The Media Reign of Sultan!
Multimedia’s obsession, on Zahed Sultan.
(Picture: Zahed is wearing a white lenin shirt, H&M. Army polyester camouflage jacket, Abdali Market; Jordan's famed flea-market.)
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By Jawanna Sawalha
When I was first introduced to this next artist I wasn’t sure how I should feel, a young Kuwaiti music producer, a multimedia artist and a social entrepreneur. Born and raised in Kuwait, the infamous Zahed Sultan began his musical career as the trusted DJ for segregated parties in his hometown. Sultan began cultivating his sound during the pre-social media era and soon after Facebook and YouTube became popular, in 2011 he released his first album ‘Hi Fear, Lo Love’.
This all fell into place after Sultan returned home from the United States after college. Upon his return to Kuwait, Sultan became aware of how his country had very little support for creativity. After a long discussion with a family member, who encouraged Zahed and helped him regain his confidence, he locked himself in the studio until he completed his first album – all while running his first venture, El Boutique Creative Group, a multi-disciplinary organization for the arts and social responsibility.
After almost an hour of talking to Zahed over Skype, I could feel his passion. It was powerful. And, if you listen carefully you can almost feel it through his music. A very logical, hopeful and ambitious man that cares enough to make an actual change, he believes in the region’s ‘slowly developing’ artistic scene much more than anyone I have interviewed so far. Zahed believes in creating a sensory environment to build a fantastic immersive world.
After releasing his first album, Sultan was excited to perform and share his music with the people of Kuwait and the rest of the Arab region, but to Sultan’s dismay he soon realized that the Arab world was too underdeveloped for his plans. The region lacked the suitable infrastructure, but according to his current observations the creative landscape of the region is changing of which Sultan is extremely eager to play an active role in shaping.“Talent accounts for about 5 percent of success,” Sultan said. “95 percent is everything else.”
(Picture: Zahed is wearing double; layered grey shirts, both, H&M.) . . . .
The uniqueness of what is Zahed Sultan comes with his ideology that the use of social media is running rampant within our society; therefore Sultan focuses on more live and tangible formats for people, hence his interest in audio-visual mediums.
Sultan’s big break came when the 2nd single from his first album ‘I Want her but I Don’t Want Her,’ was featured on a globally-recognized compilation album, Hotel Costes 15. He told me stories about his friends hearing this song in clubs, restaurants, and bars around the world.
One of Zahed’s biggest fears when performing is that he would never truly connect with an audience, he strongly believes in creating a connection when performing live. “I felt an amazing connection in Amman,” Zahed said. “It took five countries and twelve shows to feel that kind of connection. After, I had this high for seven days.” In 2013, Zahed began to piece together his second album. Prior to releasing this album, he decided to go directly on tour and test the waters; so far Sultan has performed in over ten countries including Jordan, Japan and Iceland just to name a few.
Even though Sultan might have not released his latest body of work, he has however been sharing photos from his live experiences. Sultan’s Instagram feed is awash with the kind of images that inspire change and acceptance. One photo of a gay couple (one in drag) with the caption “London #pride” during London gay pride week caused quite the controversy! “Yesterday evening I posted this #photo with a simple #caption to my #facebook #music #page. For some reason since, the post has received close to 40,000 #views and is #growing. I’m curious to see how #together we can #promote a greater #understanding for this #cause.” Zahed posted. Between hate and support, Sultan’s followers and fans were in an online battle regarding the photo/hashtag posted. Zahed’s Instagram account is probably one of the most interesting out there, promoting e-awareness, tagging all the right and wrong people when touring.
Having done the cover shoot here in Amman at Hiba’s studio, Zahed had to rush to sound-check for his live performance that evening. We caught up via Skype, Kuwait-Beirut, and had an interesting conversation about his music and its appeal to LGBTQI people. Here’s how our chat went…
(Pictures, clockwise: 1. Belief...is universal. 2. Music... binds our present + past. 3. Magic...my true calling. 4. Nature... the only true art form.)
Do you think your music challenges the mainstream stereotypes?
I don’t write and produce music with the intention of challenging the mainstream; I merely attempt to translate the ideas and thoughts in my head onto a medium that can be absorbed by a greater many.
When does mainstream become mainstream to you?
Music becomes mainstream when it has been stripped of its layers and underlying textures. Music becomes mainstream when it has been template – ized to appeal to a vast listener base. A fair amount of today’s mainstream music is disposable music with a short shelf life.
Inspiration to an artist doesn’t come easily, but for many comes naturally. In your opinion, what inspires you, and what kills it for you?
Vulnerability inspires me. Untruth kills it for me.
What kind of feedback did you get from people when you first released your music? Any interesting constructive criticism?
It has been three years since I released my debut album. Reflecting on my first release, I would say that the overall sentiment was conflicting – primarily leaning towards the negative locally yet positive globally. I have come to learn that we as people tend to react to that with which we don’t understand or fear.
(Picture: Zahed is wearing double; layered checkered shirts, both, H&M.)
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How different was the feedback from one country to the other?
Feedback varied from those who were accepting of something they didn’t fully understand and those who were unaccepting of that which challenged their spheres of comfort.
You’re releasing your new album soon, how does it differ from the previous one?
My new album ‘eyeamsound’ is a significant departure from my catalog of released music. ‘eyeamsound’ delineates in a more alternative realm comprised of more structured / extended song arrangements while embodying prominent elements of live instrumentation and improvised textures.
Tell us something interesting about Zahed Sultan? A funny tick, a funny story that happened while on tour?
On a recent trip to Amman, Jordan in March 2014 to debut my live audio-visual show, an exceedingly kind-hearted woman knitted me a pair of mittens that she presented to me prior to the start of my performance.
“I don’t set out to provoke but rather to evoke thought. On release of a body of work, it is no longer my property to dictate its interpretation, place nor outcome.”
As we all know, the mainstream gay scene is stereotyped to be pop and trance based. Do you think your music appeals to the LGBT community in Kuwait of otherwise?
I aspire to release and perform music that evokes thought and emotion for a given listener, void of gender, race, religion, social status, etc.
Who would you say is one of your favorites in the regional underground scene? Do you follow other people’s work?
I have been following the creative paths of Lebanese bands such as Mashrou3 Leila, The Wanton Bishops, and Zeid Hamdan, to name a few. More recently, I have been discovering some exceptional talent emerging out of Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt.
Do you draw attention to any political/social objectives toward your music?
Being closely involved with the field of social development through an organization I founded in Kuwait, challenges that encompass our region’s growth have seeped into my songwriting. On ‘eyeamsound’ I address several socio-political challenges that face our region such as stateless citizens ‘Bedoon’ and skewed notions of democracy imposed upon citizens by profiteers.
(Picture, left: Zahed is wearing double; layered olive-green army shirts, both, H&M. Right: double denim; layered upon each other, both, H&M.)
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Do you think the works/some of your works is designed to provoke an intellectual, non-narrative response multimedia-wise? Do you see a potential narrative application of your work?
I don’t set out to provoke but rather to evoke thought. On release of a body of work, it is no longer my property to dictate its interpretation, place nor outcome.
On your social media; Facebook, I realized that you post a lot of things toward/about arts. What are you trying to communicate with your art?
I perceive art, in its various formats, as an exploratory medium to communicate and establish connection(s). Being an advocate for responsible consumption, over the years, I have been experimenting with recycled materials to produce up-cycled furniture / accessories and installation art. Sometime in 2014, I will be making these ‘responsible products’ available for purchase worldwide through the eyeamsound.com domain.
As a part multimedia artist, which creative medium would you love to pursue but haven’t yet?
Film. The journey has begun.
Music and multimedia, how are they related to you, and what made you combine both in your work?
I am in the early stages of carving a niche for myself whereby I seek to create immersive experiences in a live performance setting. Marrying music with multimedia and continuously exploring the realm of possibilities will enable me to recreate dynamic experiential environments for audiences in various regions around the world.
To what extent do you feel that music and visuals connects you to your audience? My recent debut audio-visual performance in Kuwait (in 3D) on April 30th, 2014 has opened up a portal into a new world I am keen to explore – the positive response to my first live immersive experience was overwhelmingly.
Photographs by Hiba Judeh. Article by Jawanna Sawalha. Make-up by Walid Zoubi. Hair by Ahmad Al Sa’ady. Social media: Ala’a Abu Qasheh. Making of video by Jackson Aller. Photo edited by Jawad Qumsieh. Art directed and styled by Kali. Cover design Atef Daglees. Special thanks to mediator, and artist Shermine Sawalha.
Watch: A short film illustrating Zahed Sultan’s musical outlook and live performance format. Live at TBA Collective, Amman-Jordan