Pride & prejudice: Promoting behind enemy lines
Palestinian artist Bashar Murad is used to risking his life to perform. As a queer Arab and a resident of East Jerusalem, Murad has learned to live with oppression and the threat of violence, both onstage and on his doorstep. Neither, however, has deterred him from openly addressing loaded issues such as the Israeli occupation and LGBTIQ+ rights in the Middle East. “But the more vocal I become about these issues, the greater the danger is,” he tells IQ.
In 2019, Murad took one of his most daring steps when he performed in a wedding dress at an event in Ramallah, a Palestinian city located in the central West Bank. While the West Bank’s biggest draw for promoters is that it’s the only place where Palestinians from both sides of the barrier can meet, Murad says that the mixed demographic is also where the danger lies.
“Probably the biggest risk is if someone in the audience doesn’t like what I’m doing. Audience members could be from anywhere, from all over the country. There are different kinds of mentalities, people who are extremely open-minded but also people who are uneducated and attached to the traditions and the customs that we are taught in this quite patriarchal society,” he says.
Murad explains that each city in the Palestinian territories has different variations of laws relating to queer people. Jerusalem, where he lives, is under Israeli law but the West Bank is under Israeli military law as well as Palestinian civil law, which presents varying degrees of discrimination and legal challenges for queer people. To make matters more complicated, Murad says, some of the laws aren’t representative of the reality on the ground.
This minefield of laws across the territory means Murad is forced to make a risk assessment before booking a gig. While agents and promoters in liberal nations may book shows based on venue capacities, fees and convenience, Murad has to weigh up how dangerous each city is, the make-up of the audience, and how provocative his show should be. However, Murad has found refuge within the realms of the music industry, “the safe place,” having built relationships and established trust with promoters and record executives.
The international showcase at which Murad performed in the wedding dress, the Palestine Music Expo (PMX), is one such stronghold. Though Murad would not generally view Ramallah as 100% safe for queer artists like himself, PMX is something of a haven “free of oppression, for all human beings.”
PMX co-founder Rami Younis has been something of an outspoken ally for oppressed artists and is eager to give queer artists like Murad “a free and fair platform to do the show they want.” When IQ asks what he thought of Murad’s 2019 performance, Younis says: “I absolutely loved it. In general, we encourage our artists to be as creative and free as they can and to not be afraid to experiment. Murad’s show was a big success and a great example for that.”
Murad says he depends on support from alternative organisations like PMX, as the culture ministries are “too scared” to back queer artists like himself – though his talent has been verified by international press including CBC, The Guardian and the BBC. “They don’t show any support towards me because they’re worried about me being gay,” he says. “They fund music videos and productions for artists who have taken part in competitions like Arab Idol but forget about other artists who are carving their own paths and doing things their own way.”
Not only has PMX provided Murad with a safe space in which to deliver his most thought-provoking show, it has also given him a rare gateway to the international live music business and a world outside of conflict-ridden Palestine.
But establishing a platform like this, which has invited 150+ international music industry professionals each year since 2017, is no mean feat in a state where promoters, agents – and even performance venues are few and far between. “People must understand that we never had a chance to develop a proper industry simply because we never had the proper infrastructure,” says Younis. “Developing art industries organically in war zones is near impossible. So, what we do is push back against that and lay foundations for a proper and healthy infrastructure in the future.”
While agents and promoters in liberal nations may book shows based on venue capacities, fees and convenience, Murad has to weigh up how dangerous each city is
From the ground up
“I can’t believe that any queer person who is living in Poland and looking at the news doesn’t feel personally attacked,” says Kajetan Łukomski, a queer Polish artist, promoter and Keychange ambassador who goes by the name of Avtomat.
Poland is one of just a handful of countries in Europe that is yet to legalise same-sex marriage, and already bans same-sex couples from adopting children. As of June 2020, some 100 municipalities, encompassing around one-third of the majority Catholic country, have adopted resolutions declaring themselves “LGBT ideology-free.”
In a campaign speech when he stood for re-election, President Andrzej Duda called the promotion of LGBT rights an ideology “even more destructive” than communism. Elsewhere, the Archbishop of Kraków recently warned of a neo-Marxist “rainbow plague.”
“We just don’t feel safe in our own country anymore,” says Łukomski. “I started carrying tear gas with me on the street, and every time I go out with my boyfriend and we hold hands, we have to keep looking over our shoulder because there have been occurrences of queer people getting knifed in the street. This is why we need to work so hard to change the status quo.”
According to Łukomski, a shift in paradigm is also needed in the mainstream music scene, which has eschewed queer artists like himself. This segregation has forced queer artists to adopt a do-it-yourself mentality and promote their own shows and establish their own performance spaces. Back in 2017, Łukomski co-founded the Warsaw-based Oramics collective, which acts as a promoter, in a bid to “level the playing field for under- represented groups.”
“No one had really thought of that. All of the line-ups were male and there was no real push towards making women and queer people and so on visible in the scene, so it had to happen as a grassroots movement,” he says. “We’ve had to carve out our own space in the music industry.” Developing their own queer underground scene has also been a means of protecting the artists and fans within it because, like Murad in Palestine, Łukomski has to be selective about where he performs.
“It would be easy to go ‘I’m playing in this huge prestigious club’ but then my community may be in greater danger of, say, harassment. I make it a point to play in spaces that I deem safe for my community,” he says. Łukomski says that as Oramics’ reputation has grown, they have had greater bargaining power to talk to clubs about their safe-space policies and line-up balances. The collective has even brought workshops to smaller, less tolerant cities to show queer people how to organise their own spaces – though Łukomski says they had to organise their own security for these visits.
While the queer community in Poland may be safer existing on the fringes, their exclusion from mainstream culture creates a glass ceiling for artists, which prevents them from performing at larger capacity venues, earning bigger fees or securing representation. On a broader scale, if queer people and creatives aren’t able to assimilate with the rest of society, the oppression will likely perpetuate.
Warsaw-based promoter Follow The Step (FTS), however, is sensing some progression in the acceptance of queer people, which is allowing them to expand their portfolio of queer artists. Next year, the company will promote its first-ever show by a queer artist – American drag star Sasha Velour at Warsaw’s Palladium (1,500-cap.) – which FTS’s Tamara Przystasz says has been a long time coming. “We’ve been trying very hard to promote queer artists, but a lot of agents were saying Poland is not ready for it. But finally, people are much more open-minded than they were before,” says Przystasz. “To do something for the first time, after so many hard months, was a huge risk, but we thought let’s just do it, and it’s going well already. We didn’t expect such amazing feedback,” she adds.
Przystasz says FTS are keen to use Warsaw as a litmus test before promoting queer artists in more rural cities. “We are so lucky because we are living in Warsaw and it always works differently with capital cities, but in the smaller cities, it is hard; we have to fight for their rights. Education via music; I think that is the best option for us.”
Kostrzyn-based festival Pol’and’Rock, which has been running for more than 25 years and typically attracts an audience of almost half a million people, has had a little more time to establish a portfolio of queer artists, and hopes to lead by example. Originally inspired by Woodstock, the community- based festival deems itself an outlier in creating a refuge within the country’s conservative society.
Over the past three decades, the festival has played host to performances by queer artists such as Skunk Anansie and Polish children’s artist Majka Je owska, as well as Polish singers Ralph Kaminski and Krzysztof Zalewski – some of which have incorporated demonstrations for queer rights into their shows.
“We want to show Poland as an open place, a place where people can be themselves, which becomes more and more difficult each year,” says Olga Zawada from Pol’and’Rock. Zawada says that the festival has encountered many challenges since the recent government came into power, including reportedly being saddled with “high-risk” status four times since 2016.
The high-risk label, according to Polish law, applies to events where acts of violence or public disorder are expected to take place, though Pol’and’Rock has never encountered anything of the sort. Zawada believes that this is the government’s way of indirectly jeopardising the festival: “I don’t want to speculate on the government’s motivations, but we’re quite unpopular with the very conservative ruling party.”
The high-risk status means that Pol’and’Rock has been required to introduce different safety measures such as a fence around the perimeter, which Zawada says tarnished the festival’s aesthetic as a free and open festival and proved to be a “massive expense.” Does she think that the government was taking aim at the festival’s Achilles heel – its budget? “Yes. The fence was the biggest thing in our budget and from a crowd management point of view it was completely pointless. But the guests respected the fences and even used them creatively, to dry their laundry and things,” she says.
“We want to show Poland as an open place, a place where people can be themselves, which becomes more and more difficult each year”
Against all odds
“Turkey is a place where two times two doesn’t make four,” says queer senior talent buyer Bura Davaslıgil of Istanbul-based booking agency/promoter Charmenko. “On paper, it hasn’t been illegal to be homosexual since 1858, the Ottoman Empire, but it’s still a taboo.”
Taboo is a light way of putting it. Hate speech, violence, and discrimination have already put Turkey second to last on the advocacy group ILGA-Europe’s ranking of LGBTQ equality – no surprise considering that there is no solid law against discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. Gay Pride has been banned in Istanbul for several years, on pretexts of public order. “Even if a municipality is pro-LGBTQ rights and they want to, say, put on a festival, they wouldn’t dare to do it because of the current political climate,” says Davaslıgil.
According to Davaslıgil, the conservative party, which has been in power for the last two decades, tends to “look the other way” about queer culture, as long as it’s kept relatively quiet. “The discrimination against queer people is not systematic. If Morrissey, Pet Shop Boys or Elton John performed, it wouldn’t be a problem; if an artist’s queerness is not too overt then it’s fine.”
The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus (BGMC), however, was one artist the government could not ignore. In 2015, the Chorus found themselves at the centre of a political storm ahead of their concert at Zorlu Performing Arts Center in Istanbul. Conservative Islamist papers described the group as “perverts” and thousands of people signed a Change.org petition calling on Zorlu’s owners to cancel the show because it would take place on the tenth day of Ramadan. The venue, reportedly owned by a close confidant to Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan who, at the time, was running for re-election and campaigning to get the conservative vote, had reportedly asked the chorus to take the “Gay” out of their name but the group refused. “We weren’t going to let prejudice win… visibility saves lives,” says Craig Coogan, executive director of the BGMC, adding that the group has had the same name since 1982.
The government withdrew their previously issued permit allowing BGMC to perform at Zorlu and no other government agency would issue one. In an admirable display of allyship, the LGBTQ student group at Bosphorus University – a privately held institution, which didn’t need a permit for performances – stepped in and offered the Chorus their outdoor space. In order to keep the group safe, the buses were unidentifiable and the routes that each bus took to the same destinations were varied. Members were encouraged to be cautious on social media, not posting location information in real-time. According to Coogan, the group even collaborated with the US secret service on security issues, and a diplomatic note was sent to the government underlining the importance of the group’s safety to US relations. On the day of the concert, sharp-shooters were stationed around the area, drones surveyed the crowd, and audience members had to go through airport-style security to get into the concert.
The media frenzy, the political tension, and the logistical rigmarole would’ve been enough to discourage any artist from going ahead with the concert but the group found allies in the most unexpected of places. According to Coogan, The Nederlander Organization, which manages Zorlu, were “mortified” that political considerations forced them to cancel their contract. “In fact, to prevent an expensive lawsuit, they paid for the production costs at Bosphorus,” says Coogan. It was not difficult to find supportive professionals to work with. The issues we ran into were political, not with the professionals.”
BGMC hasn’t returned to Turkey since 2015 – the group has been busy touring elsewhere, including other anti-gay territories such as Poland, the Middle East and South Africa. But IQ wonders: could an incident like the one with the Chorus happen in 2021? “As long as this government stays in power, yes,” says Davaslıgil. And would Charmenko ever book BGMC, in spite of all the political and logistical issues? “I wouldn’t think twice,” he answers, underscoring the importance of allyship in the industry.
“Everywhere that we perform is an opportunity to dismantle prejudice and preconceptions about LGBTQ people”
Music as an act of resistance
Queer artists like Murad, Łukomski and the BGMC put their safety on the line again and again to perform in anti-gay countries, but what’s the pay-off?
“Everywhere that we perform is an opportunity to dismantle prejudice and preconceptions about LGBTQ people,” says BGMC’s Coogan. “Live music as a social activism tool works. It did in Istanbul, as it did in so many other cities around the world. I saw the joy and transformation on the faces of thousands of locals. “Music builds bridges, enhances communication, breaks down stereotypes and humanises the ‘other’ in powerful ways. It has the power to transcend boundaries and create connections among people from different backgrounds, languages, and beliefs, and has long been a central part of social justice movements.”
In all three stories, the live music industry has proved itself to be the antithesis of the political wars waging outside of it, thanks to real allyship from promoters and festivals like PMX, Follow the Step, Pol’and’Rock and Charmenko. But what they want, quite simply, is for their respective countries to be recognised for the budding talent, not the conflict. “I want people to know that Palestine isn’t just war, apartheid, and occupation; it’s also music, cinema, art; it’s life,” says PMX co-founder Younis. “There are actual people living here with hopes, dreams, and culture. There’s talent in Palestine and it is just waiting to be discovered. We don’t want to be seen as victims but as equal people who deserve to have their culture and music represented everywhere.”
Pol’and’Rock’s Zawada has a similar message for the international live music industry: “Poland is more than politics and oppression.
It’s important for us to say: ‘You know what? There is this community of people that has a different opinion. There are people who are tolerant and welcoming and accepting, and they would have your back, and everyone else’s.”
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