Susan and Daryl Grout were in the car on a Sunday afternoon last month when their daughter, Jennifer, 5,000 miles away, emailed a link to a YouTube clip showing her flawless rendition of Um Kalthoum’s “Ba’eed ‘annuk” — “Far From You,” aptly—in perfect Arabic.
The performance floored the judges on Arabs Got Talent, which the 23-year-old Grout is now a favorite to win despite not speaking Arabic. “She’s a born performer,” Daryl Grout says of his daughter. “She can master any genre she chooses,” adds Susan.
In the now-viral video, Jennifer, dressed simply in black, slinks before a microphone, anxious to begin her audition. A round-faced blonde from Cambridge, Mass., Grout is typecast for a singer-songwriter contestant on American Idol, but this is Arabs Got Talent, filmed in Lebanon and broadcast across the Arab World on MBC.
“Mumkin netearif ala ismik?” asks judge Ahmed Helmy. “Sorry?” Grout blurts in response. Another judge, Lebanese pop star Najwa Karam, clarifies: “Comment tu t’appelle?” Grout had studied French at McGill University in Montreal; she replies gracefully: “Zheneeferr.”
On Helmy’s signal, Grout strummed a few chords on her oud and began to sing the first few lines of the Egyptian icon’s classic love song.
“I could hear everyone start to chuckle so I was just kind of cursing,” Grout recalled during a recent phone interview from Marrakesh, Morocco, where she now lives. But the shock of hearing someone who looks like Grout sing in unaccented Arabic soon dissipated and the crowd fell deadly silent. It was like watching an Arab singer perform ventriloquism with the body of a blonde American.
Karam, a multi-platinum legend herself, cut the performance short, incredulous: “You don’t speak a word of Arabic and yet you sing it better than some Arab singers.”
“We have for so long imitated the West, but this the first time that a person who has no link whatsoever to the Arab world—an American girl who doesn’t speak Arabic—sings Arabic songs,” said Karam in comments that struck a nerve for those who question whether Grout satisfies the “Arabs” part of Arabs Got Talent.
A classically trained vocalist, Grout was a student at McGill when she happened upon the music of the legendary Feirouz, a singer almost synonymous with Lebanese identity, just three years ago. “It gave me a really good feeling and it kind of took me to another place, so to speak,” Grout said. She immediately immersed herself in a classical Arabic songbook.
Still a student at the time, she began performing in Syrian cafes around Montreal and convinced her parents to book her a one-way ticket to Morocco last June to indulge her budding passion for Arabic music at a festival in the coastal town of Essaouira. After a stopover in Paris—she briefly worked as a subway busker, singing in Arabic for tips—Grout returned to Morocco.
“She had a destiny in mind but she didn’t know anybody,” Susan said about her daughter’s decision to relocate in pursuit of her musical dreams. “It takes somebody with a lot of courage to do that, especially when you don’t know the language.”
At last month’s Arabs Got Talent semifinals, Grout stood on the Beirut stage again, this time drenched in purple light. Elevated on a box-like platform hidden beneath her impossibly long royal blue dress, artificial wind blew in her hair like she was standing on the bow of a ship. Grout belted out another emotive cover — this time from the Syrian singer Asmahan—that earned her a spot in Saturday’s live finale, where she’ll be pitted against 11 other contestants—including a Moroccan juggler and a Kuwaiti comedy troupe—for votes. Some say she’s the favorite.
Judges have showered praise on Grout all season, with one commenting that Grout “feels” rhythmically complex, emotionally charged Arabic classics “like an Arab daughter.” Her voice, full-bodied with a slight nasal tinge, has invited lofty comparisons to the iconic Kalthoum, the late Egyptian “Star of the East” whom Grout emulates on the show.
Being the only non-Arab finalist in Arabs Got Talent history has made a spectacle of Grout worldwide, but her ‘novelty’ factor has also plunged her into unchartered waters. For one, there are the unsavory —if baseless—rumors buzzing around social media that Grout is lying about her heritage, which Grout calls “flattering.”
The skeptics say Grout pronounces the ‘ayn, ‘ghayn, and Arabic’s three subtly distinguishable “H” sounds suspiciously well for someone who claims not to speak the language, and she replicates the tonal complexities of Arabic music like someone who grew up listening to it. She must be part Arab, or at least Turkish, they say.
“It’s not a new thing for me, singing in different languages,” explained Grout, who studied three languages and took phonetics classes at McGill. “Ask any opera singer, any classically trained voice student, we’re used to singing in different languages constantly.”
The fact that she speaks English in such a peculiar accent hasn’t helped her case. The way she said “OK”—“like a Canadian,” Grout said—and “Zheneeferr” to introduce herself at the audition fuelled rumors that she wasn’t, in fact, American. “You can ask any of my old friends, I’ve always had a strange way of talking, from way before I got into Arabic music,” said Grout, who acknowledges her curious elocution might come off as an accent—or affect.
Susan and Daryl Grout confirm their daughter has Scottish and English roots, and that she comes from a long line of musicians—Daryl is a violinist and Susan a pianist—but none of them Arab.
There’s also the subset of those who do believe she’s Anglo-Saxon but are not convinced she belongs in the finale. Karam’s comments about Arabs imitating the West “highlights the issue perfectly,” said Lebanese fan Mahmoud Ramsey. “She is a novelty, sure, but at the same time there is cultural bias working in her favor.”
“If Jennifer Grout wins Arabs Got Talent it will probably be because she’s white, not because she’s objectively better than the rest,” Ramsey tweeted to his 20,000 thousand followers ahead of the live finale. Deanna Othman replied: “Nothing makes Arabs happier than a white person ‘appreciating’ their culture.”
Arab-American critics, fluent in both cultures, argue that cultural flattery—and even racial politics—are at play. Othman, a Palestinian-American journalist from Chicago, later elaborated on her Twitter comments: “Since the show is titled ‘Arabs Got Talent,’ the winner of the competition should be an Arab,” she said. “By having an American win an Arab talent competition, it would essentially send the message that even in the sphere of art and performance, Americans win out.”
Grout’s fans admit the skeptics have a point: Success on Arabs Got Talent, after all, is measured not by talent but by how many fans choose to text in their vote. There’s no doubt the pretty Westerner is a novelty to Arab audiences totally unaccustomed to hearing a foreigner speak (let alone sing) their notoriously difficult language without a stutter. “There’s a degree of novelty working in her favor,” said Miriam Awadallah, another fan of the show who got hooked while spending time with family in the Middle East, but who says Grout is “undoubtedly, remarkably talented.”
If semifinal voting is any indication, most fans don’t seem to care about the controversy. “How embarrassing will it be if an ‘American’ wins #ArabsGotTalent. She is my favorite so far! Vote for Jennifer no. 8” Yemeni journalist @NoonArabia tweeted to her 25,000 followers. “If the Arabs don’t have much talent to show this season, then let the American girl win and enough hang-ups!” she later told the Daily Beast.
Six months have now passed since Grout’s audition for Arabs Got Talent, and Grout has been practicing for her final television performance while living in Marrakesh, where she works as a street performer for tourists in Jema’a al-Fnaa Square. She’s picked up some Moroccan dialect—enough to get by, she says—and she’s found love: Grout is engaged to one of her co-performers at the square, a Berber man with whom she’s recording an album.
Singing for tips alongside acrobats and snake charmers wasn’t what Susan and Daryl had in mind when their daughter began voice lessons as a little girl, but they say she’s always marched to the beat of her own drum—or tabla as the case may be. The musician parents weren’t worried when Grout, who’s been singing since she was five years old, deviated from her classical roots. “We were more concerned whether she could make a living doing Arabic music,” said Daryl.
The $130k up for grabs at Saturday’s finale would get her on the right track, as would the fame associated with the title. But Grout is unfazed by all the hype surrounding her newfound celebrity and dismisses what she calls “ridiculous YouTube comments” from critics. Asked about the deeper significance of an American’s success on an Arab game show—the existential question of the Arabic-language reality TV season —Grout can only shrug.
“It’s funny to me that people are going so deeply into this because it’s simply that I heard something and I loved it,” she said. “I decided to go on Arabs Got Talent not to spark some movement but simply because I wanted to perform for an audience that appreciates what I do. And that’s it.”