Fuad Gritli: How an Arab millennial changed Libya’s music industry

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“Am I an artist? I guess, I don’t know. I do not like to be labeled as anything or anyone. Who defines who I am and what I do?! I do not believe in being defined. I can be anything whenever I want”

This is Fuad Ramadan Gritli, a Libyan millennial with a lot to offer in terms of making change in his home country. Fuad’s journey may not be very different from many other millennials. In a highly charged political and socio-technological climate, millennials often find themselves trapped between the romantic era of big dreams and the postmodern neoliberal techno-instantaneous era of speed and money. So where does the Libyan Fuad stand in this current of uncertainties?

Arts in all their forms are means of expression. Although all of our societies prospered on the arts, many societies to date perceive it as a waste of time. The Libyan society is (to generalise, of course) no different. In fact, the educational system is set to give art the least of importance. Music and painting periods are taken by chemistry and biology teachers to cover more “important material”. On transcripts, art subjects are not graded, rather given a pass or fail credit. At home, families are not necessarily teaching the essence of music, or taking trips to museums, or recognising famous painters and dancers. Not only that, but socially, there are certain forms of art that are accepted and others that are deemed shameful.

For example, a dancer is not worthy of much respect in Libyan society. Another layer of complexity is added to the perception of art in the society, and that is gender. There is a clear gender disparity. There are more male artists than female. A male singer is perceived more desirable than a female one.

Yet, we see a number of young men and women involved in art in its various forms despite the negativity it carries. Fuad is one of those young Libyans who wants to flip the coin and show the Libyan society as well as the rest of the world what this nation can has to offer.

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Fuad, the Story

As a child, Fuad was never interested in music. He never thought of it. Instead, he used to draw and sketch a lot. His family did not listen to music. So all the music that he was introduced to at a young age was whatever was playing on the radio on the way to school. He remembers listening to Ahmed Arebi, Gypsy Kings and Ayami Group.

They say great projects starts in your garage. For Fuad, his music success story began in the streets of Tripoli. While Steve Jobs created history out of his garage, Fuad created an artistic revolution from the Libyan capital. His sudden attraction to music began in 2004 when he finished high school.

Happy he was finally done with school, he stumbled across a group of young men playing the guitar. He was fascinated. Basically, he thought playing the guitar would be the best way to impress the girl that he liked. And so he decided to play music.

He got a guitar, went back to the group and asked them to teach him how to play. After spending a few days with them learning, they told him: “the guitar is not for everyone, and it does not seem like it is something for you”. Fuad did not give up, meeting another guitarist who plays Nirvana and the Blues; the artist agreed to teach him. Yet, he was also told ‘you do not have the ear for music’ and gave up on teaching him.

The moment Fuad found himself interested in music, all doors that led to the field closed on him simultaneously. He found himself abandoned by musicians, excluded from school parties and musicals. He gave in to the fact that while music fascinates him, it is not for him.

But music came back to knock on his door once again in 2005. Fuad was asked to write a song for a friend for a school project. Writing this song made him more interested in music. And so he started going to music events. With the stage, the audience and the general hype, Fuad found himself in love with the spectacle.

Wishing one day it will be him on a stage, Fuad decided to take a guitar lesson with a musician named Mohamed Hgig. Hgig taught Fuad one cord for 10 days. However, the problem was not just a matter of learning how to play the guitar. Fuad is left handed, and all the Tripoli-based guitarists that he knew of were right handed. Committed, Fuad learnt how to play the guitar using his right hand.

After learning the E and A minor chords, he decided to finish learning on his own. The expense of guitar lessons as well as his lack of patience led him to quit learning the traditional way. Instead, he took to the internet, as many curious millennials would do. As he continued to observe guitarists closely, he watched Youtube videos to learn how to master the guitar.

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Love achieves wonders. You disagree? Maybe Fuad’s story will change your mind. Love made Fuad become the artist he is today. It was Valentine’s day, and Fuad really wanted to make his girlfriend extra happy. So Fuad wrote his first song. He wrote a song titled “Stay Close”, and sang it for her.

Fuad’s valentine said he was talented, giving him a push forward towards his singing career. And so Fuad wrote another song called “Cigarettes”.

Fuad’s first few songs were interestingly quite different in some ways whilst similar in others. Starting with “Stay Close” to “Cigarettes” and then to “The World is Falling Apart”. There has been no specific theme he was going towards at the time. His concern was to write and sing and get on board with the music hype. “All these songs were really off and were not good at all, but I was excited to just play and sing”, says Fuad.

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So what brought him success? “I was singing in English” Fuad responded.

But reality check came to hit Fuad in the face in 2008 when he went to London to play with his friend, Nader, at a famous pub that has live music. “At the time, I had just learned how to play Knockin on Heaven’s Door, Fuad claimed. It was not Libya, people were not going to support him and cheer on to him because he was singing in English anymore. So Fuad and his musicians played the song and decided to test their odds by playing a song called “Sorry” that Fuad wrote. To their unfortunate luck, the odds were not in their favour as they got booed on stage by the audience.

Fuad was really ‘sorry’ to see his dreams come to such a crushing point. In his mind, he should have listened to those men in the Tripoli telling him music was not for him. So he quit music.

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But every time Fuad decided to quit, an opportunity presented itself to him. First it was the “Sure Creative Award”, judged by Amy McDonald, where he wrote a song called I’m in Love with You. Although he received enough votes to make it to the final 10, he did not end up winning the award.

The way we, as people, behave is very interesting. We can be afraid of change and, more importantly, afraid of failure, but we can be very committed when we really want something. Fuad was no different. From the very start, he was facing one failure after another. Yet, something in him kept imposing a presence and a position that he can make it eventually.

He kept searching for pubs, for open mics, and for places in the UK where he could play and practice. Some welcomed him with support and others slammed the door in his face. But we know that life does not always present us with its most beautiful face. It often throws thorns in our way to help us figure out where we would like to stand. And life decided Fuad was the next target.

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Fuad had to return to Libya, with all hopes scattered in the air, depressed that music is something he would forever love but will not be able to perceive. He quit music once again, changed his lifestyle and became a school teacher. One day, a colleague of his colleagues asked him to listen to a song she liked called “Hush”. As he reacted with laughter, she realised that the song was actually written, played and sang by him.

Music always brought people together. So Fuad brought his guitar, gave his students lyrics to songs, turned off classroom lights and made the class sing together. This activity provided a special bond between him and the students. Hence, classroom participation increased.

Little did Fuad know, returning from the UK to Libya would actually be the start of his singing career rather than its end. In 2010, Fuad met a group of three talented musicians who used to play at big parties and in hotels. As he would go to these parties observing what they do, the group asked him to cover for them for an hour in one of the Tripoli based hotels. Life was turning around to show Fuad that he can live the spectacle of the stage. After playing a number of times in hotels, a band was created called Fuad o Himo. However, February 10, 2011, was the last party the band would play before the Libyan revolution.

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A Libyan Renaissance

The Libyan revolution of 2011 was not an end to a musical roller coaster adventure. Instead, it opened another window of possibilities for Fuad. The situation of the country was very chaotic, he could not play the music he used to play prior. So he wrote a song called “Libya, the land of love” at the end of February.

The February revolution was not only a revolution in which people demanded rights, democracy and regime change. It was also a revolution of expression. It was the first time the people of Libya (in its modern sense) felt the freedom to express themselves in all forms. Fuad, a Libyan citizen, deprived of that right for all those years, also felt the need to express himself. The revolution created a new current of expressive emotions that Fuad used to convey to the rest of the population. His music began to reflect the socioeconomic climate around him.

As violence and conflict continued to emerge, Fuad wrote “Why”. Fuad wanted to show the world the way in which Libyans were resisting.  He later wrote “Freedom”, a song that blenses English and Arabic. He sent a number of his songs to local TV channels but none of them broadcasted him.

But love comes to Fuad’s rescue once more. He was on the phone to his girlfriend explaining his frustration and describing the situation. As she kept her boyfriend’s company on the phone, he picked his guitar, strumming it, creating a song with random words, she tells him “Fuad, this is the type of song people want”. The next morning Fuad recorded the song and called it “Harernaha b Jelatina”. While the song did not make it to local TB channels, it went viral through mobile phone applications.

The revolution was an interesting time for Tripoli. The war was not as extravagant as in Libya’s other cities. The regime had more control over the city. From a musical perspective, a number of artists made it to the surface during this time including Salah Ghali, Asma Saleem, Rank of Honor, Rap Crew and, finally, Fuad Gritli. What brought all these young hearts together was the revolution.

Continuing the path of music in the roads of the revolution, he joined a group of friends to open a radio station called Radio Zone. Fuad was hired as the presenter for the Morning Show where he would sing live as people call in.

What made Fuad’s show desirable was the fact that he was using the Libyan dialect instead of classical Arabic; this brought him closer to his listeners. In his show, he would sing, criticise politicians, and speak freely about the situation. The recipe together changed the concept of radio stations in Tripoli.

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For Fuad, love has always achieved wonders. But not this time. Fuad’s heart was broken after a bad breakup that led him to leave his country to go to Malta. In Malta, he continued playing and eventually created another band comprising of people from all over the world called “Wet Boys”. “You know, we used to sweat a lot”, he explained.

After getting his heart stitched back and healed, Fuad found his way back home to work at another radio station called Tripolitana FM. “Not everyone can go to a live party in Libya so I decided to bring the party to people”, Fuad pointed out. And that’s how Thursdays on Tripolitana FM became concert nights for listeners.

On one of those Thursdays in 2014, a girl named Afnan called the station expressing her appreciation of the show. Fuad is exceptionally good at talking to people and finding points of connection. Afnan’s story was very funny that he mentions it in almost every interview.

Afnan complained to Fuad that she had a wedding but could not go because her father did not allow her to. After asking about her father’s position, she explained that she had not been studying for important exams. Hence, Fuad decided to sing a song just for her. Live on station, Afnan on the phone, Fuad made a song called “Shen Dernalhom Ya Hbeebti”, translating to: “What Have We Done to Them My Love”. The song went viral and people asked him to play it over and over again.

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Fuad’s music career began to slowly prosper. He started with translating the song he played for the first time on stage “knocking on heaven’s door” to Libyan and recorded that. Then, he began writing and recording a new song every week.

Fuad Incorporated a new style of music that he described as a “Mash-Up”. This style was very popular in Libya. It all started with a film festival held in Tripoli where he was asked to play music. As he played his various songs, which were mostly in English, someone came to him and explained that the Minister of Culture is in the audience and he needs Arabic music. Hence, Fuad, not prepared for this moment, decided to make a song mixing lines from every Libyan song he knows.

And since then Fuad recorded a large number of songs including “Toboo”, meaning pipe, which was a way a friend of his used to describe his girlfriend. Other songs were also recorded such as “Aslan Adi”, translating to “It’s All Good”, and “Hareroona”, meaning “Make Us Free”.

A few months in and the situation in Libya got even worse with bombs flying throughout the skies of Tripoli. Terrified with what was about to come, Fuad wrote “Allah Kbeer”. Due to the excessive amounts of bullets flying, Fuad wrote the song laying down. “It was the first time I feel religious to write a song. I guess I was terrified that I would die so I thought I’d do something religious before I die [sic]”, he commented.

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Fear is an essential emotion in our human psyche. But when we adapt to fear, we become almost immune to danger. And that was where Fuad arrived. He was frustrated that no change took place since he wrote his first song “Libya, the Land of Love” in 2011. So he took it to the internet again, announcing on social media that he will be in Al’Jazaer Square (a very old square in Tripoli) playing music in protest against the chaotic situation. He invited people to join him if they wanted to, and they responded. People like Hani el-Kot, Mohamed el-Gadi, Saber Fhema and Essam Dahmani joined 

Fuad was slowly receiving fame which brought him confidence. However, his confidence was not fully boosted until the Libyan poet and professor Khaled Mtawa’a referred Fuad to John Would. But since armed militia were surrounding Fuad’s house, Fuad could not record his album to send to John Would.

Under the siege in Tripoli in 2014, Fuad, like many others in the city, was surviving on canned foods, with no water. So he wrote the “Malgi”, song meaning Pitcher. The song was intended to enlighten the mood of Libyans during a very difficult time. The song went viral on social media, yet Fuad received mostly negative feedback. But to flip the negativity the song had into positivity, Fuad created the “Malgi” challenge as part of the ice bucket challenge that was going viral. He asked people to send a picture with a ‘malgi’, and for every picture, he would donate 1LYD to charity. Fuad’s strategy was successful and the general public changed their perception about who Fuad is.

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Many of us came to know of Fuad from his show “Goosto”, which translates to Fun. A TV channel based in Jordan called “Libya Roou’ A’al Watan” presented a golden opportunity to Fuad to be a main presenter in a show of his choice. The channel promised that no political ideology guides its agendas and that he was free to criticise whoever he wanted. Therefore, Fuad created ‘Goosto’, which was a political satire.

Eventually, Fuad left the channel after discovering biases in the scripts and betrayal in the promises initially made. So what made Fuad the pop star and the public figure he is today? Fuad responds: “the ‘Malgi’ song started it and the Goosto show enhanced it”.

You can find Fuad on Facebook, Youtube and Soundcloud.

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