Twenty-four-year-old jazz crooner Omar Kamal is a certified heartthrob. The debonair singer, called the "Palestinian Frank Sinatra" by some fans, was born in Nablus, a town on the West Bank. Kamal says it's pretty quiet now, but when he was growing up, it was a turbulent area. He was 8 years old at the start of the uprising known as the Second Intifada, an intense period of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
During that time, Kamal spent a lot of time in his house, and he found solace in the time he spent learning the piano. "I'm not trying to pick this up from a fairy tale, but I think music was always the escape from ... reality," he says. "That little space where you can be creative and kind of dream and move away from everything that's happened to you."
One day, Kamal heard a song and a voice that changed the trajectory of his life: Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon."
"From there, it kind of developed into an obsession," he says. "I think Frank Sinatra has got all credit for me going into singing."
Kamal worked on some songs for his forthcoming debut album at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, where Sinatra once recorded. He says someone at the studio told him that Sinatra even used the same microphone as Kamal during his recording sessions. "I was very nervous — I was trying to keep it together around all of these people," he says. "But it was a great experience."
Some other Palestinian artists choose to make music that is more nationalist or explicitly political than Kamal's, but the singer says he believes there is room for many types of musicians. "I think it comes down to your art and what you want to do," he says. "You can't always be that type of artist or the other. ... I want to explore as many genres and areas as I can."
Kamal says his Palestinian identity might cause some audiences to automatically dismiss him. "Racism is vicious and can always affect people no matter where they come from," he says. But he also says he hopes fans will base their decision to support him on the strength of his music.
"I would hate to be a charity artist that people just support for his backstory," he says. "I just want to be presented with the same equal opportunity as everyone else."
Kamal shared these and other stories with NPR's David Greene — and he even played a little bit of "Fly Me to the Moon" live. Hear their full conversation at the audio link.