As Lebanese pop stars Mashrou Leila continue pushing boundaries with their gender-bending lyrics, their audience continues to grow.
Rabat – What began as a one-night call to action to musicians on the campus of The American University of Beirut over a decade ago, morphed into the internationally popular quintet Mashrou Leila.
Although their lyrics are sung in the band’s native Lebanese dialect, the group’s appeal stretches far beyond the Arabic speaking world.
Mashrou Leila defies stereotypes through their music, challenging conceptions of identity and gender through lyrical wordplay.
Ten years on, the band is still on the rise, selling out shows in venues around the world.
The band’s satirical lyrics, including themes of religion, politics, and homosexuality have caused controversy more than once.
Mashrou Leila has gained a large LGTBQ following and frontman Hamed Sinno is openly queer. This presents challenges in a region where only about 12% of the population support homosexuality, according to a recent survey.
The Jordanian government banned Mashrou Leila in 2016 after the group announced a show in Amman. The government then reversed the ban several times before the concert was ultimately canceled.
In 2017, seven Egyptian fans were arrested after they unfurled a rainbow flag in support of LGTBQ rights during a Mashrou Leila concert in Cairo. One of the men arrested was sentenced to six years in prison.
On Sunday, June 23, Mashrou Leila played for a packed house at the Mohammed V National Theater during the annual Mawazine Festival in Rabat.
Morocco World News spoke with the band after their show to talk about their new single, Calvary, and what is next on the horizon.
Morocco World News: Considering how far the band has come, what is your biggest surprise looking back?
Mashrou Leila: Of course, being a band in the Arab world has meant a lot of improvisation, and more risk-taking. A lot of time I look back and wonder how some of the things we did ever worked! Some surprises have been quite negative, like the events that happened in Egypt and Jordan.
MWN: What was behind the decision to record a version of your latest single, “Calvary” in English?
ML: This has been something that we’ve been thinking about for a while, especially given the content of the song and message we wanted to convey. And, after 10 years of existing, we are still finding ways to challenge ourselves and try new things. Obviously, we are still committed to writing music in Arabic, but it is a fun path to venture down.
MWN: A lot of your songs play with the dual meanings of words, as well as the way they are gendered in Arabic. How did you handle this when translating “Calvary”?
ML: Ya, of course some songs are specifically ambiguous, like “Kalaam” for instance. Cavalry was more direct and the core message was not really dealing with the issue of gender conformity or reinforcement. And making an English version is really about keeping the essence and finding rhythmic and melodic sense first, rather than being 100 percent true to the word-for-word translation.
MWN: How did you feel about your show Sunday at the Mawazine festival in Rabat?
ML: The show was great, especially being back in the first venue that we played in Morocco years ago. Mawazine is one of the most diverse festivals in the region, and always has artists that we wish we could watch perform!
MWN: Have you seen what they call “tacos” in Morocco? What is going on there?
ML: I had absolutely no idea this existed, looks special but definitely worth a try.
MWN: What’s next for Mashrou Leila?
ML: Currently we are working on our performance at the MET (Metropolitan Museum of Art) in July with Oliver Beer. Then we are taking some time to work on new material. We have several releases upcoming and we can’t wait to start sharing them!