Seventeen members of his family have been arrested, but Yahya Hawwa still sings – and Syrian protesters have made his voice their own. Omar Shahid talks to the irrepressible voice of a revolution
Yahya Hawwa was five when his father and uncle were killed in front of him in Hama, Syria, in 1982. This was the era of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, whose forces are believed to have massacred 20,000–40,000 Syrian citizens. The memory left an indelible scar on Hawwa – now 36 and dubbed the “singer of the Syrian revolution”.
It is a title that comes at a wretched price: 17 members of Hawwa’s family were arrested late last year; one was killed, and until recently Hawwa was on the ministry of the interior’s “wanted” list. “Before the start of the revolution, all the things I sung about were either for children or spiritual songs,” he says from his home in Amman, Jordan, where he has lived for several years. “It was not until the Syrian revolution kicked off that I felt great pressure to sing about it.”
He and his mother fled from Syria to Saudi Arabia after his father was murdered. His father and uncle were market traders, selling fruit and vegetables; their crime was that they had a brother who was a leader in the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, and an outspoken critic of the Syrian regime. “Whenever the Muslim Brotherhood did something against the government, the government would target 10 to 20 members of a family. My father and uncle were in a mosque near their home,” Hawwa says.
Classically trained in Qur’anic recitation, Hawwa also borrows from western traditions; the instrumentation of his songs is often minimal, relying more on his powerful voice. In the space of two years, he has written 30 songs. The revolutionaries chant his lyrics before they go out to protest – even before they are “martyred”, he says. Arguably the most potent of these is Hawwa’s Going to My Death. “The song touches many mothers,” he says. They’ll sing it as they bid farewell to their sons and never see them again.”
Threats were communicated via his family in Syria after he released the song Traitor, a reference to the president. (“The traitor is the one who kills his own people,” Hawwa sings, a refrain also chanted by the revolutionaries.) “Shabiha [thugs working for the regime] told my family that if they got their hands on me, they would slaughter me.”
Other popular lines have been turned into slogans, too: “Oh mother I am going to my death/ The jasmines of Syria, I will talk about you/ Do not cry, do not cry/ We are coming to the [presidential] palace, we are coming to the palace!”
Last year, Hawwa was one of a number of acts to tour the UK on behalf ofHuman Appeal International and Syria Relief, on a bill topped by the 31-year-old Lebanese-born singer Maher Zain. Shows in Manchester, Birmingham and London raised £1m.British musician Saif Adam, who also performed, says: “The UK coverage [of the Syrian revolution] has been limited. Some songs can pull people through bad times.”
"The role of music in the Syrian revolution has been profound," Hawwa says. "It has served two main roles: on the ground, it has rallied the revolutionaries and encouraged them. And outside Syria, it has shed an artistic light on what’s going on there."
Indeed, Hawwa is just one of many musicians playing his part in bringing down the regime. Omar Offendum, 30, is a Syrian-American hip-hop artist based in Los Angeles. His track #Syria, released in March 2012, went viral on release; it’s an eloquent, vociferous attack on Assad’s regime.
"My father’s family is from Hama, which was destroyed in 1982," Offendum says. "But nobody heard about it because there were no camera phones and no YouTube. Now, seeing it happen again sends shivers down my spine. The fact that the barrier of silence has been broken is a triumph in and of itself to people like me. To see a generation of people who can finally rise up and speak is powerful. I knew it was only a matter of time until the revolution would come back to Syria."
Inevitably, social media has played a huge part in this revolution. “Compared to the first massacre in Hama, this time, any small or big thing is recorded and posted all over the internet within hours,” Hawwa says. “The music of the Syrian revolution is an oral history of events – it documents the revolution for future generations.” Late last year, crossing through Turkey’s borders, Hawwa was able to visit Syria for the first time since he fled as a child, despite trying on many occasions. He says that he has been warned, throughout his life, even before he began singing about the revolution, that if he returned he would face prison – which, according to Hawwa, is tantamount to death.
"The regime is devilish and tyrannical," he says. "They have no legitimacy: 70% to 80% of the people don’t support them." When does he expect it to end? "I’m sure before 15 March, which will be exactly two years since [the revolution] started. That is when I’ll finally be able to return home. It’s a coincidence: that’s my birthday, too."