Yahya Hawwa is willing to lose his life for his art.
"It's my duty as an artist and as a singer to stand with my people," says Hawwa. "Even if it does mean that I will pay the ultimate price and lose my very own life. It's my duty as an artist and a human being to fight for those who are oppressed."
Hawwa, a Syrian-born musician whose artistic battle against the tyrannic regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has earned him the title as "the voice of the Syrian revolution."
Since the revolution began two years ago Hawwa has composed over 30 songs on the subject, including his moving anthem "Going to My Death." Hawwa says mothers sing the song to their sons heading off to join the protests, knowing they may never meet again.
It's been a little over a year since I began writing this column. During that time I've repeatedly sought out musicians who've used their art as a vehicle for social change. But no one I've interviewed over the course of this column's life has had a more compelling story of struggle than Yahya Hawwa.
"I saw my father and my uncle lined up against a wall and executed in front of my eyes when I was a child," says Hawwa.
It was 1982 during the reign of Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez, whose regime is said to have murdered as many as 40,000 Syrian citizens.
Hawwa and his mother immediately fled Syria in the aftermath, first to Saudi Arabia and later to his current home in Jordan. Hawwa has lived in exile ever since.
Recently, he's led a more nomadic existence, traveling the world to raise awareness for the Syrian revolution and the devastating humanitarian crisis unfolding in its wake.
I recently spoke with Hawwa via phone from Florida where the singer was busy preparing for a benefit concert. We discussed the state of culture in wartorn Syria and the risks associated with speaking out against the dictatorship.
NUVO: You didn't always sing political songs; was there a particular moment when you decided to use your art for social commentary?
Yahya Hawwa: The turning point was March 18, 2011. That was three days after the initial spark of the protest. Before that, I used to sing a lot of songs that were more spiritual and faith-based. But after that spark, which set off the revolution, pretty much all my songs were about the revolution. I wanted to use my music to encourage the protesters and tell them that the revolution is necessary and it is what's best for Syria.
NUVO: How has the war affected the arts in Syria?
Hawwa: The revolution has paralyzed all types of art, whether it's music, television, or cinema. The harsh response to the revolution from the dictator and his regime has paralyzed all media. I say this with great pain in my heart - the singers inside Syria are threatened if they say anything against the current regime. They are told their throat will be slit, their larynx will be removed and they will be killed immediately.
Only the artists and singers outside the country have the capability to comment on the revolution. Like me, a lot of the singers have turned toward singing songs about the revolution. These include chants, the kind you might hear in stadiums at soccer matches. But they are directed toward the protesters, to encourage them and to hype them up.
NUVO: What's an artist's role during a crisis like this?
Hawwa: I believe all artists have the same role, which includes two major points. First, I see my art as something that must be good for the protesters. It should encourage them and keep them steadfast. We want them to know that we are thinking of them so they don't lose hope.
The second and most important is to let the world population know what is happening. I want the entire world to know what is going on in Syria. I've been involved with over 100 fundraising dinners, events and activities around the world educating people about the crisis in Syria. We've been collecting funds for the refugees, the injured and the sick. These are the prominent roles for an artist.
NUVO: You've been placed on the Syrian Ministry of the Interior's "wanted" list. Other protest singers like Ibrahim Qashoosh have been brutally executed by the regime. Are you concerned for your safety? What does this do to your psyche?
Hawwa: As any human, my first reaction is immediate fear. I know it's a legitimate fear, as I've seen what can happen and it's very scary to comprehend. But after awhile I realized that if I were, for instance, to stop singing or this writer stopped writing and that poet stopped creating poetry - - after awhile everybody has given up and no one has provided anything for the revolution. We would have done nothing as artists to provide for the victory that I believe is coming.
I have had threats directed at me and my family, as have other artists. Regardless, we have to overcome our fears and we will continue to do so.
Seeing what happened to Qashoosh and all the other Syrians as well - not just the artists, but everyone else that was brutally murdered - - brought back images of my childhood. It increased my sense of duty. It is my my duty to make sure this message is spread and even though the fear exists, I have to overcome. ν
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection features sounds from Syria.
1. Syriana - Gharibb
2. Yahya Hawwa - Mawwal Jaddi
3. Syriana - Checkpoint Charlie
4. Dabke the Sounds Of The Syrian Houran - Mejwiz
5. Omar Souleyman - Hafer Gabrak Bidi
6. Dabke the Sounds Of The Syrian Houran - Love Is Not A Joke
7. Omar Souleyman - Eih Min Elemkom