It’s glitzy, it’s glamorous and at times it’s downright baffling. But since its inception in 1956, the organizers of the Eurovision Song Contest have strived to keep pop and politics apart. This year, that might once again prove difficult.

Although the grand final in Malmo, Sweden, is months away, Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza looms over the competition, which is best known for its wild outfits and a smorgasbord of musical genres.

When Iceland chooses its entry on Saturday, among the hopefuls will be Bashar Murad, a Palestinian singer from East Jerusalem.

If he is selected to represent the volcanic hot spot in the final, he will not be breaking any rules, as singers do not have to be from the country they’re representing. American rapper Flo Rida, for example, performed as part of the San Marino entry in 2021.

Murad told NBC News in a telephone interview Thursday that he was inspired to enter after he “remembered that Celine Dion had participated for Switzerland even though she’s not from there.”

The Canadian superstar won the competition in 1988 with her song “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi.”

Bashar Murad
Palestinian singer Bashar Murad in Ramallah, occupied West Bank, on April 6, 2019.David Corio / Redferns via Getty Images

First Murad will have to win Söngvakeppnin, the Icelandic competition to select the country’s representative for the Eurovision finals.

To compete however, he’s had to learn how to sing his song in the language, something he said he’s worked hard to get right.

He said his song “Wild West,” which he performs in a white suit with a broken-heart emoji on his chest, is about following your dreams and “not letting physical or imaginary borders confine you or define you.”

“I was just walking the streets of Jerusalem and like listening to the song on repeat, and making sure I nailed all the pronunciation,” he said. “It is a difficult language, but it’s also a very beautiful one.”

Murad said he could understand why people might think his decision to enter was political, but he insisted it wasn’t, because he was “telling my personal story and my personal experience, and it just happens to be politicized.”

Simply telling people “that you’re Palestinian, people will just say that you’re making things political,” he added.

Founded in 1956 to help unite a continent scarred by World War II, Eurovision has grown to include 37 countries, including non-European nations like Australia and Israel.

The European Broadcasting Union, which runs Eurovision, strives to keep pop and politics apart — banning overtly political symbols and lyrics — but global tensions have often imposed themselves on the contest.

Ukraine won the contest in 2016 with a song about the expulsion of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union’s forces in the 1940s. Coming on the heels of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the song proved controversial. Ukraine triumphed again in 2022, shortly after President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of the country.

Jamala representing Ukraine
Jamala, representing Ukraine, wins the grand final of the 61st annual Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm on May 14, 2016.Britta Pedersen / picture-alliance via AP

Russia, long a powerhouse in Eurovision, was kicked out of the competition after the invasion.

Catherine Baker, a senior lecturer in 20th-century history at Britain’s University of Hull, said the EBU’s insistence that songs were not political was part of what allowed it to function.

“In order for an international competition to work, every participant has to be able to trust every other participant plus the organizer,” said Baker, who has studied the Eurovision Song Contest. “So if there was not that kind of rule in it, in the contemporary world, would an international competition based on music and cultural expression even be able to exist?”

Following the launch of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, several high-profile artists including Robyn and former Eurovision competitor Malena Ernman, the opera singer and mother of climate activist Greta Thunberg, called for the country to be kicked out of the contest like Russia was, which the EBU has rejected.

After reports in Israeli media last month that the country’s entry referenced Oct. 7 — the day Hamas launched multipronged attacks on Israel — the EBU said in a statement that it was “scrutinizing” the lyrics of Eden Golan’s song “October Rain.”

Israeli Culture Minister Miki Zohar described the controversy as “outrageous” in a post on X. Calling the song moving, he said it “expresses the feelings of the people and the country these days, and is not political.”

Tal Dorot, vice president of the Eurovision fan club OGAE Israel, said he hoped a “way to bridge the gaps” could be found.

Politics were inevitably going to be present, he said, because “it’s a competition between countries. You can’t have politics completely out of it.” But, he added, “I think we should try to keep it as apolitical as possible and focus on the music and the performances.”

In the meantime, Murad hopes to emulate last year’s winner, Swedish singer Loreen, who won with her power ballad “Tattoo,” and use the Eurovision stage as a chance to step into the spotlight.

After growing up watching pop stars like Britney Spears, MadonnaLady Gaga and Freddie Mercury, he said it had “always been my dream to make it on an international, global level.”

He also hopes to send a message to viewers at home: “I am a Palestinian and it is the skin I’m in, and it’s also the lens through which I see the world. And I hope that people just see that through my performance, that we all have a beating heart, hopes, dreams and ambitions.”

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