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Mishaal Tamer, Saudi’s Rising Pop Star on Battling Anxiety and Sharing His Culture Through Music

Mishaal Tamer is Saudi’s rising pop star, but behind his ascent is a man who has battled crippling anxiety and pain.

When Mishaal Tamer was nine years old, he broke his arm; the resulting operation left him with 32 stitches. If surgery “fixed” his bone, the nerve damage in his fingers was lasting, still to this day. To help with the rehabilitation, a German doctor encouraged him to play guitar. Looking back, Tamer recalls the injury as destiny. As a boy, he was always listening to music; singing acapella, people would stop in their tracks hearing his melodies. Born in Jeddah, the son of a Saudi father and an Ecuadorian mother, he was, at first, dissuaded from exploring music further. But playing guitar on doctor’s orders didn’t just save his arm – it offered Tamer an outlet to express his feelings and get through the isolating perils of youth.

Tamer recalls that his mixed heritage proved to be a source of bullying from both fellow students and even school faculty. “I felt so alone,” he comments of his early years. Moving to Jordan to attend the boarding school King’s Academy as a teenager and with an inner musicality burning to be heard, he started a heavy metal band and later explored indie pop and then jazz. On the cusp of adulthood, he was accepted to the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music in New York, becoming the first ever Saudi at the school. From his dormitory, using his X-Box and guitar, he started uploading anonymous clips to the internet. Several went viral. The clips were also sampled by hundreds of artists. Tamer was following his calling, and he was starting to make friends.

Cover of Mishaal Tamer’s first demo, Arabian Knights

Back in KSA, Tamer filmed his first demo, Arabian Knights. The low-budget production caught the attention of Atlantic Records, RCA Records, Columbia Records, and Republic Records. Ultimately, he signed with RCA Records. He performed at MDLBeast Festival in 2021 and in 2022, with videos from both of his performances reaching fans around the world. The recent song Wallahi is a lyrical testament to everything turning out for the better. “I find a change in me. I’m not who I used to be,” he sings in the opening verse. “Look into my eyes wallahi I’ll be alright,” Today, the artist speaks openly about feeling alone, the end of a long-term relationship, losing two friends to suicide, and dark feelings that at times seemed to engulf his spirit. “I have recently gotten out of a very dark chapter in my life,” he reveals. “Through my music, the more vulnerable and honest I am with whoever listens, the more it connects and maybe helps someone out there. Someone who may be going through or has gone through what I have.”

Tamer performing Wallahi

When quarantine froze the world, Tamer lived in the studio in NYC for two years to focus on honing the crafts of songwriting and music production. During this time, he learned the piano, drums, and bass. With this new, self-taught skill set, he wrote and produced over 800 songs. When Tamer returned to Saudi Arabia towards the end of quarantine, he delved into his inspiration of the trendy K-pop genre. This, along with indie rock, metal, jazz, Spanish, Urban Latino and Arabic music from the Levant, Egypt, and the Khaleeji musical backgrounds, helped to form the foundations of his upcoming project that references the evolution of KSA. “I want to give another part of me to the world of music. I want to share my culture, I have not seen enough of our footprint in the global music market, and I think it’s time for the world to discover S-pop. This is what I hope to offer with my upcoming projects,” he states. Now, Tamer says he feels “prepared” to deliver. “I have quit smoking, began working out consistently, and am finally going to be releasing music as well. Everything is ready alhamdulillah. I feel prepared to give my fans art that inshallah will be worthy of their patience.” Tamer has almost 600 000 fans across his various social media platforms and one million monthly listeners on Spotify.

Mere years ago, music was not played publicly in Saudi Arabia, and Tamer’s desire to become a musician was a pipe dream. “Home is changing,” he states of Saudi; this is also the title of his new work. That includes 1: The Deep – part of a five-chapter project about self-discovery; and Tamer’s own story of overcoming what he says is “suicidal depression over the last five years.” He is also conscious of his own role in turning the tide. “People are shocked when they hear I’m from KSA. I have had fans from abroad who discover me and it opens their mind to what a Saudi can be. A couple even ended up traveling to Saudi for the first time to attend my show. They were afraid to travel here before they discovered me and became fans; that’s how little people from abroad know of our beautiful country,” he says. “Through music, it’s a way for us to change that, it reaches people through emotion, it connects on a human level and that can be very powerful.” Brands such as Bulgari have taken note of Tamer’s talent, and he’s since appeared in various campaigns. Arms open wide and face turned towards the sun, he is steadfast with his message that life is beautiful. “It was always difficult for me to talk about my feelings or open up. Music is my way,” he says of his chosen conduit. “That’s why I’m so close with my fans; they know me inside out.”

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Vogue Man Arabia

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