Lifestyle & Belief

This 23-year-old from Cambridge, Mass. might win Arabs Got Talent


Jennifer Grout in Zouk Mosbeh, north of Beirut, during rehearsals for "Arabs' Got Talent" on Dec. 4, 2013.


Joseph Eid

At first it seemed like some kind of joke.

Twenty-three-year-old Jennifer Grout from Cambridge, Mass. walks on stage in Beirut, toting her oud, an Arab instrument similar to a lute, and ready to audition for Arabs Got Talent.

Ahmed Helmi, a famous Egyptian actor and one of the judges, asks her a question in Arabic to which she responds with a blank stare and, "Sorry?"

Despite being able to croon away in Arabic, Grout can't really carry on a conversation. "What's your name?" Helmi asks in English.

A lot of chuckles follow and some awkard charades, but the shenanigans stop pretty quickly once Grout opens her mouth to sing.

As Grout told Good Morning America, "... the audience went from not taking me seriously to like, 'wow, she's good.'" See for yourself:

In fact, she's so good that this Saturday she will become the first non-Arab to compete in the finals of the show. She got through to the final round with her rendition of "Baeed Anak" by the iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.

Ironically, she is also the only contestant on the current show, which is in its third season, to perform classical Arab music.

"You don't speak a word of Arabic, yet you sing better than some Arab singers!" judge Najwa Karam, a Lebanese singer, told Grout.

"We have for so long imitated the West, and this the first time that a person who has no link whatsoever to the Arab world, an American girl who does not speak Arabic, sings Arabic songs!"

Grout was born into a musical family and went on to attend McGill University in Montreal, where she began playing Arabic songs. For graduation, she asked for a one-way ticket to Morocco and has been living there ever since.

Of course, it would be nice to think this instance of cross-cultural pollination will bring disparate peoples closer together, but already there are signs that may not be the case.

Netizens debate whether her music represents cultural "appropriation" or "assimilation."

Some question whether she's really American — these rumors are fueled in part by the fact that she speaks English with a strangely unplaceable accent.

Others find the focus on Grout's singularity inherently patronizing.

“The assumption seems to be that there is nothing special about the global South imitating Western culture, since that is just the way of the world,” Mariam Bazeed, an Egyptian writer and vocalist in New York, told the New York Times.

“But when a Westerner deigns to imitate ‘ethnic’ cultures, then it’s suddenly this great act, worthy of documenting.”

And the judge Karam was criticized for favoring Grout, an American, in the semi-finals over the Arab Group, "Entourage." 

Karam responded via Twitter, saying "Good morning good people. Everyone should understand that when I say YES or NO, It’s never based on the contestants’ nationality, be fair, shame on you."

Whether critics can be shamed into embracing Grout and her unique relationship to Arab music remains to be seen — as does the impact of a win on Saturday, should Jennifer Grout be declared the most talented of all on a show that is used to being Arabs-only.