Music in Global America


Header image: Excerpt from YouTube


According to the Arab American Institute, there are approximately 3.7 million Arab Americans. Nearly 82 percent of Arabs in the U.S. are citizens. While the community traces its roots to every Arab country , the majority of Arab Americans — about 64 percent — are native-born Christians of Lebanese origin, with most of the remainder having ancestral ties to Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Iraq.

Anne Rasmussen writes that "although Arabs may differ in ethnicity, religion, race, and nationality, they are unified by language and by various aspects of culture, such as cuisine, folklore, and music." Arab American communities are centered in Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. This dispersal is reflected in the locations of academic institutions with Middle Eastern or Arabic studies and centers: in Michigan, University of Michigan and University of Chicago; in New York, Brooklyn College, CUNY Graduate Center, New York University, Cornell University and Columbia University; and in in California, UCLA and Berkeley College. Brooklyn has been home to Arab-American cultures "for well over 100 years."

Syrian Christians first came to New York around 1870, settling in the area around Washington Street in Manhattan, near where the World Trade Center would rise a century later. As they became more affluent, some crossed the East River to South Ferry in Brooklyn (now Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill). By 1895 there were 30 Syrian families in South Ferry and by the 1920s the area was a self-sufficient ethnic neighborhood that continued to grow as Lebanese, Yemenis and others arrived in the 1940s and 50s.

               [Brooklyn Council on the Arts]


Arab Immigration to America from 1880 - 1945

The first Arabs to immigrate to America came during the 1880s. They were mostly Christians from Greater Syria (present-day Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Syria), who came to flee the economic hardships they were facing as a result of decline in the silk industry which had been the basis of their economy, and the turmoil of the Ottoman occupation of their homeland.

The majority of these early Arabs were poor, uneducated and unskilled. They considered themselves temporary settlers in American (al-nizala), kept to themselves, established their own churches, clubs or newspapers. Many settled in cities such as New York, Boston, and Detroit, where textile, peddling, and automotive industries promised employment.

In their efforts to secure their naturalization and be fully considered “whites”, during WWI, the early Arab/Syrian-Lebanese immigrants worked hard at assimilating, attended citizenship classes, Americanized their names, did not teach Arabic to its children and neglected to instill in them pride in their heritage.  It is estimated that the size of this community was between 130,000-350,000 by the late 1930s.

Arab Immigration to America from 1945 to modern times

The next wave of Arab immigration to America came from all parts of the Arab world, including North Africa. They were increasingly Muslim, relatively well-off, and highly educated professionals, engineers and doctors. They immigrated because of regional conflicts, such as the creation of Israel and its impact on the surrounding region, civil wars (Lebanon), and political or economic harassment. 

These Arab immigrants were politically active. They saw themselves as Arabs and were keen to participate in American politics from the outset.During the era of civil rights, the questions of minority rights and of muticulturalism were prominent. Arab immigrants began to vocally express their dissatisfaction with the racial categorization “White.” The label “Arab-American” was coined in the 1960s, and was a sign of the awakening of recent waves of immigrants to their Arab roots. It also signaled the rejection of their automatic racial classification as “White.” [Arab American Timeline]

Many of the students who came to study in American universities with the intention of returning to their home countries remained here because of employment opportunities. Although Arab students and professionals helped to build a strong post-war America, their immigration resulted in a "brain drain" from the Arab World. []



Kathleen Benson and Philip M. Kayal, A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York City, Museum of the City of New York/Syracuse University Press,  2002. 

Anne K. Rasmussen, "The Music of Arab Detroit," in The Music of Multicultural America.

Habib Touma (trans. Laurie Schwartz), Music of the Arabs, Amadeus Press, Portland, 1996

Ellen R. Weis, Egyptian Hip Hop: Expressions from the Underground, Cairo Papers in Social Science 34:1, The American University in Cairo Press, 2016.

Classical Arabic Music 

Raquy Danziger,  History of Darbuka

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