Hundreds of young Arabs joyfully screamed out obscenities, encouraged by the handsome, gay Lebanese lead singer at the concert in Amman, 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 European instruments to address sometimes taboo issues of Middle Eastern societies. Lyrics of love and angst are intertwined with difficult or sometimes taboo issues, with issues like poverty, premarital sex and homosexuality in this deeply homophobic region.
The success of the band, whose name is translated as “Night Project,” appears to be another outgrowth of the Arab Spring uprisings that swept through the Mideast last year. Led by lead singer and song writer Hamed Sinno, a 24-year-old Freddy Mercury doppelganger and openly gay man, the band has been soundly embraced by Arab youth who see the music as part of a cultural and 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 19-year-old student Jalal Elias, of the northern Israeli city of Haifa, which has a large Arab-Palestinian population. “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 wore tight jeans, thick-framed glasses and disheveled haircuts. Other women wore headscarves and modest Muslim dress.
They cheered as Sinno sung 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.”
The crowd happily screamed obscenities from the band’s song “Gossip.” Sinno later said in an interview with The Associated Press 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,” of a couple broken apart by poverty and religious conflict. The song suggests the couple was having premarital sex – another taboo issue.
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.
The band is one of many rock, hip hop and “electro-folk” groups 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 El-Hawary, the reggae inspired “Tout Ard,” and rapper duo Oka-Ortega.
Many of the music groups existed before the Arab uprisings that began in January 2011 and toppled aging rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and unleashed a civil war in Syria. But 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,” Gorab said in an interview. “They are feeling more freedom, and the music shows that.”
With its commercial success, Mashrou Leila stands apart from the other bands. The group has performed in Cairo, Beirut, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and the Qataris capital Doha for audiences of around 3,000 people. In European music festivals, they play for non-Arabic speaking fans. Judging from Facebook and other social media, the band also has amassed a few dozen Israeli Jewish groupies.
Suggestive of their popularity, one music video has been shared on fan websites and amassed an estimated 250,000 hits. Mashrou Leila was even slated to open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Beirut this summer. But the Lebanese band canceled the gig after outrage from pro-Palestinian activists who were angry because the Red Hot Chili Peppers was 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 Arab pop divas dress lewdly, get plastic surgery to shrink their noses and swell their breasts, suggestively gyrate in luxurious settings, and are unusually pale in a region of olive-skinned people. Their muscular male counterparts frequently sport stubble and broody gazes.
Mashrou Leila began four years ago as a university jam band in the liberal Lebanese capital Beirut and adopted influences from Balkan melodies, American folk music, and mainstream pop. The six-member band of twentysomethings – which includes one woman – spread its music and swelled in popularity through friends, Facebook and YouTube. The group’s fan base mostly appears to be young people who have been inspired by the Arab revolutions, as well as some of the social and cultural changes the uprisings produced.
But not all of the reforms achieved through the Arab Spring have been embraced by the young music enthusiasts. The revolutions also led to the election of Islamic governments and empowered ultraconservative Muslims called Salafis, dashing the hopes of some youths who sought liberal change.
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 – not to mention conservatives of any age – is the attitudes toward Sinno’s openly stated 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 concert-goer Lina Matar, 24, wearing a Muslim headscarf.
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 repressing they have to live through.”
Outside the Roman amphitheater where the band performed, 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? Isn’t that more important than a concert?” grumbled day laborer Mohammed, 43. He was referring an amateurish anti-Islam video that Muslims say insults the Prophet Muhammad. The video sparked weeklong violence earlier this month that targeted U.S. and other Western embassies and left more than 30 dead in seven countries, including Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
But another woman standing outside the amphitheater said Mashrou Leila’s lyrics seemed to reflect her life as working class black woman better than most Arab music.
“I like what I’m hearing,” said Dima Hamoud, a 19-year-old of Sudanese descent.