Sometime in the mid-1960s, an Egyptian dancer made an audacious attempt to do the impossible: belly dance to Om Kalthoum’s songs.
At the time, Om Kalthoum herself was gradually moving from her more epic, Wagner-like songs with Riad al-Sonbati to the more popular, dancey rhythms of Baligh Hamdi. Baligh’s music borrowed widely from folk idioms and motifs, and he didn’t hesitate to include quite some sexy beats in the songs he composed for Om Kalthoum.
Soheir Zaki caught on and decided to include extracts from Om Kalthoum’s songs in her dance routine, inviting the ire of Om Kalthoum. Legend has it that the singer complained to Baligh, who went to watch the dancer and warn her of the potentially serious consequences of her bold and insolent act. But he was so mesmerized that he urged Om Kalthoum to go watch her herself. The singer conceded, and after watching one of Zaki’s dance routines, she went to congratulate her and reportedly said: “I came with some ill intentions, but after watching you, I think what you did is an addition to dance.”
Om Kalthoum was no stranger to sexy and seductive. One of her earliest recordings was Debauchery and Indulgence are My Creed (1924), a song pleading with the listener to let her pursue her sensual pleasures. This fit in the context of early 20th-century Egyptian music production, which was peppered with a bizarre combination of Ottoman musical forms and instrumentation and incredibly risqué lyrics discussing everything from strange sexual proclivities to intrusive in-laws (think vaudeville or burlesque with an Ottoman twist).
Om Kalthoum would go on, through her long recording career (1924-1973), to transform herself from just another performer of urban popular music into the ingenious epic singer who, together with a host of equally visionary musicians, secularized the religious vocal music of the time and made it an art form in its own right. Starting from the mid-1940s, Om Kalthoum single-handedly redefined people’s idea of a musical performance (no one before had taken to the stage to sing for six hours in one concert — everything from medieval Arabic poetry to patriotic anthems to love songs), and consolidated an image that still haunts millions: the imperious matriarch who’s the bastion of Arab virtues and cultural heritage.
Fast forward to 2003, when American pop star Beyoncé released her debut album Dangerously in Love. In its third track, Baby Boy featuring Sean Paul, which cannibalizes reggae and dancehall, we can hear some Indian instrumentation and token Arabic rhythms. The music video adds an Arabic music interlude (complete with tongue ululations) where Beyoncé wears her take on the modern belly-dance costume — a bikini-like ensemble — while writhing on the beach and throwing sand at the camera. It wouldn’t be the last time for Beyoncé to indulge her oriental fantasies. In 2016, she was reincarnated as an Indian princess in Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend. The song, which sparked outrage in India, revels in all possible cultural cliches, from stereotypical representations of Holi (festival of colors) to flying mystics, in a general feel of “India-is-dirty-and-poor-which-is-ever-so-exciting.”
Beyoncé wasn’t the only English-singing pop star to appropriate Middle Eastern or Arab influences during the early 2000s. It may have been Shakira who started the trend with her first English-language album (her fifth in total), Laundry Service (2001). Shakira, whose paternal grandparents were originally Lebanese (and emigrated to New York, then Colombia), has cited Arabic music and dancing as a strong influence on her work. Shakira utilized that heritage and showcased her belly dancing prowess in her Spanish-turned-English single, Eyes Like Yours (Ojos Asi), originally released on her fourth album, Estan los Ladrones? (1998), then translated and released on Laundry Service. Shakira actually incorporates Arabic verses in the song and sings the Arabic herself. Did Shakira do it better than Beyoncé? Definitely.
Back to Om Kalthoum: She had many rivals, but no one challenged her legendary status more than Mohamed Abdel Wahab, who had the advantage of being a composer as well. Legend has it that the two were frenemies to the core. But by the will of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, they were “requested” to collaborate on a song, and in 1964 after decades of mutual professional hostilities Abdel Wahab offered Om Kalthoum Inta Omri (You Are My Life), which he had initially composed to sing himself. Abdel Wahab’s lighter, more fluid, pop-styled sound was another signal that Om Kalthoum was moving away from the intricately ornate, complex music of Sonbati. (Some believed it was a wise move on Om Kalthoum’s part as her voice was beginning to lose some of the agility and luster Sonbati made such good use of.) But Inta Omri maintained some of the epic style of Sonbati’s songs, and we could even see it as a watered-down version of his work — it definitely doesn’t fall under the same category as Baligh’s sexy, catchy rhythms. Lyrically, Inta Omri is a timeless ode to love long-lost and finally found. Even Soheir Zaki herself could not dance to Inta Omri without meddling with its arrangements and adding more layers to its beats.
The choice of Inta Omri as a song to belly dance to is unusual, yet Zaki could do it and so could Shakira. Shakira created a full dance routine incorporating Inta Omri in her Oral Fixation Tour (2007), while performing Ojos Asi. The Colombian had a live singer perform extracts from the song, while a chorus of dancers did a contemporary interpretation of belly dance while dressed in “oriental costume.”
Skip to 2015 and a concert for Beyoncé’s On the Run tour: Beyoncé and a group of backup dancers, their backs to the audience and wearing leotards with buttock cut-outs, squat and bounce their behinds to the intro of Om Kalthoum’s Inta Omri‘. Beyoncé then turns and starts to sing Naughty Girl from none other than her Dangerously in Love album. The song, already heavily sampling Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby (1975) as a backdrop, was noted for its Arab and Middle Eastern influences. Beyoncé tries to sing more than one note per syllable to sound as oriental as possible, perhaps a way to tune in to the Om Kalthoum song.
Many Om Kalthoum lovers were not thrilled with Beyoncé’s sexy dance routine to Om Kalthoum. After a delay of a few months, accusations of cultural appropriation started to rain in, like: “Beyoncé is appropriating Arabic music for her commercial use, and exoticizing Inta Omri with her choreography.”
But it’s clear that Beyoncé’s appropriation was not new, or too outlandish. Already in Om Kalthoum’s own lifetime, Soheir Zaki added her own sexy spin to her music and got her blessing. Inta Omri has been remixed and sampled for decades. It’s not necessarily Om Kalthoum’s best song, or even the most dancey (those are Baligh’s songs), but because of the hype around it and the fact that Abdel Wahab composed it, it became one of her best known songs. And Shakira’s dance routine with Inta Omri didn’t trigger accusations of exoticizing Arab women. Is this because Shakira was celebrating her Arab ancestry?
There is an undercurrent of patriarchal angst about how the legacy of Om Kalthoum should be handled. The iconic, sacrosanct status she has acquired over the years, and the image that she cultivated (the unpretentious rural worker who memorized the Quran and sang for God and country) and guarded throughout her life, has made it impossible for many to see her as anything but that. But Om Kalthoum did sing songs that were fun and sexy. And her oeuvre is quite diverse and multifaceted, and therefore it surely can be appropriated in many varied ways. It is imperative that we, the contemporary listeners of Om Kalthoum, break free from that spell that she and the surrounding patriarchal society very carefully cast over her legacy, to appreciate it for its diversity and richness beyond nationalist and patriarchal moralizing.
Beyoncé’s mistake was not in trying to make Om Kalthoum bootylicious. It’s the fact that she has already been accused of cultural appropriation and disrespect to the specificity and meaning of other people’s cultural heritage and traditions. This makes her a prime target for attack. The fact that she hasn’t explained how she thinks Om Kalthoum’s Inta Omri fits with Naughty Girl also makes her appropriation problematic. Shakira’s song does share an certain affinity to Inta Omri lyrics-wise, in the sense of searching and looking for the beloved, and Shakira can actually belly dance, in contrast to Beyoncé’s stylized, jerky writhing.
The other problem is the image Beyoncé has constructed as the sexy, empowered feminist and fighter for important causes — going so far as to make an entire song inspired by Black Lives Matter (which, speaking of exploitation, is only available through subscription to her husband Jay-Z’s music platform Tidal). Yet while singing about Black oppression and poverty, she is “so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress” and doesn’t mind singing to a dictator’s son on his birthday (even if she later was shamed into donating her fee to Haiti victims). Beyoncé’s activism seems shallow and disrespectful, like her appropriations of Indian and Arabic culture. Commodification is key (her On the Run tour grossed US$96 million) but it’s not just that: it is identifying elements of foreign cultures as exotic and unknowable to represent her dark and lust-filled alter-ego (Sasha Fierce). This is unexpected for a woman of a race that is so often exoticized and maligned itself — though she suggests that she avoids this by “working hard” and “earning it.” It is hypocritical that Beyoncé claims to be sensitive to the tragedy of Black exploitation and institutional racism, yet is blind to the racist exploitation in her own work.
There is nothing empowering in booty-dropping to Om Kalthoum if one doesn’t know Om Kalthoum, a woman who reinvented Arabic music, and what she stands for. And there is nothing feminist about dressing as an Indian princess and singing about how high you are, or wallowing in the sand and throwing sand at a camera. This is exploitation, even if it’s sexy exploitation.