“I wanna take you to Paris and spoil you, I want to go to Marseille and enjoy you, I want those guys in your DMs who talk to themselves and then tell all their friends that they know you.”
You may have chanced upon Saint Levant's lyrics in a TikTok video of the LA-based Arab artist rapping his intentions to spoil his love interest and inviting listeners worldwide to experience Middle Eastern culture in English, Arabic, and French. As a follow-up to our piece investigating how Arab music is moving West again, we're homing in on the success story of Saint Levant, who has garnered attention on various social media platforms and made a splash with his catchy song "Very Few Friends."
Born Marwan Abdelhamid in Jerusalem to a Palestinian-Serbian father and a French-Algerian mother, Saint Levant was raised in Gaza and spent most of his adolescent years in Jordan. After 10 years in Jordan, he moved to California to pursue higher education. During pandemic lockdowns, he started generating social media content centered on Palestinian history and comedic commentaries on controversial subjects like toxic masculinity and mental health in the Arab world. Soon, he had grown a significant following on TikTok, cultivating a deep connection with his audience, who were the first to rush to his shows and add him to their playlists once he shifted to music.
Since 2020, Abdelhamid has released several tracks, including "Eye to Eye" and "Mistakes," as well as Here and There, a joint EP with Bayou. Inititally, his music was featured primarily on third-party and MENA editorial playlists like Arab X and Arab Hip-Hop. However, it wasn’t until November 2022, when he released "Very Few Friends," that his music career really took off.
From Virality to Cross-Platform Success
It all started on TikTok. Saint Levant's TikTok engagement rate experienced a slight boost in mid-September, and his follower count growth remained constant until early October when he observed a slight lift. After teasing "Very Few Friends" for the first time in a late October 2022 video that has surpassed 4.3M views, his TikTok followers grew from 155K to 232K in just nine days. By release day, his hype was already soaring on TikTok, and the timing for a release was perfect, helping his TikTok following increase 5x in the span of two months.
During and after release week, Saint Levant continued to post different promotional content, leveraging "Very Few Friends" as much as possible. For example, one of the lyric visualizers of the track has 13.2M views and 1.7M likes and another video of a live performance in front of a highly engaged audience has 9.6M views and 1.3M likes. He kept engaging his audience with evergreen content, increasing the virality cycle and paving the way for a new release.
On Dec. 12, Saint Levant released his next single, "I Guess." Since the track dropped in the midst of the hype, it's difficult to tease out its contribution to cross-platform performance; however, with the new release came additional promotional content, which kept his TikTok followers and engagement rate growing, indicating higher interest and participation. His TikTok reached an unprecedented rate of 47 percent on January 5.
A song going viral on TikTok doesn’t always translate to cross-platform success, but when "Very Few Friends" went viral on TikTok, it quickly attracted listeners on Spotify. The track peaked at No. 2 on Spotify's Global Viral 50, had 67 entries on all Daily Viral 50 charts, and peaked at No. 1 in 19 countries and No. 2 in the US. The tracks’s streaming success helped it land on big playlists, including New Music Friday in 37 countries, big on the internet, and Pop Rising. This boosted Saint Levant's playlist reach from 580K to 35M by December. On Jan. 12, "Very Few Friends" was on 35 editorial playlists.
Saint Levant expanded his listenership and gained traction in various global regions, including trigger cities in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and European countries like Poland, Belgium, and Italy. He also gained new audiences in countries like the US, Germany, France, and Australia, where he was primarily known within the Arab diaspora. It's worth noting that his track reached No. 1 on the Daily Viral 50 chart in different countries at different times, such as Belgium on Nov. 28 and Canada on Dec. 19. Over time, the number of streams for the track increased organically, and it currently stands at 49M Spotify streams.
Saint Levant's Instagram followers have grown from 46K on release day to 500K+ today, i.e., more than 1K percent. When a song takes off on TikTok, it creates short-term hype that inevitably fades, so it's really up to the artist to capitalize on that hype in order to foster long-term fandom, but that takes more than a good editorial playlist placement or secret 'heating' buttons. Whether or not Saint Levant becomes a superstar remains to be seen, but we can analyze the present indicators that could help him sustain the hype surrounding him.
Saint Levant's Signals of Success
A Distinctive Persona
The Saint Levant moniker pays homage to both French luxury fashion house Saint Laurent and Abdelhamid’s cultural roots in the Levant region. His tousled brown hair, mustache, and old-fashion Middle Eastern signature outfit make him stand out: a white tank top (which most Arabs wear at home), earth-tone tailored pants, and leather loafers. His persona is fluid and may change throughout his career: He is currently in his “lover boy Levant” era, but he revealed to Rolling Stone that might evolve to "Cheb Levant" in honor of Algerian singer Cheb Khaled.
What remains constant for the Saint Levant persona is the year 2048, which is an alternate world Abdelhamid envisions where he returns to his birthright home, Palestine. He often refers to it in his lyrics or as a location on Instagram posts, using the phrase “Welcome to 2048” to invite his fans to join his journey.
Since context leads to content, he also demonstrates to his audience how his music might be relatable to them, regardless of cultural background, i.e., Saint Levant's POV TikTok videos for new releases from the point of view of the Western listener.
Through both of these approaches, Saint Levant is able to stay authentic while simultaneously cultivating audience bases that might or might not share his cultural background.
An Authentic Artist-Audience Relationship
There are a number of objectives an artist may have, but one of the most important is to be able to engage authentically with their audience. Saint Levant's initial releases and content primarily resonated with the Arab youth, which enabled him to cultivate a devoted following that gradually expanded beyond that demographic. By being authentic, candid, and personal, he forged a profound bond with his fans, creating a sense of a shared journey that started from his earliest work.
Saint Levant thoroughly understands his fans' preferences, inclinations, and motivations, which he fosters by actively engaging with them, soliciting their feedback, and delivering electrifying, intimate performances. In his mini documentaries that showcase landmark shows in his career, he gives an intimate glimpse into his life as an artist, reflecting on his journey, preparation for the show, and future projects.
The depth of the connection between Saint Levant and his audience means that his fan base is likely there for the long term, so his music career has sustainable potential.
“Before it was all about week one. Today it’s the opposite. It’s all about week 51. Week 151. Where you are after one week doesn’t really matter. Where are you a year later?” - Chaz Jenkins, Chartmetric chief commercial officer in How to Make It in the New Music Business (third edition) by Ari Herstand.
During the past three years, Saint Levant released around 20 tracks and 2 EPs, which was essential for maintaining engagement from his current fans and setting a precedent for future ones. Remember the hype on TikTok in November 2022? Well, it boosted the streams of four of his prior releases. For example, his single "Eye to Eye" was released 263 days before "Very Few Friends" came out, but the latter track significantly boosted its streaming trajectory.
For many artists, TikTok is the platform that's most conducive to authenticity, from A/B testing demos to engaging audiences. Saint Levant doesn’t hesitate to share unreleased music and demos and asks his audience if he should release a certain track or not. Today’s fans are more passionate than before and constantly demand content to stay engaged.
In recent days, Saint Levant's TikTok engagement rate has decreased, likely due to his infrequent posting. Nonetheless, a 10 percent engagement rate on TikTok indicates a robust and committed following, as more engaged fans tend to be more supportive of their favorite artists.
In summary, while virality can rapidly enhance brand visibility, more is needed for sustained success in the music industry. Focusing solely on building brand awareness without cultivating a dedicated fan base is not a viable long-term strategy.
Saint Levant's music doesn't appeal to everyone and has even been described pejoratively as "Wattpad" music by some, making a comparison between his sensual lyrics and the fan fiction short stories that are usually written on the online literature platform Wattpad. But he is still in his "lover boy" era, so there's always a chance "Cheb Levant" could put those criticisms to bed. We'll just have to wait and see.