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Out of the Closet, Into the iPod: Three Tracks Addressing GLBT Equality in the Middle East and Islam
- Published on Monday, 14 May 2012 08:34
- Category: More About Music
President Barack Obama seems to have a thing for firsts: first African-American president, first president not born in the continental U.S., first sitting president to make the talk show rounds, first president to host a Passover Seder in the White House, first president to use email in the office, first president to embrace social media, first president to serve home-brewed White House ale, and now, the first American president to endorse same-sex marriage. Sometimes, it takes a classic outsider to lead those of us on the inside.
Last week was a historic one for gay rights in America. Amidst the indignation that erupted after North Carolina became the 30th state in the U.S. to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman and Colorado’s GOP state lawmakers successfully filibustered their way out of the assembly voting on a civil unions law, President Obama officially came out of the closet, so to speak, announcing on ABC News his belief and support for same-sex marriages as a fundamental civil right.
Numerous progressive Muslim organizations actively agitate for gay rights in both the U.S. and the Middle East, and gay-friendly and gay-led mosques are popping up in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and other major American cities. As the global movement to re-examine gender roles in Islam has grown over the last two decades, its effects has not been lost on Muslims, particularly amongst activists fighting against female genital mutilation and honor killings. The late 1990s saw the establishment of Al-Fatiha, a gay Muslim organization that eventually disbanded in the mid-2000s after sheiks condemned it for promoting homosexuality. Though still espoused by the establishment, the fight for GLBT equality in Islam is a quiet and growing one amongst the community’s progressive fringes.
With the strides already made in the United States and other Western populations in advancing gay rights, we still have a long way to go, as North Carolina so acutely reminded us, and the fight is long from over for those seeking GLBT rights in Islamic countries and communities. In nations such as Iran where one can be killed for homosexuality, gay rights holds an even greater stake as a human rights issue, one that dictates life or death for those innocently trying to live truthfully to their sexual identities.
The quest for Middle Eastern or Muslim music addressing GLBT equality is certainly not an easy one. Many artists with the desire to say something find themselves persistently silenced, through the fear of rejection from religious families, through producers unwilling to help them record and distribute music, through government surveillance and blacklisting and ultimately through the fear of safety, even one’s life. Mostly existing underground, finding their music is like looking for a four-leaf clover, and if the song exists, many times biographical information on the artist isn’t known. In order to survive, the fight for gender and sexual equality many times has to be a pseudonym one.
Bidari – Saye Sky
Born in Tehran, now living as a refugee in Toronto, Saye Sky is the pseudonym for one of the most well-known and outspoken voices for GLBT equality amongst Iran and its diaspora communities. With an extremely religious family and the early realization of her lesbian identity, she grew up a conflicted childhood and adolescence, unable to explore herself for fear of being ratted out by spies or women uncomfortable with homosexuality. She began rapping at 18 at underground parties for Tehran’s lesbian population, many years after writing her song, but couldn’t find anyone in the music industry willing to help her record or produce lyrics that detail her graphic accounts about the struggles women and homosexuals deal with on a daily basis in Iran. After her girlfriend uploaded her first song online from Canada, Saye soon found herself monitored by the Iranian government for six months, then blacklisted from the passport list, which prevented her from fleeing the country. She eventually managed to bribe an agent with $2000 to take her name off the list, defected to Turkey and now lives as a permanent resident of Canada. She has since released two more songs: “Executing Rights,” about the struggles transsexuals go through in Iran and “Bidari,” which looks at the daily hardships of being both female and lesbian in Iran.
Watch the video here
Shem El Yasmine – Mashrou’ Leila
In 2008, a music workshop at American University of Beirut turned into what is now known as the Lebanese group Mashrou’ Leila, “Arabic for ‘an overnight project’ lusting out a microphone, a violin, a bass, two guitars, drums ad keyboards.” Describing themselves as “an experiment,” the band forged an identity that effortlessly blends Arabic Tarab, rock, folk pop and electro. The band’s lyrics take on a variety of social faults in the Arab world, one of the foremost being the issue of gay rights. Lead singer Hamed Sinno, the first Lebanese singer to publicly declare himself gay, now tackles the mistreatment of homosexuality with pride, even waved a rainbow flag during the band’s first big concert at the Byblos International Festival in 2010.
“Shem El Yasmine” (Smell the Jasmine), from their debut album, is widely considered to be the first gay love song in Arab pop. It tells the romance between two men through the ambiguous use of male pronouns to refer to women in Arabic poetry. In the song’s end, the love story becomes much more clear, when one of the lovers tells the other that he would like to be his partner’s wife.
Watch the video here
Ma Bkaf – Carole Samaha
Lebanese musician and actress Carole Samaha, dubbed the “Princess of Arab Soul,” is a critically acclaimed artist, having won the 2004 Arab Music Award for best female newcomer and a nomination for Best Arabia Act in the 2008 MTV Europe Music Awards. Her song “Ma Bkaf” (I’m Not Afraid), reminiscent of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” is a touching and brave testament to the bravery it takes to be true to yourself and not a façade to others, a self-empowerment to the importance of speaking your mind despite the attempts others may make in silencing you:
Let them talk about whatever they want
Let them complain about whatever they want
I’m not afraid
I do whatever I feel like doing
And what’s in my hear is on the tip of my tongue
The video features people from various backgrounds, including several couples that serve as more than subtle hints towards homosexuality. The song’s empowerment comes from its self-affirmation, with the video featuring these characters as they announce to the camera how proud they are to be themselves, despite the opinions of others.
Watch the video hereBy Safa Samiezade’-Yazd, Aslan Media Arts and Music Editor