Mayssa Karaa Elevates the Performing Arts in Abu Dhabi
Mayssa Karaa B.M. ’12 grew up in Beirut, singing along to the Arabic music that would become an inseparable part of her identity. She carried this music on her artistic journey from Lebanon to Berklee, Hollywood, Bollywood, and all the way back to the Middle East, where now she serves as the artistic director of Berklee Abu Dhabi.
Karaa’s résumé as an international hitmaker reflects her range as a vocalist and songwriter. She recorded a globally-celebrated version of “White Rabbit” for the Grammy-nominated American Hustle soundtrack; had a no. 1 hit on Apple Music India with her A.R. Rahman–produced track "Hayati," and earned over 34 million views for “The Arabic Alphabet Song'' from Sesame Street.
But many of her proudest achievements have happened outside the studio. Karaa served an instrumental role in the initial negotiations for the 42,000-square-foot Berklee Abu Dhabi Center, which represents the only site of a North American institution for music and performing arts in the Middle East. She was a founding member and artistic director of the Firdaus Orchestra, the first all-women orchestral ensemble in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which recently accompanied Beyoncé at the Expo City Dubai. Karaa will also be involved in an upcoming campaign for breast cancer awareness sponsored by the UAE’s Ministry of Health.
While Karaa recognizes that they are “still in the beginning of the journey and have a long way to go” in terms of raising the profile of the performing arts in the Middle East, she also said that there are many key advancements being made, including the recent launch of the Berklee Abu Dhabi Fellowship Fund. As Berklee celebrates Women’s History Month, we dove deeper into what inspires Karaa, her work with Berklee Abu Dhabi, and her role within a community where the arts and cultural expression are making important strides.
You were recently honored with a Pride of UAE award at the Global Business Symposium 2023, held in Abu Dhabi. Congratulations on this accolade! Do you take a special kind of pride in being celebrated by the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, South Asia) region?
The fact that the symposium acknowledges the music business and entertainment industry in addition to people from so many different backgrounds was definitely something encouraging. Being originally from the region and witnessing the growth that has happened here has been pretty fascinating, so I’m happy to be part of this kind of change. It was a great honor and it empowers me to do more and to keep investing in the vision that I have for this industry here.
Have your experiences as an artist, a performer, and a music business entrepreneur impacted how you approach your role at Berklee Abu Dhabi?
As an artist, it’s all about creating and that is what inspires me to keep doing what I do. I bring a lot of creativity to my job, and pairing it with the work I’m doing as an artist helps me fuel my ideas. I see a great added value to have people who are working within the [academic] establishment to be active in the industry, because they become a good role model for the students. Everyone who has been hired here in Abu Dhabi has this kind of profile.
How has the experience in Abu Dhabi inspired you in ways you weren’t expecting?
I like the entrepreneurial spirit and I feel like it’s something that inspires me every day [at Berklee Abu Dhabi]. When we came here, it was like a start-up. We had to define the direction that we wanted to move forwards with and test the waters with so many different things. We want to make sure we are filling the gaps with what is needed here rather than impose something that we assume is going to function. It has been very inspiring to be part of this study of what it is that Berklee can do in this part of the world. What continues to motivate me is seeing artists that walked into this space and are now either signed to music labels, have high streams on social platforms, or have gotten accepted into other Berklee programs, including Boston, New York, and Valencia. It’s a crucial time for Berklee Abu Dhabi to be here because there is nothing like it in the region. I’m looking forward to witnessing more success stories of our students. It’s always inspiring to see the things they are achieving.
Your music embodies a cross-cultural philosophy, in both the way you blend styles and the message you put behind the music. What role did your time at Berklee play in helping you to define that idea, and how is it reflected in your work at Berklee Abu Dhabi?
I was raised on and grew up singing Arabic music. I was very influenced by the local culture and it’s something that was always very relevant to everything I did. Even before moving to the U.S., I was exposed to western music and trained in the classical world. But it was my experience at Berklee that helped me realize we can’t put our creativity in a box. I had been struggling to define what it is that I do. Being at Berklee, I was surrounded by people from so many places and so many styles of music that I had never come across. I ended up getting opportunities like singing in a Bollywood movie, and singing Balkan music in Serbia, which came out of a small Balkan group at Berklee. It really helped me free myself from those limitations in terms of my identity as an artist. At Berklee Abu Dhabi, we try to instill that same mindset. The program brings together people of different backgrounds from all over the region, and every semester they end up collaborating with each other. We don’t have any borders or any limitations, and we believe you can only create good things by putting yourself out there.
Empowerment and overcoming adversity are central themes of your music. What kind of adversity did you face breaking into this industry and how does that come out through in your music?
I think [it comes through] with the choice of the messages that I like to embrace with my music. I always feel that if [my music] changes the perspective of one person towards themselves, I feel that I have succeeded. I have one song called “TiTi”...and the message behind it is to love yourself. No matter what you change in your physique, you will still be who you are.
I think I faced more challenges on the side of business than as a performer. Women are typically a minority working in the business side of music, and I feel like that is where I’ve had to impose myself more. I’ve been really pushing hard to advocate for women in music. I was appointed artistic director of Firdaus, the first all-female orchestra of a large size here in the UAE. It’s nice to see that there’s awareness in the region to give women a chance to show their talents.