Just before lunch, on a dusty morning in Satwa, a not-so-orderly queue was forming outside Zahrat Al Satwa Saloon barber shop, the street packed three-people deep. But this was not simply a post-weekend wait for the best beard trim in town, it was the cause and effect of a camera crew clearing the shop for use as the backdrop for Bazaar’s cover shoot. As necks craned for a glimpse through the window at the unfolding frenzy inside, and camera bulbs flashed with each creaky swivel of the barber’s chair, a pivotal cultural moment was being captured, for all those in on it. And then, just as quickly as it began, it was all over, the pack reluctantly moving aside to make way for a woman in a sea of ruffled skirts, bold make-up, big brows and DIY untamed tresses. One man bravely stepped forward proffering his camera, a look of awe on his expectant face. “You do know that I’m not actually Madonna, right?” laughed the woman in question, emerging through the throng. “Yes,” he replied, his camera waved aloft, as it clicked in double-time to commit his selfie to social media memory.
While the woman in question might not have been the real Madonna, she certainly embodied her down to the very last nuanced mannerism; her poses so bang on it was like being catapulted back to the set of the star’s Who’s That Girl video in 1987. Such is the power of the 1980s icon that she need not be physically present to prompt such utter pandemonium.
Nina Abdel Malak wears: Jacket, Dhs16,995; dress, Dhs12,995, both Burberry. Sunglasses, Dhs1,510, DSquared2
The woman who was present, however, and causing a stir all of her own is Nina Abdel Malak, a 26-year-old Lebanese singer from the mountain village of Btater in Beirut. All peroxide blonde locks, girlish face and killer attitude, she is Madonna’s doppelgänger; a trans-generational and geographical protégé bringing a little bit of all-Americana star power to Arabia. She’s hip, cool and stands out from the crowd for all the right reasons, with a look that in one glance says ‘cult classic’ à la Madonna, and in another ‘the new face of a contemporary musical youth movement’.
The discovery of Nina marks Bazaar’s continual quest, since its launch in 2007, to uncover a new pool of talent in the region; women with credibility that break the mould of cultural stereotypes. Let’s call it our own Desperately Seeking Someone campaign. Post a friendly cyber-stalk of Nina’s Instagram page, alongside her 2 million fellow followers, Nina is clearly that au courant star we’ve long tried to find in an industry that all too often churns out carbon copies of itself. One of a few Arab singers who combines quality of work with the right ethics and attitude, alongside an original outlook that helps create a sound and image that is as contemporary as it is authentic, Nina is the voice of a new generation and the perfect choice to headline our music issue, as we celebrate the organic, unique and credible musical talents of the Middle East.
“I’m not your typical singer,” she tells Bazaar, a few days after the shoot. “First of all, if you know about Lebanese singers, you would know what I’m talking about. They can be so over the top with everything they do. From the way they act, to how they look and how they’re so careful about everything they say... They do everything to the extreme. I’m not like that, I’m free. I’m not afraid to say what I want and be who I am. I’m a down-to-earth artist because I started from scratch. I’m not your typical Lebanese singer because I’m just like you. I’m not afraid to go online without any make-up, or repeating the same clothes... I want people to be able to relate to me, to not feel self-conscious or lower their self-esteem. I want them to see that it’s okay to have flaws, but most importantly that it’s okay to be yourself.”
Jacket, Dhs46,000, Saint Laurent. Top, Dhs2,340; skirt, Dhs40,370, both Dolce & Gabbana. Shoes, Dhs2,185, Céline
Scroll through Nina’s Instagram page and sandwiched between #OFTD posts, rallying calls to Snapchat and raw a cappella soundbites, are selfies of Nina sans make-up, sans Facetuning and stripped bare of glamorous backdrop. In fact, scroll back far enough and you’ll see that many of her introductory appearances – the ones that catapulted her to Insta stardom just four years ago – take place in stairwells and other equally unglamorous locales, from corridors to cars. But that’s the beauty of Nina, she just doesn’t care. But not in a teen-angsty ‘John Hughes in the ’80s’ kinda way, more in an authentic, believable sense where she has carefully considered who she is, who she wants to be, and makes no apologies about it. With that prerogative of unrestrained artistic license it gives the singer the freedom to portray an image, through her music and her own self-publicised persona, that is pure Nina Abdel Malak.
“Freedom to me is everything, it’s the most important subject. Most of the problems in the world are because people are not free. When we’re free we can rise,” she says. “But it’s a huge responsibility to me to have over a million [Instagram] followers because everything you do and say is going to be copied by a lot of people. For me, being myself and being respectful makes me comfortable. I am who I am. I don’t care about people – I do what is best for me. I do what I love and what makes me happy. As long as I’m respectful and I don’t hurt anyone, I’m good."
Despite her neutral, non-political stance on life, there will always be those who take umbrage in the free-will of others, especially in a region often bound by age-old cultural constraints. “I grew up in a very open-minded family and society, and I’ve always been very supported,” Nina explains. “However, I do get comments saying my music is haram, but to that I have to laugh and say that some people are ignorant. Music is not haram, it’s something beautiful. It spreads peace and love. If you have a talent, share it with the world. No one has the right to say no to anyone. You say no only to yourself and Allah. He wants us to care for and love one another. So I just try to always stay respectful of myself and others.” And to those critics who do pass judgment, she recites her motto, “Kill them with success and bury them with a smile.”
Jacket, Dhs16,495, Burberry
With proof in the pudding that her positive outpourings are reaching her million followers far and wide, Nina recalls a moment on the flight to Dubai when she was approached by two girls from Australia. “They came up to me and said, ‘Oh my god, you’re Nina Abdel Malak! We love you, please keep doing what you’re doing.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Wow, look what I’ve done!’ It proved to me the impact of social media and its reach.”
Despite only singing in Arabic, it is the power of the digital age that allows someone to tap into anything from anywhere, meaning Nina’s own reach goes beyond the corners of her country, her Instagram videos fast accumulating 40,000+ likes per post and a fan following from all over the world. Her accessibility, relatability and willingness to be vulnerable in a public forum all adding to her global-appeal, regardless of language limitations. “When I first started reading comments from foreign fans saying, ‘We love your voice, we don’t care what you’re singing about’, it made me so incredibly happy,” she says.
With positive approval that she’s hitting all the right notes, does she see merit in taking a risk by expanding her repertoire to sing in other languages? “Funnily enough, I often get asked that, but to be honest, I don’t feel it; it’s not my culture. When I sing, I sing with all my soul and the words just come to me. I’m also a perfectionist, and if something isn’t perfect, I won’t do it. At the moment, my singing in English is not perfect, so I won’t try. For now, I just want to focus on Arabic; it’s my language, my culture and I’m good with that.”
Busy working on new projects for both fashion, music and social media – Nina is currently signed to Dima Productions under Universal MENA, with three singles and one album under her belt (the latter with a group she set up with two others called United Arab Talent to show, through music, the unity between the Arab countries). Her vision as a nine-year-old girl singing into a hairbrush in her bedroom that one day she would “make something of herself” is finally coming to fruition.
Jacket, Dhs1,605, Femme by Michael Rossi at S*uce. Skirt, Dhs2,025, Zayan The Label. Shoes, Dhs3,280, Stella McCartney. Earrings, Dhs6,900, vintage Chanel at Sophie’s Closet. Socks, stylist’s own
Those following Nina closely will have spotted the six tattoos she sports, indelible markings that constantly call to mind Nina’s end-game. “I have a musical clef on my finger and a star on my thumb that remind me of my goal. Every time I look at them they are reminders “that I want to be a star and that music is everything.” But don’t be misguided in thinking Nina’s modus operandi is chasing fame or that big number one hit. Instead, her quest is for longevity and the lasting impact she can have on the industry. “For me, it’s about showing the world that, if you focus on your dream, you can be here in eight or 10 years, or more. You just have to commit to what it is you want. While we may get categorised as a female artist and get looked at in a certain way, I’m a humanist and believe in equal rights for everyone.
I don’t want to be the same as everyone else, or do the same as everyone else. I want to stand out and I want my music to as well.”
To wit, Nina’s approach to career – and life – hangs on the message that “music is all about peace and love. I don’t want to be clichéd, but music is peace. When I’m low I listen to music; and when I’m really happy, I listen to music, too. So all I really want to do is create music for people to be happy.” Drawing lyrical inspiration from the “struggle, wars and sadness of the people” in this region, it is her ensuing desire to help change this societal imbalance that gives her a musical driving force. “It’s the strength of the people, and their will to live and be happy, especially in Lebanon, that inspires me most. Music truly is the answer. And happiness is my only concern. We live in a sad world and I just want to, through my music, contribute 0.1 per cent of happiness wherever I can, to whoever I can.”
Still searching for her “true artistic identity”, one that veers wildly away from the commercial connotations seen so often in the music industry from the East to the West, Nina references Lebanese singer Fairuz as her musical and cultural touchstone; someone she can admire as much for her success as her graciousness in fame. “She started out when she was young and worked so hard to get to where she did. She was always a mysterious singer and we know nothing about her. She was present but distant at the same time and that made her so interesting. I love how she gave us happiness and so many good feelings. She made thousands of songs and was completely selfless, dedicating her life to her music for the people. The fact that such a delicate and classic artist existed who was admired by millions gives me hope that true art will always have a place in this world. By being herself, working hard and gaining the love of so many people, it’s given me the courage to work towards one day achieving even a small amount of her success. So when I sing, and I feel like she is watching me, it makes me want to be the very best artist I can be.”
Jacket, Dhs16,995; dress, Dhs12,995; shoes, Dhs3,195, all Burberry. Glasses, Dhs1,510, DSquared². Tights, stylist's own
It is the lyrics to "3am Dawer 3a Hali", her single released in 2014, that she says best define her. “It’s called 'I’m Searching For Myself' and it just resonates with me because I believe we’re always searching for ourselves. There is always a conflict with our feelings and we’re always a little lost. No one knows the purpose of life, but we’re living it anyway.”
The life that Nina has set out to live seems pretty unambiguous; to keep making music, to always inspire her followers, to encapsulate the right sensibilities, and never, ever be asell-outt. She is unapologetic in this approach and that’s what makes her ‘Nina’, and not simply a reproduction of who, or what, is already in the market. It’s this bare-faced quest for authenticity, combined with nascent talent, so reminiscent of Madonna’s own embryonic journey over 40 years ago, that allows Nina to strive forward as a reputable artist, one with powerful purpose, a voice and an appealing message of positivity. Feeling that it is “my time”, her ultimate dream is simple, “To encourage people to dream big, to listen to their hearts and trust their instincts. We only live once, so do what makes you happy.” Lebanon’s lucky star, indeed.
Prices approximate. Words: Emily Baxter. Stylist’s assistants: Charlotte Blair and Lamya Parker. Make-up: Toni Malt. Hair: Adrian Clark. Hair assistant: Teresa Kanakakis. Production: Magnet Production and Nina Ross. Special thanks to HotCold studio.