Interview with Mashrou’ Leila lead singer Hamed Sinno

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“For Arab artists, for us to have any legitimacy, or for us to deserve that people care about what we do, we have to justify our ‘people.’ Which is ridiculous.”

Mashrou’ Leila have, at various moments in their career, been called “the rock band challenging homophobia and oppression in the Middle East,” “the band out to occupy Arabic pop,” and even “art rockers creating the soundtrack to the Arab Spring.”

Talking to lead singer Hamed Sinno, it’s abundantly clear that the band doesn’t really dwell on any of these sensationalisms.

“Stuff like ‘voice of a generation’ or ‘sound of the Arab Spring’ or whatever, for me it seems like part of a very long tradition of Western media trying to simplify the condition of the Arab world and propagate this idea of the Arab person that we can understand, when really Arab society is just complicated, and dense, and as varied as any other society,” Sinno said.

Mashrou’ Leila started out by making the kind of music they wanted to hear, but couldn’t find on Lebanese radio, and have continued to satisfy that need since their start in 2008.

Because their lyrics often deal with gay love and political satire, they don’t fit the mold of what many Americans and Europeans expect from Arab music, and that disconnect has been a central theme in many of their interviews.

“I just don’t think people go up to European artists or white American artists and say, ‘do you represent your culture?’ It’s just not expected. For Arab artists, for us to have any legitimacy, or for us to deserve that people care about what we do, we have to justify our ‘people.’ Which is ridiculous. You’re constantly just battling this Fox News version of the Arab world to justify why you make music,” Sinno lamented.

Mashrou’ Leila released their fourth full album, Ibn El Leil, on the heels of a highly anticipated and much-delayed U.S. tour.

After five years of visa delays, Mashrou’ Leila finally made it to sold-out crowds in New York, Boston, and San Francisco, ending the tour in New York on Halloween.

The new release is more dance heavy, more personal, and more stylized, if singles “3 Minutes,” “Maghawir” and “Djin” are any indication.  

We spoke to lead singer Hamed Sinno about the album, the band’s reception in the United States, and challenging the mainstream Arabic pop scene.

This is Mashrou’ Leila’s first tour of the U.S. right?

This is the first time we’ve played in the States. Honestly it’s been great so far. Most of the gigs have been sold out, which is insane.

Who were your musical influences growing up?

I grew up in a very jazz-oriented family. My father was on the jazz committee for this really big festival in Lebanon. He listened to a lot of jazz, and they—both my parents—spent a lot of time in the States before they moved back to Lebanon, so they brought back a lot of disco vinyls and stuff like that. So I was listening to a lot of Donna Summer. Tina Turner actually was like a huge deal for me when I was growing up. Just a lot of pop to be honest. Also Michael Jackson and stuff like that. Then, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I started listening to a lot of Seattle grunge. Audioslave and Nirvana, Temple of the Dog, Pearl Jam. A lot of classic rock as well, like [Pink] Floyd and [Led] Zepplin. All the basics.

What about the band? Who are you listening to right now?

All of us consume ridiculous amounts of music right, and we’ll hear something every now and then that we’ll fall in love with and then pass it over to the next guy. We consume so much stuff from each other. I’ve been listening to a lot of R&B. I’ve been getting into rap a lot because I’m paying attention to sound production. A lot of pop, a lot of indie stuff as well.

This last year I guess the really big albums for me were a really old Jazmine Sullivan album from like 2011, because her voice is insane—no it was actually from 2015 I think—and that Sufjan Stevens album killed me. No honestly it’s ridiculous, it was just such a good album. The new Prince is great, the new Peaches album is amazing as well. I’m a sucker for Peaches. A lot of electro-based stuff like Jungle and Chromeo. We’re all over the place honestly.

How is this new album different from what you guys have produced in the past?

The album is quite different from our other stuff. We wrote it in complete isolation, which we don’t normally do. A lot of the content is also a lot more personal, a lot more confessional. Lyrically, my father passed away a couple years ago and it was a pretty rough experience. The illness was quite traumatizing. So I was in that head space when I was writing, and I couldn’t bring myself to write about the outside world in the way I would when I was younger. It’s really not an album that’s about culture and society and politics. Obviously there are intersections of these things because they’re inescapable, but it’s much more personal.

I think we’re a lot more composition-oriented than we used to be. That first album essentially sounds like seven musicians trying to get to know each other. It really does sound like that. A lot of unnecessary musical virtuosity, and then trying to go back to the theme just so it sounds like a song. At this point it’s not really about us as individual musicians, it’s about the song and the composition. We paid much more attention to how stuff works together, how stuff is recorded, how the chord progressions work, how they emote.

What sort of criticism do you get from the mainstream Arabic pop scene? I imagine you don’t quite get along.

Look, I mean, I don’t know really know how to answer that, because what we get from mainstream Arab pop criticism is a little bit harsh. A lot of it is so self-evidently misinformed. They’ll be like “This isn’t Arabic music,” and you know what? You can’t tell me that because of the color of my skin, just because I’m not more conservative. And that’s exactly what that criticism is, because people need to play music that sounds that traditional and that canonical and that cookie-cutter.

There was this one time when a television station wanted to give us an award for best band, and they asked us to go to the award ceremony and play one song onstage, and it would be broadcast live or whatever. So we send them our technical rider and they send us back this email like, “This is absurd. Who do you think you are?” Because we asked for a drum set and amplifiers or something like that. “No one does this. You guys should just send your singer, and the music can be played back, and he can sing along.” We’re just like, you’re giving people an award for a band, and you don’t want the band to be there, you just want that like, front?

How do you react to Arab criticism or even Western assumptions that your music isn’t really Arab?

The Middle East and the Arab world, and Lebanon in particular, have a ridiculously long history of producing music that sounds… well, not conservative. And of producing rock bands. I’m thinking like Omar Bashir. This has been going on for decades, but it’s always been left out of the archives of what we consider Arab musical history for some reason. So the Arab world’s produced music that doesn’t sound typically mainstream for quite some time, but it always gets left out of the way we read the history of Arab music.

Do you ever feel pressure to sing in English so you can reach a larger audience?

For marketing purposes and business reasons it’s obviously beneficial to sing in other languages, but it just feels a little dirty doing that for those reasons. So until I find a reason that I’m convinced is adequate for me to go back to writing in English, I probably won’t do it.

A big part of the stuff that blows my mind is what we were talking about earlier—the oversimplification of the region, going to Europe and being pigeonholed by reporters, dealing with that racism all the time. I think if I were ever to start singing about that stuff it would make sense for me to start doing it in English or in French, or whatever other language for that matter. That would be incentive not to write in Arabic, because the message needs to go to the other side of the ball game.

So much of the Western news coverage of Mashrou’ Leila fixates on your sexual orientation and advocacy. Does that expectation ever come with pressures?

It does come with a lot of pressure, because ultimately, I’d like my entry point to the world to be that I’m a musician. I don’t want it to be that I’m gay, or that I talk about these things. I understand that I’m at a privilege point right now where I can take advantage of these things, to sort of further certain personal agendas that I have in regard to a bunch of issues that I care about. The only pressure about these things is that I don’t think anybody in the band is really ready to speak for other people. We just speak for ourselves, and we hope that people can identify. If they do, great. If they can’t, tough. For me, that’s the role that the band should have to play. Speak our own narratives, tell our own stories, because these are stories that don’t get told very often.

Thoughts on the “world music” genre?  

So much. So much. To start with, essentially that category means anything that isn’t from Europe or North America. Which is so weird. That music—from North America or Europe—deserves genre, but everything else we’re going to lump into “world,” which essentially means ethnic, which is a dirty friggin’ word. What bothers me even more is when people get pinned into that, even when they don’t play this “ethnic music.” Like we make pop. It’s pop music from Lebanon, but just because of the color of my skin, or where we come from, or grew up, or the language that we play in, it becomes world music, which is super weird. The whole thing is wrong. It’s extremely offensive, and it’s so weird for me how people continue to use it and not see that it’s offensive.

How would you choose for Mashrou’ Leila to be categorized?

I call it boutique pop. For me it’s just pop, it’s independent pop.

What do you think of the editorials that call you guys “the voice of the Arab Spring” or any of those other grandiose titles?

For me it seems like part of a very long tradition of Western media trying to simplify the condition of the Arab world and propagate this idea of the Arab person that we can understand, when really Arab society is just complicated and dense and as varied as any other society.

I feel like labels like that—like “sound of the Arab spring”—just fall into that. Where you try to simplify a very complicated narrative into some strange representation carried out by five middle class Lebanese men. That can’t possibly be the Arab Spring, that’s absurd. These things just make me very uncomfortable because on one hand, they have benevolent intentions, right? No one’s really trying to be malicious, but it’s just inadvertent racism and it makes me really, really uncomfortable. Also I just don’t think people go up to European artists or white American artists and say, “do you represent your culture?” It’s just not expected. For Arab artists, for us to have any legitimacy, or for us to deserve that people care about what we do, we have to justify our “people.” Which is ridiculous.

What do you wish more journalists would ask you?

I’d just really like to talk about music every now and then. If I’m doing an interview for a French queer magazine, it makes sense that they’re going to want to focus on my sexuality, because that’s the point of that publication, but then when you’re doing an interview for a music magazine and they just want to talk to you about homosexuality, it’s like, man, I wake up thinking about lyrics, and writing, and chord progressions. You know, trying to listen to more stuff, trying to read up on more music, trying to do all this stuff. I don’t wake up and say hey, I’m going to be a homosexual today.

I just really wish people would stop oversimplifying Arab people, and Lebanese people, and people of color. It kills me, constantly having to deal with this stuff, so if there’s anything I would ask for, more than just people enjoying the music and buying an album or two, it’s that.