Methal is breaking barriers for Middle Eastern female musicians
Yemeni singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Methal first became well known to an international audience when when she took part in Spotify’s 2017 collaborative audio/visual project “I’m with the banned” a response to Donald Trump’s travel ban on people from Muslim-majority countries. She collaborated with the American rock band X Ambassadors and recorded the song “Cycles,” which depicts her relationship with her home country.
Methal began her music career during the Arab Spring in 2011; that political escalation inspired her to more creatively address issues of religion and social justice. Up until that point, the then 22-year-old was a fourth-year medical school student.
At the encouragement of a musician friend, Methal began to perform public gigs in 2012, but she quickly found that performing comes at a cost for female artists in Yemen. There aren’t many safe spaces in which Yemeni women can perform, and music itself is associated with social intolerance and stigma in the country due to the extremely conservative nature of the Middle East. For these reasons and others — like the absence of spaces and support systems to nurture the work — the region has seen a mass exodus of young artists over the years.“It’s forbidden, especially for women, to play in mixed-gender places,” Methal told the FBomb. “Most of the obstacles I faced during my active time in Yemen were external and internal pressures to quit and respect the society I live in. But it makes no sense if you think about it. Music is a beautiful art.”
Rather than feel discouraged by this stigma, Methal fought to eliminate it. She started performing in public whenever an opportunity presented itself. But doing so did not come without a cost.,“I carelessly performed in places I shouldn’t have been performing in as an act of rebellion to my surroundings,” she said. “It all accumulated to bite me hard later on. I started to get blackmail, threats, verbal abuse, and my private pictures were compromised.” She “kept a low profile and stopped playing in public,” but was eventually forced to leave Yemen in 2014 when her “tolerance to the situation decreased and I couldn’t take it anymore.” She realized that “in order to do something you love you need to find a way to pursue it … How can you pursue something you love when your life and the lives of those you love are in constant danger? Adding to that the amount of negativity I got about how I needed to stop doing music was enough to drown anyone.”
Methal travelled from Yemen to Djibouti on a refugee boat in March of 2015. “The best part [of being in Djibouti] was playing music in [a] hotel [there],” Methal recalled. Doing so “was a different and life-changing experience” that led to an opportunity to work in Istanbul, Turkey. After living and performing there for a year, Methal was invited to perform at the University of Ottawa. That invitation led her to make the decision to settle in Canada in 2016.
Throughout the long ordeal of finding enough stability to pursue her passion, Methal notes that her main support system was “believing in myself.” This mindset developed from living through Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, she said, noting that she “had no fear of death. … Yemen felt like a prison when the war started. Nothing was coming [in] or going out; all that was happening was bombs falling on top of your head. [These conditions] make you lose sense of everything that you believe in except yourself. You only think, ‘If I die now, did I really do anything beneficial? Did I achieve what I wanted? Did my existence make any difference?’”
Methal’s diverse and intense life experiences are reflected in her powerful musical repertoire. After enduring the judgment of not being an “appropriate” female artist in the Arab world, Methal now expresses her newfound freedom in her own words. She has expressed patriotic sentiments for her home country of Yemen as well as yearning serenades, such as her single “You are a Nation” and “Cycles,” her collaboration with X Ambassadors. Now Methal says she’s working on a new album, but is “taking my time developing the concept and the idea behind every song, [which] of course helps me learn a lot about the production process, which is fun.”
Methal also dreams of pursuing music on an academic level. Her aforementioned collaboration with Spotify led her to audition for the Berklee College of Music — a college she had dreamed of attending since she lived in Yemen and took their online courses related to music writing. “I never thought in a million years that I’d actually study there.” Methal is currently running a Go Fund Me campaign to raise funds for her tuition.
Methal has already accomplished so much, but now, she says, she wants “to get to know myself more, since I grew up in Yemen and girls there don’t normally know who they are.” She dreams of working on projects in the future that support female musicians and hopes to encourage other young female artists by her own example. “If you feel you want to do something you love, do it,” she says. “Nothing comes easy. There will always be a lot of sacrifices you have to make along the way. But the main key is to not dwell on thoughts about the consequences of your actions and to always trust your gut. You might not know why you want to do [something], but always remember to believe in yourself.”
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