Mashrou3 Leila’s Hamed Sinno: songs of queerness & class
Hamed Sinno is the lead singer of Beirut indie rock sensation Mashrou3 Leila, who will take over the stage of Le National this Thurs. Oct 25 after two weeks of recording their new album at Montréal’s Hotel 2 Tango studio. The 24 year-old heartthrob spoke to 2B about music, politics, and not having a Frank Ocean moment.
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In the brief hour conversation with the devilishly handsome lead singer of Lebanese indie sensation Mashrou3 Leila, we talk about youth culture in the Arab Spring, social conservatism, gay role models, and death threats. Hamed Sinno says he’s never hidden his homosexuality, even if he lives in a country where same-sex relations are still illegal, and social/religious conservatism waxes and wanes, but mostly waxes.
Hamed’s gayness may or may not be the reason for the roving hostility he receives from homophobic internet trolls, but it’s hard to imagine what else could be causing them. When the cover of his 6-piece band Mashrou3 Leila’s 2011 sophomore album El Hal Romancy featured a photo of Hamed’s grandfather with photoshopped red lipstick, “we tried to hide it from our families” Hamed Sinno confides. The desire to simultaneously reveal and conceal social and personal truths is part of the contradiction of Mashrou3 Leila’s music, and Sinno’s life.
Hamed copes with the frequent internet threats with a shrug and a flick of his hand on his shoulder, like he’s removing a fleck of dust. “My bandmates and I write songs from personal experience,” he explains, which have earned them legions of fans – and some enemies – in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East for their poignant take on the rock idiom. Their politically and sexually charged songs are performed with an often driving beat and lush musicianship reminiscent of the Flaming Lips crossed with an Arab Django Reinhardt – listen to the track “Wajih” for a taste. The haunting “Shim el Yasmine” from their self-titled 2009 debut album made waves as a heartfelt acoustic song about a boy bringing his date home to meet the parents and revealing that his lover is a man. But don’t be mistaken, “Shim el Yasmine” wasn’t Hamed’s “Bad Religion.”
“I never really had a Frank Ocean moment,” he says nonchalantly, “but I love Frank Ocean,” his big brown eyes glancing at the floor as he shakes his head. His supposed “coming out” song went over more or less without incident in his home country, except if you count all those death threats. “Most journalists don’t even ask about it,” he says, in keeping with both progressive and conservative etiquette in many Middle Eastern countries to leave homosexuality unsaid, either for shame or safety reasons. As we were about to conclude our chat, Hamed checks the Mashrou3 Leila Facebook page and shows me a video posted the same day of a sullen looking man brandishing a spring-loaded knife on a web cam. Hamed says he’s used it. “We literally had people warn us that they would track us down and skin us alive before a concert in Cairo,” he tells me, as if to make the creepy knife-man video seem like small fry.
I ask him what it was like for him this summer when 36 gay men were arrested in a theatre and anally probed by Beirut police looking for proof of their homosexuality. “I was disgusted and it reminded me that that wasn’t the culture I [feel I] belong to,” he says angrily. Still he is unafraid of finding himself in a similar situation because “in Lebanon, class is the only thing that actually counts for you.” Knowing the right people, in the right places, and coming from the right family (as he admits he does) are all parts of the social armour that protect you from the kind of harassment and abuse those men endured. In spite of it all, he says Beirut is what grounds him, along with the support of his band-mates, and finding a role model at a young age.
“When I was a teenager trying to wrap my head around my sexuality [laughs]… I would go online and see that it was possible for gay men to be successful and OK with it,” Hamed explains, describing the important step of finding his own gay role models in a culture that is not known for having very many out cultural figures. Aside from your typical American heroes, Sinno found a fellow countryman, Rabih Alameddine, who had fearlessly affirmed his homosexuality and gone on to a successful international literary career. Alameddine’s Koolaids: The Art of War famously parallels the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco in the mid-1980s to ’90s with the Lebanese Civil War of the same period; the rocker and author are now friends. “It mattered that there was an Arab gay man that I could relate to,” and he hopes he can some day be an example of self-acceptance (and success) for the younger generation of queers in Lebanon and elsewhere.
Hamed Sinno and his band have been in Montréal for almost two weeks, recording a new 10-track album at famed Mile End recording temple Hotel 2 Tango with musical dandy and much-loved producer Radwan Ghazi Moumneh (Pas Chic Chic, Jerusalem in My Heart), whose younger sister is Sinno’s BFF. “The [new] album is a lot more visceral. The lyrics are a lot more political and [the issues] more regional,” Hamed describes. Tentatively called “They Made You Dance” (in Arabic), the songs are “sexy, trippy, more poppy, with a large palette of feelings,” he says, “ultimately, [with] the body as a theme.” Swoon.
Le National, Montréal
1220 Ste Catherine Est