Despite speaking little Arabic, Jennifer Grout, a 23-year-old singer from Boston, Massachusetts, has amazed viewers and judges of the Lebanese talent show Arabs Got Talent, making it to the final round. She tells FRANCE 24 about her experience.
Jennifer Grout, a 23-year-old singer from Boston, Massachusetts, looks like the stereotypical girl next door. Yet she is anything but. Despite speaking little Arabic, she has amazed viewers and judges of the Lebanese talent show Arabs Got Talent, making it to the final round of the competition.
Raised in a musical family, Grout grew up playing the violin and the piano as well as singing in a choir. She first began to pursue her passion for Arabic music in 2010 while at Canada’s McGill University, in Montreal. She begged her parents to buy her an oud (a lute-like instrument), and set about learning how to play and sing Arabic songs.
A few months later, Grout stumbled across a Syrian restaurant in her neighbourhood where an oud player was performing live. Enchanted, she went in to listen. Before long, the musician asked her if she knew how to play.
“I took the oud and started playing and singing an old muwashshah [an Arabic poetic genre] I’d heard on YouTube by a singer called Souad Mohammed. When I was finished, everyone was stunned! The owner came and gave me a kiss on my forehead and asked me if I’d been sent from heaven!” Grout told FRANCE 24.
She began performing at the restaurant on a weekly basis. “I was so happy because I felt like I’d finally found a community that appreciated my work,” she said.
Arabs Got Talent
After university she packed her bags and headed to Morocco. From there, she went to Spain and then to France where she sang for money in the Paris metro (“I saw people doing it, so I figured why can’t I?” she explained). She then travelled to Austria, before finally landing back in Morocco, where she has more or less settled since.
Grout got the idea to sign up for Arabs Got Talent earlier this year after a friend sent her an application form, urging her to fill it out.
“I honestly knew nothing about it, other than it must be similar to America’s Got Talent, which I didn’t ever contemplate applying to because I don’t think my talent would have been appreciated or understood as much,” she said.
Her first appearance on the show, which is in its third season, was somewhat daunting. Already unsure how her performance would be received by the judges and public, she also quickly realised that her inability to speak Arabic could be a problem.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t understand what they are saying, their comments and feedback!’ So I simply smiled and nodded,” Grout said. “But then the hosts came on stage with me and translated.”
The competition’s judges were enthralled by her performance of beloved Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum’s “Baïd Annak” and voted unanimously to send her to the next round.
Grout’s mastery of the Arabic accent in song has led some to question whether her all-American appearance is just an act. Viewers quickly took to social media to express their disbelief over her background.
“I have absolutely no Arabic roots or ‘interesting’ Turkish ethnicities as I am rumoured to have,” she said. “I started learning Arabic music in 2010. You can ask any of my family members, old friends, etc… Before that point, I knew virtually nothing of the Arab world, except that Arabs invented couscous and belly dancing.”
Since rising to fame on the show, Grout has at times been portrayed as a bridge between the US and Arabic cultures. While she was adamant that she plays for her own personal fulfillment, she also welcomed the idea that music could help break down barriers.
“Over time, of course, I have seen what a simple passion has the power to do. It can open their minds! I find that idea really beautiful, and if people see me as a symbol of peace, I am more than honored to accept the role,” she said.
The final round of Arabs Got Talent is due to take place in Lebanon’s capital Beirut on December 7. Grout, who was careful to praise the other competitors on the show, said she thinks she’s got just as good a shot at winning as anybody.
“I’ll leave that up to the people to decide. Regardless of the results, it has been a wonderful journey, a great opportunity and I have had much fun and exposure throughout,” she said.