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Breaking taboos in Lebanon

Sing loud, sing proud

The songs making the global headlines, including a taboo-breaking singer from Lebanon

The songs making the global headlines, including a taboo-breaking singer from Lebanon

December/January 2017

Gay people in the Middle East are seen as a threat to social order. Criminalised by draconian laws or, in the most extreme cases, thrown from rooftops by Islamic State, many prefer to keep their sexuality concealed. Not so Hamed Sinno (above), from Lebanon. The frontman of the indie-pop band Mashrou’ Leila, Sinno, who is openly gay, sings in Arabic about taboos like gender equality, LGBT rights and gender fluidity. Jordan took umbrage and cancelled one of the group’s concerts earlier this year. But the progressive lyrics and hypnotic melodies of songs like “Aoede” have struck a chord among millennials craving a more open, cosmopolitan society.

Fight the power

Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil go way back. They were two of Brazil’s biggest pop stars until, in 1968, the military dictatorship decided they were leftwing subversives and exiled them. Today they are still thorns in the side of the government. Over the last year, Brazil has been tested by corruption scandals: President Dilma Rousseff was impeached, and her deputy, Michel Temer, considered by many to be the architect of her downfall, replaced her by default. Many Brazilians have lost faith in their politicians, and protesters screaming “Fora Temer!” (“Temer out!”) often take to the streets. Veloso and Gil still perform together, and during recent renditions of Veloso’s song, “Odeio Você” (“I Hate You”), audiences have taken to shouting “Temer!” after each refrain. Veloso and Gil, as defiant as ever, egg them on.

Worked up

Most songs that top the charts in China are love ballads and uplifting schlock. But sometimes a viral hit speaks to more everyday experience. “Ganjue Shenti Bei Taokong” (“I Feel So Worn Out”) – a tongue-in-cheek music video in which a choir dressed in office-wear sings about stress caused by work – has proven a smash among overworked urban youth. The lyrics complain about unpaid overtime, a common demand of Chinese bosses. It must have resonated: the video was watched over 3m times in the first seven hours after it went online.

Run this town

Takun J, Liberia’s most famous rapper, writes everyday anthems for a generation of young people affected by civil war, government corruption and social inequality. Songs like “Policeman”, “Justice”, “My Pot Can’t Boil” and his most recent hit, “They Lied to Us”, have rhymes that ruffle the feathers of the political establishment. But Takun J is taking a new and unexpected turn. He recently announced his first foray into politics, saying that he would run for office in his home district in Monrovia in the 2017 legislative elections. Despite having no money, experience or policy platforms, but lots of swagger and celebrity appeal, he is regarded as a serious contender. 

Bring da ruckus

Though “Nobody Speak” is an American track (by the producer DJ Shadow and rap duo Run the Jewels) about American political dysfunction, the slick video for the song was shot in Ukraine at a Soviet-era assembly hall in Kiev that became a refuge for protesters during the Maidan protests of 2013-14. Ukrainians, unsurprisingly, see their own political troubles reflected in the video, which took off on social media. Many of the actors, who play a group of brawling politicians, are Ukrainian, too, and took inspiration from their own parliament, where lawmakers are famous for coming to real blows.

Ch-ch-changes

Swedish singer Håkan Hellström has been making carefree pop for more than two decades, but he still manages to surprise fans. His latest album, which debuted at number one, takes its title from Sweden’s national anthem, “Du Gamla, Du Fria” (“Thou Ancient, Thou Free,”) but the anthem is played only in passing. Instead, Hellström borrows the title to comment on the process of aging. "Du Gamla", a mournful song about coming to terms with death, is twinned with “Du Fria”, an upbeat, dancey number that celebrates the freedom that comes with age. Hellström is 42.

To listen to a selection of songs from these pages, search “1843mag” on Spotify

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