Photographs courtesy of My.Kali
Interview by: Rand Beiruty
Make-up: Nada Al-Agha
Digital art work by: Atef Daglees
Sitting Editor Eliza Marks
Creative directed/styled by: Khalid Abdel-Hadi
Behind the scenes video: Ala’a Abu Qasheh and Mustafa Rashed
The one and only Leila mesmerized her lovely crowd in the magical atmosphere of the Roman Theatre in downtown Amman. It was a surreal performance at which she sang sets of songs, both familiar and new, that combined sound and lyric to produce a mysterious eeriness that sucked in long-time fans and first-time listeners alike.
Hamed Sinno seduced the world as the lead singer of band Mashrou’ Leila. But his transition into adulthood, challenging of societal norms, and being outspoken about his sexuality while under the public eye has been far from a fairytale. My.Kali meets a young man caught in a mind-twisting state.
Part of what’s amazing about Mashrou’ Leila’s (now six) band members is their ability to embrace the audience appeal for popular music without a trace of posturing or pretension. Being part of a musical ensemble can be thrilling, but more importantly, it can be comforting. “I think the band members and all the people I’m surrounded by are phenomenal characters. They are all very smart, well rounded and active, and it’s very difficult for people like that to survive in this culture,” says Hamed, the lead singer of well known indie band, Mashrou’ Leila. Generally, musical groups subsume the individual members in the name of a group name or identity. But perhaps it is precisely because of the strong personal characters of the group’s members that the band has been welcomed into the hearts of many, wherever they land.
He is the model of gregariousness and at the center of public interest, both for his talents and curiosity about his sexuality. He has been subjected to an “is he, isn’t he” narrative for years! Hamed, probably the first Lebanese singer who has publicly declared himself as gay, is a major player in the current generation of social movers and shakers! “Someone had to do it,” he says, having no problem displaying in great ostentation of the rainbow flag during their first big concert at the Byblos International Festival in 2010 in Lebanon. It is rumored that the then Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, attended, but left after half an hour, not too happy with the lyrics of the band. This is not uncommon, as he brought the band to the heart of the gay village in Montreal for their last concert.
Hamed Sinno is hard to miss, but though his reputation is so dehors là, he eagerly declared that he had never thought of himself as a rebel. “I never really set out to be in a band that becomes famous. I appreciate that there’s an income, because the band needs to sustain itself to last. But fame is not among the things that I’ve ever wanted, and it’s still not among the things I seek.” he said. “Sometimes when I’m confronted with it I’m actually very bothered. I don’t like that I have very little anonymity in Beirut. I don’t like that when I meet people who I’m romantically interested in, I have to think ‘are talking to me because they like me or because eventually they’re expecting something?’”
But what does the above mean? Is he uncomfortable with being in the public eye? Or, are the downsides so heavy that one does not feel he can truly experience or express himself? Hamed confesses, “I hope I’m not getting cockier. I think that in order for someone to become cocky about something, they need to feel like they’ve accomplished something that they set out for at the beginning. Fame is not what I’ve set out for.”
One major aspect of being in a band is continually compromising and adapting. One of Mashrou’ Leila’s biggest decisions was whether members should quit their “day jobs.” The band does make some money, but all of that has to go to a number of expenses, like recording, travels, and equipments. “None of us actually take any money, so a big decision for the band was to be unemployed. It’s always very difficult.” This choice shows that the band is very conscious and aware, and far from simply a leap of faith or dream.
When I mentioned the whole fuss about Mashrou’ Leila’s opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert in Beirut, he merely shrugged his shoulders with the resignation of one accustomed controversy, and sighed, “We thought it would be a big step in the band’s career.” Last summer, the band canceled their opening set for RHCP, as RHCP was set to play in Tel Aviv four days after their concert in Lebanon, even dedicating a video on YouTube expressing their joy to visit Israel. The Daily Star reported that campaigners from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement had appealed to the U.S. band to not perform in Israel, one of the scheduled destinations on the band’s world tour, for weeks. Following the Chili Peppers’ refusal to heed calls for a boycott, activists turned their attention to Mashrou’ Leila, launching a campaign to “boycott those who refuse to boycott.” The Lebanese band’s Facebook and Twitter pages were inundated with pleas to cancel their collaboration with the Chili Peppers, until they announced on Twitter that “We will not be opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers on September 6 in Beirut.” Somehow, there was a major backlash, and the band was attacked with aggressive messages expressing hate and spitting insults, and even accusing the band of treason, as not many have believed it was a strong political statement. Blogger GIB posted early on in the net storm, writing “We’d hope it was just an incident and not a strong political statement, because most of us know from living abroad that cultural boycott is not the best solution to use against Israel. Music should unite not divide.” And one can’t help but feel that they’ve been bullied from all angles, as dismissed any related questions about the topic.
Hamed seduced the world as the lead singer of band Mashrou’ Leila. But his transition into adulthood, challenging of societal norms, and being outspoken about his sexuality while under the public eye has been far from a fairytale. My.Kali meets a young man caught in a mind-twisting state.
Hamed has become a My.Kali favorite, and has sure turned up the heat! It was a delight to have sat with him and experienced his charming with his well articulated words, transparency, and passion for music. Both interesting and interested!
Lebanon is your home country, but you also have roots in Amman-Jordan, as your mother is Jordanian? What is your relationship to the place?
I actually never lived in Amman. I have family there, and spend a lot of time there, but I’ve never really been a part of that social system. I’m always just the visitor.
Do you feel that Amman changes every time you come back to it?
There’s a new mall every time [Laughs]. No, but seriously, I don’t know if it’s because the people are changing, or because I’m observing different things, but there seems to be a more heightened awareness of the political situation both locally and regionally every time I go there. It’s been a lot more interesting having random conversations at pubs.
“Homeland” is a concept that one must confront and come to terms with. What does your homeland mean to you? Do you feel like you can make a difference in your homeland and create positive change, or is it too overwhelming or frustrating an endeavor?
I think I’m definitely a bit more apathetic than I used to be, but that’s also part of growing up. I guess that love Beirut because it’s impossible to grow up somewhere and not feel some sort of attachment to the place. There isn’t any of that uber-nationalist feeling, as I’m aware of the fact that it’s just a country that I just live in, and at any point I can just leave and go anywhere else. I stay there not because its Lebanon, but because I have my family and my band.
I do think it’s possible to change things in Lebanon, especially in Beirut, but I think we have a very big war to fight when it comes to personal liberation. It’s equally complicated around world, especially when we talk about the revolutions in western or more advanced countries. But Lebanon is also problematic because the political dynamics surrounding the country are quite stigmatic, and internal change depends on shifting internal dynamics and a series of external factors.
If you get the chance to become a president. What are the things you’d mostly change, do about, and call for?
The first thing I’d do is make sure I abolish whatever electoral system, just put me in office. I’m not qualified.
On a different note, it’s your second time performing in Amman. What’s your favorite thing about the city?
I’m half-Jordanian, and my mother is fully Jordanian. I have an love-hate relationship with Amman just as I do with Beirut. It’s exciting to be in the country and we really enjoyed playing here last time. I think it’s extremely important for us to play for a Jordanian audience, in part because of the obvious upside being that we get to play for a Palestinian audience, as well.
What’s your most memorable stage performance?
Our first concert in Cairo was a big deal for us. It was the first time we felt the band was actually getting bigger. The audience actually came on the stage and danced with us. It was such a beautiful experience.
Lets go… south! Shim El Yasmine, a romantic, personal song you wrote and sang for a guy. We’re curious to know, does the guy you sang to know about it? Have he or you confronted each other about it?
No, not really. That was a pretty messy affair. We’re not in touch anymore. It wouldn’t matter at this point, anyway.
You live in a very expressive field. Graphics, arts, music… Do you ever feel that sometimes you just want to turn in and be mystery to yourself, not analyzing how you feel at each and every moment? Can’t it be very suffocating?
I’m quite the extrovert, so no not really. When I shut off and go into hiding, it means something has seriously gone wrong with my life. See #shemmelyasmine days [Giggles]. I’m also overly analytical by nature. It’s not really something I can shut off. I guess I’m in the right field.
Do you feel that people/media were/are overly focusing on your sexuality?
I think at this point people are just talking about it to sell articles.
In each concert, you seem to leave a controversial statement! In Jordan, you played the virginity card. In another concert, you did an improv act mocking Lebanese gossiping in ‘latlit’ – quote – “yaaay hayda bya3mel mo2abalet ma3 magazinet bi 2ol fiyyon enno gaaaaayyy.” We love it! Do you think tackling or provoking such issues pushes people to think?
Well, most of the times that happens on the intro to our track ‘latlit,’ which is essentially a song about gossip. So I start gossiping. It changes every time because it’s intended to be an improv. Most of the times I just complain about whatever pissed me off last. Not that the intention here is gratuitous controversy, but yes, I think challenging moral standards forces people to reassess them.
“I don’t like that I have very little anonymity in Beirut. I don’t like that when I meet people that I’m romantically interested in, I’m have to think, ‘are talking to me because they like me or because eventually they’re expecting something.’”
Does being out there with your feelings, helps you to be more understanding toward others’ emotions and problems? Or, can it be the total opposite of not seeing the other’s emotions/problems when being tangled in our own? Is there something between the two??
You’re telling me other people have feelings too? FML! I think I can be a little insensitive to other people sometimes. I learned that the hard way. At this point I’m always very clear about my terms before stepping into something that might compromise other people’s emotional wellbeing, so I know what I’m responsible for. At the end of the day, when someone does something that hurts me, I have to accept that a part of the responsibility is mine for allowing a certain dynamic to exist. I expect the same from the people around me.
On a personal level, what was the last thing that made you smile?
I met someone special…
Nice! Well, do you think people know what makes them happy? Or is it projected in what we think should make us happy? What about you, do you know what makes you happy?
I think it depends on the person. Meeting goals makes me happy. Goals including those pertaining to my social/romantic/family life, and not just professional or intellectual ones.
How curious do people get about your personal life?
Too curious. Someone just asked me about what makes me happy [he smirks].
Oh well, in that case, what’s the biggest misconception about you that you want to set straight for the public?
There are very few things I’d like to set straight [he smirks again]. No but seriously, I enjoy having people come up with unfounded claims about my life. It actually makes me feel less personally compromised when I read false rumors on people’s Twitter accounts or in the press.
Ok, well if we’re going there, then what’s your most embarrassing moment. Is there one that lingers in your mind?
There are plenty, it’s always very strange. I have very bad A.D.D.; I tend to forget a lot of things so my parents worry about me a lot when I’m traveling. I think it was when we were in Paris, my dad was worried that I’ll miss my flights because I never wake up on time and I always forget stuff. So my dad decides to post a rather intimate message on the band’s Facebook page instead of sending me a personal message because he’s not accustomed to Facebook and how to use it. He starts writing stuff about how I always forget things, in a long speech with 60 000 people reading. That was quite embarrassing.
You’re also an artist. A graphic design graduate and a graffiti artist. What do you think of graffiti art? Is it vandalism or gang device?
I do think it’s a form of vandalism, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. What I mean is I think it’s a form of vandalism that can’t really be ethically condoned with as much simplicity as one would condone “destruction of public property” like randomly destroying phone-booths let’s say. It’s part of a dense urban phenomenon that actually ends up providing a lot for the community in which it appears, more so than it takes away. It can produce discourse about minority rights, taboos, the social/political status quo, in public realms (quite literally public spaces) where social palatability would normally dictate auto-censorship.
In your opinion, do you think graffiti artists can be called writers?
In as much as any artist can be said to have produced “text.”
What was your favorite you’ve ever done?
Hand of Fatima giving the finger with a caption that says “khuth”! (up yours)
I know you get a lot of fan mail, but the question is, do you get hate mail as well?
All the time, I’m not going to pretend to be a very big person. I’m an extremely insecure character and when we get hate mail I get a little f**ked up about it.
What is the content usually about?
Different things, sometimes it’s about the subject matter that we talk about. Sometimes they tell us your lyrics are shallow. I don’t know. I think with lyrics you can take a Haifa Wehbe song and choose to read into it as much as you want. That’s how literature and poetry work — you need to bring your own interpretation. Sometimes the stuff are really harsh, we’d get called names . Some people can be mean, some are nice but at the end of the day they’re just people.
You mentioned earlier to Tetu magazine that you witness “verbal abuse in the street.” Do such situations occur often? What was the last situation you went through and how did you react or handle the situation?
Bullying is a national sport in Lebanon. You can’t walk down the street without getting catcalls and snide remarks. The way I see it, there’s no sense in being melodramatic about it. Buy a pair of noise canceling headphones, raise the volume on your Mykki Blanco mix, and keep walking.
Ok, we tend to ask this question frequently. A lot of people are afraid of being alone and spending time by themselves. Many are embarrassed to be seen alone in public or entering places alone. Are you the kind who does well alone, or the opposite? And in your opinion, what’s the advantages of spending time by yourself?
I won’t even get off the bar and go to the bathroom alone! I hate being looked at and get extreme social anxiety in crowded places. Having a “bestie” by my side always calms me down. It makes me feel safer. Sometimes though, it’s important to spend time alone in a coffee shop with a good book.
There is definitely a shift in music-interest in the region, there’s always international pop-rock and there’s the regional commercial scene, you know, Haifa, Wael, Diana, Nancy… But now, there’s the underground, none commercial, independent scene, and Leila is one of these major voices in the new generation. Do you think independent bands and singers less restricted socially, politically or within a specific form? Is the indie scene forming a sort of social therapy genre within music?
I think we all have structures to tackle. I think a lot of us (in the region’s music scene) react to the mainstream quite consciously, trying to resist everything it might offer, which actually makes us as much of a product of that mainstream as the people who overtly subscribe to it. I’m pretty sure I was like that, too, when the band first started, but then again I was 20. I think it’s easier for people to resist mainstream social conventions in the indie scene, sure, but I think it would be quite difficult for those people to contend to mainstream conventions in the indie scene, too.
You’ve recently traveled to Montreal for a concert and to work on/record the new album. So what about the new album? Is it different than the previous two?
It’s nothing like the previous two. The sound is a lot more complicated, the lyrics are a lot less obvious, it’s a lot more pop . And I’m really excited about it. We have amazing producers, and we’re so happy to be working with them. They’re giving us a lot of input on the sound and how things are recorded, that kind of stuff. It’s been quite a new experience, but it’s not done yet. We’re recording and I still don’t have half the lyrics. I have literally books and books of one liners and notes and stuff, so the compositions are still getting changed daily and we are adding a lot of new instruments. And as I noted earlier, the subject matter isn’t as evident as it was in the first album.
Hamed on Leila: Would you please introduce us?
Omaya is a very sober character. She always brings us back down to earth. She’s also one of the most beautiful women that I met in my life. She’s very talented. We’re very close, and we talk about all sorts of secrets. I love her to bits. Firas is the backbone of the band, hands down. I think I get a lot of credits just because I’m the front man of the band but all the magic happens with Firas. He’s incredibly talented and very smart. He’s also very hardworking. Ibrahim and Carl are the bassist and the drummer. The rhythm section. They have exactly what we want, they’re super cool, and Carl is hilarious. Haig is a very interesting character because he’s secretive. He’s extremely intelligent. I love the way he plays, he has a kind melancholy about his violin — it’s beautiful, I think it’s a big part of the bands identity.
Behind the scenes of Mashrou’ Leila, Hamed Sinno, cover shoot for My.Kali’s November/December 2012 issue. (Pardon us for the bad quality of the video)