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Lebanese Indie Pop Band Mashrou' Leila Gives Voice To Oppressed

Musicians Haig Papazian, Carl Gerges and Hamed Sinno of Mashrou' Leila. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)
Musicians Haig Papazian, Carl Gerges and Hamed Sinno of Mashrou' Leila. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

Before moving to America, Mashrou’ Leila lead singer Hamed Sinno believed in the “myth of American exceptionalism” when it comes to social justice and equality — much unlike his band’s experiences in the Arab world.

Now, he thinks what’s happening in the U.S. is “eerily similar” to the unrest he’s seen in the Middle East.

“It’s horrible seeing that the whole world is very much moving to a similar drum right now,” the Lebanese-American citizen says.

Lebanese indie-pop band Mashrou’ Leila started at American University of Beirut in 2008, two years before the anti-government protests known as the Arab spring. The band supported the protests and have been outspoken advocates for democracy and social justice in the region ever since.

Since releasing their self-titled debut album in 2010, the band has gained international fame for challenging the status quo in the Middle East on top of a sick beat. The band is on a North American tour for their new album “The Beirut School” with stops in New York and Washington, D.C.

But it hasn’t been an easy ride to becoming one of the most popular indie bands in the Arab world — Mashrou’ Leila is banned in Egypt and Jordan and had to cancel a concert in Lebanon because of violent threats posted on social media and pressure from Christian groups.

Watch on YouTube.

Sinno, who is openly gay, says the band’s reputation comes from their positions on uprisings in the Middle East and how their audience has used their music as part of these protests.

“In the Middle East, it doesn’t really take much to get banned as you can see from what’s happening with protests around the region,” Sinno says. “Anyone sort of articulating anything about freedom of speech or basic human rights in the region gets heavily opposed by political bodies.”

The band usually finds out from the press when places ban them, Sinno says.

Mashrou’ Leila is not banned in Lebanon, but the last concert they had scheduled in their home country was canceled because of a “violent” “media war,” he says.

Sinno says media outlets took their lyrics out of context to make it appear that the band’s agenda was to blaspheme Christianity.

“Fake news and fake pictures and fake videos were produced massively,” drummer Carl Gerges says. “They edited parts of interviews we did from all over the world.”

Sinno says political messages surface in the band’s lyrics because social injustices are an “integral part of who we are as people.”

“We believe in democracy. We believe in gender justice and sexual freedoms and social justice in general when it comes to race and class,” Sinno says. “That apparently makes us Satanists and Freemasons according to the Arab press.”

Watch on YouTube.

Their newest single “Calvary” is the first song they’ve recorded in English. Sinno says the song is about self-empowerment and knowing sometimes you need to stand up for yourself even when you know you’re bound to lose the fight.

They wrote the songs after getting banned in Egypt — where fans waving rainbow pride flags at their concert lead to the country’s worst-ever crackdown on the country’s gay community.

Over the past decade, the band has tried to avoid adhering to one genre or aesthetic.

“We’re very easily bored,” he says, “and we consume all sorts of music and I think that sort of comes out in the tracks.”

Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKennaAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.