This blog post is a fair bit out of the ordinary for me. It does not have a tech focus at all, and might also be rather niche. It is a very specific topic that I’ve had in my mind for quite a while now. I was finally prompted into writing it down because of a friend who complained that my blog has too much tech-content (as if such a thing were even possible).
This post is about a song, more precisely two songs. It is about Aïcha by Khaled and the English-language cover of that song by Outlandish. Although the version by Outlandish is a cover, the meaning of the song is radically transformed because of musical and lyrical choices. To understand what I mean we first have to understand a few things about the original song and about its genre, Raï. I will also briefly introduce Outlandish.
Raï and Khaled
Raï is a form of Algerian folk music that originates in Oran. Going into all of the historical development of this genre and explaining all sociological aspects is something that I don’t have any competency for. For the sake of this article, a few things are important. Raï is associated with a countercultural movement in Algeria that often clashed with established morals and societal expectations. The lyrics are often political and often critical of social problems. They also contain elements that Algerian society at that time considered raunchy or vulgar. Musically it is a synthesis of traditional Islamic, traditional secular and western music. This creates a very distinct sound.
Khaled is the personification of modern Raï. He was particularly popular in the 80s and 90s, and still enjoys success in France and Algeria.
Aïcha itself was written Jean-Jacques Goldman. There are two versions, a French version and a bilingual version (French and Arabic). The Arabic parts were written by Khaled himself.
Outlandish is a Danish hip-hop group. When the song was written, they consisted of three members: Waqas Ali Qadri, Lenny Martinez and Isam Bachiri.
If you haven’t already please take a moment to listen to both songs right now and to read the lyrics. After you’ve done that, continue reading. I will start with a short musical comparison, and then get to the actual meat of this post: a comparison of the lyrics.
The cover takes some musical elements from the original, but they are a distinct genre. While the original is a Raï song, the cover is a mixture R&B and pop. Musically, I prefer the original but I don’t really have the musical talent to talk about interesting differences between the songs.
NB: For the sake of brevity, I won’t translate the french parts of the song. If you don’t understand, either learn french or try one of the numerous automatic translation providers.
Lyrically, the songs are radically different. To highlight this, let’s take the time to go through the lyrics of both of them. We’ll start with the original.
Comme si je n'existais pas
Elle est passée à côté de moi
Sans un regard, reine de Saba
J'ai dit Aïcha prends tout est pour toi
Voici les perles, les bijoux
Aussi l'or autour de ton cou
Les fruits bien mûrs au goût de miel
Ma vie Aïcha si tu m'aimes
J'irai où ton souffle nous mène
Dans les pays d'ivoire et d'ébène
J'effacerai tes larmes, tes peines
Rien n'est trop beau pour une si belle
Here we have a narrator that describes our titular Aïcha, who seems to be quite a special person. She is compared to the biblical and mythical Queen of Sheba. This comparison is compounded by references to ivory and ebony wood, which are products that are produced in the places our queen is supposed to hail from. The narrator promises her all kinds of expensive material gifts: pearls, gold, et cetera.
Je dirais les mots les poèmes
Je jouerais les musiques du ciel
Je prendrais les rayons du soleil
Pour éclairer tes yeux de rêves
In the second part of the song, the narrator now shifts his focus to immaterial courtship. He will write her poems, sing her songs, even catch sunlight for her. After this part we get a musical and lyrical shift, as the titular Aïcha suddenly starts answering our narrator.
Elle a dit garde tes trésors
Moi je vaux mieux que tout ça
Des barreaux sont des barreaux même en or
Je veux les mêmes droits que toi
Et du respect pour chaque jour, moi je ne veux que l'amour
This twist clearly illustrates the theme of the song. It is a song about love and courtship, but also about freedom and the social status of women in MENA countries. What is important to Aïcha is not being wooed with material or immaterial gifts. She plainly states she wants the same rights as men, in a relationship but also in society in general. With this, the song manages to be subversive and exemplifies the kind of social commentary that is typical of its genre. The Aïcha in this song is strong-willed and tells us exactly what she wants.
Without further ado, let us delve into the cover version. The first part is already quite different from the original.
So sweet, so beautiful
Everyday like a queen on her throne
Don't nobody knows how she feels
Aïcha, lady one day it will be real (let's do it)
She moves, she moves like a breeze
I swear I can't get her out of my dreams
To have her shining right here by my side (shining like a star)
I'd sacrifice all them tears in my eyes
Apart from leaving out the specific reference to the queen of Sheba, one thing is immediately apparent: the perspective of this song is different. We no longer have a narrator that talks to Aïcha, but one that describes her.
She holds her child to her heart
Makes her feel like she is blessed from above
Falls asleep underneath her sweet tears
Her lullaby fades away with his fears
The second part starts deviating completely from the original. Gone are any references to promises or courtship. Instead, Aïcha is here described as a mother with a child, a far cry from the image of Aïcha in the original. After that, we arrive at the same musical shift as in the original, but with radically different imagery:
She needs somebody to lean on
Someone body, mind & soul
To take her hand, to take her world
And show her the time of her life, so true
Throw the pain away for good
No more contemplating boo
No more contemplating boo
Gone is Aïchas rejection of courtship. Gone is the social commentary. Gone is the specific reference to women’s rights. Also, markedly:
Gone is Aïchas voice.
She is not the one speaking. She has no active part in this song. Instead we are being told by the narrator what she (supposedly) wants: someone to lean on, someone to take her hand. Someone to show her the time of her life. This Aïcha needs to be taken care of, for she certainly can not take care of herself. This is a far cry from the powerful woman in the original, who actively demands things from the narrator. Khaleds Aïcha is active. Outlandishs Aïcha is entirely passive.
Outlandish manages to quite successfully subvert the central themes of the song: longing, freedom and equality. The song is reduced to a much simpler theme: a desirable but unhappy woman, who needs love to be happy.
The crowning jewel of the song can be found in the last verse. Here the narrator tells us what is desirable about her.
Lord knows the way she feels
Everyday in his name she begins
To have her shining here by my side
I'd sacrifice all them tears in my eyes
This verse can be seen as the ultimate conclusion of the song. What makes our Aïcha most desirable? Her devotion to God of course! The song ends with an explicit reference to God and the difference to the original could not be more marked. We have gone from a secular song written by a french Jew and performed by an Algerian Raï singer to something that could be found on an evangelical hip-hop sampler album.
Not surprisingly all three members of Outlandish describe themselves as religious.
To make something clear: I have nothing against religion, or religious music for that matter. I consider myself a Christian and have even been known to listen to some Christian music from time to time. But this cover is something else. It does not feel like a cover. It feels more and more like a deliberate subversion of the themes of the original. It makes me genuinely angry every time I think about it.
I hope you enjoyed my little analysis of this song. This thing has been on my mind for quite a while and I’m glad I finally got it out. If this wasn’t your cup of tea, I’m pretty sure that the next article will be more technical.