Using music and tech to break through barriers.

Hana is a journalist from Lebanon, who has worked in her home country and in the UAE for the likes of Fortune Arabia and Arabian Business. Naturally curious, she took her English Literature degree into the world of business journalism nine years ago, and found out that she could actually get paid for it. Entrepreneurship, innovation, and the courage to try are at the core of her writing.

Part of the “Women To Watch” featured in the November issue of Inc. Arabia. Contrary to popular belief, the Middle East and North Africa region is home to millions of highly educated, driven and successful women who stand shoulder to shoulder with men. Here are some of those inventors, change agents, business leaders, educators, innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors are no longer okay with the status quo. 

For most of us, the internet is a tool to do business, connect, or shop online. For Esra’a Al Shafei, it is a tool to help stop censorship and promote freedom of speech. “Growing up in Bahrain, I witnessed a lot of injustices,” says Al Shafei. “The rights of migrant workers, ethnic and religious minorities, and the LGBT community are what made me delve into the challenges of human rights advocacy. I felt responsible for protecting the people who are building our societies.”

In 2006, the political science graduate launched Mideast Youth as a simple group-blogging platform in an attempt to bring different factions from the region to one platform, which promotes freedom of speech and social justice.

“There were a lot of borders and barriers that didn’t allow us as people to communicate and learn from each other. But then when I started using the internet, I knew right away that it was going to be the gateway to freedom of speech.”

For the first four years, Mideast Youth was a one-woman-show where Al Shafei had to work several odd freelance jobs to sustain the business.

Over time, Mideast Youth morphed into an ecosystem of platforms that include CrowdVoice, Ahwaa, Migrants Rights, Kurdish Rights, and Mideast Tunes, which aim to make the under-reported and marginalized voices across the Middle East and North Africa heard. The open-source platform uses a broad spectrum of social media tools, ranging from written blogs, podcasts, vlogs, comics, video animation and pictures to live broadcasting through radio.

Of these projects, Al Shafei is most passionate about Mideast Tunes, an application featuring underground musicians from across the MENA region.

“We have amazing artists that are pushing out very daring, courageous, inspiring music that no one knows about. So, we wanted to create a place where we can showcase that kind of music. This is the music that speaks to our identity.”

For Al Shafei, preserving and promoting such music is to keep the many distinct cultures and their forms of music alive as well as to support these artists and ensure that they continue creating in their art forms.

In 2010, Mideast Tunes started as a web app with 10 bands from the Gulf. Today, it has transformed into a mobile application available on Android and iOS with over 350,000 app users listening to more than 10,000 original tracks from 1,700 bands across the region.

The service also has an offline listening capability, allowing users in conflict areas such Palestine, Iraq and Syria to connect with the music without needing ongoing access to internet.

“We think it has huge potential to grow. We see the kind of people it invites and the dialogue it creates. People are talking about gender identity because of female rappers in Egypt, and social justice because of metal musicians is Saudi Arabia. We also see a lot of Syrian refugees turning to music instead of journalism or documentaries to express themselves and express their identities to the world.”

Through her work, Al Shafei won several civil society accolades. She is the recipient of the “Berkman Award” from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, and the Monaco Media Prize, which acknowledges innovative uses of media for the betterment of humanity.

In 2014, Mideast Tunes received a grant from the Beirut-based Arab Fund for Arts and Culture that funds individuals and organizations in the fields of cinema, performing arts, literature, music and visual arts across the Arab world.

“Over the years, we have sustained ourselves through several crowdfunding campaigns and grants from the artists and the users. Yet, financing is a constant struggle. That is why we are trying to work our way towards financial sustainability.”

Al Shafei believes that Mideast Tunes has a bright future given that music in the region has underestimated when it comes to how much power it has. “We talk about the power of journalism and blogging. What about the power of music? It is something that can move millions of people at a time…people who don’t speak the same language or belong to the same movement.”