BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hundreds of Lebanese gathered Friday in Beirut for a protest concert in solidarity with a homegrown band whose performance at a top music festival was scrapped over alleged blasphemy.
Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is gay and whose Arabic lyrics tackle a range of taboo topics, were supposed to play in the seaside town of Byblos on Friday.
But festival organizers canceled their showing over security concerns after clerics complained that some of their lyrics insulted Christians, and critics threatened to attack the concert.
In protest, social and political activists as well as academics came together on Friday night to hold a replacement concert titled, “Music is Always Louder.”
Under the watchful eye of several members of the security forces, dozens of fans danced in the front row to the band’s music before an all-night line-up of musicians.
Mashrou’ Leila did not attend, but an organizer read out a statement from them to a full hall of more than 1,500 people, as hundreds waited outside for their turn to enter.
The evening was supposed to be about the band’s 10th anniversary, but instead it became about “our freedom to say what we think,” Mashrou’s Leila said.
It’s “about a future that allows us at least the most basic of freedoms, a future in which censorship and self-censorship don’t continue to forbid us from expressing ourselves,” they said.
Fans were then treated to a premiere screening of the animated music video for their latest song “Radio Romance.”
Audience members said they came for a night out, but also to take a stand.
“I reject this kind of oppression,” said 28-year-old humanitarian worker Hasan Mortada of the events that sparked the Byblos cancellation.
Abdulhalim Jabr, 57, an architecture professor at the American University of Beirut where the band studied, said he had come to support “a battle for freedoms.”
“If we lose them, what will be left in this country?” he said, pointing to a struggling economy and mounting hazards to the environment.
Back stage, oud player Ziyad Sahhab said he was playing to protest “religious authorities interfering in our choices as musicians.”
“I don’t go to mass and tell (them) what to say,” he said, before grabbing his instrument and rushing onstage.
Religiously diverse Lebanon is one of the Middle East’s more liberal countries, but its myriad of recognized sects still wield major influence over social and cultural affairs.
Mashrou’ Leila has often played in Lebanon, but it has made waves in the religiously conservative Middle East.
After a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Egypt in 2017, at which members of the audience waved a rainbow flag, Egyptian authorities launched a crackdown on the country’s LGBTQ community.
Its concerts in Jordan were canceled in 2016 and 2017.