AMMAN: Hundreds of young Arabs joyfully screamed out obscenities, encouraged by the handsome, Lebanese lead singer at the concert in Jordan’s capital. Police looked on worriedly. People outside asked what was going on.
It was a performance by the band Mashrou’ Leila, which uses a hybrid of velvety Lebanese slang and indie music conventions to address issues that are difficult, sometimes taboo, in Middle Eastern societies. Lyrics of love and angst are intertwined with issues like poverty, premarital sex and homosexuality in this deeply homophobic region.
Led by vocalist and lyricist Hamed Sinno, a 24-year-old Freddy Mercury doppelganger, the band has been embraced by Arab youth who see the music as part of a social revolution.
“They are about secularism, gay love, social problems that we don’t talk about, that we don’t accept, that we are afraid to discuss,” said Jalal Elias, 19-year-old Palestinian student from Haifa.
“The kind of people who make this music – they made the Arab Spring.”
On a recent Friday, some 3,000 fans attended Mashrou’ Leila’s concert in Amman’s ancient Roman auditorium. Young men and women in tight jeans and disheveled haircuts mingled with women in hijab and modest dress.
They cheered as Sinno sang of a gay couple breaking up in a song called, “Smell the Jasmine.”
“I wanted to be your housewife,” Sinno crooned. “I wanted to raise your children.” And the crowd happily screamed obscenities from the band’s song “Gossip.”
In an interview, Sinno later explained that Jordanian censors wouldn’t let him sing the lyrics “prostitute” and “pimp,” so he let the fans sing it instead. They also sang along to “Dresses,” about a couple broken apart by poverty and religious conflict. The song suggests the couple was having premarital sex – another taboo.
Sinno said the band’s music reflects the broader spirit of revolution. “I think the people that create music are the product of the same system that produces the revolutionaries we see changing the Arab world today,” he said.
Mashrou’ Leila is one of many bands around the region connecting with a hazy Mideast demographic called “Arab Spring youth” – educated, liberal, Muslims and Christians in their late teens and twenties. Other musicians include folk rocker Youssra al-Hawary, the reggae inspired “Tout Ard,” and rapper duo Oka-Ortega.
Many of the groups existed before the Arab uprisings that began in January 2011, toppling ageing rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and unleashing a civil war in Syria. The artists have since grown in popularity – partly because, according to Egyptian music producer Mohamed Gorab, edgier lyrics and Western-influenced music resonate in a revolutionary time.
“This is a new generation that’s emerging,” said Gorab.
“They are feeling more freedom, and the music shows that.”
With its commercial success, Mashrou’ Leila stands apart from the other bands. Outside Lebanon, the group has performed in Cairo, Dubai, and Doha for audiences of around 3,000 people. They play at European festivals and, judging from Facebook, the band has amassed a few Israeli Jewish groupies. One music video has been shared on fan websites and amassed an estimated 250,000 hits.
Slated to open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Beirut this summer, Mashrou’ Leila canceled the gig after outrage because the Chilies were also to perform in Israel.
Still, the band’s successes are small compared to mainstream Arab pop stars who have millions of YouTube hits. Stereotypical pop divas are associated with lewd dress and cosmetic surgery. Their broody male counterparts frequently sport stubble and big muscles.
Mashrou’ Leila began four years ago as a university jam band in Beirut, working with a complex of influences including Balkan melodies, U.S. folk music and mainstream pop. The six-member band of twenty-somethings swelled in popularity through friends, Facebook and YouTube. The group’s fan base mostly appears to be young people who have been inspired by some of the social and cultural changes the Arab uprisings produced.
Fan Jeries Ballan called Mashrou’ Leila the real Arab Spring. “What’s the Arab Spring really about anyway?” said Ballan, 24.
“It started out one way, and took a different direction.”
A key indicator of the differences between Mashrou’ Leila’s fans and older generations – and conservatives of all ages – is the attitudes toward Sinno’s open homosexuality.
At the Amman concert, Mashrou’ Leila fans said they didn’t care. Gay fans said they saw Sinno as a role model. “It’s something we’ve come to accept,” said hijab-wearing concertgoer Lina Matar, 24.
Sinno said he wanted the band’s music to inspire Arab gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual fans “to forge for themselves a sense of belonging to the region, in spite of the incredible [repression] they have to live through.”
Outside the band’s Amman venue, many Jordanians said they were offended by the Western-sounding music. An agitated elderly bearded man, flanked by a group of younger people, harassed the police and demanded to enter – presumably to cause trouble. They left without going inside.
“Couldn’t they protest against that film that insulted Islam?” grumbled day laborer Mohammed, 43. “Isn’t that more important than a concert?”
Also standing outside the amphitheater, Dima Hamoud, a 19-year-old working class woman of Sudanese descent, said Mashrou’ Leila’s lyrics seemed to reflect her life better than most Arab music.
“I like what I’m hearing,” she said.