Lebanese singer aims to become Arab world's biggest crossover star
Layal Halabi was already in her teens the first time she heard pop music. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, pop music was simply unavailable – its existence something she didn’t even consider. Thankfully for the 25-year- old Lebanese singer, whose debut album Had to be Me recently landed on UAE shelves, that all changed when her family moved to Dubai. ‘I didn’t know what had hit me,’ she says today, reflecting on a life in which more than half is still pre-pop.
Instead of pop music, the only entertainment the young Layal could find was watching videos of TV commercials. ‘Growing up in Riyadh, there wasn’t much music. In fact there was no music at all,’ she remembers. ‘My dad used to get TV commercial tapes from the market – that was my only source of entertainment for 13 years. I would watch those tapes over and over for hours. I’d memorise them, sing along with them. Just commercials.’
Moving to Dubai aged 13 was like lighting a fuse. Music was suddenly everywhere, and Layal threw herself into discovering the greats: she cites Ray Charles and Etta James as favourites. But crucially, music was not just there to consume, but to practise. Music was formally taught at high school, and it was here that she first learned to sing.
‘At school there was a music class!’ she exclaims. ‘For me that was like heaven. I walked in and there were all these instruments I’d never seen before. I begged my teacher to let me take a saxophone home – he said no, but I took it anyway. He was amazing. He said, “I hear something [in you] – if you’re really passionate about it, you need to perfect your gift.” He changed my life. From that moment on, music has always been in my mind.’
Despite this sudden thirst for music, Layal was forbidden from going to concerts until she was an adult. At 19 she went to her first gig: American rockers Puddle of Mudd at Dubai Media City. Just a few years later Layal herself took to the stage, joining a covers band and gigging at corporate events. Yet she also had a day job working as a marketing executive for a water company (‘treat, recycle, disinfect’).
Three years ago Layal’s life took a dynamic shift when she was spotted by savvy producer Kevin Bassett.
The pair holed up in the studio, spending months training her voice, writing and recording a total of 86 songs. And then, in a post-Gaga puff of mist, DD Foxx arrived, a fully-formed pop star in our midst.
Press shots boldly display Foxx as a futuristic Björk-esque statue of gleaming metallic dresses and garish masks. Had to be Me, a bold album of Euro-influenced dance-pop and R&B grooves, has been given a major release across the region by Virgin Middle East. Yet DD hasn’t even stepped onto a stage yet.
DD Foxx is pure pop product – there’s no such person. Of course, a singer taking a stage name is nothing new, but this is something more. Layal isn’t DD, DD isn’t Layal: it’s more conceptual than that. Ask the 25-year-singer to explain her relationship to the caricature, and she flinches in an effort to put it in plain words. ‘DD Foxx is different aspects of my personality,’ she offers. ‘DD Foxx is the Arab lady with the different characters – you don’t know what to expect next. She lives within me and comes out in lots of different characters.’
The sleight of hand appears to have worked. As we went to press, Layal – or rather DD – was in New York, following interest from a couple of major labels looking to market her to America. Not bad for a girl who’d never heard a pop record until she was 13.
But such innocence is a breeding ground for ambition. Layal herself may have played just one solo gig in her life (at Chi last year, supporting Sean Kingston, long before the DD character was born) but she isn’t the least bit phased by the sudden exposure. ‘My goal is to be the first Middle Eastern Arab woman to come out of Dubai and become a global talent,’ she says without flinching. ‘I believe I can do this.’ Had to be Me is out now, available at Virgin Megastores.