By MICHAEL SCHULMAN
Hamed Sinno, the 29-year-old Lebanese rocker, showed up at Christopher Street in Manhattan looking agitated. He had gone to the wrong location of Maison Kayser, the French boulangerie, and by the time his cab got to the West Village he was an hour late. Wearing a headband and a loose black shirt, he had forgotten he had to have his photo taken, and apologized for his “bad hair.”
Rock-star problems, right? But Mr. Sinno’s are more complicated than most. As one of the only openly gay celebrities in the Arab world, he has become a de facto mouthpiece and lightning rod, becoming embroiled in international human-rights issues when all he really wants to do is play music.
His indie band, Mashrou’ Leila, has acquired a young, progressive fan base over the past few years. In the group’s home country, Lebanon, boho crowds flock to see Mr. Sinno, in sequins and muscle T-shirts, sing songs that are alternately brooding and buoyant, sensual and bitingly satirical.
But trouble seems to follow him everywhere. On Sept. 22, the group played a concert to 35,000 people in Cairo, where a few spectators waved rainbow flags. Within days, seven people were arrested for “promoting sexual deviancy,” part of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s crackdown on homosexuality. The number grew to at least 65 by the end of October.
Arrestees were subject to anal exams to test them for gay sex. Mashrou’ Leila was banned from Egypt, and homophobic rumors swirled online, including that the concert had been a 35,000-person orgy — “which, even if you try to entertain the idea, seems really, really difficult to organize,” Mr. Sinno said with a bitter laugh.
“It’s not like we’re going around burning holy books and peeing on national monuments,” he said, after ordering a skim milk latte and a tartine poulet. Outside the window, rainbow flags were as commonplace as stop signs. “It was just a piece of fabric. Those are people saying that they exist, and someone had a problem with that.”
He added, wearily, “I love what I do. But it is frightening.”
At times, the band has courted controversy, as when it canceled a 2012 gig opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers to show solidarity with BDS, the movement calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. But most often Mr. Sinno’s sexuality is provocation enough.
The group has been banned from Jordan, twice. “And the second time they were much less polite about it,” Mr. Sinno said. “They were just flat out, ‘We don’t want them because he’s gay.’” He rolled his eyes. “Really nice government.”
The band is spending the fall in the United States, teaching a graduate course at New York University on the intersection of music and politics. Mr. Sinno, a self-described “pretentious writing snob” (his lyrics teem with allusions to Sappho and Sylvia Plath), described the students as “all extremely woke,” and outlined a syllabus that includes Bertolt Brecht, Judith Butler and the French rap duo the Blaze.
On days off from teaching, the group is performing in cities including Philadelphia and Minneapolis. “My mother really doesn’t want me to go back to Beirut,” Mr. Sinno said. “She’s like, ‘Stay in the states!’ ‘I can’t afford a house here, woman!’ She’s like, ‘I’ll buy you a house!’”
But Mr. Sinno, who has dual Lebanese and United States citizenship, doesn’t feel much more at ease in America than he does in the Middle East, saying that the “in your face” racism he encounters here is at least as bad as the homophobia back home. Last year, Mr. Sinno was at Le Bain, the nightclub in the meatpacking district, when a guy getting into an elevator shouted, “Build the wall!”
“It took me a second to understand that he was talking to me, and that he thought I was Latino,” he said.
That same trip, Mr. Sinno found himself torn after the mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Fla., wanting to stand with the gay and lesbian community even as online trolls called him a “terrorist.” “It’s literally disillusioning to have to do away with the romanticized narrative of the U.S. that I had,” he said.
He picked the chicken off his tartine. “This is stuff that only pretty people are allowed to eat,” he said of the leftover bread. “I met this boy in San Francisco and he’s, like, way out of my league.”
While growing up in Beirut, Mr. Sinno found Western pop culture to be a lifeline. With few representations of gay people in Lebanese culture, he sought refuge in “Will & Grace” and Oscar Wilde. He discovered Allan Ginsberg during his freshman year at the American University of Beirut, where his mother teaches English.
He idolized grunge rockers like Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain (the “love of my life”) and went through “a bit of a riot-grrrl moment.” Though Mr. Sinno is often compared to Freddie Mercury, in part because of his bushy mustache, he doesn’t see the resemblance.
Mashrou’ Leila, which roughly translates as “An Overnight Project,” began in 2008, when someone in the university’s design department put up a sign for a musical workshop. By 2012, the band had released two albums and was headlining Lebanese music festivals, and Mr. Sinno quit his job at an advertising firm.
Though he grew up speaking mostly English, he studied Arabic to write lyrics, with the goal of “bringing poetry into Arabic pop music.” One song, “Shim El Yasmine,” or “Smell the Jasmine” (“I would have liked to keep you near me, / Introduce you to my parents”) has been described as Arab pop’s first gay love song.
The band’s most recent album, “Ibn El Leil” (“Son of the Night”), was inspired in part by Mr. Sinno’s period of escapism in Beirut nightclubs after the death of his father, a urologist. “I was where the booze was for quite some time,” he said. (He has been sober for almost a year.) But, he added, “clubs are necessarily political.”
As he finished lunch, his phone began to blow up with texts from his bandmates, and he got a look of panic. Another international incident? No, nothing urgent, he said with both annoyance and relief. When the bandmates return to Lebanon, they will face an uncertain future. “In the past two years, we’ve lost our two biggest markets, Jordan and Egypt,” Mr. Sinno said glumly.
And will their fans still wave rainbow flags?
“I think people are more likely to do that now than they were before.”