Wake Island is a small island in the Pacific, about half way between Asia and North America. It’s also the performing name of duo Philippe Manasseh and Nadim Meghzal, who are originally from Beirut but now split their time between New York and Montreal. When asked to contribute to XY&Z, Wake Island offered to perform their song "Last Ruins," which—like much of their music—merges Arabic classics with electronic pop production. Below, Manasseh tells us why.
Tell us about this song—why did you choose it to represent your work at Wake Island for this issue?
"Last Ruins" is a song that was intentionally written about and for the queer community. As we were exploring our immigration story, moving from Lebanon to Canada in our twenties, it was important to delve into the particular feelings of oppression that the queer community faces in Lebanon. As a queer man myself, growing up in Lebanon, the environment felt particularly inhospitable for me to blossom and affirm myself. The experience is different for everyone, of course. For me, growing up during the civil war, I was isolated from reality and immersed in a Christian education. I definitely felt that my desires were wrong and sinful. Looking around me, there was no one, really, to look up to, no famous queer people, no queerness on TV, in music, on the streets, anywhere. With "Last Ruins," we wanted to provide just that. A song people growing up queer could listen to and think, “I’m seen and I exist.”
With the video, we partnered up with Mohamad Abdouni and Anya Kneez to take that narrative one step further and make it very clear what the song was about: creating a space for queer culture within the pop landscape. By emulating an old-school Nawal El Zoghbi video and having a Drag Queen take center stage, we reclaimed that space that was missing for me (and for every young queer person) in the ‘90s. It was like rewriting history. And looking ahead at the same time.
One last thing to mention is that it was also extremely important to us that the song be uplifting and fun, considering how dark the subject matter could be. The team behind the video [Mohamad Abdouni, Roula Salibi, Krystel AK, and Jad Taleb] really captured that in a beautiful way.
What do you hope audiences take away from your music?
Our music has always been geared toward expressing very simple, essential ideas: kindness, respect, self-awareness and compassion. As long as that comes through, we don’t care much about anything else. We want our music to make people feel good while being intellectually and emotionally challenged. Every song is a different being, telling a story from a specific angle and spirit. Our fans have come to expect this unpredictable factor, which works in our favor now.
With our new record, we are telling a more specific story about immigration, alienation and how to celebrate the complexity of individual and communal identity. We want immigrants to listen to it and think “that’s my story, too!” Since the Lebanese revolution followed by the Beirut explosion, we’ve witnessed a massive new wave of immigration, people fleeing our country to find hope and dignity in Canada, US, and Europe. It breaks our hearts to see our own story repeated in such a predictable, cyclical way. This record strangely became a way to welcome these newcomers and maybe make their transition smoother and the change easier to swallow.
As we were writing the album, we quickly realized its deeply personal subject matter was also very universal. In the end, the album ended up being about all forms of marginalization and alienation, humbly seen through the eyes and experience of two Lebanese immigrants. We wanted to reach people outside our community. If they could relate to these songs then maybe they could also understand that our struggle is theirs, that queers and Arabs and immigrants are not so different from them. Human emotion doesn’t care about race, orientation, class or gender. That’s something that we learned along the way and it is very freeing to us as artists.
Describe your relationship with SWANA music — what inspires you about it, how are you adding to it’s tradition?
Years after we immigrated to Canada, we realized we were increasingly disconnecting from our cultural roots. The work we had to do to adapt to North American and Quebec cultures made us erase our own in the process, particularly after 9/11, where Arab identity was taboo and “scary”.
When we realized how far from our roots we had gone, we started a process of rekindling. It had to be through music. That’s how we ended up starting Laylit, an Arabic Music party in NYC and Montreal. It came out of a desire to listen and research more music from the SWANA region and its diaspora, and a desire to share it with people. It ended up being a profoundly transformative experience, allowing us not only to discover the richness of the region’s music but also to form a community around us based on music appreciation and boundary-breaking community kinship.
Of course, this transpired into our music, as we started incorporating these influences in our songs. It was important to us to not do so in a cliché, orientalist way. We didn’t want to force anything or sound like “traditional” Arabic music. We wanted to sound like us. And “us” is a hybrid of “western” and Arabic cultures, endlessly dancing within us, confusing us, enlightening us, enriching us.
Not sure we are adding anything to the tradition of SWANA music by doing so, but one thing is for sure at the center of our mission: to redefine what an Arab artist is and can be today. There are too many misconceptions and stereotypes about that, and we believe that by being true to ourselves, we can show another variation of that and add some eclecticism to the mix.