Meet Jennifer Grout, the 23-year-old American from Massachusetts who has been wowing Arab audiences with her soulful renditions of classical Arabic songs on "Arabs Got Talent."
On Saturday, she made it to the top three in the Beirut-based talent competition — which is watched by millions of Arabs worldwide — but ultimately lost out to a Syrian dance troupe, called Sima.
Despite her loss, her trove of supporters were still proud that Grout — an American white woman who does not speak Arabic but loves Arabic music — had made it that far.
Trained from a young age in classical music, Jennifer first started listening to Arabic music by chance in 2010 when she found a song by the famed Lebanese singer Fairouz on YouTube. Having mastered the art of singing classical songs in other languages she did not know, like French and Italian, Grout has been able to pick up on the particular intonations and pronunciations of Arabic songs without speaking the language.
After graduating from McGill University, Grout traveled to Marrakech, Morocco for a two-week music tour. There, she told BuzzFeed by phone from Beirut, she fell in love. Each night she would venture out to watch a group of Berber street performers. Fascinated by their work, she befriended them and they started to teach her about their music. One of the Moroccan artists in particular caught her eye: They are now engaged, and have already made one album together.
Here is Jennifer singing a song in Amazigh, or Berber, with her friends in Morocco.
Grout's decision to apply to Arabs Got Talent was also by chance: A teacher sent her an email urging her to give it a shot, as it could be good publicity. "I had never in my wildest dreams thought I would apply," she told BuzzFeed.
Since Grout's debut in June, the uniqueness of her story has caught the international media's eye. ABC and The New York Times have covered her story. In Morocco, fans have stopped her to say they recognize her. There's even been the occasional gaggle of shrieking girls.
Here she is at her first performance on Arabs Got Talent, singing a song by the revered Egyptian diva, Umm Kulthom. Her interactions with the judges — who can't believe she doesn't speak Arabic — are hilarious.
At her second performance, she really wowed the audience singing a Syrian song about a bird, dressed like a bird.
Grout says the majority of the reaction to her work has been positive; while famed singers from earlier decades like Fairouz and Umm Kulthum are still highly revered, today it is far less common for young artists like herself to rise to fame for singing these songs while strumming the Oud, a pear-shaped string instrument.
However, some critics have questioned the larger message behind the attention Grout's successes has garnered.
"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."
In response, the judges have argued that on the show Grout is rated on her talent, like all other contestants.
The day of the finale, some continued the debate on Twitter...
... along with the steady dose of media hype.
Speaking before the finale, Grout told BuzzFeed that no matter the outcome she plans to return to Morocco to continue to pursue her dreams. "As a performer all I really want to do is share this music with people who appreciate it," she said.
Former BuzzFeed World Reporter, Current BuzzFeed News Contributor
Contact Miriam Berger at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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