Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles interviewing pioneering Lebanese women.
BEIRUT: At one point early in her career as a poet and musician, Lydia Canaan was living a double life. To the world, she was an up-and-coming singer and future rock star, but her family had no idea.“I do not come from a musical family and I had to sneak out of my home to go to my concerts,” she told The Daily Star in the lobby of Beirut’s Vendome Hotel in Ain al-Mreisseh. “I threw my short leather skirt out my bedroom window and walked out the front door looking normal.”
Canaan’s father was socially conservative and likely wouldn’t have approved of his daughter dressing in tight-fitting clothing and performing in front of crowds. Yet today, she has attained success as a singer, poet, and activist.
“I’m extremely passionate about human rights and what triggers me is I cannot tolerate injustice,” she explained. “I believe from a very young age I was instilled with an innate sense of justice.”
She has used her platform as an activist to highlight a number of humanitarian issues. She discussed briefly the situations facing the citizens of Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Syria, as well as her home country Lebanon.
In fact she still calls Broummana, a town north of Beirut, home, despite having left at a young age to pursue a career in music.
She has always written poetry in English. “I pursued a career singing and recording in English and that’s how I established myself,” she said, adding that sometimes people asked her why she didn’t stay in Lebanon.
She said going abroad to Zurich, a city she now calls her second home, gave her opportunities that she wouldn’t have had staying in Lebanon and singing in Arabic.
“I did make a career in Lebanon, but little did I know [that outside of Lebanon] I was being named the first rock star of the Middle East and a pioneer,” she said.
She now splits her time between Lebanon, where her family is, Zurich, New York and London. Most of her recording is still done in Europe or the United States and she is hoping to release her new album in 2015.
All the songs on the album are written and performed by Canaan.
In the past, Canaan said she mostly sang about love. “Love is the key and always the answer,” she said. But her new album will touch on humanity, she said.
“This album is inspired by human rights,” she said. “Humans have been evolving for many years but people are still subjected to atrocities in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, anywhere really.
“I want to make sure that their voices are heard and I want to use this platform and art to highlight humanitarian laws.”
While she doesn’t like to pick a particular cause, as it would undermine all the others, Canaan said she feels equality and the rights of women in the Middle East are incredibly important to her. Canaan’s childhood experiences played a large part in this, as she comes from a conservative family that wasn’t initially supportive of the career path she wanted to pursue. “I had to fight for my way, starting at home,” she said.
Additionally, the events around her shaped her current perspective as well.
“I grew up during the Civil War and saw many terrible things,” she said. “I refuse to be a spectator of people’s plight.”
She said she asks herself wholeheartedly what she can do to let the world know about various injustices – especially in a country where others won’t do anything. “People say ‘nobody is going to do anything about it’ but if you start you can inspire others,” she said.
Adversity is something she has faced since the days when she dumped her singing clothes out her bedroom window back in Broummana all those years ago. Having overcome many obstacles, she wants to be able to help others do the same.
“Lots of voices are being silenced,” she said, in what she described as “apathetic complacency.”
“I’ve had a gift given to me by the universe and I have had faith in myself from a very young age,” she said. “Everybody is gifted. Some people nourish that gift and some people keep it dormant perhaps all their life. I was aware from a young age.”
“I dare to go to places where other people don’t dare or are afraid to,” she said.