Finding a respectable job, getting married and upholding traditional family values—none of these are priorities for Palestinian singer-songwriter Bashar Murad who through music is challenging conservative social norms in order to inspire Arab youth to follow their dreams.
To achieve this, the 26-year-old artist from Jerusalem, who describes his genre as alt-pop, addresses issues seldom discussed in Palestinian culture.
“I grew up in a musical household,” Murad told The Media Line. “My dad founded a group in 1980 called ‘Sabreen’ and it was one of the first alternative music groups in Palestine. Music was a part of my identity and part of my blood since I was born,” he said, adding that two of his uncles also pursued careers in the industry.
Until a few years ago, Murad sang only in English as he attended an American high school in Jerusalem and then completed his higher education in the United States at Bridgewater College in Virginia. But after returning to the Middle East, the young artist recognized the importance of his Arabic roots and has since composed a number of pieces in that language.
Today, he resides in east Jerusalem and produces many of his pieces at the local recording studios of the Sabreen Association for Artistic Development, a non-profit, community-based organization tasked with promoting Arab artists.
In the song “Everyone’s Getting Married,” Murad describes the pressures he witnessed in Arab society for young people to settle down. In the video he plays multiple roles: first a waiter, then a priest, then groom and finally a bride.
“I always care about having some main idea or message in my songs that usually deal with things and problems in society such as gender inequality or LGBTQ issues that are rarely addressed in Arab communities,” the singer explained.
While cross-dressing is generally off-limits in Arab culture, Murad claims his intention was not to shock but instead to convey his personal experiences.
“I was always breaking the stereotypical image of the Arab man, which is what I care a lot about doing,” he said. “Showing that men and women can do whatever they want: they shouldn’t be limited by their own gender.
“I always dealt with these problems, especially as a kid. I was a little more flamboyant, not the typical idea of what a man should be, so I got bullied for it and [received] a lot of negative comments that really stuck with me. ”
With hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, Murad has released several popular singles but hopes to eventually produce a full album. In addition to composing and performing his own original songs, he also directs and edits all of his music videos.
“Making music is very expensive, especially here and especially because I don’t have a record label,” Murad emphasized. “I’m doing this all on my own. I get funding from some organizations every once in a while but most of the time I’m funding it myself.”
One of these outfits is the United Nations’ “Men and Women for Gender Equality Program,” which sponsored the production of the song “Ana Zalameh” (“I’m a Man” in Arabic). The video, released last November, examines evolving gender roles in Palestinian society and is told from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy.
Like other musicians, Murad’s career has reached new heights with the regional launch of streaming platform Spotify, enabling him to overcome restrictions that limit the movement of Palestinians.
“Spotify has helped my online presence very much,” Murad told The Media Line. “Since they launched in the Middle East I’ve noticed I’ve been getting new listeners from all over the world.”
Most of Murad’s work is not explicitly political and makes no reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, in the music video for “The Door” (2015)—filmed on the Mount of Olives and in the Ras al-Amud Jerusalem neighborhood—an individual clad as Santa Claus attempts to deliver Christmas presents but is unable to do so after repeated attempts to circumvent the barrier that separates Israel and the West Bank.
Nevertheless, Murad is adamant that neither him nor his art will be defined by the stalemated peace process.
“I’m tired of that because all our life revolves around [the conflict],” he stressed. “I want to focus on the good and positive things that are happening here because everyone else is focusing on the negative."
The young singer also notes that he is open to performing in front of Israeli audiences provided he is not expected to push any agendas. So far, his concerts have mainly been at Palestinian festivals throughout the West Bank although, in a recent development, Murad will for the first time have the opportunity to perform abroad when he travels to Canada in May.
Regarding those who push for the boycott of cultural performances in Israel—like proponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement—Murad believes the choice should always remain up to the individual.
“When it comes to art, especially for Palestinian artists, we shouldn’t tell them what to do,” he asserted. “We shouldn’t limit them because we’re already limited by so much that I think an artist should do what he feels he wants to. It’s up to each artist.”
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