In the West, bands with openly gay members are increasingly common. But in the Arab world, where an admission of homosexuality can lead to grave consequences, Hamed Sinno’s unapologetic gay swag as front man for the Lebanese indie band Mashrou Leila is a symbol of the cultural crosswinds sweeping the Middle East.
Part Freddie Mercury, part hipster, handsome 24-year-old Sinno leads the band as they tour venues in Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, the UAE and Egypt with a sound that has been described as “a hybrid of velvety Lebanese slang and European instruments to address difficult, sometimes taboo issues of Middle Eastern societies.”
The treatment of homosexuality in Lebanese pop culture is hardly warm and inviting: Three clubs in Canada canceled shows by Lebanese pop star Mohamad Eskandar over the homophobic and misogynistic content of his song “Ded El Enf.” But by addressing taboo issues like homosexuality, premarital sex and gender norms Mahsrou Leila has attracted a small but growing following throughout the region. “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. “The kind of people who make this music—they made the Arab Spring.”
For his part Sinno appears unmoved by the criticism from his country’s more conservative elders: He wants 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.”
And to that we say: Rock on!
Below, Sinno sings the Blues classic “Nature Boy” on Beirut’s Hamra Street