Lebanese group Mashrou’ Leila is not your run-of-the-mill rock band. Its uniqueness does not, however, begin and end with having an openly gay lead singer or a musical repertoire laced with “taboo” subjects – though some would have you believe it is. These are, of course, part of Mashrou’ Leila’s impact and importance inside and outside the Arab world. But to describe “Leila,” as the band refers to itself, only in these terms is to miss so much about the group.
Listening to Mashrou Leila’s lyrics or catching one of its electric performances makes this reality undeniable. A cerebral undercurrent, both artistic and deeply critical, pervades the band’s ethos. Its music is not just about genre (which apparently is “indie pop”) or the influence of other musicians (The Strokes, Radiohead, and Fairuz, among others, according to The Guardian). It is also about literature, with the likes of Shakespeare, Allen Ginsburg, and Sylvia Plath influencing Mashrou’ Leila’s brand of poetry.
The group’s intellectual depth reflects the eclectic interests and thoughtful, inquisitive nature of its musicians. Mashrou Leila’s five members have degrees in either architecture or design. While they record and write tracks, they also pursue other passions that undoubtedly inform their work. Violinist Haig Papazian and his architectural eye have curated an Instagram page full of beautifully stark, black and white photography. Lead singer, Hamed Sinno, has plans to apply to graduate school. This past fall, Haig, Hamed, and two of the band’s other members, Faris Abou Fakher and Carl Gerges, did something else you might not expect rock stars to do – they taught a university course.
In October 2017, Leila’s members sat in front of a room of twenty-odd graduate students at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies to teach their first class. The course was titled “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Its topic, broadly, was music and politics. Its goal: to critically think about music’s relationship with the political, including the possibilities and constraints, the symbiosis and parasitism, inherent in this dynamic.
Acknowledging and interrogating this complexity was important for Mashrou’ Leila’s members. As Hamed Sinno told Muftah, “There’s only so much music can do. There’s a limit to what we can expect from artists and musicians, which is much more vague than what one would assume given how people react to musicians. There is a lot of pressure on cultural producers to live up to certain political aspirations in a way we don’t apply to our own politicians. We react to musicians and cultural producers as if they’re responsible for politics . . . . At the same time, music is a powerful tool to shape people’s reality and life, and how they understand all that.”
While informed by theoretical analysis, the course also brought theory to life. Its centerpiece was an end of semester exhibition, where students would present different, fictional musical events of their own creation, replete with posters, ticket stubs, concert outfits, news coverage, and other cultural artefacts that would be displayed at the Kevorkian Center from late November to late January 2018.
Throughout the course, as teachers and students discussed their music-cum-politics projects, the real-world implications of their discussions and ideas loomed large. In late September 2017, only a few weeks before the group’s inaugural class, Mashrou’ Leila held a concert in Cairo, Egypt that would quickly transform from exuberant musical performance to political firestorm. During the event, a few audience members displayed a rainbow flag, ostensibly to show pride and solidarity with the LGBTQ community. After pictures and videos of the waving banner began to circulate on social media, conservative Egyptian politicians and media personalities flew into a rage. A few days later, Egypt’s top prosecutor ordered an investigation into “the incident” and arrests began, sweeping in even those who had not attended the concert. In yet another attempt to crack down on political and social freedoms in the country, Egyptian authorities placed Mashrou’ Leila at the center of political and social dynamics that overtook the band’s music and, indeed, had its members questioning their work.
For several months after the incident, whenever the Western press talked about Leila, the Egypt concert and its political fallout were not far behind. As the academic semester continued in parallel, the rock stars turned teachers used their recent experience as a point of reference for their students, as they worked to plan, critique, and reflect on the precise musical events and political issues with which they hoped to engage. Projects ranged from a climate change awareness concert set in the future to a refugee-themed musical event in Calais, France. For the students, most of the work focused on conceptualizing the details of their chosen political moment and creating objects, written, audio, and artistic, that memorialized and captured the spirit and circumstances surrounding their events.
Surprising (or perhaps not), music itself was largely absent from both the course, and the students’ projects. Stripping “The Great Gig in the Sky” of a musical soundtrack was a decision intentionally made by the band. Hamed Sinno explained the rationale to Muftah: “Our career over the last 10 years is about having no distinction between music and politics. It’s such a privilege to be able to use our platform to address certain questions, but also be in a position to fight certain things, like censorship. At the same time, it’s a little strange to feel like our music doesn’t actually matter as music. This is one of the reasons we didn’t ask the students to present musical audio as part of their musical events and instead to look at the things that happen around the music that often overpowers the music itself.”
On November 28, 2017, the class exhibition opened to the public. Featuring four fictional concerts, each display captured an imagined moment of collision between the musical and political. Individual projects included a varying mixture of costumes and video, posters and newspaper clippings about the fantastical events. In the absence of the music itself, these mundane elements became the performance.
In this final crescendo, the ideas and thoughts shared during the previous weeks classes transformed into physical things that could be touched, read, and absorbed. “The Great Gig in the Sky” may have been fantasy, but the message Mashrou’ Leila brought to this fantastic world was one that underscored music’s deep connection with both the ideal and real.
Sometimes music is political and sometimes politics overtakes music. In the end, the two cannot be separated, however much we may want and try to disconnect them.