Can Universal and Weeknd Manager Wassim ‘Sal’ Slaiby Take Arabic Music Global?

·6-min read

One of the wonders of music streaming is its borderlessness. Back in the day, a person might never hear, let alone purchase, music outside their country or comfort zone if they didn’t happen to wander into that area of a record store or radio dial. But streaming has midwifed seemingly unlikely genre collisions like hip-hop and emo rock, and perhaps most prominently, it supercharged the rise of reggaeton, the Latin-hip-hop hybrid whose rhythm has become the most ubiquitous sound of the past decade.

Now, music companies are positioning themselves for even more discovery and cross-pollination: In the past five years, the world’s top three label groups, Sony, Universal and Warner, have expanded their global reach by opening offices or partnering with local companies in relatively untapped regions of Africa, Asia, Europe and South America.

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The region that many feel is ripest for discovery is the Arab world, which has as rich, distinctive and historically vital a musical history as any culture but has been largely shunned by the West for reasons that have little to do with music. Yet this year the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the global trade group for recorded music, identified the Middle East and North Africa as its fastest-growing region.

In April 2021, during National Arab American Heritage Month, Universal made a big move to take the sound global, launching Universal Arabic Music. The label has a brace of thriving artists and at the helm, Lebanese native Wassim “Sal” Slaiby, whose company, SalXCo, manages top stars including the Weeknd, Doja Cat, Brandy, Swedish House Mafia, French Montana and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. In 2020, Variety recognized Slaiby as Hitmakers Manager of the Year.

Unlike regionally based music companies, UAM covers the entire Arabic-speaking world, from the Middle East and North Africa to the diaspora communities in such far-flung areas as France, Germany, the U.K., Brazil, Venezuela, the Caribbean, the U.S. and Canada. The last-named nation is where Slaiby and two longtime colleagues — Palestinian Canadian rapper Belly (Ahmad Balshe) and Lebanese Canadian singer-producer Massari (Sari Abboud) — built their CP record company into one of the most successful independent labels in the country in the mid-2000s.

That focus on culture rather than geography is reflected in UAM’s roster, which ranges from veteran Lebanese singer-actor Hiba Tiwaji and 19-yearold Jordanian singer Issam Alnajjar to 20-year-old Palestinian Chilean singer Elyanna (Elian Marjieh) and Saudi American rapper Skinny (Sami Hamed).

While there’s plenty of contemporary yet distinctively Arabic music on the roster, UAM is also focused on fusion: The company’s latest hit, “Sah Sah,” pairs Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram with American electronic producer Marsh – mello; Tiwaji is releasing a duet single this month with Puerto Rican superstar Luis Fonsi; Los Angeles-reared Skinny dropped a tag-team song this year with Bronx-born producer Swizz Beatz — who has worked extensively in the region — and Moroccan American rapper French Montana. Last year, Egyptian star Mohamed Ramadan and Moroccan singer Nouamane Belaiachi teamed up with Moroccan Swedish hitmaker RedOne (Nadir Khayat), who produced Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance,” for the single “Gaw El Banat,” which has racked up more than 25 million YouTube views and was named the official song for Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival.

“I believe in the growth of Arabic music, in the region and on a global level, and finding artists who want to make it bigger and mix it with other [genres],” Slaiby says. “There’s so many of us who have emigrated throughout the years and still love the music and the culture, which I think has been represented the wrong way on a global level for a long time. I want to show the positive side: If you go to an Arabic person’s house, you’ll probably end up eating a lot or dancing — usually both,” he laughs.

Massari, who is now UAM’s head of A&R, takes that sentiment a step further: “The idea here is to try to find ways to help people to set aside their differences and problems, and music is one of the most powerful ways to bring people together,” he says.

The pair’s friendship dates back to high school in Ottawa, Ontario, where both had immigrated to escape war-ravaged Lebanon. “I first met Sal in 10th grade, when he had just arrived in Canada,” Massari recalls. “There’s a large Lebanese community there, and we made friends with him real quick because we understood how difficult it is to be a newcomer. He’s a solid, solid dude, and he was a very sharp businessman, even at a young age.”

Slaiby heard a fellow émigré rapping on the street who turned out to be Belly. Massari introduced them, and by the mid-2000s CP was the most successful independent label in the country for several years running, with platinum releases from both Belly and Massari. Even more significantly, the label created a network that spanned Arabic communities across the globe.

“When we started out in Canada,” Massari recalls, “we’d get a lot of feedback on our songs from [the communities in] Detroit and Dearborn, and from there we’d hear from Lebanon and Egypt, and then it started spreading to the Arab communities throughout Europe. And in the same way, a song that popped off in France would spill over into North Africa and vice versa. We understood that as long as we were able to activate these main points, the message was getting across.”

At present UAM has a staff of 15. But that network of Arab communities that Massari has tapped into for 20 years has grown into partnerships across the world, bolstered by the global reach of Universal and its powerhouse subsidiary, Republic. And they’re not the only ones: To name just three disparate examples, last month Sony Music’s Middle East division inked a deal with Egyptian music and event production company Craft Media; the Saudi Arabian MDLBeast Soundstorm dance music festival, which pairs Western and local artists, drew more than 700,000 people in four days last year; and recently The New York Times published a piece on “a thriving scene in Brooklyn that puts Middle Eastern and North African music front and center.” Many UAM artists share the label’s sense of mission.

“Working with Sal and his team was inspiring to me as an artist because we all have one goal: to make Arabic music global,” says Elyanna. “I’m grateful to be working with someone who’s so proud of his culture and making it come to life.” For all the intricate planning that is required to run a music company with global reach, Slaiby prefers to take it as it comes.

“It needs to happen organically. I don’t really make strategies, I just like to chase my passion,” he says. “This journey is a long one. It’s full of bumps, happiness, success, failure — all that. But the most important thing is when people bond, and a song can be the thing that carries them through the journey.”

 

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