Music, Pop Culture

Have you heard the most talked about Arab-Western crossover of 2019?

He wasn’t even a participant. Yet Palestinian artist Bashar Murad ‘won’ Eurovision.

What began as a controversial minute has resulted in a powerful cultural crossover collaboration.

Singer Bashar Murad is celebrating a big win for the Middle East’s indie music scene after his track, ‘KIefi / Samed (صامد)’ with the Icelandic band Hatari surpassed one million views on YouTube.

And it all stemmed from a carefully orchestrated plan devised by Hatari, which started during their campaign at Eurovision 2019.

Funnily enough, Jerusalem-based Murad wasn’t even involved in Eurovision.  

“While Eurovision claims to be about peace, inclusiveness, and diversity, it made the hypocritical move of hosting in Tel Aviv, a few kilometers away from where Palestinians are living under a horrific occupation,” the singer, 26, said.

Cast your mind back to the month of May, when the 2019 edition of the Eurovision Song Contest took place in Tel Aviv. Do you remember the winning song? 

Probably not. 

But chances are you can recall the surprise moment Hatari – the self-described “anti-capitalist, techno-dystopian, BDSM, performance art collective” – held up banners featuring the Palestinian flag live on air during the public voting results.

It became one of the most talked-about moments on social media – completely overshadowing Madonna’s arguably feeble attempt at grabbing headlines by having two backing dancers wear the Israeli and Palestinian flags on the back of their costumes. Add to that Hatari’s performance earlier in the night of ‘Hatrið Mun Sigra’ – a heavy techno/industrial track, which translates into ‘Hatred will Prevail’ – and they stood out like metal fans mistakenly turning up to a Taylor Swift concert.

Hosting Eurovision in Israel was always going to be controversial. Groups such as the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, called for contestants to pull out.

The event went ahead as planned of course, but as it got underway, a protest show hosted by Palestinian musicians – including Murad – was being streamed from cities including Ramallah, Bethlehem and Haifa.

“This event was used to whitewash the crimes of the occupation. It was so important for me to be a part of [the alternative] Globalvision… I sang [at the] Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem to remind the world what is happening in Israel’s backyard.”

As Murad was performing, Hatari’s silent protest was unfolding at the packed Expo Tel Aviv. The trio – Klemens Hannigan, Matthías Haraldsson and Einar Stefánsson – were met with boos, while shortly afterwards, Stefánsson posted a video of organizers attempting to confiscate the flags from them. The band later confirmed that they were verbally abused by staff as they left the venue.

Hatari’s plan to plan to raise awareness of the Palestine-Israel conflict was just getting started: the impactful Western-Middle Eastern musical collaboration with Murad followed shortly after.

“I felt there could be room to do something together that could make a positive change,” Murad says. “They seemed like very nice guys. We had a connection since I saw a reflection of my artistry in them. They sent me a beat with their lyrics, and I wrote my parts. I recorded my vocals in Jerusalem, and sent it to them.”

Sung in Icelandic and Arabic, ‘Klefi/Samed’ blends Haraldsson’s guttural vocals with Murad’s softer tones, and includes the Palestinian singing the lyrics I’m steadfast, I won’t bow down.

“We had many Skype sessions, exchanging information about Palestine and its history. They were also keen on meeting other Palestinian artists to work with. I definitely am very happy that I trusted my instincts and continued talking to them.”

The music video matches the sentiments of the lyrics. Combining a day’s shoot in the desert, with in-studio shots, the centrepiece of the production is the giant Palestinian flag that Murad unveils in the end.

“They met me in Nabi Musa in the Jericho desert,” Murad says. “We were filming next to a military base, and the whole time we could hear the army practicing shooting. It was a little risky to film there especially with the Palestinian flag, but thankfully nothing happened.”

So was it Murad who helped them smuggle the banners later on?

“Living in Jerusalem means it’s almost impossible to find Palestinian flags since the Israeli army will remove any flag in sight,” he reveals. “This was all them. They went to Ramallah and smuggled the flags through Kalandia checkpoint.”

Murad is happy with the result so far: “It was a very special opportunity, [yet] a challenging one,” he says. “Hatari is a very progressive group that is about inclusiveness and diversity. I feel lucky to have worked with them. This journey has been difficult, but the song is what kept us strong – we saw it was a beautiful track that needed to be released. We had to navigate a path in which the song’s release was justifiable.”

Since release, Murad has been on a promotional tour with Hatari in Iceland, with plans for new music and shows in Palestine and Europe this summer.

“It’s great that Hatari is sharing their platform with me and helping me share my story and the story of the Palestinian people,” Murad continues. “Through this song, I want to introduce people – who might have never heard of the occupation – about Palestinian symbolism including the right of return, the flag, and the concept of steadfastness.

“I also want to fight this rhetoric that claims that Palestinians hate women and gay people,” continues Murad, who is openly gay himself. “I saw a lot of comments saying Hatari would be killed if they walked around in those outfits. But the feedback for this video has been very positive from Palestinians, including people in Gaza. There are extremists everywhere, and it is never okay to generalise and to justify the occupation through pinkwashing.”

Looking back at Eurovision, Murad believes that Hatari did the right thing by taking part.

“They took a risk and they could have failed miserably. However, I feel that they navigated this in a very smart way, and eventually caused a big stir by holding the flags in front of 200 million people. As well as all the noise they made in the Eurovision interviews about the occupation. To me, this is a success,” he says.

“If they hadn’t participated, Eurovision would have continued peacefully. These guys are heroes. This is a unique situation, and I think most people [still] should boycott… unless they have a genius masterplan like this one.”