It’s time that bands stop being afraid

NØ MAN's Maha Shami talks with Kim Kelly

It’s time that bands stop being afraid
Photo by Zach Hobbs

by Kim Kelly

Support this newsletter with a free or paid subscription please and thank you.

When Maha Shami sat down to write the lyrics for her band’s third full-length record, Glitter and Spit, she had no way of knowing that it would be released amidst the violence and suffering of yet another U.S.-backed war – or that the rockets’ glare would be illuminating the destruction of her own homeland. The NØ MAN frontperson is the daughter of Palestinian refugees, and her artistic output is deeply informed by the ongoing cycle of systemic violence that stalks her family members with every breath. Like many marginalized people, she found comfort and community in punk and hardcore, and NØ MAN sees Shami collaborating with Matt Michel (guitar/vocals), Pat Broderick (drums) and Kevin Lamiell (bass), all of whom played together in the groundbreaking screamo band Majority Rule from 1996 to 2004. 

After a successful string of Majority Rule reunion shows in 2017, it became clear to everyone involved that it would be a shame to waste all that renewed creative energy. It was time to start something new – and Shami, who had guested on Majority Rule’s final album, was the perfect person to join them. NØ MAN formed later that year, and immediately hurtled into the fray with a burst of furious modern hardcore.

Now, three records in, NØ MAN has zero interest in pulling punches – and Maha Shami has a lot to fucking say. If the acerbic “Can’t Kill Us All” is the album’s mission statement, each track on the album offers its own spin on melodic hardcore catharsis, and they’re all fucking lethal. Shami’s vocals erupt from her throat like a stream of volcanic fire, her every syllable a warning and a curse. Offstage, she is measured, passionate, and honest; hardcore may define her life in D.C., but Palestine is home, and she is fiercely devoted to the cause of freedom. Read our interview with her below, and catch NØ MAN on tour in May

Kim Kelly: Your new album, Glitter and Spit is coming out at the end of the month; these songs were obviously written well before the current conflict, but it may as well have been made for this moment. What was running through your head as you were writing these songs, and how does it feel to be performing them live now?  

Maha Shami: So much going through my head writing Glitter and Spit! Typically my lyric writing covers a range of my personal experiences and reactions to world issues more broadly. I’m Palestinian and a woman so not surprisingly challenging oppression and fighting for our right to exist are repeating themes. Recently I’ve been more mindful of the importance of radical love, both in my personal relationships at the community level. Meaning, how do we love one another fully without boundaries or strings attached? Conditional treatment doesn’t really show up until you’ve poked the bear and you’re confronting the status quo. It happens to women in punk protecting their scenes and calling out abusers. It’s happening now when folks preach equality and remain silently complicit during a genocide. Glitter and Spit is about not letting someone dehumanize you by distorting your reality to fit their fantasy.      

And yes, a number of folks have raised the timing of this release given the current escalated moment with 30,000+ Palestinians massacred and dozens starving to death. Like you said, it was written well before but that just reinforces this ethnic cleansing started before October. Palestinians have been subjected to over 75 years of military occupation, mass killings, home demolitions, jailing children, and stillborn babies at checkpoints.   

We’ll get a chance to play these songs at our record release shows at the end of March! We’re hoping to raise awareness and help however we can so these shows will all benefit charities serving Palestine. I’m kind of viewing these shows more as coming together in solidarity and protest.      

Palestinian liberation is a major theme of the album, and is driven by your own life experience as a Palestinian artist who's dealt with the apartheid Israeli government firsthand. Can you shed some more light on the way that your background and political education have shaped the way you approach and create music?  

As a Palestinian, I was born into protest and raised advocating for human rights for all. My parents placed a ton of importance on education. I think it has to do with the impact on their upbringing at pivotal moments. My mother, who was displaced twice, was trained by UNRWA to become a teacher which allowed her to leave home at a young age to Kuwait so she could support her family. My baba (father) dealt with a major tragedy as a kid, losing brothers and cousins to an unexploded bomb the Israeli military left in their yard. Many people came to their village to pay their respects at the funeral, including an administrator from the Quaker Friends School in Ramallah. They invited my baba to come study there and opened a door to education. He later served as Dean of Students at a Baptist University in Mount Olive, North Carolina. Even before then, my sido (grandfather) believed education was the best weapon for resistance and started an adult literacy program.

All of this is to say critical thinking and social consciousness are intertwined in how I create art and my activism.  I’m against power, oppression, and occupation of all forms. Unfortunately, the Palestinian people have suffered from this abuse of power for decades.  

When was the most recent time you were able to visit Palestine, and what was it like for you and your family when you were there? Do you have loved ones in Gaza right now? How are they holding up? 

My last visit in 2011 was distinct because I traveled with my partner Matthew for the first time and I was pregnant with Kami. When we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, I was sent straight to an interrogation room and the authorities attempted to wave Matt through to arrivals. Of course, he stayed with me and witnessed the stories first-hand that I had shared over the years about racist ethnic profiling and intimidation tactics. On the other side of the cruel treatment at the airport, we reunited with loved ones in our village, went to weddings, ate rukab which is a classic Palestinian ice cream, and enjoyed food from the trees on land our family has lived off for several generations. 

I traveled home to Palestine with my family throughout my childhood and it typically included multiple hour interrogations, strip searches, roads restricted to Palestinians, and several armed military checkpoints. This is all part of the standard treatment of Palestinians, including US citizens who are traveling back.

We do have loved ones in both the West Bank and Gaza and have sadly lost relatives since October. Like us, they’re mourning the lives lost and let down by corrupt governments and politicians allowing for this to continue. We try to remember the world is watching and people are adopting our cause in the name of humanity – at the highest cost. 

Hardcore has always been a political genre, for better and for worse. What you're doing is so crucial, and so uncompromising, that I wonder if you've encountered fans who've had a "no not like that" kind of response to NØ MAN (or is your fanbase a blessedly bonehead-free zone?).  

For the most part, we’ve been lucky to be involved in a community surrounded by weirdos like ourselves and feel beyond supported. I think the boneheads start to show up when you expand who you’re collaborating with because that “hardcore” umbrella can become so generic and shared principles are lost along the way. I’ve dealt with people not wanting to work with us because they can’t handle that I’m Palestinian or want me to “soften” how I talk about the occupation.  

These songs are heavy, in more ways than one. How do you find room for joy when you're singing these words to roomfuls of kids who may or may not relate to the pain behind them? Or is it more about catharsis for you? 

There have definitely been times where it’s been difficult and the idea of playing a punk show didn’t feel like the right thing to do given what was happening in the world. I really struggled on our way down to play FEST in Gainesville last year. As a band and with friends Jason Mazzola and David Goldberg, we turned it around by spending all Saturday creating a backdrop for our show with the names of 700 infants to five year-olds murdered in Gaza. Sadly it was 700 because we ran out of room on the banner, there were already thousands of dead kids at that point in late October. Creating that backdrop together was so overwhelming and connecting – it translated to our show and created a dialogue with the crowd.  

March of Ides, by NØ MAN
from the album Glitter and Spit

Community seems very important to NØ MAN; your members have played together before (shout out Majority Rule), you've toured with lots of rad bands, and recorded with friends like the perfectly dangerous sweeties in HIRS. Can you talk a bit about the role that community plays in your lives? As artists, as hardcore fans, and as politically engaged human beings, it's got to be pretty dang important. 

At this point in our lives, many of us have known each other for over 25 years so our community really feels like a family. We’re fortunate to have been part of an active punk community and stayed close over the years with bands like pageninetynine, Strike Anywhere, Cloak/Dagger, and HIRS. We don’t just play shows together. These are the same people we travel with and watch our kids play together at the beach. They show up during major life events. When my father passed away, I was so touched to see so many of these friends at the mosque with us.   

Why is it so important for bands of all sizes to speak up for Palestine right now? How else can they –  and the fans, and anyone else out there reading this – pitch in to help the Palestinian people and protest Israel's genocidal attacks on Gaza?

It’s urgent to speak up because the situation is catastrophic and because this genocide would not be possible without the funding and support of America and our tax dollars. It’s time that bands stop being afraid of how speaking out affects them and their prospects. In the face of tens of thousands of dead innocent people, your punk band isn’t the most important thing in the world.  

Are there any Palestinian hardcore/metal/punk bands or artists that you'd like to recommend?

Jim Saah is an incredible photographer from DC, responsible for a number of iconic images from 1980s Dischord/DC punk days. He has an excellent photo book out called “In My Eyes.”

Lyla Addada Shlon is a killer printmaker and leatherworker, running Fruit Leather Fetish. We met when she, along with Scout Eleana, organized Break Free Fest 2019 in Philly. She sang for Bidet and is working on a new band. You can find some of her art on flyers.

Johnny Hummus plays guitar in Haram and Pure Terror. I got to see Haram play with Taqbir recently and it was awesome to see Arab representation on stage and connect with one another. 

Real quick, can you share some info on the benefit shows you've got coming up? (I'm excited for Philly, Sunrot are some of my best pals).  

Absolutely! And can’t wait to meet you. All of our shows will benefit charities serving Palestine. We’re thrilled about all of the bands playing and being part of this with us.

3/26: Durham | The Pinhook with Des Ark, Dunums 
3/27:Norfolk | Taphouse with Demons, Horsewhip, Dariel Clark
3/28: Philly | God’s Auto Body with Sunrot, Everything and Nothing, Warbler
3/29: DC | St Stephen’s with NO/MÁS, Big No, Cimitir 
3/30: Baltimore | Ottobar with Rid of Me, Out Sick!   

Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and the author of FIGHT LIKE HELL: The Untold History of American Labor. Her heavy metal newsletter, Salvo, launches on April 1.