Mashrou’ Leila - music of the Arab Spring

Mashrou’ Leila - music of the Arab Spring
When Mashrou' Leila first emerged, it championed a rising liberal tide at the time of the Arab Spring. Now the Lebanese band music reflects a different reality.
4 min read
12 May, 2015
At the dawn of the Arab Spring, the Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila’ (“A night’s project” in English) – was formed. With the wave of revolts, the band’s audience expanded rapidly beyond Beirut's underground to echo the sentiments of mainly urban middle class liberal Arabs.

The timely emergence of Mashrou’ Leila is a “lucky coincidence”, lead singer Hamed Sinno claims in an interview on Jordanian TV.
There is no better coincidence: questioning the social and political order in their songs while the younger generation of Arabs were collectively at a similar cultural standpoint.

The nuanced culture of the Arab Spring cannot be reduced to Mashrou’ Leila’s liberal cause. Despite that, Mashrou’ Leila stands at the forefront of an anti-hegemonic liberal culture, largely under-represented and politically disillusioned in the Arab World.

Lyrics of the counter-revolution

Being mostly young and politically-inexperienced, Arab liberals are yet to seek political organisation or attempt to assemble organically in the pursuit of political engagement. Reading between Mashrou’ Leila’s lines, one can provide some compensation to an overshadowed liberal culture behind the Arab revolts.

You took my hand and promised me a revolution”, one of their songs goes, “how could you forget?”. Indeed, you can forget if “they shut you up with slogans on conspiracy” and “the herds called you a traitor every time you asked for change”, another song answers.

In the case of Egypt’s counter-revolution under the leadership of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Mashrou’ Leila’s songs are quite reflective.

Condemning ultra-nationalism, Mashrou’ Leila sings how “they taught you the anthem. They said your struggle is for the country”. Then “they numbed you in your artery... they said your stagnation is good for the country”, Mashrou’ Leila’s “Lil Watan” says.

When General Sisi appeared as a presidential candidate, activists and revolutionaries tried to make a case against the elections in favour of the revolution. In a surreal environment, Egyptians who went to cast their vote danced in the streets to the tunes of Hussein al-Jasmi’s song that was composed for the occasion.

Mashrou’ Leila’s lyrics explain how “they said to you: enough preaching, come dance with me... take that frown off your face and dance with me”.  

Egyptian media bombarded their audience with al-Jasmi’s song, which asks “real Egyptians” to vote and in some way “take that frown off your face”.

There is a reason why Egyptians and Syrians alike cannot simply “dance with” their countries’ respective military dictators.

Playing the card of religious extremism, Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad has sustained his power despite his atrocities against revolutionaries and civilians alike.

“We’re fed up of religion, tired of humiliation”, is  Mashrou’   Leila’s answer from their song “From the Queue”.

On gender and power

The role of women in Arab societies have also been at the heart of the Arab revolts, especially among liberals. “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World” movement has gained grounds rapidly among activists across the region.

Consequently, questioning gender roles have become prominent, mainly among middle class urban activists who have become involved in the revolts, on social media and in public squares.

While several bands that emerged from the Arab revolts have addressed this issue, Mashrou’ Leila has taken the lead in challenging the patriarchal order of Arab societies.

The band’s lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is considered the first openly gay lead singer in an Arab musical band. This gave them an edge in addressing gender issues and engaging with suppressed Arab LGBTs and liberals. 

From singing about a girl with “manly” outfit and haircut to singing for a gay partner, Mashrou’ Leila’s aesthetic message ridicules conservative values in Arab societies and defy traditions. 

Their songs mock stereotypes and confront a system that has been reproducing traditionalist social order, despite the wave of revolts.

The solution is romantic”

What is certain, however, is that the liberal cause championed by Mashrou’ Leila has severe limitations at a time when politics and society are shaped by force. The outreach of liberal culture is at the mercy of guns.

Unlike the rest of the lyrics mentioned, Mashrou’ Leila’s claim that the “solution is romantic” will only stand as a song, not so far from liberal pacifism shared by many prominent voices at the times of social struggle throughout history.

Not so different from the counter-revolutionary phase, Mashrou’ Leila’s project seems to have been sold off to corporate agendas. Major corporate sponsorships and ad placements in Mashrou’ Leila’s new album raises questions on the genuineness of their cause. 

To be fair, the band has not claimed to be standing as a revolutionary ideal. In that sense, reflecting on Mashrou’ Leila in this context is not necessarily a critique of the band as much as it is an attempt to understand the liberal landscape in the region through their art.