Hope, Rebellion And Empowerment: The Multifaceted Appeal Of Mashrou' Leila's 'Roman' The Lebanese alternative rock band's hit single has taken on a life of its own this summer: as an anthem for women's empowerment and as a song of hope for troubled political times.
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Hope, Rebellion And Empowerment: The Multifaceted Appeal Of Mashrou' Leila's 'Roman'

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Hope, Rebellion And Empowerment: The Multifaceted Appeal Of Mashrou' Leila's 'Roman'

Hope, Rebellion And Empowerment: The Multifaceted Appeal Of Mashrou' Leila's 'Roman'

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  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's time for another stop on our listening tour of summer songs from around the world. This one's from Lebanon by alternative rock band Mashrou' Leila. It's called "Roman."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROMAN")

MASHROU' LEILA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: NPR's Ruth Sherlock tells us why it's getting a lot of attention.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: "Roman" is not your typical summer song. There are no boppy (ph) beats. It's slow, beautiful, painful. And when the band first wrote it about five years ago, it was intended as a song about betrayal. Many of the lyrics are dark.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROMAN")

MASHROU' LEILA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: "I don't intend on swallowing your lies. The words will burn my throat."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROMAN")

MASHROU' LEILA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: "Worms carve my body and the earth embraces my skin. How could you sell me to the Romans?"

But the chorus is a rebellion in a single word - alehum, which means charge in Arabic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROMAN")

MASHROU' LEILA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: Released this summer, the song has become an anthem for women's empowerment, surprising even the lead singer, Hamed Sinno.

HAMED SINNO: I definitely didn't have that in mind when we were writing the song. I totally did not have that in mind when I was writing the lyrics.

SHERLOCK: He says the meaning changed when they met Jessy Moussallem, a film director who pitched the idea that the music video should be about patriarchy. The video and song combined became a huge success. In the video, a woman in a hijab contorts in a modern dance in an abandoned concrete building. She leads women in brightly colored robes to a beach. They hold hands and make kaleidoscope patterns through dance. Their expressions are defiant. They radiate self-respect. Later, a covered woman rides a white steed that gallops. Sinno says the song has become a rejection of the idea that Muslim women can't be empowered.

SINNO: That's a thing that kind of always drives me insane, is that people are so quick to say stuff about Muslim women or veiled women. And it's like, dude, just come to one of our gigs. And you see all these women who are veiled who are just, like, celebrating other people's diversity, who are clearly not without agency, right?

SHERLOCK: I went to one of their concerts. They headlined at a festival in the mountain town of Ehden. They performed the song with a video playing on a screen behind them, which they hadn't done before in Lebanon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

(CHEERING)

SHERLOCK: The crowd went wild. The audience stood up from their seats. Eyes closed, swaying, arms in the air, they surrendered to the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MASHROU' LEILA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: There I met Hazar Malab, a 16-year-old student. I asked her if this was her favorite song this summer.

HAZAR MALAB: Yes, yes (laughter). It is. It is.

SHERLOCK: And do your friends like this song?

MALAB: Everyone, even my parents. I make them listen to it (laughter).

SHERLOCK: Jihad Saifi, another fan, says this is too important to be just a summer song. This is not just about fun. It breaks new ground.

JIHAD SAIFI: It's a beautiful picture to paint Arab women in. I've never seen Arab women, like, dance like this. And it's liberating to men and women.

SHERLOCK: And then there were people I spoke to who said that for them, the song was about more than women's empowerment. Rima Sleiman Frangieh organized the Ehden festival. She says "Roman" is a response to a rise in extreme views both inside and outside the Middle East.

RIMA SLEIMAN FRANGIEH: I think everybody has had enough. And we have seen nothing but ugliness and black and pain and sorrow. So this song, it's about liberation. And everything that opens windows of hope, I think, has a direct positive effect on people.

SHERLOCK: Lebanese listen to a lot of music. The pop song "Despacito" is the big commercial hit. But for others, a song Mashrou' Leila conceived about betrayal has become another reason to dance. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Ehden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MASHROU' LEILA: (Singing in foreign language).

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