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Songs We Love: Mashrou' Leila, 'Roman'

Last year, the band Mashrou' Leila from Beirut, Lebanon, slayed us with an unforgettable Tiny Desk Concert. Their potent mix of sweet sounds and heady lyrics are beguiling; it's no wonder that superfans call themselves "Leila Holics." And to accompany their , the group has released a thought-provoking video for "Roman."

Working with an emerging female director from Lebanon named Jessy Moussallem, the all-male members of the band (singer and lyricist Hamed Sinno, violinist Haig Papazian, keyboardist and guitarist Firas Abou Fakher, bassist Ibrahim Badr on bass and Carl Gerges on drums) take a back seat — quite literally — to a group of women.

With dark-hued beats and gorgeous falsetto harmonies haloing Sinno's ardent tenor, this song will be a welcome find for casual listeners. But as ever with Mashrou' Leila, there's a lot of subtlety in both the text and the visuals to "Roman" that challenges stereotypes — from all comers. As the band explains, the women in the video are "styled to over-articulate their ethnic background, in a manner more typically employed by Western media to victimize them. This seeks to disturb the dominant global narrative of hyper-secularized (white) feminism, which increasingly positions itself as incompatible with Islam and the Arab world, celebrating the various modalities of Middle Eastern feminism."

The women are dressed in an array of figure-hiding Middle Eastern clothing like caftans and abayas, and with many wearing various kinds of veils, from headscarves to the face-covering niqab-- these are especially stereotypical outfits, given Lebanon's diversity and what women there actually wear. While Sinno's lyrics tend towards the elliptical, the song's title might also be playing with the idea of cultural divides: Rum is the classical Arabic word for Romans, or Byzantines — i.e., non-Muslims — and later became associated with Christians and Europeans more broadly.

The thrust of the video, however, is one word from the song's refrain: 'Aleihum —"Charge!" It's a cry for self-realization, as Mashrou' Leila explains: a way of "treating oppression not as a source of victimhood, but as the fertile ground from which resistance can be weaponized."

"Roman" is included on the deluxe version ofIbn El Leil, due July 21 viaShoop! Shoop!

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.