On the one hand, Bashar Murad was one of the hundreds of acts who performed at last week’s Canadian Music Week event in Toronto. On the other hand, Murad was the only gay Palestinian pop singer to open his shows wearing a wedding veil and to go on to perform a cover of the John-and-Yoko classic anthem Imagine, complete with altered references to dreams of no checkpoints, visas and passports, too. The point of CMW is to stand out and to grab attention. Mission accomplished, then, for the slightly built, mild-mannered Arabic provocateur.
Murad doesn’t have a record deal. He didn’t even have a place to stay while he was here. “I’ll figure it out,” he says, when asked about his Toronto accommodations. At the Small World Music Centre, in front of world-music tire-kickers and dancing members of the local Palestinian diaspora, the 26-year-old artist performed with backing tracks and a guitarist he’d just met. On the pleading balladic pop of More Like You, he sings in English about “being on a plan.” Asked about those aims in an interview with The Globe and Mail, Murad said “global domination through music,” but he’ll take a couch to sleep on to start.
He came out of the closet influenced by the androgyny of David Bowie while living in a walled-in part of the world. It makes little sense for Murad to put himself into any boxes, musically or otherwise. “All these things telling you what to do, where you can go and how to dress,” Murad said. “Our generation has just had enough of it. We want to go our own way.”
Murad is part of a young wave of Palestinian performers represented at CMW as part of a showcase arranged by the Palestine Music Expo (PMX), a three-day music festival and conference that takes place annually in Ramallah. “Bashar reminds me of an early k.d. lang crossed with Lady Gaga,” said Larry LeBlanc, a veteran Canadian music journalist and PMX co-founder. “Palestinian musicians have access to Spotify, and Western genres are now part of their own musical world.”
Still, even if Murad’s cover of Imagine is mostly faithful to the original, the implications of it being sung from his perspective go beyond pie-in-the-marmalade-sky idealism. “I have this political pressure on me from one angle, and then the societal pressure that wants me to be a certain way," Murad said. “The song echoes my sentiment of wanting people to unite regardless of their religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation.”
When he was younger, Murad thought of music as a way to escape the political realities of his day-to-day life. After attending an English-language high school in Jerusalem, he enrolled at Bridgewater College, a private liberal-arts institution in Virginia. He found that his fellow students knew little about Palestine. “But, when I would perform at open-mic shows, they wanted to hear about where I was from and hear about our history, our story and our struggles,” the soft-spoken Murad said. “I realized I didn’t want to escape the politics at all.”
Since then, Murad has steadily built a YouTube following through songs sung in Arabic and English, accompanied by his brash, self-produced videos. Shillet Hamal (Bunch of Bums) lopes amiably to a lush, quirky score that includes a Spaghetti Western guitar. Lyrics deal with societal expectations and freedom of expression. Ana Zalameh (I’m a Man) and other danceable material fuses Eastern and Western styles while commenting on gender-based stereotypes.
As a pop singer living in East Jerusalem, it’s hard for Murad to speak about his occupation without talking about the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. When this year’s Eurovision Song Contest (the world’s longest-running and most glam-struck televised song competition) took place earlier this month in Tel Aviv, Murad was among the protesting Palestinian and international musicians – including LGBTQ and drag performers – who took part in an alternative event (Globalvision) that was broadcast online during Eurovision’s finale weekend.
“I think the fact that I’m Palestinian automatically makes me political,” he explained. “You wake up in the morning and you think about how the occupation will affect your day.”
And how it affects his music. “My dream," he said calmly, “is to use my music to free Palestine."