Figures in Music: Head of Empire WANA Suhel Nafar

Suhel Nafar speaks to his journey and influence in the global music scene, focusing on his work with EMPIRE's West Asia/North Africa division to promote Arab artists around the world.

Figures in Music: Head of Empire WANA Suhel Nafar
Jubran Haddad
Jubran Haddad
June 4, 20247 min read
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For Suhel Nafar, the head of EMPIRE’s West Asia/North Africa division, interactions across time zones and regions have kept him connected with global operations. 

In the second installment of our Figures in Music series, we chatted with the Arabic music expert about unlocking the power of WANA exports in the global music scene. Long before being named one of Billboard's 2024 International Power Players, Suhel was a member and co-founder of DAM, the first Palestinian hip-hop band. After global tours, teaching at NYU, and leading Arab Music & Culture at Spotify, he transitioned to VP of strategy at Empire in 2021. 

In recent years, Arab artists have used social media and digital streaming platforms to break into global markets, blending their cultural expressions with international music trends, and even managed to perform at major festivals. In many cases, Nafar has played a significant role in guiding and supporting these artists’ careers and their teams.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What does a typical day at the office look like at EMPIRE?

My daily routine is quite unique. I have an amazing team that works cross-functionally across many territories worldwide. We operate in a very 'glocalized' way, combining local roots with global experience. Culturally, we're deeply connected to the streets and actively participate in events to support and amplify our artists' work. Each day is a mix of different activities. For example, today I started with a meeting with the California team, followed by one with the team in France, and then one with the team in Lebanon. Our schedule revolves around the needs of our artists and their teams, spanning different time zones and regions.

When looking at the EMPIRE WANA Instagram account, the feed showcases many talented artists from around the world, including those from the region and the diaspora, across different genres. Are these artists signed to Empire under traditional label contracts?

When it comes to an EMPIRE deal, artists may be signed under distribution deals, dual distribution/marketing deals, or label deals. Some artists are also signed through partners. Ultimately, we support labels because we believe in building infrastructure and the industry - an approach which is based on two core philosophies.

First, if you look at how EMPIRE started, it began as an infrastructure tool, a distributor even back when music became digital, with downloads before streams. Initially, Ghazi [CEO and founder of EMPIRE] would go to hip-hop artists in the streets, explain the process, take CDs, convert them, and sell them. It evolved from a Bay Area distributor to a worldwide label. 

Second, as someone who has been an artist since I was 14, I never had anyone to mentor or guide me. We had to learn from our mistakes and build everything from scratch, both literally and metaphorically. As Palestinian artists, we lacked a scene and infrastructure, so we had to create stages and the entire music scene ourselves. After going through that experience, joining Spotify, launching it in the region, and working with artists across different cultures and genres, I identified gaps that I wanted to bridge. This led me to my next step: moving to Empire to build a department focused on building infrastructure and supporting artists.

Many Arab artists have gained popularity on social media and playlists over the past few years. What has been your favorite moment recently and how are you working to amplify artists through these channels?

I wouldn't say there's just one moment, as there are many worth mentioning. I've followed MC Abdul since he had 800 followers; his rise to over a million on Instagram is a historic moment for all of us. Saint Levant, whom I've supported since his first single, has also crossed over one million Instagram followers. Elyanna's journey from SoundCloud to her debut album, Llunr's song becoming a wedding anthem in the Philippines, and promoting Mishaal Tamer from my Spotify days to now at Empire are all proud moments for me.

When I was at Spotify, I noticed a gap in female artist representation, which was around 2 to 3%. My goal was to increase female artists' releases to 20%, so launched a playlist called ‘Women w-bass’ (which translates to "women only" or "women, and that’s enough"). It featured 100% female artists. This evolved into ‘Sawtik’ (your voice) and eventually became EQUAL Arabia.

Another significant achievement was launching Yalla, now the biggest Spotify playlist in the Arab world, which we launched with the Moroccan artist Manal.

In 2023, at Empire, out of over 400 artists we distributed, 40% were female artists. Seeing this growth within the industry is especially remarkable for us Arabs, who are often perceived as oppressing women. Having 40% of our releases by women is a significant achievement, yet it's still not enough.

How do you utilize Chartmetric data at EMPIRE? Is there a go-to feature that you typically rely on?

I've been using Chartmetric for probably five years now. I love how Chartmetric keeps updating its features. For each need, I have specific tools that I like to use.

I often review all the playlists, especially the top user-generated ones. While editorial playlists are great, I'm more interested in user-generated content because it's more authentic. I use Chartmetric to check out user playlists and identify which ones are created by real users, not paid third-party services. From an A&R perspective, I use all my tools, including Chartmetric, to verify the claims artists make about their streams and spikes. I like to see where their traffic is coming from, whether it's editorial playlists, user playlists, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, or paid third-party playlists. I believe using paid playlists is detrimental for any artist, particularly those early in their career, as it can distort their understanding of their real audience.

What advice would you give artists starting to use data without getting too caught up in it?

I always tell them first, "Don't look at data as hard numbers." It represents humans, reflecting human behavior, your audience, potential next, and current fans. The only way to build your career is by looking at data. You could try building it from your gut, but even if you don't look at data and book a room to perform, when you come out and say, "I had 100 or 200 people at my show," that means you've looked at data. 

For example, we noticed growth in Llunr’s audience when one of his songs became a wedding anthem in the Philippines. We decided to create more songs with a similar, more cinematic sound to cater to this audience and approach was part of the sonic evolution that came from analyzing audience data.

What actions do you recommend artists take to maintain steady momentum, if not growth?

One thing that artists need to understand is that they need to find the right deal. Sometimes, you can be locked in a deal with a label, like the major labels, which can affect your growth. Your team is very important, so always make sure you have a solid team to amplify and not block you. 

Second, it's not about your track; it's about you. The track is just another step that helps you to go up. But it's not the building; you are the building; you are the core of your business as an artist. Don't get upset if you're releasing a song and it doesn't get playlists. Keep building your brand, and keep going. You have to get to a point where you built fandom, and if you tell people to come for a meet-and-greet, you'll have people there.

Do you think artists should start targeting a niche market/subculture when starting their careers?

It's hard to say because every artist is different. You need to build a strategy based on your sound and your goals. When we're working with new artists, I usually start with, "Tell me the island you want to reach, and let's build the boat together. You are the captain, and we are rowing that boat with you to that island. Expect a lot of wind, and expect us to help you zigzag that route to get to that island." There isn't a specific method for doing this; you need a family and a team. 

At what point should artists change their strategies? What data benchmarks can help them make that decision?

It's about strategic pivoting. You always need to pivot, even when things are going well, and push even harder by adding subtle new touches. There isn't specific data for this, but to address your question: don't rush to release an album if you only have about 10,000 social media followers and 5,000 monthly listeners. Focus on consistently releasing singles to discover your sound and build your brand. Once the data shows you have a significant following—say 100,000 people begging for an album—then it's time to consider releasing one.

Who are some Arab artists you’re most excited about?

310babii's song 'Soak City' has been on the charts for a long time, and now we're discussing the possibility of creating an Arabic version. We're also about to release a compilation dance album featuring only female artists. For example, it will include a Palestinian artist remixed by a female South African producer and a Moroccan artist on a track produced by a Mexican producer. The entire album will feature only female artists.

I'm excited about Llunr, Mishaal Tamer, Djamil, Soulja, and Nai Barghouti. With Nai, I had the opportunity to sit back, leave everything outside the studio, and focus on co-producing. We experimented with Palestinian folkloric music and South African sound.

Anything else you'd like to share?

Just look at what's to come. There are many exciting artists and projects on the horizon. Hopefully, more streaming platforms will launch in the region, and more Netflix shows will feature Arab characters. I'm excited about Mo's second season, where I'm working as the music supervisor. There will be a lot of great music featured.

Other than that, Empire artists had almost 200 covers and banners across various platforms in 2023. We're very excited about this growth as well.

So you're saying 2024 is very exciting for Empire WANA?

Absolutely! 2024 is an incredibly exciting time for EMPIRE WANA. We're witnessing a dynamic surge of emerging artists both from the region and its diaspora, with artists like Mishaal Tamer, LLUNR, Leil, Nai Barghouti, DADA, Dana Hourani, Soulja and MC Abdul spearheading this wave. Also the upcoming releases promise not only amazing music but also a powerful voice advocating for change, an end to the genocide on Gaza, and to bring awareness for Palestinian freedom.