LONDON (Reuters) - A man singing about wanting to be another man’s wife, pampering his children and cooking him dinner isn’t all that unusual in this age of same-sex marriage and advancing gay rights.
But for Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese alternative rock band, there was quite a risk in making lead singer Hamed Sinno’s sexuality as much a part of their act as danceable tunes and darkly satirical lyrics attacking the Middle Eastern mindset.
Fans say Sinno’s ability to channel voices ranging from a megaphone-amplified protester to a falsetto glam-rocker or a cigarette-singed taxi driver is one of the group’s appeals.
Then there is the matter of his being “out” and from a part of the world where homosexuality is still taboo and in many countries subject to draconian punishment.
“This song is about my first love,” Sinno, 25, said at Leila’s first London concert on a Wednesday night in October before launching into “Shim al-Yasmin” (Smell the Jasmine).
Most Arabic songs are written in the masculine gender, so the band theoretically could have let Sinno address his lover without drawing attention to his sexuality.
Instead, Mashrou’ Leila, whose name originally meant “Overnight Project” but now is a play on the female name Leila, included it on their eponymous 2008 debut album as a subtle but deliberate coming-out for Sinno.
Its main following is among young Arabs who can identify with the group’s distaste for Middle Eastern police checkpoints and sectarian conflict, as well as a growing group of non-Arabs who appreciate the music’s broader themes of love, sex, tolerance, rebellion - and its danceability.
Sinno spoke to Reuters at the penultimate stop of their first European tour.
Q: Has your sexuality held back the band professionally?
A: I think that’s inevitable, but I think at the same time that being held back can be empowering. We come from a sexually reductive society...We don’t really accept the idea that there are variations in how people approach their sexuality.
Q: Is it more difficult to be “out” in Lebanon?
A: It’s complicated, but it’s fair to assume that it’s different in the Middle East than the West. I’m out because I need to be, I’m out because it’s just the way I am, because I was out before the band even started and that’s not something you can go back on for marketing reasons.
Q: How did the decision to sing the lovesong “Shim al Yasmine” to another man, affect other band members?
A: The particularity about the band is that there’s six other, well, four other straight men who have to experience homophobia. Everyone (in the band) was aware of the fact that it would be difficult, but everyone’s been extremely supportive. One of the things that got us together was that we agreed on a lot of things. We agreed that gay rights was a big problem in the Middle East, that women’s rights, sectarianism, fanaticism were big problems. There were basic political understandings that we saw eye-to-eye on, which tends to mean you see eye-to-eye on how you go about things as a band.
Editing by Michael Roddy and Barry Moody