Always Riled Up: Protest Music For A New Era, Part 3 – Interview with Cherine Amr of Massive Scar Era

Cherine Amr and her band, Massive Scar Era, have been highlighted a few times in major media outlets in recent years. Most of this coverage has focused on two events:

7 years ago

Cherine Amr and her band, Massive Scar Era, have been highlighted a few times in major media outlets in recent years. Most of this coverage has focused on two events: the emergence of a female-fronted metal band in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring – a wave of protests and popular uprisings across the Middle East during 2011 – or the recent denial of entry to the United States this past month when they were expecting to make it to play at SXSW (more on the specifics of this event are below). The band’s music, as you’ll read, became sort of secondary to these current event-based stories.

Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, a band that I had heard of and am interested in musically suddenly gaining notoriety because of their inability to get into the country and tour despite having all of the proper paperwork filled out is a big deal. Any band being turned away from the U.S. for fear that they might raise politics in their performances should be alarming to any music fan. So, when considering attempting a new tour or visit to the United States they are understandably hesitant. “Not in the near future. Our experience was traumatizing not only because we were excited about the trip but also because we had the correct paper and visas.” The fact that the band followed the rules and had the proper documentation yet were still turned away provides a chilling warning to other bands from outside of the United States who may be considering mounting a tour here.

The band have been massively affected by being on an unnecessarily nomadic journey at this point fighting not just the immigration issue that saw them turned away at the U.S. border, but that of sexism and stereotypes about Muslims, particularly in metal. As they’ve traveled they’ve faced criticism from within and without their scene. The band relocated from Alexandria, Egypt to Vancouver, Canada in 2015 but before the move the band elicited some negative attention during the time of the Arab Spring because, as Amr recounted, “an Egyptian newspaper published our photo under a headline that says we are satanic! So there was lot of questioning since being a non believer in Egypt is a crime according to the law.” So, not only were they a female-fronted metal band but they were also being accused of satanism.

On the sexism front the band faced criticisms over their invitation to participate in international festivals. “Ever since we started we were discriminated against, of course, from the Egyptian metal scene. Until this moment they refused to acknowledge our talent. We don’t need their acknowledgment but they need to get over themselves and stop believing that we get invited to festivals because we are led by women!” She went on to reference the first time playing the Sweden Rock Fest in 2009 when the band were accused of being invited based on their gender instead of their skill.

When we think about the scene we want to have it should be inclusive. Of Muslims, of women, and that acceptance should be what drives us. That and killer music. Often times we see criticisms of bands lead by women in the scene based on tired cliches and attitudes with nary a critical eye towards the actual music a band creates. This is also true of bands from traditionally Muslim parts of the world. Whether we like to admit it or not, the metal world is one that still is extremely hard to break into for bands bearing just one of these traits. Massive Scar Era has two strikes against them in this regard. So it’s important that we take a critical listen to the music and its message.

Much of the band’s notoriety exists because of media covering two very distinct events that happened during the course of their career. All the while Amr’s style and substance leans towards the freedom that the band strives for through their music and what they’ve taken away from their influences in the metal scene. This is a band trying their best to be just that, without being solely identified by these labels but being unafraid to own their background as an influence on their sound.

(L-R) Nancy Mounir (vocals/violin) and Cherine Amr (vocals/guitar)

Several of the band’s songs do openly roar back at the criticisms they have faced and that they have persisted. That they praise fellow Egyptian metalheads, Scarab, shows that they don’t forget where they’ve come from nor do they shirk the responsibility to share the spotlight with other bands who might be frozen out of the world scene simply because of their origins. We owe it to ourselves to explore the music happening in all corners of the world of metal and in a time where Muslims face wave upon wave of condemnation opening our ears to this music might be one of the best ways to combat these stereotypes and prejudices.

But the band is about much more than simply these two isolated events. Their music hints at elements of the Deftones in their breakdowns, Killswitch Engage with melodic choruses and interludes, and Nightwish in the delivery of some of the cleaner vocals. The band has a lot of growing to do but with the benefit of more experiences playing live, outside their comfort zones, and gaining from better production there’s a ton of potential for growth.

One of the standout features from the band is the manner in which they integrate more traditional Egyptian melodies into the heavy metal style. They’re not alone in doing this but there’s a certain natural way about how they do it that is refreshing. Amr says, “We started MSE in 2005, to be honest we didn’t intend to add an Egyptian flavour to our music, it sort of happened. I think it makes sense since we grew up listening and appreciating this music so it came out naturally in the arrangement and composition.”

Integrating those melodies largely comes from violinist Nancy Mounir, which doubles down on the previously mentioned challenge of dealing with sexism in the scene. This example of how metal interacts with the issue of gender is not unique. Unfortunately, sexism, on both large and small scales, is still pervasive globally, and it’s something that the music world, least of which metal, continues to struggle with. At the same time, Amr embraces the feedback she receives from fans who have been inspired by her and the band’s example to begin playing. “YES! I receive messages all the time from young girls in the Middle East! One of them is currently playing the drums and she keeps on sending her progress all the time”, she notes with readily evident pride.

The passion of these fans is also indicative of the difference between the scenes the band has experienced in Alexandria and Vancouver. “Our scene in Alexandria is underground. The shows would happen without permits because, let’s be realistic- would the Egyptian police allow a metal show to happen?” The presence of Egyptian police also meant that often the promoters of these shows would wind up being taken away after they were shut down. Still, there are positives. “The shows would happen every 6 months or something and everybody would be excited about it. Shows would be packed!” The band has discovered that Vancouver’s vibrant scene of shows happening every night in many nooks and crannies around the city somewhat diminishes the size of crowds.

But overall, the story is about a band dealing with trying to be themselves and make a sound that people will listen to while advancing their own artistic vision. It just so happens that they face more barriers, whether those are because they are led by women or they are Egyptian, to success. Which reminds us that music, particularly metal, is something many people draw strength from in accepting the different, the outcasts, and the misfits of society. As Amr says, “Music is the perfect medium for expression. I remember when I was a teenager I used to listen to Otep and she opened my eyes on many political topics. Also by actively contributing in the cultural scene, I believe the community would appreciate its diversity more.”

A vital element to contributing to the culture of the scene is being able to share music and performance with one another. The immigration situation in the U.S. (but not unique to this country) now prevents that to some degree, a much higher degree than we’ve had to deal with before. MSE were one of the casualties of this as they prepared to bring their music back to the United States. Unfortunately it will now be a long wait before fans here can see them live.

The band were turned away from the U.S. border in a particularly jarring event as they prepared to embark for this year’s SXSW festival. From the CBC story of this situation Amr was turned away for trying to enter the country on a B-1 visa. An immigration lawyer quoted in the story says that the band were supposed to have a different visa (P2 for those keeping score at home) and that just because she had no trouble using the B-1 on two prior occasions didn’t mean that visa enforcements were properly adhered to. That said, performers should have good counsel and should not face discrimination of other kinds as one officer allegedly told Amr, “Well, some people are using SXSW to protest.” This article from KQED also relays the rather unsettling story that the band’s drummer encountered with this border agent who said he was welcome but should have brought a DNA test. Clearly, something is rotten at the border that extends beyond simply having the right paperwork.

We will continue to monitor this aspect of the story as events continue to evolve and unfold. For now, musicians have to play on and debate whether the trouble of embarking to the United States is worth it.

Bill Fetty

Published 7 years ago