Meet Moh Flow, the Syrian hip-hop artist pioneering a new sound in the UAE
Breaking into the music industry is something millions dream about, yet so few accomplish. Competition has alway been tough, and now with social media providing free platforms for exposure the floodgates are open for anybody to show off their musical talent. While it’s easier to get in front of the masses, it’s harder to stand out from the saturation, making being discovered as tough as ever. Imagine the struggle of an upcoming recording artist born in a country on Donald Trump’s travel ban list and living outside North America and Europe, the world’s biggest, career-cracking, music hubs.
That was the position singer-songwriter Moh Flow found himself in 12 months ago. Ironically it was the US President’s travel ban that gave the Syrian- born hip-hop artist an opportunity when Spotify produced its award-winning ‘I’m with the banned’ project, featuring artists from the barred countries on the Trump’s list. “They [Spotify] made the video to highlight what a bad idea the ban was, so they brought artists from the banned nations together and had us work alongside A-list artists from the US and the UK,” says the 26-year-old.
Political issues are a topic he does his best to ignore, as his stock as a recording artist continues to rise. “Personally I don’t speak about political situations because I’m already blessed to be living here in the UAE,” he says. “Nothing I’m going to say is going to change a political situation. Maybe when I get more influential, I’ll incorporate that into my music, but for now we just want to build my profile for the art that I make.”
Moh Flow, along with his producer brother Ayham, has been making music since the age of 13. After a childhood spent in Saudi Arabia — where he found music because there was very little activity to keep young people entertained, apart from “hanging around doing nothing” — Moh’s main motivation for cutting a track that was good enough to get attention started out as pure sibling rivalry. “At that age, my goal was small. I wanted to impress my older brother and his friends,” he says.
But his objective hit new heights as Moh intentionally adapted his style. He made the transition from youthful rapper to respected singer; his music matured, and so did its popularity. The mellow 2016 album This Is Yo(U) was a far cry from his Inspired EP, released two years prior, with a noticeably younger sound. It was, however, his calmer tone which really began to strike a chord with the masses. His break came unexpectedly when he was still figuring out the best way to stream his music online, but unknown to him it had already taken off. “Streaming platforms opened up the world. I released Inspired in 2014 and after the album, I didn’t want people to pay to listen to my music. Back then I wasn’t as convinced about the power of streaming platforms, but by 2016 we were using them to host our music,” Moh Flow explains.
“I focused on SoundCloud and I was just trying to get the numbers up, but we weren’t really able to crack it. So I logged on to Spotify and found 250,000 plays of our song, All The Way. Until then, I really had no idea that there was traction on that record. That changed things for my brother and me, and we realised how effective these platforms are for artists like us.”
And the breaks finally seem to be coming Moh’s way as he looks to build on his Spotify success, but he admits being based in the UAE has meant convincing music industry bigwigs to take his music seriously has been a challenge. “I go to writing camps once a year and try to write songs that could end up on someone else’s album. Artists like Chris Brown or Rihanna will have 20 to 30 producers working with them, sending them songs to choose for their album, and then they personalise their records. When we go to those rooms and tell them we’re from Dubai, the usual reaction is, ‘OK, they’re interested in music, but they’re just a couple of rich guys looking for something to do.’ The hardest thing for us is proving we’re not just doing it for a joke.”
Growing up in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s shaped the sounds of Moh’s music. As a young teen, he was into the US rock bands Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, but again it was his older brother’s influence that led him to his love for hip-hop. “We would drive from Saudi to Syria, which was like a 24-hour drive, so we would take a bunch of CDs. My brother would dictate what we listened to, so he played me stuff from Eminem, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, Outkast and Tupac,” says Moh Flow.
His musical appetite firmly whet, Moh then found it very difficult to get hold of the artist’s albums that were inspiring him so much, which also included the likes of Jagged Edge, TLC and Blackstreet. “Growing up, we would buy hip-hop CDs on the black market, because this music wasn’t available in Saudi,” he recalls. “At first, I wasn’t writing anything, so I would find great instrumentals and cover songs I liked.”
The goal for the now Dubai-based star is to create music without a barrier, that appeals to his mum and auntie as much as his fans. In fact, his family have played a big part in getting his music career off the ground. Just last year, he and his brother were working part-time for the family interior design business, to help fund his art, and they now run their own creative consultancy alongside performing and producing. While Moh still does a bit of work within the family business, his main focus is building a musical legacy.
“Eventually I’d like to win a Grammy. Whether that’s as a writer or a producer or artist, that’s the ultimate goal. My brother and I have been making music for years now and so that’s what we aim for, and even the thought of getting there is making me produce better music,” says Moh, who also has the launch of his own record label high on his to-do list. “We also plan on doing a world tour one day. I’ve done a tour in the US and we want to do a tour in the Middle East. The thing here is, there are so many talented artists but there’s no circuit for them to tour. We were supposed to do a tour of Egypt, Lebanon and some more places, but there are no real venues for young artists to go and perform,” Moh tells us, although he is hoping to help change that in the near future. “We want to create a shift in the culture and create these opportunities. I know a lot of artists here who are insanely talented, but they don’t believe they can go as far as they want to with their music, so they end up just letting go, which is really sad. In 2017, when I couldn’t get booked for a show to launch my album, I went ahead and booked my own show and the crowd was packed, so these are the types of things I’d like to encourage younger artists to do as well.” Encourage younger artists he will, with his latest album Faith.
Each of the tracks on the album are a portrayal of his life as a child with Syrian/ Palestinian parents, being raised in Saudi Arabia, moving to Dubai, and trying to create a global platform for Middle Eastern talent. “Honestly what’s different about this album is it’s a bigger sound,” he says. “The tough thing is being a non-native of American hip-hop culture. Trying to fit in while having a unique stamp. We try to incorporate our roots, where we’re from and where we live, into the music, but incorporating the Middle East into the music is tough,” says Moh, although it won’t stop him from doing it.
“I stopped putting out music I thought people wanted to listen to. I realised people were a lot more receptive to personalised music. Fans like it when you talk about things that they can relate to, like what street you’re driving on, having a dream about being on a billboard on Sheikh Zayed Road or making Dubai a hub for music. It makes a huge difference; I think it gives people something to be proud of.”