Nouri: From Syrian refugee camp to topping UAE charts
Kurdish-New Zealander singer fulfilling dreams for world's disenfranchised
As we slowly emerge from the most devastating period of the pandemic, the globe's other pressing issues will undoubtedly return to the front pages. Among regional concerns, the number of Middle Eastern refugees and their welfare is of paramount importance and under constant scrutiny not just from agencies and the media, but also from compassionate citizens around the world. For perhaps no one is this truer than Kurdish-New Zealander Vivian Nouri, whom you may better know as the Where Do We Go From Here pop star who prefers the mononymous recording name: Nouri.
In the early '90s Nouri's family was forced to flee a bombing campaign in their native Kurdistan as a result of the Gulf War. Taking shelter in a Syrian camp, the future recording artist was born in the settlement in 1993, followed by her sister. Three years passed in Syria before New Zealand granted the group refugee status.
"I feel my purpose is so much bigger than me," Nouri recently told us over the phone from Auckland. "My story, where I was born, where I'm from really comes into it." The singer was recounting the time she first felt her unique upbringing became a factor in her musical development. She had just recorded a track which would go on feature in the Will Ferrell comedy Daddy's Home 2 and an international newspaper ran an article headlined: 'Syrian refugee makes it in Hollywood.' The piece rallied much surprise encouragement from the Arab world.
"I hadn't 'made it', but through that I discovered how much Middle Eastern support I had. I realised my purpose is to give hope to people who are living just like I was in a refugee camp. They are just surviving rather than having a dream. It breaks my heart every day and motivates me."
Determination, not only to inspire the world's stateless but to fulfill career ambitions, has been the key ingredient in Nouri's success. It is a quality she attributes to her mother who has raised six children in a foreign land.
"New Zealand opened their doors to us which I'm forever grateful for, but coming here was a struggle," Nouri said. "It's not ideal for a family that doesn't speak English and has to learn everything all over again. But we were safe and had a new beginning."
The three-year-old grasped the opportunity with both hands: learning the language and taking fledgling steps into signing at four. It was a Year 5 primary school performance, however, which set Nouri on her path.
"I sang When You Believe by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. I was so nervous, but it was like I was testing the waters. I received a standing ovation and I was shocked."
It wasn't only overwhelming applause Nouri garnered that day. One audience member, a fellow student's mother, was so impressed she bought the nine-year-old singing lessons.
"It was that moment I decided to sing for the rest of my life because if a stranger can believe in me that much, I needed to believe in myself."
A proud Gen Z, Nouri took to posting covers of famous tracks online. She also competed in regional beauty pageants, not only because her appearance would make her firm favourite; they also contained a talent portion where she could show off those vocals. Winning the competitions ushered in prizes including singing for then NZ Prime Minister John Key and appearing at a high-profile fashion show, but the jewel in the crown was a trip to Los Angeles.
"I first went over there for two weeks and recorded with people who had seen me on YouTube," Nouri said. "It was a great learning experience. I stayed next to the Staples Center and I looked at it thinking 'I am going to sing in there one day.'"
Her visualisation of dazzling the home of the LA Clippers eventually came true when, years later, she was asked to perform the American National Anthem before a game. First, though, Nouri returned home and signed up to the then new social media platform Instagram, where followers almost instantly tripped over themselves to share in her art and adventures.
"I used Insta to find the producers producing all these tracks," Nouri said of employing tech savvy to pursue her dream. "I got in touch with Brian Kennedy who had done Close To You with Rihanna. We emailed for about six months. He told me I needed to be in LA."
Nouri took the leap and headed out there for two months.
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"My mum freaked out! I recorded with Brian and learnt so much. Everything I have done came about because I was there. If you want something you have to be able to drop everything and just go do it."
Armed with expert advice, a full book of songs and a strong following, Nouri decided it was time to release her own tunes.
"I went with my gut and went with Where Do We Go From Here. It exploded. It blew up in the Middle East and then in the US."
Reaching number one in New Zealand, Saudi, Oman, Iraq and the UAE, among others, the hit proved the catalyst to steam ahead and bring out further work. Nouri's second single, Favourite Goodbye, dropped in 2019 while she was visiting Dubai, a tour in which she took in the local culture, was interviewed on Virgin Radio and generally enjoyed all the showbiz perks. On May 22 of this year, she released her third track, Miss All Ur Jokes.
"I'm planning to put out another EP," Nouri said of future plans. "I want to do more upbeat songs, more dance. I feel like I want to embrace my culture a bit more.
"I'm sitting on one song. The title is an Arabic word. It's so good and if I say that about my own song it must be. I'm so picky."
How do you keep in touch with your cultural roots?
My mum doesn't speak to us in English just Kurdish. We all kept the language. I keep up with news and a lot of family is still there. I can't wait to go Kurdistan because I've never been there and I haven't been to Syria since I was a baby. My favourite food is also biryani and dolma.