On stage, Lebanese icon Yasmine Hamdan is smaller than you’d expect from her videos—but her voice, impossibly, is bigger. When she performed November 7 at Martyr’s in Chicago, her bandmates towered over her as her voice sailed commandingly above the guitar, drums and keyboards. Her range of expression was stunning, from sweeping romanticism on the ballad “Beirut” to rapid-fire, comic, almost-rap on “Aziza“, in which she voices the virgin menaced by “a fat, hairy pig” in Egyptian cinema. “Egyptian films traumatized me,” she sighed, and nodded emphatically when an audience member shouted, “Harvey Weinstein!” “Yes!” she said, and then referenced the hashtag for survivors of sexual abuse. “Me too.”
Hamdan’s playful but sincere solidarity with American women stands in stark contrast to the United States’ current attitude toward Arab peoples. Hamdan didn’t mention Trump or the political climate in the United States, but it’s an unavoidable context for an Arab visitor to the U.S., and for the many Arab-Americans in the audience enthusiastically cheering “Chicago loves you.” In voting Trump into office a year ago, the electorate opted for a vision of America as cloistered and closed—one in which Mexicans, Arabs and Muslims are banned, demonized and deported. For Trump and his followers, the United States is stronger when it locks itself away, hunkered down against the world.
Hamdan’s performance, her music and her life, are a standing repudiation of an ethos of fear and hate. She started her career in 1999 in Beirut, as part of the influential indie electronic duo Soapkills with Zeid Hamdan (no relation). Since then, she’s lived in Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Greece, and now resides in France. She’s fluent in five languages and sings in both English and French on some of her early work. These days, though, she prefers to perform in Arabic. “It’s my emotional language,” she said in an email interview from Paris. “It’s also much more interesting for me to explore. It has a social, political and experimental dimension. I feel more sincere and true to myself when I sing in Arabic. I also feel more thrilled.”
Singing in Arabic isn’t an insular choice. Arabic itself is a cosmopolitan language; Hamdan is famous for mixing up dialects for effect or humor. During her performance, she shouted out country names the way American performers name check cities. “Is anyone here from Iraq?” she called. “From Egypt?” Attendees from both gave hearty shouts in return.
Hamdan’s music, mixing rock and electronica influences with sinuous Middle Eastern rhythms, both listens to and speaks to an international audience. The haunting video “Balad,” directed by Hamdan’s husband, Palestinian film director Elia Suleiman, is in part about the ongoing plight of Palestinian refugees while also touching on the Syrian refugees’ flight into Lebanon. But it’s also open-ended enough to include Muslims trying to enter the U.S. or immigrants targeted by ICE. “I fear for my country,” she sings, and it’s clear the country in question isn’t just Lebanon or Palestine.
“Whispers reign, walls of war and strife
Fatigued and disheartened all.
I who have been forsaken
Mine is the daily struggle
The cost of life here enrages me.
I am the citizen betrayed.”
“The song refers to the world we live in, and how it is organized to exclusively serve the interest of a very small minority in power,” she said. The most striking image in the video is of a group of male and female actors wearing T-shirts, torn jeans, unkempt hair and exhausted expressions, shaking and moving in sync in front of a line of cars stopped at a border crossing. It’s a downbeat counterpoint to the usual video glitz and glamour—a dance for those left out.
“Balad” is a somber song, and Hamdan’s music acknowledges and addresses turmoil and pain. But her performances are also filled with joy. In Chicago, she started her set in a leather motorcycle jacket, and gradually and gleefully discarded garments until she was performing in a tight, strappy gold top, leaning over the snares and cymbals to egg her drummer into greater efforts or swaying to the edge of the stage to encourage the audience to dance.
“I am excited to travel and to meet new audiences. I love my band and live performing so that’s my strongest drive,” she said. “Nothing else matters and everywhere we go we meet beautiful people. There is something spiritual about art that connects us with ourselves and with others; it’s really about coming together and creating bridges.”
Travel bans and checkpoints notwithstanding, Yasmine Hamdan’s work is a reminder that music, art and community have no borders.