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A Palestinian pop singer faces threats to make music with a message

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

I'm usually based in the Middle East as NPR's correspondent in Jerusalem, where there's always a torrent of news, as there is today, with the Israeli military unleashing deadly airstrikes in Gaza and Palestinian militants there firing back with rockets. This never-ending news about conflict in the region ends up overshadowing a lot of other important stories from there, including those about undercurrents in the Middle East that are challenging and changing society, which is why I want to take this time to introduce you to a pop singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANTENNE (FT. TAMER NAFAR)")

BASHAR MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

ESTRIN: This is Bashar Murad. He's Palestinian - kind of like a Palestinian Lady Gaga. He breaks taboos, and he's paid a price for it. This summer, his concerts in the Palestinian city of Ramallah faced threats and was canceled. He'll be speaking for the first time in detail about what happened in just a little bit. First, let me take you inside the music studio in East Jerusalem where he grew as a musician. He recently gave me a tour.

MURAD: This is the recording studio, the two rooms.

ESTRIN: Wow. This is huge.

MURAD: Yeah. So this...

ESTRIN: And look at - piano. Really nice space.

MURAD: A lot of the most known Palestinian musicians and artists have recorded here. Yeah, and so many memories here - I mean, I - like, I grew up in this place. And then later, I started to record my music here and to write. And it was a place where I found a lot of my inspiration and kind of developed into this, like, character that I am.

ESTRIN: His dad is also a musician and founded a famous band in the '80s called Sabreen that pushed Palestinian music out of the boundaries of traditional folk music to a blend of East and West.

Can you tell me about this poster?

MURAD: So this is the poster of the second album by Sabreen, which is called "Jayy Al Hamam," which means "The Doves Are Coming."

ESTRIN: "Here Come The Doves."

MURAD: "Here Come The Doves."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DOVES ARE COMING")

SABREEN: (Singing in Non-English language).

MURAD: It was released in - around the time of the Oslo Accords.

ESTRIN: The Israelis and Palestinians were negotiating peace, and there was hope.

MURAD: Hence the title of the album. They thought, you know, this was going to be like, the start of peace and that the bright future is about to start. And...

ESTRIN: And then...

MURAD: And then the album after it was called "Ala Fein," which means "Where To?" And it was like, so...

ESTRIN: Where are we going?

MURAD: ...We didn't get the doves, but where are we going?

ESTRIN: Last weekend when I visited the studio, they were packing up after about 20 years, looking for a more affordable space.

MURAD: A lot of Palestinian cultural organizations in East Jerusalem have been suffering because of the lack of funding.

ESTRIN: Which is political - Israel tightly restricts the Palestinian Authority from openly sponsoring cultural institutions in East Jerusalem because Israel claims it as part of its capital. And Palestinian cultural institutions don't want to accept Israeli funding because they're opposed to the Israeli military occupation that wields control over Palestinians' lives. Those are just some of the complexities that Bashar Murad grew up with, and you can hear it in his music. When we spoke earlier this week, he started by telling me about his song "Ana Zalameh" - "I'm A Man."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANA ZALAMEH")

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

Each of my songs handles a certain topic that I've experienced growing up. And so in "Ana Zalameh," I chose to critique the idea of toxic masculinity and how, you know, growing up, I always heard that a boy should act this way, and girls should act this way. I would be told that, no, you can't do that. This is for girls. Or when I would be walking to school, and I would be singing, and then a random kid would come up to me, and he would be like, why are you singing like a girl?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANA ZALAMEH")

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

The verse says, (speaking Arabic). So it says, I come and go as I please, and no one asks you where I'm going? And then I go out, but my sister is no, that's shameful. Don't blame me. Blame the ones who taught me this. So like, blame the ones before me. And it's about how we are just like, continually recycling the same toxic ideas and passing them on to the next generations.

ESTRIN: I want to ask you about another song, "Maskhara," the title track of your most recent EP.

MURAD: Yes.

ESTRIN: There's a line in there in Arabic. You sing in Arabic. And the line translates to, my fate is out of my hands. No one understands my way of life. What are you talking about in that song?

MURAD: So that song - "Maskhara" means mockery. And basically, it came out as a combination of like, all the different kinds of pressures that I've been talking about that we experience. But it kind of came out all in one song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASKHARA")

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

And it's about the feeling of not feeling like you belong anywhere. And so, you know, you're - you'll be fighting for Palestine, and then people will tell you Palestine doesn't exist. Palestinians don't exist. And then in your own community, you'll be fighting against conservative norms but also carrying the message of Palestine with you. And so this song was about how cruel and harsh this reality is that it pushes people to just want to escape.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASKHARA")

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

ESTRIN: Are you the only openly gay Palestinian singer performing today? Is that right?

MURAD: I mean, probably. I mean, I'm the one who's, I guess, talked about it the most and haven't been afraid to discuss it with - in my interviews and on the stage. I'm sure there are others, but maybe they're not like, fully out or - so I can't really - I don't want to be like, claiming that title, but I'm pretty sure I am.

ESTRIN: Well, let's talk about what happened this June. You were going to perform at a Palestinian cultural event in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

MURAD: Yes.

ESTRIN: And a bunch of guys - you call them thugs - showed up and threatened your concert. They said, Bashar is gay. They used a derogatory word in Arabic for gay. They said, you're offensive to Islam. And your concert was canceled. And then it didn't stop there. Shortly after your concert was canceled, there was this cultural parade in Ramallah. There were people carrying a colorful banner. They were mistaken to be carrying a rainbow pride flag and were beaten up. How do you feel about what has happened to you and what's happened since?

MURAD: I mean, it's a horrible feeling. Obviously, it was quite traumatizing, and it was kind of shocking because I have been performing in Ramallah and the rest of the West Bank for the past like, couple of years and have never had any issues. And I think what happened - I don't think it's just about me. I think it's about a bigger story. I think those guys who came kind of used me as a scapegoat in order to gain popularity within Palestinian society and sort of to come out as heroes who have saved our customs and our traditions.

So it was a really easy target. You know, we didn't even have security at the event. And so it was super easy for these guys to come and to kind of take control of the narrative because when they came, they also came with their cameras. And they filmed themselves - in air quotes - "peacefully" and then right when they shut their phones down and we had decided to cancel the event, they still trashed the place, destroyed the storefront and kind of - you know, people were hiding inside. My friends, my fans, my crew, we were all hiding while the police - while these guys were - kind of cornered the venue.

ESTRIN: So suddenly you were accused of not being an appropriate symbol, an appropriate messenger for the themes and the cause that you want to promote...

MURAD: Yeah.

ESTRIN: ...Because you're gay. All of this has sparked a lot of debates that's still going on among Palestinians about acceptance of the LGBTQ community. So what are Palestinians saying? What are you hearing? Are you surprised by people's opinions?

MURAD: I mean, there's all kinds of opinions. Definitely there was a lot of hate, and it was fueled by the false information that was shared widely. So there was a lot of hate. I'm not going to minimize it. But to me, hate is always louder than love because it's easier to just have like, this crazy reaction and this angry reaction and to go and type something on social media. At the same time that there was a lot of hate, I also felt unprecedented amount of love. You know, growing up, the topics of homosexuality and, you know, and gender and queer issues, they were very, very, very taboo that, you know, growing up, I thought I was the only gay person in Palestine. And so now, when this happened at my show in June, there was actually a debate. Yes, at first there was a huge wave of hate for the first two days. But then these voices of reason and these allies started to speak up, and it was actually beautiful to see.

ESTRIN: For now, though, Bashar, are you wondering whether you'll be able to perform safely in Palestinian venues in the West Bank?

MURAD: Definitely. Definitely because I think, you know, at first I was doing everything and, you know, only the right people were paying attention. Now we have everyone kind of paying attention.

ESTRIN: You have a new single coming out soon. And you wrote it earlier this summer, but the theme resonates with a lot of dark things that you experienced this summer, right? Tell us about the new single coming out.

MURAD: Yeah. So this is a sneak peek, basically. The song is called "Ya Leil," which means "All Night."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA LEIL")

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

And it's about that feeling when you just want to kind of disappear and hide from everything and everybody and when the reality is just too harsh and brutal that it just hurts your eyes, that you don't want to see it anymore. And so you kind of retreat to the night. And although this all seems very dark, to me, this darkness is where I also find my creativity. And so in the song, I say, yes, I'm going to hide and cover my eyes, but I'm going to get lost in my imagination and heal myself through it and all these things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA LEIL")

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

ESTRIN: That is Palestinian pop singer Bashar Murad speaking to us from Jerusalem. Bashar, thank you so, so much for being here.

MURAD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA LEIL")

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

ESTRIN: You can hear more of my conversation with Palestinian singer Bashar Murad and how his music is challenging his society on today's Consider This podcast. You can find that wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA LEIL")

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.