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Syrian rapper embraces NFTs to shake up Middle East music industry

Nonfungible tokens are charting a new course for artists, and one Syrian musician hopes they will help more Arab artists gain independence.
Rapper and producer Al Darwish.

Syrian rapper and producer Al Darwish, looked upon as a pillar of the Arab hip-hop community, has been making music for almost two decades. Darwish recently turned his attention to blockchain-based music nonfungible tokens (NFTs) to sell and market his music. As a result, he released the first-ever Arab rap NFT track in the Middle East and North Africa region. 

Darwish was introduced to NFTs by a friend and fellow rapper about six months ago. After researching the market, he chose Nifty Souq, an NFT platform launched in 2021 by Palestinian entrepreneur Nabil Al-Sayed, to distribute 23 copies of his track “Ana.” “NFTs give us leeway to be our own artists and a huge margin of independence,” Darwish said. “It’s important for people who work in the Arab music scene to push forward with NFTs.”  

Darwish currently lives in Germany. Once he discovered how selling NFTs could potentially compensate artists, particularly without an intermediary like a record label or a streaming platform, he decided to enter the NFT space. “I started doing music almost 20 years ago, searching for independence. I have turned down major record labels and major offers for distribution because I believe we are creating a huge market and should own our royalties. In 15 years, we will be the pioneers who started Arabic hip-hop.” 

Sayed's goal with Nifty Souq was to bring the NFT marketplace to the MENA region. He believes that NFTs provide a more efficient alternative to monetizing artists' work using blockchain technology. NFTs utilize smart contracts, which refer to programming code in the blockchain. When creating the smart contract, artists set specific rules on a number of items, including how much royalties they can receive for every transaction. When a person "mints" an NFT, a network of computers carries out the agreed-upon actions and triggers the next step in the smart contract. 

“The smart contract technology is advancing in more than one way to support NFT artists,” Sayed said. “As a result, a type of mediaverse is now emerging. Artists will benefit from sales and royalties.”  

NFT Now, a digital media company, said in a recent article that thanks to digital tokens, independent musicians don’t need a corporate label to reach an audience.

Dubai-based hip-hop musician Ben Caesar is another artist to release his track as music NFT on the platform Opensea, the largest NFT marketplace. 

Caesar told Al-Monitor, “Music legalities are difficult to explain even for seasoned artists. Copyright, publishing, licensing, royalties and how music is consumed need to be considered.” 

He continued, "There is a layer of education and orientation when coming into the NFT space. Now more than ever, there are many creative ways to release and reward supporters, but it is vital artists have a fundamental understanding.” 

“I think the era of artists just creating and letting someone else control the rest is not going to lead the way forward," said Caesar.

Water and Music, a research company for music and technology trends, pointed out last year that the average single-copy music NFT is significantly inflated in price, demonstrating that "this economy is financially out of reach for the vast majority of fans." However, they point out that this refers to a tiny number of working musicians.  

The music NFT market crashed last year by 97% since its peak, according to NFT Now. Yet a recent article from Water and Music explores how music NFT platforms are investing heavily in onboarding new users to capture a share of a rapidly expanding market.  

One such platform, Loud Market Ltd, was present at the recent Crypto Expo (March 16-17), among many crypto-related events in the MENA region, particularly Dubai. James Gray, CEO of Loud Market and guest speaker for the talk "How NFTs will change music," discussed how the adoption of music streaming had triggered rapid market growth. And according to the company catalog, "The growth has redirected income away from the artists who previously made the most money from physical sales. By introducing scarcity to the market, fans can potentially pay more revenue than streaming platforms, which means the artist gets more for their music." 

Sayed told Al-Monitor, “We at Nifty Souq are always open to collaboration, but our strength is and will always be the artist-community relationship. We come from Arabic Indie, a platform that we have built for Arabic independent music. Our goal was always to support this community before we adopted NFTs as a means to elevate the Arab music scene."