12 January 2023
Saint Levant: Home-maker
With nearly a million monthly listeners on Spotify, Saint Levant has blazed a trail on the music and social media scene with just over 20 singles and EPs in French, Arabic and English. The 22-year-old rapper and musician is based in LA and often sings about the Middle East and his Palestinian roots.
Marwan Abdelhamid or Saint Levant as he’s known to millions of his fans, is attending to a range of breakfast tasks when I speak to him over a Zoom call: coffee and emails. I ask him what he considers ‘home.’
‘I find home in community…in friends,’ he says, seemingly still searching for something definitive. ‘My friends are spread out all over the world, so when we get together, I find it in those fleeting moments.’
Finding home for the singer is, understandably, a challenge. Born in 2000 in Jerusalem to a French-Algerian mother and a Palestinian-Serbian father, Marwan’s childhood was spent in Palestine until the age of seven before his family fled the outbreak of the civil war in the Gaza strip. The social media star and musician now finds himself in Santa Barbara, California and his work harbours laments for his homeland, giving him a platform to describe his devotion to the Palestinian cause. Marwan, who started producing content just three years ago on Tiktok and Instagram and has since amassed nearly 450,000 and 230,000 followers on those platforms respectively, talks to us in an interview about pursuing music while being distanced from any defined sense of home.
At six years of age, Marwan and his family found refuge in Jordan. They lived there for 10 years before he moved to California to pursue a degree. Aged 18, Marwan found the public sphere. Demonstrating a natural flair for social media, the proud Palestinian took to creating educational content for people looking to understand the Palestine-Gaza conflict. His videos reached hundreds of thousands on Instagram and TikTok. During the pandemic in May 2021, one video in particular shot the youth to fame. Marwan famously defended supermodel sisters Gigi and Bella Hadid’s right to protest the Palestinian cause in a Tik-Tok video that clocked more than 650,000 plays.
‘Yeah. She (Bella Hadid) messaged to thank me after that. She followed me [on social media] too.’
During these early days of online activism and content creation, while also undertaking a Bachelor's Degree in International Relations, Marwan began entertaining the idea of pursuing his lifelong dream of music. He started channelling his energy for the wider Palestinian effort into personal passion projects. Marwan steadily released song snippets over beats he’d self-produce or record short videos of himself performing over music by Bu Kulthoum, Jack Harlow and Drake. The budding musician eventually partnered with producer Henry Morris, who remains to this day his close friend and collaborator. Marwan carefully developed the musical persona that would come to be known as Saint Levant, dedicating himself entirely to music in the latter half of 2021.
At 22, the multilingual rapper and singer boasts roughly one million monthly Spotify listeners. His 20-something singles and EPs in French, Arabic and English evince a growing discography that flirts with multiple genres from honest, reflective RnB (Very Few Friends - 4.6 million Spotify plays) and upbeat dance tracks (Eye to Eye’, 1.3 million Spotify plays) to modern, French ballads. The latter is filled with sorrowful lyrics and nostalgia that capture the sound of a man seeking to return to his homeland. The musician also catches listeners off-guard with adrenaline-pumping Arabic drill anthems like ‘Hamdulilah’ and ‘By the Sea’, the lyrical content and sound of which underline the Palestinian in his identity.
Shoo Drill Music?
Drill is an evolution of modern trap music, a subgenre of hip-hop music that originated in Atlanta during the 1990s. It is characterised by frantic 808 basslines that zip, crash and drop to create a wild, frenzied energy. Other countries and rap scenes have their own Drill identities; on the Arab scene Freek (Dubai) and Shab Jdeed (Palestine) are good examples.
Asad Siddique: How do you go from being a social media activist to a musician?
Saint Levant: I’ve always wanted to be a musician. There are a lot of layers and evolutions to my music, but that transition happened naturally because the first two songs I made were ‘Jerusalem Freestyle’ and ‘Nirvana in Gaza,’ which are both very activist and charged. From there, my people and community respected and embraced my character development. And the activism work still goes on, but now it’s more direct and tangible with wanting to help Palestinian creatives financially.
AS: Is Saint Levant a play on the name Saint John?
SL: No, (laughs). It’s actually Saint Laurent. Like Yves Saint Laurent and obviously the Levant region. I was at the gym listening to 21 Savage, and he has this line [from the song Money Convo] that goes ‘I’m the Saint Laurent Don’ and I misheard it as ‘the Saint Levant Don.’ I stopped what I was doing and said to myself, ‘Saint Levant!’ I called my boy Talal and said ‘Bro, Saint Levant!’ He loved it. I rushed to Instagram to check if the username was available. It was, and I took it immediately. I put up a poll asking if I should keep the name. 70 per cent said ‘no’ but I didn’t care, I was keeping it. It clicked. Someday, I’m gonna tell 21 Savage this story.
AS: Tell us about the behind-the-scenes videos and mini-documentaries you make for your fans.
SL: I’ve always been big on social media strategy and content creation. With long-form content like this, it's a way to build a community. People connect when they watch a long video. It’s also just for me to look back and relive those moments. Yesterday, I was watching the one from my Toronto show, and the adrenaline came back to me. I would love it if Burna Boy, Jack Harlow or other artists that I love and respect, had created a series like this.
AS: How do you keep yourself from burning out on social media?
SL: Over the past year, I have used social media as a creator for one hour a day. 9-10 am, then I’m off. I’m super strict with that. This has changed my life. I don’t touch Instagram and TikTok after 10 am. I never see myself going back to using them without those time frames.
AS: How is the International Relations degree feeding into your music? Was there a plan for diplomacy or politics?
SL: Of course. A lot of Palestinian youth have aspirations of getting into human rights law or international relations to serve the cause and make real change. Before I made music, I was doing a lot of online socio-political activism 一 creating educational content geared towards Palestinian youth. I read a lot and one of my strengths is taking a text, synthesising information and breaking it down. At the same time, I was running a start-up called GrowHome, which connected Palestinians in the diaspora to entrepreneurs in Palestine for investment opportunities, mentorship and networking. I did that for a year. I was 19 and speaking with the World Bank. It was mad.
I realised economic development was way more interesting and tangible to me than politics and content creation.
For now, I’m focusing on my music and keeping these things for when I’m older because I want to build a platform for myself. I love making music. Right now, I’m running what’s called the 2048 fellowship where we grant 2000 dollars a month to Palestinian creatives. Eventually, I want to build a university. That’s the vision.
AS: What is your musical process?
SL: I work with my long-time producer Henry Morris. I met him in college and we work together on everything. We’ll sit down here in my home studio. It’s usually the beats first.
Saint Levant shows me his apartment living room where he and Henry work late into the night.
We co-produce everything — we’ll make a rough draft, he’ll leave, I’ll write over it, then he’ll come back and we’ll work together on it some more. Sometimes, Henry isn’t there. For instance, this summer I was in London for a month, and I wasn’t not going to make music for a whole month! I wanted to be resourceful. So instead of using any generic type beats, which I hate, I would find songs I liked, strip the vocals, write my own song over that and reproduce the beat in a completely different way. Sometimes, I’ll love the vibe of something and create an acapella for it. Later, Henry and I will craft a beat for an acapella that I’ve worked on myself.
AS: Are there any other producers you work with?
SL: Yeah, Henry has been with me from the very start. From the first song, Jerusalem Freestyle. I work with other producers too, like right now I’m working with some crazy guys like Khalil Cherradi, Yef, this pianist from London and Buddy Caderni. Yesterday Khalil and I made two songs in 24 hours. It was insane. These are the four people I work with mainly but Henry and I are like Drake and 40. Drake will produce some things with Boi-1da or others but his main executive producer is 40. Henry’s like that for me.
AS: What was a key breakthrough moment in your music journey, production-wise?
SL: 1001 Nights. That was when we found the pocket. Now we’ve moved away from that. We sampled Edward Said, and I had my friend from Nablus play oud over it. I love the production on it. It was still me and Henry in my Santa Barbara apartment working every day trying to find something. But that felt like the moment we discovered the sound that we wanted.
AS: Do you hesitate about writing music that references Arab culture or history? Does being in the US alienate potential audiences?
SL: For me, the music is everything. And when it clicks with certain fans, it’s sick. When I make the lyrics, I’m like ‘I’ll explain this on Genius someday, so it’s calm.’ They don’t have to get it. I think it makes it cooler, that it’s a bit less attainable ー if you get it, you get it.
AS: Do you relate to other stateside Arab figures such as Ramy, Mo, Narcy, Rami Malek and the Hadid Sisters, who are working publicly towards a better understanding of the Arab world?
SL: I think what they’re doing is amazing, and it’s changing the narrative in America ー Ramy especially, who said recently in a podcast (Flagrant by Andrew Schulz) that he gets joy out of building other people up, and doing this work with Arabs collectively, like what he’s done with Mo.
But for me, it’s different because the people you mentioned are American-Palestinian or American-Arab. I’m not; I have no association with America. I came here to study. They’re very focused on changing the narrative in the US, which is very important work because American culture spills over to the rest of us.
I’m in this weird place where I’m French-Algerian and Serbian too. I speak French at home. ‘Mediterranean’ doesn’t exist as an ethnicity but I would consider myself something closer to that. So I understand there’s a similarity in what we’re all doing but also, I don’t want to be the one to say what the difference is.
AS: You went international this summer with shows in Paris, London, Toronto, Montreal and Amman. How does it feel?
SL: It’s been mad. We’re selling out venues now. We’ll be selling out arenas too someday.
AS: Your mother was in attendance in Amman. What was it like for her?
SL: Aw man. The second I came out [after the show], my mom was crying. It was incredible. She sees 250 people, and they’re all screaming. I’m like ‘See, mama I told you!’ Having her there that night, I felt nothing could go wrong.
AS: Did you worry she wouldn't understand the music you’re making?
SL: Not at all. My parents aren’t traditional in that way. You should see my dad with me on my TikTok! My dad DJs. He’s a movie producer. I get most of my musicality, my creativity, fashion…everything from him. He doesn’t care what you think and through that, he gave me the confidence to do whatever I wanted. I’m so comfortable with who I am today because I saw that growing up.
AS: Who or what inspires your sense of home?
SL: I find home in community and in friends, who are spread out all over the world. I find home in the fleeting moments that I’m able to spend with them. When I think of home, I think more of Jordan than Gaza sometimes because we moved there as a family when I was seven, and my family is still there. It’s tough being so far away, here in California. I would love to go back to Gaza at some point but right now that would be very difficult.
All of my favourite raï singers [a form of Algerian folk music from the 1920s] like Cheb Khaled and Cheb Hasni would always make music about the ghurba [or migration] like the old Arab Levantine poets. It’s so beautifully dramatic. It’s about missing home. I try to channel that [style] because I miss home. At the same time, I realise home is not necessarily a physical place anymore. I find home in routine now. I find home in my work; in my music. It makes me comfortable. It makes me stable.
Asad Siddique is a music journalist based in Sharjah, UAE.