“Saying that the band must be banned from playing […] because our songs address themes of sexuality, homosexuality or support righteous democratic protests against social or political problems, is essentially saying that any artist addressing basic human rights through their work should be banned,” — excerpt from the Mashrou’ Leila’s Facebook post in wake of their ban in Jordan.

Lebanese indie band Mashrou’ Leila didn’t hold back after Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism banned them from performing in the country last month. The Jordanian government’s decision, at the behest of religious conservatives, made international headlines and incited fans and LGBT activists across the Middle East. Jordan eventually lifted the ban but it was too late, the concert was canceled.
Mashrou’ Leila have unfortunately grown accustomed to censorship at this point, but never relent in fighting. Thanks to their politically charged lyrics, advocacy of gay rights, and lead singer Hamed Sinno’s openness about his own sexuality, major labels have shunned them and conservative leaders have tried to ban them. Since they formed in 2008, Mashrou’ Leila have been a lightning rod for backlash from a conservative-controlled media, but also an important voice for gender equality in the region. They’ve been called the “Voice of Arab Spring” and fought to Occupy Arab Pop, forcing mainstream Arab media to address issues of human rights and diversify its voice. The band is a shining, synth-rock example of how artists can leverage their music to shift the discourse.

Given the current struggle over LGBTQ rights here in the United States, it felt like the perfect time for Mashrou’ Leila to kick off their US tour at Music Hall of Williamsburg this week. Artists are an indispensable mouthpiece for gay rights in the US, but we’re in the middle of an intense debate of how they can be most effective on tour. North Carolina’s HB2 law has forced artists to consider cultural boycotts and canceling shows, and while that draws attention to the state’s human rights abuses, it’s not an easy solution. Canceling a show in North Carolina punishes fans and music lovers in the state just as much as it sends a message to Governor McCrory. “Without nuance, boycotting can become Machiavellian,” Sinno warns.
Mashrou’ Leila are no strangers to boycotts themselves. They infamously canceled their Beirut show with the Red Hot Chili Peppers back in 2012, after the Chili Peppers agreed to perform in Tel Aviv. In solidarity with BDS, a nonviolent boycott movement that addresses Israel’s human rights abuses, Mashrou’ Leila stepped off the roster.
But it’s not a decision they take lightly. “It’s not a popular opinion for people to have, but you have to personalize your own approach to the collective movement. There are so many grey zones to cultural boycott that it can become too sweeping.” Mashrou’ Leila are veterans of navigating past the censors, but they also have had to manage the expectations that come with on-tour activism. Touring the US comes with a new set of challenges, not least of which includes getting into the country.

This week, with their new album Ibn el Leil in tow, Mashrou’ Leila intends to bring their mercurial synth-rock sound to a dance party near you. Ibn el Leil came out last fall, and it’s a bittersweet pop record that pays tribute to Dionysian party gods just as much as it laments the inevitable feelings of emptiness that come with the scene. “We wrote the album during the two years after my father passed away,” Sinno explained, “so a lot of the content deals escapism.”
It still didn’t escape the censors. Ibn el Leil is arguably their most intimate album yet: a holistic tribute to every party that went too far, which ends on “Marrikh,” a song that candidly approaches thoughts of psychosis and medication. Something so profoundly personal shouldn’t rile the censors, but it still did. Although the album pivots from their previous album Raasuk, which contained political anthems and the spirit of Arab Spring, Ibn el Leil worried Lebanon’s music industry even more for its playful merging of religious and sexual jargon. On the track “Djin,” the chorus cheers, “drown my liver in gin, in the name of the Father and the Son.” Its seemingly harmless play on words compelled Jordanian MP Bassam Battoush to deliver a parliamentary memorandum accusing them of Satanism and “revolts against governments and societies.” They can’t catch a break.

Before they kicked off their tour this past Tuesday night, Hamed Sinno talked to me about the futility of appeasing censors, no matter their reasons. Mashrou’ Leila don’t have any plans to quiet down, and though the maze of censorship is especially tiring while on tour, the sincerity of one’s own voice is paramount.
It seems like the censors are always after you for something, but were you surprised when backlash erupted over a party anthem like “Djin?”
No, not entirely. When we finished recording the album we tried to sign it to an international label and even they had a problem with the lyrics because they thought it would be hard to market and sell it in the Middle East. Even international labels wanted us to censor it. Which is why we ended up releasing it ourselves, again. I’ve begun to expect a bit of backlash with these things but I don’t feel it’s justified. “Djin” a very calculated effort to draw parallels between Dionysian rituals and Christian rituals and draw parallels between the mythology there. This isn’t arbitrary blasphemy, it’s not like we’re masturbating on stage or doing anything to any holy books. This was an honest look at myths and archetypes.
Besides working independently, how else did you get around the censors for live shows?
When we started, we used to curse a lot in our songs because I had never really heard much cursing in Arabic music. It was something I wanted. To be honest, I find cursing to be really beautiful. But then at concerts, the organizers would always ask right before the show to not use certain words. So we would just point the mics on the crowd, so they would sing all the banned words instead of us. There were always attempts at getting our shows cancelled, but nothing as large scale as what just happened in Jordan.

Mashrou' Leila

What do you think magnified that problem?
It quickly got out of hand because it was instigated by a priest and then he got the municipality into it, and then the administration got into it, and they all quickly started running their mouth and saying things that were very problematic for anyone who cares about freedom of speech.
Your message is so deeply felt by your fans, the leilaholics. Do you think Americans who don’t speak Arabic might have a harder time with the language barrier?
At the end of it, a concert isn’t a poetry recital. This isn’t to completely dismiss the value of the lyrics at a musical performance, but it’s really more about what a body does on stage and what it creates in that space. There’s a power dynamic imposed on the audience, by virtue of the raised stage and amplified sound, so you sort of colonize the soundscape of the room. Even with a language barrier, I think the performance does impose a feeling on the room that’s infectious.
The band had a hard time getting into the country last year. Do you expect to face the same kind of challenges this time?
It wasn’t just all the bullshit with the visas, we had a hard time getting artist permits. As Arab musicians, we expected some challenges. Historically, it’s been an issue for people from the Middle East to get musician permits in the States, so it was usual for people to schedule these concerts and then artists would have to cancel because they couldn’t get their visa permits, all because of security concerns. It took us awhile to get that stuff going, but we have a really great supporter at the Columbia School of Journalism who got us in the States by getting us to speak at Columbia University, and because she was doing that it was a lot easier for us to get musician permits.

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Do you run into any problems on tour?
To be honest, I think we expecting things to be much worse than they actually were. I mean, what we see in the media most of the time is that Trump is becoming the Republican candidate, and I think that is quite telling of where America is on Islam and the Islamic world. There were fears the last time we were in the US; I think we were expecting much more aggression. This isn’t to say it was always peachy keen, but a bunch of shows were sold out and it was really rewarding to finally be playing in the United States.

But I can’t say what it will be like this time. I haven’t spent enough time in the States to really guess. I can’t pretend to know enough about the market there to tell you what it’s really like, but I just don’t think it’s going to be easy trying to get recognition as an Arab band, let alone get recognition as a band in spite of being Arab. It’s this weird identitarian tension that I always worry will slap us in the face, but I can’t validate that.
You’re coming to the US at an interesting time. A lot of musicians are boycotting North Carolina over HB2. You’ve been involved with boycotts in the past, particularly BDS.
We still are.
So do you feel cultural boycotts are an effective option for artists?
I think boycott is an effective way to go about things. But with cultural boycotts specifically, things can be more nuanced. I think ultimately it really is sort of a personal, moral decision, and I know it’s not a popular opinion for people to have, but you can personalize your approach to these things, even when it’s supposed to be a collective movement.

Mashrou' Leila

Photo by Raymond Gemmayel
Do you think that nuance gets lost in more organized movements?
So, I’ll use Israel as an example to illustrate my point: There is a great text that was written by John Berger that’s an open letter about the BDS movement, and in his letter he says ‘OK I’m supposed to have this meeting with Israeli publishers, I’m personally going to decline this, but the situation is not as clear cut as BDS is in theory. There are grey zones where things need to be a bit more nuanced.’ So it’s one thing to say that, I will never go play a concert in Israel, for example, it’s a totally different thing to say I will never work with any Israeli musician, and then it’s a completely different thing to say I will never work with any artist who works with Israel. These things are really different questions, and I think it’s a case by case thing. I think personal nuance is needed because otherwise it becomes somewhat Machiavellian.
Do you see the effects of boycott first hand on tour?
I think boycott is one of the most effective tools that artists can use to rally awareness around. If you want to effectively change things, it forces your networks, the people working in the industry, the fans, the venues, the entire network, to digest these certain issues. It forces people to confront topics that others would prefer we don’t talk about. Also, none of the harm that’s generated by peaceful protests compares to the harm that’s generated by the systems boycotts try to fight.
There have been several attempts to ban BDS and other boycott movements in the US, Israel, and other places, which makes me think it must be effective.
A lot of politicians are quick to shut down the BDS without entertaining this essentially peaceful protest approach. When we deny people their right to boycott things, it raises a big question about the democratic process. There’s something almost inherently fascist about saying ‘you cannot choose to not support country X.’ It would be like saying in the US, ‘no artists are allowed to choose not to play in North Carolina because of the bathroom law.’ When you take Israel out of the question, there is something strange about that template.

As veterans of boycotting, what advice do you have for artists that want to leverage their tours for activism?
That it’s tricky, especially with North Carolina in particular, because from everything I’ve read, it doesn’t seem like the majority of North Carolinians are even on board with the bigoted approach of these laws. And this goes back to what I was saying earlier about it being a bit Machiavellian: half of the residents of the state oppose HB2, but are trying but failing to change it. So are we going to punish them a second time? But ultimately, these boycotts draw more attention and more discourse, and will force the government to respond to the people, but it begs the question of whether we’re punishing people who are already being punished.
Over the years, Mashrou’ Leila has been called the Voice of Arab Spring and the loudest advocates for LGBT rights. Do you feel pressure to be a representative voice for these causes?
You know, when it comes to fighting censorship, it’s really just about fighting for our own freedom of expression, and seeing that as a small step towards more freedom of expression for everyone. One band’s effort can’t change the way things work, but I think it paves the way for more change. Jordan is a good example of that I think. It’s part of why the ban was eventually revoked: it was thanks to the audience, and the media, and not just us.
When it comes to LGBT rights, that’s something we’re adamantly, almost militantly in support of, but I don’t conflict the question of LGBT rights and representational politics together. There’s no part of me that can convince myself on any level that I’m representative of gay Lebanese youth. I don’t feel the pressure of representation, I don’t think it’s theoretically possible for any person to represent a group of people. It’s really just a question of: can I fight for my own resilience within the industry? Within the region? And I hope that fight will start the conversations we need, and will pave the way for other people to do their own shit.
Ibn el Leil is out now, get it here

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Lead photo by Leva Saudargaite

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