At the eight-minute mark of the first episode, blaring through the TV: a classic Palestinian folk song that only those who grew up listening to Palestinian music with their families and loved ones could instantly recognize.
I didn’t quickly pick up on the song. But as I continued to watch “Mo,” the latest offering from Netflix and A24 starring comedian Mo Amer, I recognized more and more of the Arabic music playing throughout the series.
For many of us growing up, the closest we got to Arabic music in Western production was either ‘Aladdin’ (a beloved but flawed classic) or orientalist music being played during a sepia-toned scene of the desert (because that’s where all Arabs live, of course).
By and large, Arabic music or Arabic-sounding music in Western TV and film has been unimaginative and thoughtlessly used for scene-setting. So, when a show like “Mo '' not only includes music by Arab artists, but carefully curates songs that fit the scene and the events of a particular episode, our community rightfully gets overwhelmed with excitement.
Only in the last few years have we seen shows primarily in English produced by companies like Disney, Hulu, and Netflix that center an Arab or Arab-American experience, or use Arabic music thoughtfully. The soundtrack for ‘Ramy’ on Hulu — produced by Ramy Youssef — features Arabic classics and some indie music for the series. Disney+ and Marvel’s “Moon Knight” relies heavily on Egyptian music, including mahraganat, a massively popular genre that the Egyptian Musicians’ Syndicate has tried relentlessly to suppress. Even "Top Boy" on Netflix spotlights the new generation of Moroccan artists and music in season four of the series.
“Mo'' tells the story of Mo Najjar, whose family was forced out of Palestine to Kuwait during the Nakba. During the first Gulf War, they were forcibly-displaced again, and sought asylum in the United States. Living without status in Houston, Texas, they navigate the convoluted American immigration system.
The series soundtrack reflects the diversity and complexity of this story.
Right from the jump, you hear the classic Houston hip-hop song “Sittin’ Sidewayz” by Paul Wall. This homage to Houston hip-hop continues throughout the series, with the inclusion of music by Bun B, DJ Screw, Z-Ro, and others. There’s also country music and mariachi music included in the series, spotlighting Houston’s southern and Latin American roots.
Above all, though, the soundtrack has elements that are unapologetically Palestinian. The range of musical styles and artists showcases the talent of artists both in Palestine and in exile. We hear award-winning oud musician Clarissa Bitar, the classic song ‘Yamo,’ the dabke fusion of 47Soul, and the hip-hop group DAM. We also get a taste of a new generation of artists, with rising pop star Elyanna.
In one scene, a few of the characters in “Mo” even sing and perform traditional zaffe songs typically performed on a wedding day (in this case, on the wedding day of Hamid, a friend of Mo’s in the series). It’s hard to express what it means to have a familiar snapshot of Palestinian joy in a mainstream American series on the largest streaming service in the world.
For the music to have been curated so intentionally, “Mo” turned to a team of Palestinian creatives to coordinate and supervise the music selection in the series. This included Suhel Nafar, former member of DAM and now Vice President of Market and Strategy at Empire West Asia and North Africa (WANA), who served as the music supervisor for the series. Other creatives like Abed Hathout, co-founder of record label Levantine Music, provided consultation and expertise to ensure a quality soundtrack that highlighted Palestinian music.
Like “Ramy” and “Moon Knight” before it, “Mo” is another perfect example of how Palestinian and Arab artists thrive when given the resources of a big budget studio and streaming platform.
For Palestinians, hearing this music outside of a cultural or familial setting — and implemented in a non-orientalist way — presents one of the incredibly rare moments of positive and accurate representation of Palestine in a Western context.
The series is not perfect, and there are certainly moments in the show that require some additional discussion. The show is human and is meant to be just one of the many stories in the Arab diaspora and refugee experience — it is not meant to be all-encompassing. But the inclusion of the songs and the diversity of the artists proudly display the talent of Palestinian music in its entirety. One can only hope that this leads to greater opportunities for Palestinian and Arab creators.