Mashrou’ Leila: third culture kids and the building of global citizens

By Yabework Abebe Kifetew

The first time I heard Mashrou’ Leila, I was sitting with friends on a balcony overlooking Cascadilla gorge. My friend showed me the song “Lil Watan” with much enthusiasm. I don’t recall much from that first encounter, but I remember sitting outside on a high wooden stool looking at all the green of the canopy and thinking: it’s an indie band but in Arabic–okay, cool. I really got into Mashrou’ Leila this summer though when I met someone from Lebanon who said that they were one of his favorite bands. I don’t know what was different this time, but instead of hearing them as just another indie band, I heard this depth and cultural plurality that drew me to them, and I have been an avid fan since. The lead singer’s voice is emotive, rich, and passionate in a way I had never heard before. Even more than his throaty, vibrant, dark voice and the violin melodies that draw me to their music, Mashrou’ Leila represents something that is larger than myself but that I am also a part of as a third culture individual–an amalgamation of cultural influences brought about by globalization and a shared language of “other”-ness.

Growing up, I had this interesting mix of both feeling connected and isolated from the outside world. Having parents that immigrated from Ethiopia to Kenya before I was born, I was exposed to multiculturalism by nature of living in a different culture than that of my family. I was, however, never fully part of either as I felt like I had a foot in both worlds at any given time. I lived in Nairobi my whole life, but being an Ethiopian not living in the country, I never felt fully assimilated into the culture even though I feel closer to my Ethiopian identity; and being obviously not Kenyan by virtue of my appearance and not knowing Swahili, I never fully assimilated with Kenyans either.

In general, the pop culture I engaged with during my teenage years was Western, and there was almost an aspiration towards this ideal, an attempt to shy away from my cultural roots in a sense. I don’t know how much of liking this sort of music was simply because of my personal taste or because I didn’t feel fully welcome in either of the cultures I grew up around. I listened to bands such as Bon Iver, The Beatles, The Strokes–I even went through a Nirvana phase, something commonplace here but not so much back home–and had this very singular idea of what kind of music I wanted to listen to, what was “cool” and what wasn’t.

When I came to America, I started feeling a desire to reconnect with who I was and what made me different here–and that was that undeniable influence that these two countries and my experience as a third culture kid had on me. Rather than trying to emulate Western culture–now that I was surrounded by it–I started to realize that my own position of juxtaposition back home was a larger part of my cultural influence. I wanted to explore that as well as how I could find similar narratives around me. This came out in little things I did. I began wearing more Ethiopian scarves, seeking out people to speak Amharic to; after my first summer back home, I brought back a lot of Kenyan garments and Ethiopian classical music from my parents.

As a third culture individual, there is a strange tension between wanting to be part of a bigger whole and wanting to stand out in how I interact with the things I consume. At each stage, I find myself both trying to find my own image and self and simultaneously searching for peoples and cultures that fit into that image. My closest friends here are similar to me in that they grew up in cultures different from their parents’, and we have bonded over this shared experience.

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Art by Julia Greenberg

Of course, the Western influence is still prevalent, primarily in my taste in music because I do like alternative and indie music in general. I’ve realized though that I usually like international indie music instantly–such as the Korean band Hyukoh and Mashrou’ Leila. Music is, as well as other forms of art, something that easily transcends the barrier of language, which for me was the greatest element to how much belongingness I felt to the societies around me. With Mashrou’ Leila, for example, I don’t feel like I need to know the language to be a part of their world, which is a world of sounds and meanings and not a political one like Ethiopia and Kenya where I needed the language to engage fully within them.

The band members’ backgrounds are also characteristic of most third culture kids. Born into well-to-do families, they all met at the American University of Beirut where they had the opportunity to engage with cross-cultural knowledge and culture but with an obvious Western influence. They are well aware of the dangers of having an openly gay lead singer, advocating for queer rights, singing about nightlife in Beirut, and criticizing Lebanese politics in their music. However, they have the ability to rise above their country’s constraints on their liberties primarily because of their socioeconomic status, which enables them to challenge their country’s norms. In doing so, they show their values as being influenced by a larger stream of thought and the remnants of colonization, as Western ideals still dominate the exchange of knowledge today.

I identify with Mashrou’ Leila because their music reflects this multicultural influence and because of how they engage with the knowledge and world around them. They try to be different by joining multiple aspects of different cultures, which tends to cater to a very specific audience globally. This audience is of a growing importance in a time of increasing migration and as we are more aware of the societies around us. I think that constant reassessing of what is the norm creates something really interesting and cool–like Mashrou’ Leila! What’s interesting to mention is that a lot of my friends from Middle Eastern countries aren’t that keen on them, saying that the band caters more to Lebanese people who live in America. In fact, I think this is why it is so appealing to me because I am a third culture individual, part of a growing subculture of the world.

Is this growing cross-cultural population the future? What are our shortcomings, how do we engage locally, where do we belong? We are a globalized youth that have somehow risen above the geopolitical process of oppression–thanks to education or higher economic status–but are still a cultural product of it and are often hyper-aware of that fact. How, then, can we use this to make a change in the world, and is our impact significant?

Mashrou’ Leila’s music is an example of how our world cultural exchange is changing as more individuals form the global South engage in it. This could be seen as a shift in power, perhaps not at a national level but at an interpersonal level. Countries of the global South are developing, but perhaps artists such as Mashrou’ Leila stand as a representation–albeit not an adequate one due to their own Western influence–of their respective cultures. This allows for the interaction of knowledge to open up to a more even playing field where their voices may be heard, even if their nations may not be on such ground politically. As the socioeconomic well-being of these individuals improves globally, I hope there is more engagement of the world’s unique cultures that questions the authorities that are at play today.

The band’s music is a product of an intercultural conversation influenced by existing world power as well as a reclaiming of that power through the reconnecting of cultures. Instead of striving for this Western ideal of aesthetic in its entirety, Mashrou’ Leila brings their Lebanese identity into this conversation. The discovery of Mashrou’ Leila came to me at a time when I was coming deeper and deeper into myself and what it is that makes me who I am, a third culture individual claiming space and validity in a global exchange that is, I hope, decreasingly dominated by Europe and North America.

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