It's fun to meet a new singing sensation. Her name is Xriss Jor, she's got one hell of a voice, and she recently performed as special guest -- at Quincy Jones' behest -- highlighting this year's WIN (Women's Image Network) Awards. We meet via Skype -- a pleasingly sci-fi experience ("On screen!") -- as she's in Lebanon while I'm in America. Perched cheerfully before one of her own impressive paintings, Xriss comes across as easygoing yet electrifying.
As for WIN, this year's celebration marks the 17th awards program promoting dimensional, fully-realized female characters in media, as founded by documentarian, activist, and actress, Phyllis Stuart. Taking place at UCLA's magnificent Royce Hall, hosted by Emmy-winning comedienne Carol Leifer, the gala celebrated activist-filmmaker Abigail Disney (Pray the Devil Back to Hell), and activist-entrepreneur Irena Medavoy (the Truth in Advertising Alliance).
Said Phyllis of Abigail: "She's an extraordinary human being. She understood that she could give money to charities, but she's had much more impact by making media. We both understood a long time ago the power of the media to change the world, and impact it in a positive way."
And said Phyllis of Irena: "She's getting the award because she's interested in passing the Truth in Advertising Act of 2014 -- which is about stopping the excessive Photoshopping [of models], because it perpetuates real, harmful impact on our culture, and girls are dieting at 10 years old!"
Meanwhile, there's Xriss (pronounced "Chris") Jor, and after calling me a "fruit cocktail" (genetically, I hasten to elaborate), the forthright vocalist qualifies: "You need to know from now that I'm a joker -- I don't like to be too serious!" (Xriss later likens me to Robert Plant. Well hey-hey mama, I'm funnier and about a century younger than ol' Bob, but I'll take it!)
These vital details established, I note that the American-soulful yet Beruit-based Ms. Xriss is skyrocketing into acclaim. Following a successful run in 2012 on the Arab world's The Voice: Ahla Sawt, a music-biz associate encouraged her to participate in Dubai Music Week, and her demo was selected from amongst hundreds. The judges? Will.i.am, Timbaland, and the legendary Quincy Jones, who presented her with a management contract.
"I got very, very excited," Xriss recalls, "because I didn't really know a lot about Quincy Jones, other than the fact that he worked with Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, and especially Ray Charles -- who is one of my personal favorites! I went and I did the competition, and I won, which was extremely exciting."
Aware that a garbage strike in 1970s London also galvanized the fledgling Sex Pistols, I ask Xriss about her blazing cover of Michael Jackson's controversial mid-90s single, "They Don't Care About Us" -- her personal response to the noxious garbage strike in Beirut, and political unrest in general.
Mr. Jor, pausing to cuddle her dog, explains: "Me and this little lady right here, when we wake up in the morning, we have a beautiful balcony outside, and it's very sunny. But when it stinks out there, you can't really have your coffee outside."
Reasonably, I ask how the offending stench led to the her terrific cover -- which, minus some of Michael's dubious lines, proves a conscientious act of recycling.
"I started to sing the song in my head. To my surprise, the lyrics were almost the same -- it sticks to the situation here: we have a political problem; there's a garbage crisis; the politicians don't care about us. I just had to change a couple of things -- so I changed up the lyrics a little bit, and it fit perfectly.
"We were doing the manifestations--" Xriss, who, adding fluent French, is at least tri-lingual, pauses to check a word with a friend -- "What do we call them in English? Protests! Thank you. So there were protests every week, sometimes two, three times a week. And one day, it was September 9th, I decided to go down, and there was a really bad sandstorm! I said, 'I'm going. I'm not going to let it stop me!'"
When I inquire about her activism, Xriss further clarifies:
"See, that's the thing: I'm not a political activist. I know nothing about politics. If you are in Lebanon, and you say you know everything about politics, it means you know nothing! Because nobody understands where it all started.
"That's why we're running without a president, and it's been, what, two, three years? We don't have a leader! And there are certain criteria, like you have to be Christian Orthodox to do this, and you have to be Muslim something to be someone at the parliament -- it's so complicated that if you think you know about it, it's complete B.S. You really don't. That's why I'm not a political activist -- because I can't act like I understand something that nobody does."
Sweet, refreshing candor. So is Xriss -- unquestionably a remarkable entertainer -- about humanism?
"Everybody kept saying, 'Why did you do this song?!' Well, you know what? As a citizen, as somebody who lives in Beirut city, as somebody who is seeing this thing every day, you know, all joking aside -- I just wanted a way to go stand on that beautiful balcony of mine, and just scream, 'WTF!!!' Out loud. And I guess that was my way of doing it."
Xriss delivers epithets as acronyms. I dig it. A world-class artist Xriss Jor definitely is, however as the WIN event focuses on women, I ask specifically how she perceives being a female entertainer.
"A long time ago," she notes (eliciting a smile), "I used to think Miley Cyrus was a slut. 'She looks horrible! How can she do that to herself?!' As an Arab woman, I don't like to see a woman treat herself like that. It doesn't look good. It's not classy. If you so much as look at what my mom looks like: she's a classy lady, she's chic, she's super-respectable. She walks into the room, everybody shuts up. She's that kind of woman -- she's intimidating, she's beautiful, and her words are important. And to me that is what a woman is supposed to be.
"But then again, as time went by -- I started reading up on [celebrities], and talking to my manager, and talking to Quincy about them, and everybody else around me: and it's more about selling yourself in a way. And there's always a way to do it. There's an expression in French: On a besoin de tout au faire un monde (You need everything to make a world). And I started to accept people like Miley Cyrus, and people like Queen Elizabeth.
"You need everything to make a world," Xriss confidently repeats, "and unless you are willing to accept that and move on and be a part of this world, then you are never going to relax. So I learned to be a part of it!"
Excellent. Accidental activist? Fated firebrand? Really, it's foolhardy to attempt to define Xriss Jor. I'm going with incendiary individual -- because Xriss is definitely all that plus a bag of chips. Keep watching, and listening! Links below, yo.
Meanwhile, WIN's Ms. Stuart is taking activism by the horns -- or tusks -- as she reflects upon her trips to Africa to document and save elephants (and rain forests, and communities, and people!) from epidemic-level poaching, and the socio-economic problems fomenting it. Despite daunting tasks, she's remained undaunted. It's a philosophy she also applies to founding, growing, and producing the WIN Awards.
"I think, for me, on a personal level, what I was committed to was saving the African elephant, two years ago, and I thought: A lot of people have been trying to save the African elephant -- a lot of better people than I am -- so I really stepped up my effectiveness."
Ever hopeful for a sci-fi parallel, I grin and note that Phyllis concludes essentially as Captain Kirk heroically did, in Star Trek Generations, when she states: "I feel duty-bound to make a difference, in my limited time on this planet."
Photos courtesy of Getty Images, and the WIN Awards
Video courtesy of Xriss Jor
WIN Awards Official Site
Xriss Jor on Twitter