Like most Americans, 23-year-old Jennifer Grout can't speak Arabic. Unlike most Americans, 23-year-old Jennifer Grout has not let that inconvenient tidbit stop her from singing traditional Middle Eastern music so expertly performed that she might be on her way to winning Arabs Got Talent.
Grout is profiled in the New York Times this week, and on CNN today, because not only does she have an incredible voice (seriously, watch the clip above. How does the human voice do that? Microtones what? She's like My Brightest Diamond on the Red Sea Riviera), she's able to sing in a language she doesn't speak or understand with perfect pronunciation and with appropriate phrasing and emoting. And, in a style that, according to both the Times and CNN, that is seen by many youths in the region as old fashioned. Imagine an Iraqi twentysomething who couldn't speak English waltzing onstage of Americas Got Talent and nailing Ella Fitzgerald. It's like that. Here's the Times,
"You don't speak a word of Arabic, yet you sing better than some Arab singers," said Najwa Karam, a popular Lebanese singer who was part of the panel that judged Ms. Grout's performance. "We have for so long imitated the West, and this is 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." Ms. Karam later faced a barrage of criticism for supporting an American as a finalist for the show, which ordinarily includes only Arabs.
Even if she weren't OMFG WHITE, Grout's talent would still be noteworthy.
During early auditions of AGT, the judges totally Susan Boyle'd her, smugly glancing askance as she took to the stage on a chair. But after a few seconds of her cover of Egyptian legend Um Kulthoum's "Baeed Annak (Far From You)", it was clear that Grout had chops.
Since this appearance, Grout has made it through multiple rounds of competition. On Saturday, she'll appear as a finalist on the show. But it's not all sunshine and bunnies and international hugs and understanding. Some critics of the show have grumbled about Grout's non-Arab-ness, claiming that there's an AMERICA'S GOT TALENT for AMERICANS so maybe she should AMERICA her way back there. (But, you know, every place has its embarrassing xenophobes. Recall: that time a woman of South Asian descent won Miss America and Racist Twitter Got Mad. Recall: race-based insults flung at the President during the entirety of the Obama presidency.)
Still others are incredulous that Jennifer Grout is even American. She does speak with a kind of strange accent from someone ostensibly from New England, even though she studied at McGill University in Canada and currently lives in Morocco. Then again, tons of Americans have accents, especially if they've lived elsewhere. A friend who just got back from practicing medicine in Australia still has some strange leftover vocal inflections; I talk like Marge from Fargo when I'm overtired.
And others don't even think Jennifer Grout's presence on Arabs Got Talent is even a big deal at all. More from the Times,
Some Arab musicians dismiss the fuss altogether, framing Ms. Grout's accomplishments in classical Arab music as a sign of a more thorough and reciprocal globalization. "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," said Mariam Bazeed, an Egyptian writer and vocalist in New York. "But when a Westerner deigns to imitate 'ethnic' cultures, then it's suddenly this great act, worthy of documenting."
Positive, negative, or neutral, Grout's success reminds us of two things: first, Middle Eastern singing is hard. And second, attractive, talented white people can do anything, if they only believe in themselves.