The Got Talent formula is pretty straightforward — someone slightly odd comes on stage, seemingly destined to fail, but ends up wowing the audience and the judges. Jessica Grout is a 23-year-old white woman from Boston who speaks zero Arabic, but she impressed the judges of Arabs Got Talent in September by singing "Baeed Annak," a famous love song by Egypt's Umm Kulthum, in Arabic while playing an oud. In an interview with The Guardian published on Monday, Grout said that after discovering Lebanese singer Fairouz in college, she moved to Morocco after graduating to check out music scene, but apparently not to learn Arabic. "I have a natural ear for picking up accents, but not necessarily for languages," she said.
The audience laughed when one of the judges had to repeat "What's your name" in English, and they laughed at her American-tinged singing through the first few bars of the song. But then reality TV magic kicked in and the audience, along with the judges, were cheering for her, singing along, completely won over. They were just surprised that she was there at all.
“We have for so long imitated the West, and this the first time that a person who has no whatsoever link to the Arab world, an American girl who does not speak Arabic, sings Arabic songs," Najwa Karam, the judging panel's Lebanese equivalent of Paula Abdul, said at one point, according to a recent Morocco World News story. In the same post, Youssef Sourgo wrote that, "Music is an artistic form through which cultural differences blend to generate beautiful outcomes," later adding, "America couldn’t have wished for a better ambassador to the Arab world." Last week Grout made it to the finals with an operatic performance of "Ya Toyoor” by Syrian singer Asmahan.
That's not to say everyone's been won over by this feel-good story about an American appreciating other cultures. According to Laha magazine, there's been some controversy over whether an American should be allowed to compete, since she's not Arab (though, as Huffpost Maghreb points out, non-natives have won Got Talent iterations in other countries). And last week, Karam got some flack for voting for Grout over the Arab group Entourage. "Everyone should understand that when I say YES or NO, It’s never based on the contestants’ nationality, be fair, shame on you,” Karam tweeted in response, according to a translation by JTmagz, a Lebanese entertainment blog for teens.
Then there's the conspiracy theory that she's not American at all. "Is it just me who think there’s something not quite right with the “American” girl Jennifer Grout on Arabs Got Talent?" one viewer wrote on Tumblr. "She claims to be 100% American and then sings in perfect Arabic but her English doesn’t sound native to me :/ weird." Doubts aside, Grout is one part musical ambassador, one part oddity, and perfect for reality TV.