'Thank U, Stop': Middle Eastern artists say 'next' to stereotyping | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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'Thank U, Stop': Middle Eastern artists say 'next' to stereotyping

“Shukran Bas” flips the cultural appropriation lens with a music video parody.

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“Put down the brownie batter hummus and slowly step away from the culture.”

This command welcomes us into the pointed and poignant community-produced music video (Means of Productions) that is “Shukran Bas,” a parody of Ariana Grande’s breakup anthem “Thank U, Next.” In this five-minute masterpiece, we find much that is salty and sweet, just like the aforementioned hummus snack.

The music video dropped on Wednesday, April 29, after much anticipation. Director and creator Arti Ishak assembled a fierce team of collaborators to create opportunities “for younger artists to grow, try things they haven’t been given the chance to, and prove they are brilliant and capable of pushing the needle forward.” 

This needle points towards widening the scope of Middle Eastern and North African representation in media. All too often, roles for our community of Brown artists consist of racist caricatures and hastily written cultural stereotypes. With this artistic endeavor, Ishak and her team take up a troubled legacy and advocate for authenticity and space-making through Ariana Grande’s own problematic lens. 

As an avid cultural appropriator herself, the Ariana Grande aesthetic proved an effective way into the issues of misrepresentation and erasure that MENA artists battle with about every project they sign on to. Ishak notes, “Ariana Grande is one of the white women most famous for appropriating Black and Latinx culture for profit and it just felt right to steal something back while making a critique about brownface. I mean, I hate the original message but you gotta admit that song is a bop.”

With Grande’s original music video for “Thank U, Next,” she mashed up four major films including Mean Girls, Bring It On, 13 Going on 30, and Legally Blonde. What these films have in common include reclaiming of femme power, solidarity between friends, and coming-of-age narratives. When looking at “Shukran Bas” (which loosely translates from Arabic to "thank you, stop" or "thank you, but" depending on context), it’s clear similar sentiments are evoked when applied to the MENA media landscape at large. 

The movies [Grande] emulates [. . . ] are also famous coming-of-age romantic comedies that people of color were excluded from or used as props in,” Ishak notes. In a sense, “Shukran Bas” is a means for Middle Eastern artists to come into their own power as they’ve fallen in and out of love with industries either refusing or unequipped to hire their whole selves. 

Like the plentiful Easter eggs present in Grande’s “Thank U, Next,” “Shukran Bas” includes its own treasures, ones that are more robust, endowed with deep cultural meaning. 

The music video opens mirroring the confessional style found in Mean Girls, wherein characters are sharing hot goss and rumors around Regina George. In “Shukran Bas,” these opening moments shout out MENA politicians, celebrities, and activists who’ve rejected brownface or stepped up as activists. 

“I saw Rashida Tlaib run for public office, so I ran for public office.” (Sidenote that the U.S. representative "liked" the video.)

“I heard Rami Malek refused to play a terrorist, so I refused to play a terrorist.”

Lines like these are heartening examples that seemingly small actions set big precedents. In interviews with cowriters Ishak, Gloria Imseih Petrelli, and Martin Zebari, they recall the birth of the concept this past November and the luckiness of a pre-COVID-19 wrap in February. 

According to Ishak, “’Shukran Bas’ was not a random occurrence. It was a culmination of a series of events that our Middle Eastern theater community, affectionately referred to as #TeamHabibi, planned for the start of 2020.” From a reading of Omer Abbas Salem’s new play Mosque4Mosque (which changed venues three times as it oversold) to a MENASA MidWest forum at the Steppenwolf Garage, this community has been organizing, as Ishak notes, to “problem solve and cultivate solutions with the aim of seeking more accurate and nuanced representation.”

When the bop kicks, Salem embodies Regina, lounging lavishly and donning pearls in a bedroom of deep pinks and reds. He’s accompanied by his pup Moudi, showing much solidarity as Salem flips through the iconic Burn Book. He lip-syncs:

“Thought I’d end up in film, but it wasn’t a match. Got my hopes up with theater, and now I watch it and laugh. Even tried to do TV. Homeland got canceled.” 

Ishak pointed out that this scene includes an homage to The Arabian Street Artists, who were hired to graffiti “certain phrases on the walls to add authenticity but actually tagged the set of the show's series finale with graffiti in Arabic that read ‘Homeland is racist.’”

Beats later, Salem struts in a fur coat down a high school hallway flanked by Petrelli and actor Sahar Dika. He snags a keffiyeh from a white student and tosses it to Petrelli, who is of Palestinian heritage. This scarf is usually worn as an act of resistance, and Salem’s small act of reclamation defies its appropriation as a cutely patterned accessory. Snippets of racist Hollywood imagery about MENA people and cultures are spliced in throughout.

In an interview, Petrelli says, “Collaborating on writing these lyrics was a dream. All of the scenes of our not-so-imagined Brown and blended future are really special to me. We weren't just staging a table read with a room of our community—we are manifesting it. We aren't just doing dabke with our friends—we are inviting our communities and allies to join hands and learn from one another.”

Similarly, this music video created opportunities for young artists to experiment with new roles in production. Zebari was brought on as a cowriter but found more joy in assistant directing, while Lowell Thomas II served as cinematographer and editor. Zebari says, “I had no experience as an assistant director before, let alone one for a music video. Step by step, we figured out a rhythm, did what we felt was right and invited exactly the right people who helped make this dream a reality.”

Of course this labor of love involved a ton of labor. Means of Productions is a company based in New York with a small and mighty arm in Chicago. Ishak had prior experience with them and found Means of Productions stellar collaborators in making space for people of color. Interestingly enough, some of the critiques made in "Shukran Bas" reared their head in this part of the process. The music video includes a scene on casting with the auditors all being predominantly white-passing men. With Means of Productions also being a majority white company, they raised the question if they were the right team for this project. Ishak notes, “It was an opportunity for [Means of Productions] to examine their own structures and how to move forward making sure the right voice steered.” This music video not only called for more intentionality in process, but manifested it in the making of the project. 

Too often Middle Eastern representation is erased from conversations centering equity and visibility. But with "Shukran Bas," MENA artists are demanding not only to be a part of the discourse but also viewed as leaders actively working to better the field. 

"My tongue’s been held, till you called it diversity.” Middle Eastern artists will not be sitting on the sidelines.  v

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