With big curly hair and a silver Africa-shaped pendant around his neck, 27-year-old singer Bahjat Etorjman already looks the part of a confident pop star on the rise.
But the Libyan singer-songwriter — known professionally by his first name — admits that he was actually a shy kid when he was growing up in the capital Tripoli.
“I was a bit of an introverted child,” Bahjat said. “I started writing songs when I was like, 12 years old, as a way to cope with life.” He later began posting videos on YouTube, and soon made up his mind to become a professional singer.
But things didn’t quite go according to plan, and Bahjat had to hold tight to his dreams. In 2011, conflict broke out in his home country, forcing his family to uproot their lives and essentially start over.
“The revolution happened and it turned into a very unfortunate situation where, you know, there was a civil war,” he explained. “That didn't make it an environment where you can flourish,” he added.
Bahjat and his family packed up their lives and became refugees in Malta, where the singer still lives today. Amid the upheaval and change in his life, he did have one constant to lean back on.
“Music was the only thing that did not disappear,” he said about his experience.
“So, I started releasing music and just putting my all into it and did it day and night. I breathed it. I love it. I still love it. And yeah, I guess somehow people liked it,” he laughed.
In fact, they more than liked it. The independent musician has a growing social media following, and his song “Hometown Smile,” has millions of views and listens online. His fans even call themselves “Bahjat troops.”
“‘Hometown Smile’ is a song I wrote about how, even during the toughest of times, in the experience we went through, my mom always kept a smile on her face,” Bahjat explained.
“And it kind of taught me that, you know what, you can be going through the worst situations, but looking at the face of someone that you love and seeing that smile, you're like, ‘Yeah, I feel home now,” he said.
Bahjat mostly sings in a blend of Arabic and English in a genre he calls "A-pop," or Arabic pop.
But, he said his fan base goes far beyond the Arabic-speaking world, and stretches from India to the United States.
“I think that's the beauty of pop music,” he said. “It truly shows you how many people feel the same emotion in different ways.”
Bahjat also chooses to be straightforward with his lyrics rather than poetic — preferring to sing frankly and openly about emotions — something that’s portrayed in his song “Halba,” meaning “very much” in the Libyan dialect.
“Thewhole premise of the song is like, I think I'm in love, but I don't want to admit it, but I think about you quite often. Like, you know, I tell my friends about you quite often,” he explained.
“I'm very proud of ‘Halba’ because it's one of those songs where I think I was able to use a purely Libyan word and use it in a way that's easily sung by anyone.”
Bahjat says that the Libyan dialect is well-suited for pop music because of the small linguistic ways it differs from more popular forms of Arabic.
“We also have a lot of ‘e’s’ in our dialect,” making the sound “eh” as opposed to “ah” at the end of a word, he explained. “The ‘eh’ is very musical, because anything that ends and lands on a very open vowel, I would say, makes pop music very catchy.”
Along with experimenting withlanguage, Bahjat is interested in playing around with references to pop culture.
One example is his song, “Aladdin,” based on the ambitious burglar popularized in the Disney film of the same name.
“I want to show you that, sometimes being an Aladdin means that you have no choice but to be overly ambitious and overly, you know, really eager to achieve what you want to achieve,” he said about how he reimagines the character.
“You don't have a decision on where you're born and the opportunities that brings you,” he said. And added that he aims to be the Aladdin of the music industry and hopes to popularize A-pop.
Despite his growing popularity, however, Bahjat said not everyone has been supportive of his music.
“I face a lot of backlash, and sadly, a lot of it comes from my home country because of the way I sing,” he said.
“Combined with the way I look, my fashion choices and [other] things, it just kind of makes me an easy target.”
But, Bahjat said, he is willing to take the hit so that the next generation of Libyan artists can be freer to express themselves.
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