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Hamed Sinno photo by Derrick Kakembo 5

Hamed Sinno is bringing the receipts

07 July 2023, 07:30
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Derrick Kakembo

This weekend, Mashrou’ Leila singer Hamed Sinno will present their first solo work, Poems of Consumption, a song cycle wrought from loneliness and grief, shame and gratification. They talk to Alan Pedder about the art of buyer’s remorse.

It’s rare to interview an artist without hearing more than a few bars of their new music, but Hamed Sinno is an exception worth making.

As the magnetic lead vocalist of Beirut band Mashrou’ Leila, the Lebanese–American artist made incredible strides for queer visibility in the Middle East. Until they became ‘too’ visible, that is.

Once hailed as part of a new generation of Arab pop stars speaking out against injustice and oppression, Sinno and their bandmates were beaten down by coordinated hate campaigns, online harassment and ultimately robbed of their audience through high-profile cancellations in Lebanon and Qatar and outright bans on their music in Egypt and Jordan.

But it was the tragic death of Egyptian LGBTQ rights activist Sarah Hegazi in June 2020 that shook them into silence. Hegazi was one of several fans arrested following the band's performance in Cairo in 2017, enduring three months of electrocution and psychological torture in prison before being hounded into exile in Canada and, ultimately, taking her own life. In a grainy Instagram photo from the concert, she’s standing, arms aloft, holding a rainbow flag behind her, captured in a joyous moment that cost her everything.


It’s an image that came to haunt the band. Speaking to the BBC’s Outlook podcast earlier this year, Sinno explained how they felt in some way responsible for her death. “I felt like I killed a fan,” they told presenter Mobeen Azhar, followed by a long pause. “Up to that point, everything was just affecting us. And then, with Egypt, other people were starting to get affected.”

Although there’s been no official statement from Mashrou’ Leila on the band’s future, all the signs point to very different paths ahead. Drummer Carl Gerges has launched his own architecture studio in Beirut, guitarist and keyboardist Firas Abou Fakher is finding success as producer and director in TV and film, while violinist Haig Papazian, now based in New York, is working across multiple disciplines with his own project, Space Time Tuning Machine.

Hamed Sinno photo by Derrick Kakembo 1

As for Sinno, they recently graduated from a master’s degree in Digital Music at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and have been working on an opera titled Westerly Breath that will debut in January next year at the Met museum in New York, where they now live. But for most of this year, Sinno has been based in London, working feverishly on a literary song cycle that they will perform the first time at The Barbican tomorrow.

Commissioned by Shubbak Festival, the UK’s largest event celebrating contemporary Arab culture, Poems of Consumption has a backstory that anyone who survived the pandemic through online spending can probably relate to. For Sinno, it started as a distraction from his churned up mental health – there’s no emotion that shopping can’t fix, temporarily at least – but developed into something almost robotic. “It just got worse, the harder things got for me,” he says. “And often it wasn’t really about what I was buying as much as it was about the act of buying itself. That little rush of dopamine and serotonin. A short-lived happiness followed by remorse.”

Having grown up with a mistrust of Lebanon’s financial institutions, Sinno had previously kept their reliance on banking systems in Beirut to a minimum. That wasn’t an option when they moved to the US just before the pandemic, and suddenly they were faced with hard evidence of everything they were consuming. “I’d never used a credit card before,” they explain, “and when Covid happened, I just went bananas.”

Sinno has what they describe as “multiple mental health comorbidities,” including ADHD, but says it’s their relationship to depression that has been the most debilitating and ties in closest to their most recent work. “For anyone who knows anything about Mashrou’ Leila’s history or about my life, I think it goes without saying that the last five or six years have been really heavy with grief, on multiple levels and quite isolating,” they say. “I think, in a lot of ways, [Poems of Consumption] is about that loneliness. It’s about being alone when you’re buying things and just constantly feeling lie the world is ending, but not really knowing if it’s because the word is actually ending or if it’s just your depression talking.”

Hamed Sinno photo by Derrick Kakembo 4

The funny thing is, they never meant for any of this to be a performance. The poems they speak of were born on the frontlines of Amazon reviews – a mostly mundane battlefield, admittedly – and were intended to stay there. Through their compulsive purchases, Sinno found a second form of release in filling product review sections with literary work about their mental health and about consumption, “tangentially related to a product I had bought.” “It was ridiculous, but it did something for me,” they say, laughing. “The closest I had ever felt to that was when I used to do street art. I used to tag stuff when I was a lot younger and this felt a bit like that, like invading a public space with really very personal things.”

When Shubbak Festival joint CEO Taghrid Choucair-Vizoso (who, full disclosure, is a childhood friend of Sinno’s from Beirut) found out about the poems, she invited Sinno to develop the project over a month-long residency this past February. The idea was that they would spend the time researching and writing, potentially working towards a recital of the poems during the festival. Intrigued, Sinno flew over and got to work, spending “copious amounts of time” in the Poetry Library, “which is really a national treasure. It’s such a wonderful, wonderful little place.”

Sinno was going through a particularly rough patch at the time, and found themself on at least one occasion walking round a supermarket with tears streaming down their face. “And that’s where the sort of sociopathic part of being an artist kicked in,” they say, with a slightly hollow laugh. “I was like, ‘This is actually a performance isn’t it?’”

Quite quickly, what was meant to be a simple poetry reading ballooned into something much larger. Tasked with creating an hour’s worth of music in just three months, Sinno acknowledges both the insanity and the thrill of the challenge. “I haven’t had a deadline like this, ever,” they say. “But there’s something really exhilarating about that.”

"I realised I don’t want to be famous. And I don't want to always sound a specific way."


Although Poems of Consumption is described by the festival as “a portrait of Nero, a desolate working-class melancholic crying at Whole Foods while the world outside comes to a boil,” Sinno distances themself a little from the idea that Nero is a central figure in the piece. “That’s sort of a self-referential, wanky moment,” they explain, linking it to the song “Falyakon” that Mashrou’ Leila wrote for Greenpeace in which the idea of Nero as someone who just played music while ignoring the fall of the Roman Empire “felt like an appropriate metaphor at the time.”

Revisiting that metaphor, Sinno says they realised that they were “completely wrong.” “I have found myself repeatedly over the past six years in situations where the only thing I felt like I could do was to just make music. And there’s so much to say about that in terms of self-care and neurodivergence. I mean, who’s to say that Nero wasn’t just someone with really intense ADHD?” They laugh. “I’m not trying to rewrite history or anything here. I just thought it was a funny name for this contemporary addict, who’s an alcoholic reeling from a broken heart and talking about buying stuff.”

Ask ten musicians about the distinction between poetry and lyrics and you’ll likely get ten different answers, but Sinno’s thinking on the topic is inspired by a lecture given by the great David Byrne who said that while lyrics are written with music in mind, poetry is lyrics written to silence. “A lot of this piece was honestly just written to silence,” they say. “And I think that trying to bring that back into music and not lose certain qualities about the pattern and the rhythm that emerges from the language itself has been really educational for me.”

Putting that practical education together with everything they’d learnt under composer Ash Fure at Dartmouth College, Sinno says the way they think about song structure has been completely rewritten. And, on a larger scale, so has their relationship with music in general. Having stepped away from being in the public eye, they’ve been able to slow down, lower the stakes, and ask themself questions where they had been taking the answers for granted. “I realised I don’t want to be famous,” they say, sincerely. “And I don’t want to always sound a specific way, whether that’s pop or even this particular kind of new music that we’ve all accepted as being highbrow when it’s actually been redundant since the ‘60s. Like, if you still sound like musique concrète, it’s not really experimental anymore, is it?

Hamed Sinno photo by Derrick Kakembo 7

Sinno is very clear that, despite its weighty topics like late-stage capitalism and climate devastation, Poems of Consumption has no moralising undertone: “I think we all know what consumerism is and what’s happening to the environment, and if you’re a climate denier, some queer, neurodivergent musician from Lebanon is not going to change your mind. That’s not how things work.” The project isn’t about preaching from the stage, they say, it’s so much more intimate than that. “It’s about this very vulnerable, almost shameful relationship with buying things,” they add. “It’s about the shame and the gratification of it, and I think, in a lot of ways, that’s where the politics happens. So, yeah, I’m not yelling at anyone. I’m actually just being publicly filthy.”

If there’s a narrative at play, Sinno says that it’s much more about how the music evolves over the course of the piece rather than any kind of character arc. Moving from a lush, ambient beginning through kitsch and punk and melodramatic musical theatre before ending with aggressive electro bordering on hardcore, the ‘story’ is something for people to discern in their own way. “It not this thing where someone goes to the store, buys something, feels bad about it, and decides to go home and write a song about it, then world revolution happens,” Sinno says, rolling their eyes. “It’s really not that.”

Despite the emphasis on performance, Sinno has already begun to consider a life for the project off-stage, whether as a recording, an art installation, or something else. “I’ve been holding on to all of the packaging from my online orders because I’d like to make some artworks out of that,” they say. “I’ve bought a receipt printer so I can get really pretentious and print all my poetry on the receipt paper, which works by heat transfer. It’s very on the nose, but the wanky part of my brain is like ‘Global warming will probably ruin this print,’ and that gets me very excited.”

When we talk, there’s only a little over two weeks to go before the show, and Sinno knows that it’s very late in the day to still be in dreamer mode. “I’ll be completely transparent with you,” they say, grinning. “I’m so late. I haven’t finished writing it, and there’s still a lot to do. But I do think this project will evolve over time. I’ve been making my peace with not wanting to be a product when I go on stage, because I do think there’s a power in being okay with saying that this is a work in progress. It’s just me, thinking publicly, and changing my thoughts over time. I’m quite excited about it, actually.”

Poems of Consumption debuts tomorrow (8 July) at The Barbican. Tickets are available here.

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