In Conversation with Hamed Sinno

The Mashrou’ Leila frontman opens up about what’s next for the band, his problem with identity politics, and why it’s important to find the joy in activism.

Hamed Sinno has had a year, one with its high and its definite fair share of lows. In terms of highs: Mashrou’ Leila, the alt-rock band which he fronts, released their fourth studio album The Beirut School and, more recently, the band completed an eight-city tour of the United States and Canada, which included a performance during Damian Lazarus’ Get Lost NYC. They also released their first English language track Calvary with producer Joe Goddard of Hot Chip. About six months ago, Sinno also relocated to New York City from Beirut, a decision the 31-year-old says it took him thirty years to make.

On the other hand, in July of this year, Mashrou’ Leila was embroiled in controversy in their native Lebanon. Leading up to their concert at the Byblos Festival, a fundamentalist Christian church began spreading slanderous lies about the band online, including allegations of blasphemy, which resulted in death threats against the band and audience. Festival organizers caved to pressure from the local government and canceled the show citing security concerns, a decision which was decried by both the band’s supporters and Amnesty International.

The members of Mashrou’ Leila are no strangers to controversy. The band has long been known for its lyrics which challenged the traditional norms of the Arab world. Sinno himself is openly queer. As a band, the men are unabashed in their vocal support of social justice issues like LGBTQ and women’s rights as well as in its criticism of problems facing the region like corruption and police brutality. This has made performing around the Middle East tricky, to say the least. Mashrou’ Leila has been banned from performing in Jordan and over thirty people were arrested in 2017 after a rainbow flag was unfurled during their concert in Cairo.

I recently met Sinno in a café in Manhattan’s Lower East Side ostensibly to discuss the band’s recently completed tour. We did chat about the tour, but given that the streets of Lebanon have been packed with anti-government protestors for the last week and given Mashrou’ Leila’s staunch support of free speech in the region, our conversation naturally veered that direction.

Sinno comes across as an enigmatic mix of introversion and fervor. His shoulder’s slouch as we chat and a few of his sentences trail off, ending with a “whatever.” You’d be mistaken to take this as a sign of apathy, though. Every word that escapes his mouth feels as though it’s rattled around his brain for some time. He knows what he’s talking about. He cares about what he’s talking about. He approaches these topics with the thoughtfulness and tact of someone who has been thrust into the position of speaking on behalf of his community. Which community? Take your pick.

Check out our conversation below.

Sinno during the band’s show during Get Lost NYC. Photography by Julian Cassady.

You all just finished your U.S. and Canada tour, so let’s talk tour. How did it go?

Tour was good for the most part. It was good to be playing together again after all the bullshit. It was also the first time that we booked significantly bigger venues than we had played before in the US. So in that sense, it was a trial to see if we could fill those spaces. It was a very good tour in terms of that, to sell those tickets out.

 So, what’s next, now that the tour is done?

 We have a show in Dubai in November and a shoot/feature scheduled after that. Right now we’re writing. The plan is to get together after December and try to synthesize stuff since we’re writing separately for the moment.

 Is writing separately your normal writing process?

No, this the first time that we’re not in the same country. In the past, we’ve jammed together and then I go back and write the lyrics. Usually, the guys will come up with chord progressions and I’ll come up with a top melody and try to write into the melody. This time, I’m writing lyrics and vocal melodies before hearing music. It’s new. I have no idea what I’m doing; I’m literally batting in the dark. That’s the difference between lyrics and poetry. It’s an arbitrary difference at best, but the difference is poetry is lyrics written for silence. So, when you’re writing to silence and then try to put it to music it just sounds fucking weird.

And Honestly, right now I’m just trying to figure out if I can get to Beirut this week because of all the [anti-government] protests. It feels really weird not being there. My mom is freaking out, obviously. She doesn’t want me to go back.

 Given how outspoken you and the other members of Mashrou’ Leila have been about free speech and social justice issues, does it feel important for you to be there now?

It does, especially after the year that we’ve had. Part of what’s making people take to the streets right now is that the government, in line with all of its corruption and everything that’s been going on economically, another facet to that has been an absolute crackdown on freedom of speech. Obviously, the band is not the only casualty because of that, but what happened with our concert in Lebanon being canceled was a big national polemic at the time. And so getting all these videos of our music blasting at the protests and people carrying banners with our lyrics, it just feels wrong going to a solidarity protest in New York instead of just being there and getting tear-gassed with everyone else.

 What’s that experience like for you to see the videos of your music being played at the protests and to see the banners with your lyrics on them?

It’s weird. Growing up in Lebanon, and in Beirut in particular, you’re always in the city and but are nostalgic for it at the same time because you’re constantly fed this mythology about Beirut. It’s the one place that I know that does that. You kind of develop this sense of responsibility about the country, especially people around my age who grew up right after the war ended. We had this idea that we were expected to fix the country and that we could fix the country. Getting over that sense of responsibility and allowing myself to leave earlier this year took 30 years to do. And then this happening six months after I move is ridiculous. It’s difficult to watch from afar. Like, half of the country in the streets…and it’s magical. It’s making me question a lot of things.

 When you say it’s made you question things, does that mean moving to the States?

No, I think I definitely need to be here right now. It’s just made me question whether or not I want to die here. Also, after what happened with our concert getting canceled, I got this intense antagonism towards the country and this is making me question all of that.

Mashrou’ Leila

Do you think what’s happening now will inform the writing that you’re currently doing?

I mean, in a lot of ways it already has. What’s happening now isn’t coming out of nowhere. It’s been building up for a minute, so obviously we’ve been writing about it for a minute. It’s really funny, this U.S. tour we’ve been playing this song that we haven’t released yet that’s all about joyful militancy and the space for joy and the necessity of it within activist circles and just trying really hard to believe that things aren’t impossible and then seeing this stuff happening on the street just feels like…what the fuck.

But on a more conscious level, what I’d like to do musically and lyrically on this next album is to not exclusively relate it to Lebanon and what’s going on there.

 So, are we talking a more global focus?

To some extent. There’s also an entirely different set of politics that I’m keen on exploring.

Like, what exactly?

The band is in a fairly strange position for a bunch of musicians from Beirut. We play more often in Europe and the States than we do in the Middle East even though our largest fan base is there. We can’t actually play in a lot of those places for various political reasons. But we’re in such a privileged position to be able to play around the U.S. and Europe and have audiences here. That’s something that doesn’t happen very often for Arab musicians and that’s something that I’d like to explore – what it’s like being part of a diaspora musically.

When you’re touring in U.S. or Canada or Europe, do most of the fans who come to your concerts have ties to Lebanon or the Middle East?

It depends. The D.C. show was mostly diasporic Arabs. The rest of the tour was actually the other way around. It was interesting. I think that there’s a lot of resonance with the queer community. There’s just a lot of people who are interested. Obviously, the music isn’t about the language.

 The band just released its first English language track (with producer Joe Goddard). Was that a conscious decision as part of an effort to continue to connect with fans in these other parts of the world?

It was a conscious decision. Again, we can’t play to most of our audiences in the Middle East at this point. On one hand there’s a pragmatic decision that needs to be made about what’s logistically feasible for us. We have to be able to grow in this part of the world. The other part of it is that musicians from the Arab world don’t get to grow here [in the U.S.] and be seen as just musicians. We’re constantly seen as world musicians. For the longest time ever, “the dream” was to get a song that was sung in Arabic to chart internationally, and that still is a dream. But I think we were too quick to jump to the conclusion that the problem was the language and not who we were. I think it’s just as unlikely for a bunch of Arab men to chart regardless of what language we’re singing in.

 If the “old” dream was having a song chart in Arabic, what’s the new dream? Or the bigger dream?

Honestly, the cheesy answer is to just be able to become better musicians. But that does entail a lot of things. We want to be able to collaborate with more musicians from around here. We want to be able to reach different audiences. It’s not like a have a five-point plan or anything, but I do really want to chart at some points, in English or Arabic – ideally both.

As ridiculous as this sounds, the biggest part of this dream aspect of this is to just be seen as a musician, which ultimately is the goal. To not continue to be in the place where it’s like, “Oh you’re Arab. Oh, you’re gay. Oh, you’re Muslim. Let’s look at you through that lens rather than through what you’re actually giving the world.”

 Do you feel like you’re making progress with that? Or do you feel like you’ll always be tied to the identity and the activism?

 Being tied to the activism and being tied the identity are very different things. I have no problem being tied to the activism. I mean, I genuinely give a lot of value to the politics of performers. I care about them. There’s a reason why I find it really difficult to listen to Michael Jackson right now. I can’t enjoy it. These things matter, I get it. We live in a hyper-political climate and you want to make sure you’re giving attention to people who deserve it. In a lot of ways being in the public eye means being willing to take up the mantle of being a propagandist. Whether or not you’re consciously doing it, you’re still consciously doing it. And it matters.

But the rest of the guys in the band are also very strong advocates for LGBTQ rights, for example, and they care for them tremendously. They’re just not gay. I think that people find it difficult, especially in the U.S. because of this country’s obsession with identity politics, to separate caring for gay rights vs. being a gay person. And I don’t understand why the headlines continue to be like “Gay Muslim Frontman.” One, it would be great if people could stop calling me gay and go back to calling me queer. It would be great if people explained what they meant when they said Muslim. Whatever.

Do you feel that it’s just as important to have a band full of non-queer men who are just as vocal in their support of queer people?

I think it’s super important. I mean, again, this country needs to get over its obsession with identity politics. Identity politics is how the ruling class continues to separate us so that the issues that affect marginalized communities continue to affect only those marginalized communities and not other people who could share political concerns. I think it’s important to destabilize the idea that gay rights only matter to gay people. It’s not true. It’s important to fuck with that binary.

 As frustrating as being siloed by your identity characteristics can be, do you find that it’s helped you connect with fans, especially queer ones?

So, that’s a different side of it. On one hand, you want people to look at your politics, but on the other hand, we all also need to understand the value of representation, especially now. We get a lot of – and I hate calling it this – “fan mail” from people who appreciate the value of seeing someone who is also queer who they can identify with whose not the butt of a joke or a cautionary tale or a tragic romance story. There is a very strong lack of representation in the Middle East in particular. And these things matter, especially as you’re young and you’re coming out. The hardest part of grappling with non-normativity is feeling like an outsider. And being able to see other people who share some form of quote-unquote identification with you, I mean, it matters. It changes a lot. It changes a lot of the solitude, the expected misery. I think those two things are a big part of why when we’re younger and trying to wrap our heads around our own non-normativities, be they gender, or sexual, or even racial in certain places, the alienation is the hard is the hardest part. And I think a big part of why a lot of us try to hurt ourselves during those years. So, I guess I appreciate that messaging.

 I wanted to ask you about the canceled show this past summer. Given everything that happened, what was that experience like for you all?

 It was really difficult and very scary seeing lies circulate that heavily. We’d had experience with that in Egypt before where the campaign that got launched against us in Egypt was very much about lying in the press and making things out to be devil worshiping and blasphemy and debauchery but Egypt has a history of having a really fucked up media apparatus, Lebanon does too, but not like that. Seeing the country slip into that kind of post-truth era was frightening. And it explains so much. So much of what’s even happening now where the government is trying to quiet down the protests by lying. It was emotionally excruciating. I’m not by any means a nationalist. I don’t believe in the nation-state as a necessary unit; My politics are very much not about that. I don’t believe in cultural relativism…to a certain extent.

In spite of all of that, I’ve never been able to bring myself to not love the country I grew up in and not feel a sense of obligation towards it and that’s why it took me so long to get myself to leave. And you know, I just have this inherent love for that country in spite of myself. Getting that much hate, getting that much negativity from that one place was so hard to digest. It’s not like Egypt or Jordan – and both those places really did fuck with our heads. But Lebanon, I mean, just the idea that you love a place that is actively telling you that it doesn’t love you back is a lot. It sounds very melodramatic but it’s true.

Obviously, it was very heartwarming and incredible to see the response that people had to all of that, the fact that so many people wanted the concert to happen, the fact that they organized that solidarity concert, that it became a national debate. All of that was amazing. But at the same time, it became a national debate on the government’s terms, right? People were debating blasphemy and satanism and things that we didn’t actually do.

Like it validated the lies simply by entertaining them?

Yeah, in a lot of ways. Obviously, you cant reduce everything that people did to that. A lot of people knew exactly what they were talking about and knew who the band was and were trying to fight the cancellation on that level and were trying to fight that whole fake news bullshit. It was just a lot.

 I don’t’ want to focus entirely on the sad stuff. What’s the good right now? Are there places where you’re able to see the joy you spoke of earlier?

Just seeing our lyrics all over the protests is… I mean, it means so much. Honestly just from day one, even before people had speakers or anything, just like getting pictures of these women carrying banners with our lyrics on them. It’s…just a lot. I keep getting videos of people dancing in the middle of these protests to the songs in particular that were cause for the cancellation, the songs that were made out to be blasphemous and all that bullshit. Seeing people dance in the street in the middle of fucking Tripoli and the south, and it’s not even a little bourgeois Beiruti bubble…it’s a lot.

It was so validating on one hand and redemptive on the other. It’s just really making me want to go back.

You can stream Mashrou’ Leila here.

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