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  • Jon Caramanica

The Personal is Political

What’s at stake for a 22-year-old trilingual rapper who became a TikTok sensation by talking dirty and who aspires to be the president of Palestine? A lot. By Jon Caramanica. Photographs by Avery Norman
In Marwan Abdelhamid’s music, intense connection and remoteness often go hand in hand, something he attributes to the peripatetic life he’s led since childhood.

In the clip of “Very Few Friends” that went very viral on TikTok late last year, Marwan Abdelhamid — who records as Saint Levant — showed up as both a sex symbol and someone who understands that sex symbols are just a little bit ridiculous. A trilingual loverman wearing a white tank top and a shaggy, rakish moustache, he stares longingly at the camera in the 10-second video, rapping over spacious acoustic-soul production with deadpan erotic frankness and something much more alluring than confidence: nonchalance.

He had just come off a breakup and was trying on something of a new persona. He grew out his facial hair. His earlier music had relied on Auto-Tune. Now he was just talking, and talking dirty at that. “Not to big myself up, but it’s taboo to talk about sex in the Arab world,” he said recently. “There’s love songs in the Arab world, but there’s nothing explicit, no references to sex.”

Abdelhamid, 22, lives mostly in Los Angeles now, but he was speaking in the apartment of a university friend in Brooklyn during a New York trip in which he sat front row at the Coach fashion show and filmed a music video. He was both deeply composed and also clearly tickled by what’s come in the wake of “Very Few Friends” — 13.5 million views on his original TikTok, plus tens of thousands of posts officially using the song’s audio and 55 million plays on Spotify — a track that is both an extremely forthright come-on and also, at its core, moodily lonely.

In the months since his viral splash, Abdelhamid has learned a lot about the new version of himself — “The moustache was not a choice, OK? To be honest, I sometimes still look at myself like, ‘Who’s this guy?’” — and also about who is seeking him out. “We gave them names,” he said of the different clusters of enthusiasts he and his collaborators are seeing in his growing fan base. “The Hebas are 18 to 24. They probably grew up in the Middle East. Maybe hijabi. She likes Saint Levant because he’s pushing Arab culture but also because he’s good-looking. Then you have the Armaans, who are third-culture kids. They probably speak Urdu — like, Pakistani vibes.

“And then you have the Emilys, who just don’t even know” much about Abdelhamid’s politics, or share his background, he added. “They’re just like, ‘This guy’s hot.’”

As he said this, he was wearing a white tank top that revealed his chiseled arms and tattoos, similar to the one he deployed so mercilessly in the “Very Few Friends” clip. He chuckled a little bit. “I’m down,” he said. “But that’s not who I’m doing it for.” Abdelhamid’s debut solo release, the alluring, sophisticated “From Gaza, With Love” EP, released in March, finds ways for him to speak to each of these audiences. In the main, it is a document of intense sensual yen in the post-Drake mould, casually hopping across genres, from tender R&B to sleazy rock to hopped-up UK garage. But amid all the erotic frankness are jolting shards of family memoir (“My grandmother’s Alzheimer’s tone down when we’re playing piano”) and sprinkles of diasporic longing and aching for permanence: “I don’t want a Grammy, I want a family / Four daughters, one son, why you laughing?”

In his music, intense connection and remoteness often go hand in hand, something he attributes to the peripatetic life he’s led since childhood. With women especially, he said, he attaches quickly and deeply. “It’s a bad thing, right? Because you shouldn’t find home in another person,” Abdelhamid said. “But I do find myself doing that because I’m so scattered and I don’t necessarily feel like I have a place to call home.”

Abdelhamid was born in Jerusalem to a French Algerian mother and a Palestinian Serbian father, and spent his early childhood in Gaza before his family moved to Jordan. At school, he spoke English. At home, French. In the Palestinian refugee camp where he went to play soccer after school, Arabic.

After high school, he left for the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he imbibed American culture, joined a fraternity and ultimately got serious about making music.

He lived in a house there with Henry Morris, who records and produces as Playyard, and who produced most of “From Gaza, With Love”.

From the beginning, Morris found Abdelhamid to be uncommonly focused. “I was like, ‘We don’t need to be grinding like that,’ but he wanted to work daily,” Morris said. “From Day 1, he was acting like it was a when [itals], not an if [itals].”

Their first songs, released before Abdelhamid took on the Saint Levant name, mapped out his interests. “Jerusalem Freestyle” and “Nirvana in Gaza” were politically stirring rap tracks that leaned toward the didactic. At around the same time, he was engaging in political and social activism on TikTok and also was beginning to work on an economic development startup, connecting Palestinian entrepreneurs to those in the diaspora with the resources to fund them.

In late 2021, he took on the moniker Saint Levant, a nod to a pre-colonial name of his home region (and a play on Saint Laurent). He chose to make politics a subtext, not text. For a time, he wore a pink Jamiroquai-esque fuzzy bucket hat, which became a trademark; it’s even the cursor image on his website.

“I like Jamiroquai,” Abdelhamid conceded, referring to the British jazz-funk outfit fronted by the impish Jay Kay. “He’s on a lot of our moodboards.”

“Not to big myself up, but it’s taboo to talk about sex in the Arab world,” Abdelhamid said.

But late last year, he took off the hat and began making music without any vocal effects, a statement of vulnerability. “Before, I was super insecure about my voice,” Abdelhamid said. “Now the top comments are ‘Love this man’s voice.’ It sucks that it had to come from external validation, but I took it and I was like, ‘OK, this is cool. I don’t hate my voice anymore.’”

That voice — alternately husky and silky, nimble, powerfully restrained — is what gives Abdelhamid’s songs their declarative oomph. “His voice is way more impactful without the filters; it takes up a lot of space in the mix,” Morris said. “You have no choice but to listen to it.” He added, “My job is to make you hear him, not hear my beat.”

It also makes Abdelhamid’s sex talk somehow more intense. There is no varnish or trickery. But deploying his voice and body as tools of sexual connection did not come easily.

“I’m just super self-conscious about the way that I looked,” Abdelhamid said, describing life as a “chubby” kid who was teased by friends on his soccer team and pestered by his parents about his weight. “It wasn’t healthy, the way they did it,” he said. “And I see how it affects me.” So when Abdelhamid leans into his playboy persona, it’s not without a slight wink.

Even the white tank top is a kind of Trojan horse, a prop of conventional masculinity that allows a far more conflicted version to sneak in. Pedro Damasceno, Abdelhamid’s creative director, mentioned Marlon Brando and James Dean as jumping-off points for Abdelhamid’s visual image. “What happens when we take all this Western influence — Western fashion houses, Western media productions — and put that into the perspective of somebody who grew up outside of it?” he asked. “It’s an approachability, but also reframing what it means to be in the spotlight in the West coming from a non-American man.”

The simplicity of the Saint Levant image is a tool as well, an invitation for various kinds of viewers, from myriad backgrounds, to be able to inscribe narrative upon him: a skeleton upon which to hang cultural curiosities and anxieties.

Abdelhamid is unbothered by the possibility for misapprehension. “My whole life, I was called cringe, man. I would paint my nails, I would put earrings on and I would go to the refugee camps and everyone would make fun of me,” he recalled. “And I realised that that’s a reflection on them, not necessarily on me.”

Grappling with that persistent sense of nonacceptance as a young person made Abdelhamid sanguine about what success might look like: “Let the people decide what they want to think about me. If everyone thinks I’m cringe, that’s what it is. I’m just going to put out more music and then they’re not going to think I’m cringe, because I’m a talented musician.”

A few days after the interview, Abdelhamid was at a video shoot near the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, his first with any meaningful budget. The night before, he’d been to dinner with social media meta-mogul Gary Vaynerchuk. A burner phone was still ringing regularly with FaceTime requests from a Valentine’s Day campaign a few days prior in which he invited fans to call him. Every now and again he’d answer, to the gasping astonishment of the young person on the other end. With most of them, the brief conversation flitted back and forth between English and Arabic.

This loverman era, Abdelhamid said, is a means to an end. “I’m not done making political music,” he said. And when he speaks about his future, he’s far more often discussing the sorts of opportunities that success as an entertainer might afford him. He’s funding a short story collection in which Palestinian writers “describe a free Palestine through the lens of love”. He wants to open therapy clinics in the Arab world. His father built a hotel in Gaza, Al Deira, which Abdelhamid wants to buy and give new life. He hopes to invest in Al Wehdat, the soccer team he used to play for in Jordan. “Not to say that music can’t push culture forward, but my impact will be felt 10 years down the line in economic development,” he said. “My goal my whole life is to be the president of Palestine.”

He’s received resistance from some in the Arab world for his provocative subject matter, an echo of pushback he received in his prior life as an activist trying to engage in dialogue with Zionists. (“I was 19,” he said. “I’m not ashamed of what I did. I was trying to do something.”)

“I don’t claim to represent a country, but I do it for my country. I do it for my people,” Abdelhamid said. “I didn’t know that there was this many people that were trilingual, or that were lost in their identity.

“And I didn’t know that there was this many Emilys that were trying to …” Again, he laughed.

© The New York Times

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 42 of Winning Magazine. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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