MTSU history professor sees the fast-paced Saudi music industry from the front row seat

MURFRESBORO, Tenn. – The sound of Saudi Arabia changes at breakneck speed, and an MTSU professor is an eyewitness.

With the help of Recording Industry Department Chairman and Grammy-nominated recording engineer John Merchant, history professor Sean Foley hosted a concert and college symposium on the emerging independent music scene in Saudi Arabia. The event took place at the Hayy Jameel Cultural Center in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in March.

A chance encounter with Raghad, a Saudi disc jockey who only uses her professional first name, at Jeddah airport led to her inclusion in the event. Merchant handled the audio and Raghad performed between sets.

Singer-songwriter Ghada Sheri; Moe Abdo, a Sudanese musician born and raised in Saudi Arabia; R&B artist Ahmed Amin; and singer Hamza Hawsawi, winner of the 2015 X-Factor Middle East contest, were the hosts.

“Saudi Arabia has a conservative religious tradition and for various reasons music was not as much a part of the public space…until the last couple of years,” Foley said. “It’s moving very, very fast.”

In fact, Foley said he feels this musical transformation is moving so quickly that his essays and research papers may become outdated by the time they are published.

Foley is the author of “Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture and Society in the Kingdom”. He has written about modern shifts in Saudi culture for years, including a July 2021 article published by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington that mentioned Wall of Sound, the kingdom’s first independent music label.

The article, which has been translated into Arabic, caught the attention of a funder willing to support the concert and symposium, as well as an article providing an overall assessment of the burgeoning contemporary music scene in Saudi Arabia. saudi.

Raghad said this transformation is happening not only with the permission of the monarchy but also with its resources. A comprehensive reform program called Vision 2030, under the leadership of 36-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, includes the arts, as well as economic development, women’s rights and the preservation of cultural heritage.

“Our government gave us (courses) for music production, sound engineering, DJ skills and vocal engineering,” Raghad said. “I graduated from one of them and after I finished I continued (with) my passion.”

The day after the concert, Foley hosted a small academic symposium with 20–30 selected attendees that included musicians, lawyers, and concert programmers. They discussed copyright issues, personal experiences, and how musicians get paid.

“We put them in a circle…to encourage discussion, but also to make it seem like this is a very important cultural institution for the kingdom called majlis,” Foley said. “You see a majlis in almost every house in the kingdom. You see them in public places. It is a place where people gather and discuss.

Foley said another major talking point is the rapidly developing inclusion of music education.

“Music is, for the first time in many, many years, incorporated into the program,” Foley said. “People are dying for music education, both online and in person.”

“It was really amazing for me to be part of a job that also includes my culture, my country and my city,” said Raghad.

As for the possibility of making the concert an annual event, Foley is optimistic.

“My impression is that this is just the beginning,” Foley said.

To hear some of Raghad’s work, go to To read Foley’s 2021 article on contemporary music in the Arab Gulf States, go to To read Arab News’ coverage of the Jeddah concert, go to

Comments are closed.