Creative Clusters: 20 Weeks of Gratitude, Week 8

Part 1: Artpop, Inc.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Lady Gaga since she popped up on my playlist on Valentine’s Day. It’s been a while since I’ve listened to anything as infectiously positive and carefree; I’m especially aware of this because, two days prior, I attended an art-based workshop where they asked us to share a song that we turned to when we wanted to lift our spirits; I couldn’t think of any.

There was a time when it was strangely meaningful to think that Lady Gaga and I are the same age. Looking back, I now feel especially blessed to know that just as she was becoming Billboard’s artist of the year, Lady Gaga and I were pretty much in the same industry—tszujing it up, making artpop, being our most gorgeous selves, honey.

(I’ve been watching a lot of Queer Eye too so that was my best Jonathan Van Ness.. 😄)

I bring this up today because 2010 looks different to me with 2020 eyes; that’s the year I worked with @suzieselman on a bunch of music videos in Lebanon, an experience that feels so alien and precious ten years later. I wish I’d appreciated that time a lot more than I actually did.

I’m struck by our optimism, back then. We had a genuine can-do spirit that didn’t feel forced or performed; we just genuinely could do and did do. Yes, we’ll make a video with no budget for a British label. Yes, we’ll spend a whole day and night in the Bekaa with a light so big it looked like the moon was hanging out with us until dawn. Yes, we’ll get pulled over on our way back to be stripped searched and have our phone stolen by the cops (Suzie was exempted the former, but not the latter).

The way we did things seemed normal at the time but it feels like it happened to a very different person in a very different country. Were we naïve? Or was Beirut a lot more willing to try?

So many creatives I knew from that period don’t live there anymore. Maybe we thought the energy and buzz would last forever, so we didn’t take time to soak it in.

I’m grateful to have played a small part in that “kunst” scene.

Part 2: Everybody Kultur. Everybody Shock

There’s a story in my family about an ancestor in my bloodline who was Mir Bashir Shihab’s bodyguard & supposedly Ukrainian. It’s unlikely to be true but that’s my tenuous link to a part of the world I feel weirdly connected with—that “other Europe” in between Russia & Germany, and more specifically, the Balkans to the south. I’ve never been there in my physical body but my soul has danced there my whole life.

The simple explanation is that Balkan music has been trendy for decades but I prefer the magic realism of my soul connection. It’s what makes my fables special—the dozen nights spent sweating & smiling at Balkanarama in Edinburgh; the time that one night wouldn’t cut it, so I followed them to Glasgow; that time we missed the train back to Leicester after seeing Gogol Bordello in Nottingham—we ending up at an afterparty where we danced with Eugene Hütz himself. He called my girlfriend “number one” & I lost our photos in the eventual breakup—yeah, every one of these stories deserves a week of gratitude.

But I’ll focus on the time I interned for a self-proclaimed Emperor “just like Bonaparte,” as he’d put it. At the time, he was the only person in Lebanon popularizing this style of music. Here he is with Anthony Bourdain (R.I.P.), talking about how he was meant to be a musician but instead picked up a gun†. It was my job to help him craft his online persona, so it’s hard for me to watch without wondering where the man ends & the mythology begins. That was part of the fun of working for his imperial highness, but what I really wanted to do was be part of his opa tzupa musical world. I only saw parts of it—the parts lesser known (ha!)

He saw me as his protégée & still checks up on me every couple of years; once, he asked me to sit & observe as he navigated the psychodrama of a Cuban artist’s cocaine habit. I saw how he orchestrated a good cop/bad cop dynamic to lull the shmuck into thinking someone has his back at the office. I learned that he’d picked up these tactics during the war. It was fascinating but I really just wanted the chance to be the first to bring Beirut to Beirut. Alas.

I found some of what I was meant to message & massage a little uncomfortable, but it’s funny how many of these dark arts I‘d end up using throughout my career.

What’s a donor report but an exercise in PR? Even now, every Sunday, the show must go on.

Balkan music speaks to my soul because it knows that life is messy: weddings can turn to funerals, militias can turn to showbiz, anarchy is order and there’s no such thing as neutrality—neutrality is choosing.

Part 3: Welcome to Hamra

What is “buzz”? How would you define a “vibrant” scene? What is a “scene,” anyway?

Urban theory defines a “scene” as an intangible, spontaneous, & informal communication ecology gelled together in spatial propinquity—“lots of piquant and useful things going on simultaneously and therefore lots of inspiration and information.†” Sometimes planners try to recreate that through art districts & creative clusters, but scenesters & sociologists know that buzz is more temporal than it is spatial—the right people at the right time with the right mix of conditions. That’s what makes a place “happening.”

Anyone who’s spent any time in Beirut knows this implicitly. Once there was Monot, then there was Hamra, then there was Gemmeyze, then soon after Mar Mikhail, then Badaro, & who knows where next, since I’ve been away. These streets have always coexisted but their buzz has not.

Some have lost their spark completely while others have only dulled; among these, there is one gem whose luster can’t be extinguished—it just doesn’t catch the light the same way for everyone or for long.

That street is Hamra.

What Hamra has that the others don’t is lore—deep roots, deep scars, generation after generation of love & loss that give the place its magic. If you didn’t grow up knowing it, you’d quickly learn, because people would tell you; the place is shaped by story as much as stone, & it’s labyrinthine.

So I’ll be brief: Hamra in 2010 was electric & this had much to do with a small group of friends you’ve never heard of. They called themselves a collective & gave it a name: their address on Sidani according to their lease, though you wouldn’t know it from the street—it was the dada thing to do. They made music, gave lectures, put on events, & for a moment, my artpop journey converged with theirs. We even put on a Balkan dance party for mostly ourselves—you wouldn’t believe how many paid us $$ to sip beer & watch us have the actual fun.

Hamra was many things for many people; for me, Hamra was a glocal rhizome. Maybe it still is. Maybe it’s buried under the stories of ten thousand others who danced the dark away.

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