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Queer Arab Singer Hamed Sinno Pushes Musical, Political Boundaries

Hamed Sinno, lead singer of Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila, talks to NBC OUT about music, politics and the intersection of the two.

The Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila were touring the U.S. with their fourth album, "Ibn El Leil" (Son of the Night), a work about grief and mourning in Beirut’s nightclubs, when a gunman killed dozens of people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Suddenly, their work took on a haunting new depth.

Hamed Sinno, the band’s lyricist and lead singer, is openly gay and from a Muslim family. “To be at the intersection of two identities that are equally scorned, but then to also feel like you’re being shut out of both sides of them, it’s horrible,” he told NBC OUT in an interview.

Sinno’s family has been supportive of his work and although his father recently passed away, his presence is felt in the band's new album. Several songs are set in the underground haunts where Sinno said he grieved. At times, that contrast is drawn by Sinno’s syrupy voice over a backdrop of dancey synths. Other times, sadness is stirred by the bow of Haig Papazian’s signature violin, which lends the work a Middle Eastern flair.

“It’s absurd to have your own work mean different things to you now because of politics,” said Sinno, reflecting on the implications the band’s work took on after the tragedy in Florida.

Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila plays in New York City.Munir Atalla

Sinno has become something of a queer icon known for his expressive performances and for pushing the boundaries of genre. Politically active both on and off stage, he is a vocal critic of labels and stereotyping. “This is what it looks like to be called both a terrorist and a faggot,” he said as he took the stage at D.C.’s “The Hamilton” a mere day and a half after the violence in Orlando.

Continuing to perform despite the real threat of violence both in the Middle East and the Western world takes courage. “When people send you death threats, you pause for a second to question how serious it is … If someone shoots me while I’m onstage, then to some extent ... I’m happy to be in that position,” Sinno remarked, expressing a profound acceptance of the vulnerability he assumes every time he takes the stage.

His only concern is for his listeners. “When someone threatens your audience, when all they’ve done is tried to listen to music ... that gets really frightening.” This sentiment is echoed in the song “Falyakon” (Whatever will be), where Sinno writes, “Whatever will be, just may be, I’ll still be here singing my melody.”

For Sinno, music venues are natural fora to express political opinions. Nowhere is that more true, he said, than in his native Beirut. The ballad “Maghawir” (Commandos) narrates a fictional nightclub shooting grafted from true stories in the Lebanese capital. “In his pocket there’s a gun, the boy is his father’s son,” Sinno sings.

“Kalaam" is a gender-bending love song where the object of desire alternates between male and female. “Why all the shame? Just feel what you feel,” he croons.

Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila plays in New York City.Munir Atalla

Mashrou’ Leila have been called “the voice of a generation” and “the soundtrack to the Arab Spring,” but really, Sinno insisted, the band has always been just a group of friends making music about their own lives, “a night’s project,” as their name suggests.

The group first gained notoriety in 2011 when their tunes resonated across an Arab world roiling with rebellion. Sinno belted out scathing political satires of homophobia, corrupt politicians and peers who would rather dance than face reality. “Lil Watan” (For the Homeland) is an anti-anthem, a parody of nationalistic propaganda. In the song, the chorus shouts back in the voice of bourgeois society, “Stop your preaching, just come dance with me.” Their sound is a distinctive mix of indie-pop layered with colloquial Arabic sung in a stylized lilt. It is perhaps best encapsulated by the call to prayer and the blast of a car bomb ringing out in brilliant synchrony, evoked on the 2009 track “Obwa.”

Mashrou’ Leila is one of the few bands ever to break out of the Arab world and become a truly global phenomenon. In November 2015, they released their fourth album at the Barbican Centre in London, and the year prior, the band sold out a show in the city’s iconic Royal Albert Hall.

They encountered overt censorship last spring. In April, the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism revoked Mashrou’ Leila’s concert license, derailing a show planned at the Roman amphitheater in downtown Amman. Fans turned to the band’s lyrics to express their defiance, sorrow and outrage on social media - and publications worldwide took note. Eventually, the ban was lifted, but not in time for the show to go on.

To fans and critics alike, the Amman controversy only furthered Mashrou’ Leila’s image as musical and political icons for a counter-culture that continues to gain momentum. The band has come to represent something subaltern and contagious that can be heard on the track “Tayf" (Ghost), an ode to a gay nightclub in Beirut that got raided by authorities.

Sinno has said that the writing on the track is some of his favorite on the album. In it, he sings poignantly, “the fungus is spreading, tomorrow we inherit the earth."

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