American singer of Arab tunes has talent – but not enough

Jennifer Grout came second on Saturday in the final show of the Arab world's equivalent of America's Got Talent.

Mohammed Azakir/Reuters
Jennifer Grout on stage at the finals of the third season of Arabs Got Talent. The 23-year-old from Massachussetts speaks little Arabic but took second in the competition.

In recent weeks, American singer Jennifer Grout, the first non-Arab to compete in a popular television show, Arabs’ Got Talent, has acquired a fan base in the region. The novelty of a blonde-haired, Bostonian who croons classical songs in Arabic–yet barely speaks the language–has also gotten her attention at home from news media.  

When she took the stage on Saturday night in Beirut in the show’s final episode, fans cheered and posted words of support online. But she polled second, beaten by a Syrian dance troupe that pulled off its own East-meets-West mélange to a British electronic dance song.

Speaking before the show, Ms. Grout, a classical music student, said she was thrilled by the varied reactions to her participation in the Arab equivalent of America’s Got Talent.

“In the Arab world, I’ve had a diverse reaction. Most people are really happy that I’m embracing Arab culture and I’m singing this music,’’ says Grout. “There’s been some reaction like, ‘Oh, why didn’t I go to America’s Got Talent if I’m American?’ The reality is I wanted to perform the music that I love for an audience that loves and appreciates it.”

And Arab audiences did. Ms. Grout won votes from across the Middle East in the show’s qualifying rounds, earning her a place in the finals last night.  

“I was actually surprised she made it to the finals,” said Rawya Diab who works for MBC, the network that produces the show. “We didn’t think so many Arabs would vote for an non- Arab, but the voters surprised us. She was huge. People loved her.”

In previous seasons, non-Arabs raised in the Arab world had auditioned but the producers barred them from participating, arguing that their acts did not have a sufficiently local flavor. This was the show's third season.     

“But Jennifer sings Arabic better than any Arab person I’ve seen…and she sings the classical Arabic music, not the pop you hear everyday on the radio,” says Ms. Diab.

In the end, Ms. Grout placed second to Syrian troupe, Sima, who performed a contemporary dance to the beat of The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up.”

It is not uncommon for contestants on the show to perform to music from the West. It reflects a largely one-way cultural flow: European and American music, TV, and movies is adapted and consumed in the Arab world, but not vice versa.

Inspired by Lebanese diva

Ms. Grout is an exception. After stumbling across the work of Lebanese singer Fayrouz, she started learning her songs before she could even speak the Arabic language. At the time she was studying classical singing and opera at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

“My friends at McGill knew I had this passion and they were always rolling their eyes, same with my voice teacher. She wanted me to pursue opera,” recalls Ms. Grout. Now, she is receiving positive feedback from old colleagues and being exposed to mainstream audiences in America, breaking a different cultural barrier.

“I was on Good Morning America last week. I don’t think anything about Arabic music would have been on that show if I wasn’t American,” said Grout. “This music is amazing and should be known.”

Diab, the TV producer, says representations in foreign media of Arabic art and culture are far outnumbered by images of violence, revolution, and nomads in the desert. Grout’s overnight fame might just start to shift that view, she says.

“It’s a good way for the West to see about Arabs—about our music and our culture. Not just us learning about their music and their pop culture."

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