Mashrou’ Leila talk about the intersectionality of art and activism

Michael Abou Nabhan and Hanine El Mir
Staff Writers

The Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila, visited AUB on Wednesday, March 29, for a firechat session about how art intersects with activism.

The session was part of a larger multidisciplinary conference tackling discrimination and sexual harassment, the Knowledge Is Power’s project on Gender and Sexuality.

Director of the KIP project, Charlotte Karam, started by introducing the auditorium full of students to the band, which originally started in AUB, and called them a “good example of a group of people who can successfully navigate art and carrier.”

The floor was left to the moderator and Assistant Professor of Media Studies, Sara Mourad, Ph.D., who facilitated the discussion with the band.

The firechat was divided into four themes: context of their lyrics, the language they write in, identity politics, and media with a focus on social media.

Interesting to note was the integration and blend between all four themes.

The students also interacted excessively with the band, asking them questions related to the themes and some not.

One of the first questions Mourad asked that set the mood of the chat was, “How do you feel about being labeled the voice of the generation?”

Guitarist Firas Abou Fakher recalled the events of 2010 and 2011, which was when the uprisings were happening in the Arab world.

At that time, Arabs were rebelling and speaking out. The younger chunk of revolutionaries reappropriated a lot of Mashrou’ Leila’s songs.

However, Lebanon had no particular political movement at that point. Most revolutions of the Arab Spring revolved around Egypt and Tunisia, which is why they reject the notion of being “the voice of the generation.”

Mourad followed up by asking, “What appeals to fans across the Arab world in your music, and what are the issues that you are tackling in your art that resonate with your art experiences?”

“Subject matter of songs come from a personal space, experience we go through on a daily basis, socially or as artists,” explained Abou Fakher, on the other hand, “Music is an art form that is so dependent on audience engagement. In a sense, it is very hard to separate the audience from  the artist in music.”

This is due to the fact that a large part of the politicization of their music lies on the side of the audience and their interpretive engagement with their music.

“We all agree that any art is de facto political even if the artist tries to make it not be,” said Abou Fakher.

Migrating to the next theme, the band delved into their music and the Arabic language. The content of their songs is different from most Arabic music. In fact, the band was unable to identify with mainstream Arab musicians, who rarely speak of topics the youth were experiencing at the same time. Since it was quite isolating to put forward British or American music, they resorted to creating their own.

Abou Fakher, however, did mention a few bands with works similar to theirs and said he identifies closely with Soapkills and Ziad Rahbani, who have inspired him.

“Initially when we started we had just started looking at ideologies and politics, ideology circulating about nationalism. We want to do things within our own culture,” Mashrou’ Leila explained. “However Arab as an identity is strictly a linguistic category [to the band].”

On the final topic, Mashrou’ Leila discussed how social media, despite it being a virtual place to express one’s self, has the potential to create large mobilizations.

Mashrou’ Leila has experienced more than one incident where they were faced with obstacles preventing them from performing. For example, their concert in Amman Roman Theater was banned by the Ministry of Tourism, which became an issue of freedom of speech and freedom to perform.

The band issued a response on social media which caught close to a million viewers and caught the press’s attention. The ban was eventually revoked because of the huge online mobilization effort from their fans and even others who refused their censorship.

After leaving the floor to questions from the audience, Mourad concluded the evening with Mashrou’ Leila, which was a great prologue to KIP’s multidisciplinary conference.

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