joined her school’s choir, where a teacher noticed her talent.
“Ever since, my parents really backed me up with enforcing and empowering this with musical education,” she said. “So I went to the National Conservatory of Beirut and was performing since I was a kid, but it was more for charity events.”
She added: “It wasn’t intended for me to be a musician or have a career in music, because I wasn’t sure that this was the path that I wanted to go for. I knew that there were lots of talented people in the world that didn’t make it.”
When it was time to get her degree, she moved to Boston to study civil engineering. However, her plans to graduate in that field were inadvertently thwarted by her own family.
“Believe it or not, my family actually wanted me to be a musician... which is not very not typical and traditional, especially in this part of the world,” she said. “While I was studying civil engineering, I was touring and I had shows all around the country. As artists, we’re very vulnerable and we sometimes need that kind of voice from the outside, that support from the people around you, to give you that power to pursue what you love to do the most.”
Her father eventually stepped in to give her that push she needed. He encouraged her to apply to the prestigious Berklee College of Music, even as she protested because she was about to graduate.
“I came up with all these excuses and he ended up actually helping with my application to Berklee regardless. And I went for an interview, and I got accepted,” Karaa said. “That’s when I actually bailed on my civil engineering studies one semester before my graduation and ended up going to Berklee and a lot of people are like, ‘Why didn’t you complete it?’ Because when you know, you know. I didn’t want to look back. And I came into the industry understanding the challenges, understanding everything that needs to be done to accomplish what I want to accomplish. So I went to Berklee, I studied for four years and graduated, and then moved to Los Angeles after that to pursue my career.”
Karaa said that’s where she learned to make mistakes and deeply explore her artistic side in a productive environment. Life came full circle for her, as she’s now the artistic director of Berklee’s campus in Abu Dhabi.
“[I’m] working to help spread that mentality and attract and help and support [others]... I think a lot of talented musicians around the region do deserve that kind of learning experience as well. And that has led me to many collaborations,” she said.
Working with AR Rahman
One of her top collaborations has been with Indian composer AR Rahman, which came after she gained plaudits for the Arabic version of the song ‘White Rabbit’.
“Introducing the Arabic elements to western music was still very uncommon and so it did raise a lot of eyebrows to hear this well-known rock classic in Arabic. It also helped me collaborate with other people within the industry,” she said of ‘White Rabbit’.
She added: “I met AR through Berklee and he heard some of my music and then reached out to collaborate on the song for the movie ‘Chekka Chivantha Vaanam’.”
Karaa said Rahman asked her to highlight the Arabic touches on the rap infused track and give it name that wasn’t as common as ‘habibi’.
“I said ‘hayati’, which means my life... and that’s how the line came about. And he also tried to add the Indian influence in my lines. So it created that nice blend of Arabic and Indian influences in the song,” the singer said.
Since then, she has sung a French song on Rahman’s VR film, ‘Le Musk’, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. She was also the artistic director of the Firdaus Orchestra, the all-women ensemble mentored by Rahman that performed at Expo 2020 Dubai.
Karaa was all praise for the renowned composer, singer and music producer.
“He is humble — even more humble than what you can see. He is what he preaches, honestly. And it’s rare to see that,” the singer said. “Even within the most challenging moments, he is still a very good person who empowers the people around him, who respects people around him. I would say that he’s a very special individual, and it’s always an honour and a pleasure to work with him.”
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“In the video, I collaborated with the director Elie Fahed, he’s Lebanese [and] an incredible director with so much creativity. He came to me and he said, let’s highlight women pioneers in the world who were not necessarily known for their beauty but also for who they are and who they represent as individuals. So we replicated Mona Lisa, we replicated Venus, we replicated Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn. Because it’s about the physique and who you are as a person we wanted to have fun with it. It’s been portrayed in a very fun way and we wanted to create a movement through art,” said Karaa on the music video for ‘TiTi’.