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

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Even we in the daily news business sometimes wish we could just disconnect.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANTENNE")

BASHAR MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

FADEL: That's Palestinian pop singer and visual artist Bashar Murad. He's singing, I don't know where I'm from and I don't know what's next. But tonight, I just want to shut off my antenna. The single is called "Antenne," off his EP "Maskhara." NPR's Daniel Estrin caught up with Bashar Murad in Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANTENNE")

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

Each of my song handles a certain topic that I've experienced growing up.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASKHARA")

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

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'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, 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. 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 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.

ESTRIN: So suddenly you were accused of not being an appropriate symbol, an appropriate messenger for...

MURAD: Yeah.

ESTRIN: ...The themes and the cause that you want to promote.

MURAD: Yeah. I mean, there's all kinds of opinions. So there was a lot of hate. I'm not going to minimize it. 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, 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. So now, when this happened at my show in June, there was actually 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: 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?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA LEIL")

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

The song is called "Ya Leil," which means all night. When 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA LEIL")

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

ESTRIN: Till now, you haven't spoken publicly about everything that happened - what happened to your concert. You say it's hard to talk about in the media. Why is that?

MURAD: It's hard to talk about because what I've learned from my experience as an artist so far is that when people are interested to interview me and talking to me, they don't - it's not out of concern for me as a human living here in Palestine or as a queer Palestinian, like they love to label me. It's more about me fitting a narrative or fitting a story that fits their agenda. So that's why I'm very hesitant. And a lot of the time, you know, they want to focus that - they will say that the Palestinians came in and stopped this party, and they will say Palestinians are homophobic. But then they will fail to mention that there is a gay Palestinian artist, that he has an audience. They fail to mention all these things. They will only focus on the things that continue our oppression.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANA WNAFSI")

MURAD: (Singing in Arabic).

FADEL: That's "Ana Wnafsi" - "Me And Myself" - from Bashar Murad's latest EP, "Maskhara."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANA WNAFSI")

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

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.