Yahya Hawwa, dubbed “the singer of the Syrian revolution,” had a traumatic upbringing.
He was just five when his father and uncle were murdered in front of him in Hama in 1982, during the rule of Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez. Hawwa’s relatives were among the 20,000-40,000 Syrian citizens massacred by government forces, The Guardian newspaper reported.
Seventeen of his family members were arrested late last year, and until recently Hawwa himself was on the Ministry of Interior’s wanted list.
“Before the start of the revolution, all the things I sang about were either for children or spiritual songs,” he said from his home in Jordan. “It was not until the Syrian revolution kicked off that I felt great pressure to sing about it.”
Hawwa and his mother fled Syria and relocated to Saudi Arabia after his father and uncle were killed because their brother 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,” Hawwa said. “My father and uncle were in the mosque near their home.”
Hawwa, classically trained in the recitation of the Quran, says he also takes inspiration from Western traditions. The instrumentation of his songs is often minimal, and heavily relies on his powerful voice.
Hawwa has written 30 songs in two years, and revolutionaries often chant his lyrics before going out to protest. One of his hits, “Going to My Death,” “touches many mothers, and they’ll sing it as they bid farewell to their sons and never see them again,” he said.
Threats were made against him through his family in Syria after the release of his song “Traitor,” which references the president.
Last year, Hawwa toured the United Kingdom with a number of other acts on behalf of Human Appeal International and Syria Relief, performing in Manchester, Birmingham and London, and raising £1 million.
“The role of music in the Syrian revolution has been profound,” he said. “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.”
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