Day 6

For subversive Lebanese rockers Mashrou' Leila, music and activism go hand in hand

Lebanon's Mashrou' Leila — known for its hard-hitting, LGBTQ-positive, anti-establishment music — is at the tail end of a North American tour after facing threats and censorship in the Middle East.

The band, with its gay frontman, faces censorship and threats from those who dub them a 'danger to society'

Mashrou' Leila, which means 'overnight project', is an electro-pop band from Beirut. (Tarek Moukaddem)

Music will always be political for Mashrou' Leila's frontman Hamed Sinno.

Sinno is gay, and for more than a decade, the Beirut band's electro-pop anthems about gender, LGBTQ rights and "modern Arabic identity" have made them one of the biggest rock bands in Lebanon.

"The fight for any sort of political agenda is not something that only happens on a governmfental level or a legal level or within activist circles," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. 

"Politics sediments into every aspect of our lived existence."

But with politics, comes risk.

"Certain conservative parts of societies around the [Middle East] tend to have a problem with our politics," Sinno said in an interview from Montreal, where the band performed this week at the tail end of a North American tour.

Back home, the band's shows have been cancelled, and its members made the target of death threats, because of their unmistakable activism.

In part because of those threats, they have relocated to New York City.

Censorship and solidarity 

Mashrou' Leila has been banned from Jordan twice. Their fans, too, have faced government wrath. In 2017, seven concertgoers were detained by police in Egypt for waving rainbow flags, charged with "promoting sexual deviancy."

They were was scheduled to perform at Lebanon's Byblos International Festival this summer, but their set was cancelled "to prevent bloodshed and preserve security," organizers said.

In the months leading up to the event, religious groups launched a campaign against the band, calling their music a "danger to society." 

But the festival still earned them international headlines after legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed their song Tayf (Ghost).

So for Sinno, the Ma tribute — which ended with the cellist thrusting his fist in the air — was a bittersweet moment of solidarity.

"It's amazing that we still live in a world where artists can have each other's backs that way. [But] on the other hand it was just very sad for me that it had to happen ... on our 'home turf,'" he said.

Climate, refugee activism

Though Sinno is one of the few visibly gay celebrities in Arab media, he's quick to note the band's music is hardly focused on any one political impulse.

Calvary, the first single from their latest album The Beirut School, takes on the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

The song, and its accompanying video, centre around the "energized idealism" of youth facing conflict only to be "defeated" by political fatigue, according to a description on the band's YouTube channel.

"Calvary explicitly has a little bit of a song that we wrote after the incident in Egypt, as a direct reaction to that," Sinno told Paper Magazine in an interview.

The band has also tackled climate change in a recording from a raft in the Mediterranean Sea.

In partnership with Greenpeace, Mashrou' Leila performed their song Bahr floating alongside the environmental group's sail boat Rainbow Warrior ahead of 2016 climate talks in Morocco.

"We changed the lyrics to the song so that they would be directly about, basically, how necessary it is to try and use solar power as a resource, especially in places like the Middle East and the Arab world," Sinno said.

In another recording from the same partnership, the group pays tribute to those lost at sea in memory of migrants who died while travelling to Europe by raft.

"This was obviously — still is — unfortunately the situation with a lot of refugees that have to go on similar life rafts to try and get to Europe ... to flee political situations that they're confronted with in the Middle East," he said.

'We really push ourselves to grow'

Though they may not be well known this far north, Sinno says Canada — Montreal in particular — holds a special place in his heart.

One of the group's early albums was recorded in the city, and Sinno was in a long distance relationship with someone living in the city.

"So, you know, coming back here always feels like coming back to one of our homes," he said.

Mashrou' Leila recently released their first song recorded in English, Calvary. (Tarek Moukkadem)

As Mashrou' Leila celebrates their 10th anniversary, the group is looking to make inroads in the West. Calvary is their first release featuring English lyrics.

Now, with a decade of experimenting with sound and genre, Sinno says the group still has more to do.

"As musicians, all four of us are not the kind of people that want to find something comfortable and stay there," he told Day 6. 

"We really push ourselves to grow as musicians just because we also get bored of doing the same thing."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Pedro Sanchez.

To hear the full interview with Mashrou' Leila lead singer Hamed Sinno, download our podcast or click Listen above.