Ali Barakat makes music that aims to get Hezbollah's supporters ready for war.
The singer hails from south Lebanon, and his early tapes — he started in 1997, at age 17 — were heavy on the theme of resisting the Israeli occupation there, which is how Hezbollah made its name. Barakat said he took his inspiration then from "the suffering of our people."
Israel remains a major motif: "Israel started the fire. With our blood, we will extinguish it," Barakat intones in one recent song. But now Hezbollah has become preoccupied with the war in neighboring Syria, and Barakat's music has too. The shift has invigorated his career, taking him from a relatively unknown singer to one with newfound buzz among supporters of the Shiite militant and political group. "I became so famous," Barakat said, sounding like he's still getting used to the idea.
Barakat's music has urged Hezbollah on as its fighters wade ever deeper into Syria's conflict. A mix of battle anthems and Arabic pop, turbo-charged with Shiite imagery, the songs praise the merits of Hezbollah's military campaigns and promise listeners a glorious victory. "We are giving the world a lesson on manliness like the sun," Barakat sings in a song promoting Hezbollah's new offensive in Qalamoun, a region of Syria bordering Lebanon. "Qalamoun is for stomping heads."
"This is what our people like to hear, especially in the middle of the war," said one fan in Dahiya, Lebanon, Hezbollah's stronghold in the Beirut suburbs. "It gives you strength."
The time is ripe for music like Barakat's, said NOW Lebanon Managing Editor Hanin Ghaddar. With Hezbollah enmeshed in the war in Syria, its supporters at home are increasingly anxious. That fact was punctuated on Tuesday with the assassination of a senior Hezbollah official outside his Beirut home, the highest-profile hit on Hezbollah in years. The attack followed a deadly car bombing last month at the Iranian embassy in Dahiya, the latest in a series of blasts there, all painted by Hezbollah officials as spillover from Syria. "People need to breathe from time to time. And that's especially true after Syria," Ghaddar said.
Barakat isn't a member of Hezbollah, he said, but he's an ardent supporter. His songs have gone viral among like-minded Lebanese on the web, where a Facebook like of one of Barakat's songs might also be read as one for the cause. The music videos he posts to YouTube have racked up hundreds of thousands of hits in recent months. Even some Hezbollah critics admit to occasionally tuning in, "just to know what he's talking about, and what the message is," said an anti-Hezbollah journalist in Dahiya. "This is the message of Hezbollah, and we can see it in his songs."
To be sure, Barakat's fame is small-fry compared to mainstream pop icons in Lebanon, a hub for music in the Middle East. Many Lebanese have never heard of him. But while pop stars sometimes get political, Ghaddar notes, Barakat is unique in making a name for himself with pop music that's solely about the Hezbollah cause. "Usually pop singers do one or two political songs. But this guy is only doing that," she said.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, has a large media footprint in Lebanon, from TV stations and newspapers to its own recording studios. But many of its supporters "wouldn't listen to Hezbollah war songs because it's too boring and too serious," Ghaddar said. "A lot of people in the Shiite community are trying to have a daily life and looking for things that are entertaining as well as committed. Barakat fills that need."
Hezbollah sees the fight in Syria as one for its survival. If its critical ally in Damascus falls to the Sunni rebels, it worries, Hezbollah might be next. As one Hezbollah fighter who has served in Syria puts it, "We are not fighting for political power. We are fighting for to be or not to be."
After last month's car bombing, Hezbollah officials pointed the finger at Sunni groups in Lebanon, as they did for previous bombings this summer. The group blamed Tuesday's assassination on Israel, but also cast it in the context of Syria, suggesting that it thinks the conflict is lining up its enemies against it.
Sitting at a Dahiya café one recent evening wearing a black T-shirt and black blazer, Barakat said he saw Hezbollah as the target of the Syrian war. The group's rivals, he said, sought to cut its critical supply route through Syria to its main backer in Iran. "If Syria goes down, Lebanon goes down," he said.
He said the thick religious overtones in his music reflect Shiite fears over the sectarian nature of the conflict. Ya Zainab, his best known song, calls on Shiites to defend a revered Damascus shrine from Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel group linked to al-Qaeda. "These songs are emotional to Shiites," he said. "This means a lot to us. Because we don't want our symbols to be destroyed."
Barakat also said he hoped his songs would help to prepare Hezbollah and its supporters for the continuing battle. He proudly pointed to one well-known song about the fight for the Syrian town of Qusayr, which Hezbollah helped the regime win from rebels this spring, suggesting that maybe he'd inspired the fighters there. As Hezbollah brings its dead back across the border, meanwhile, he said his music could play another role. He makes songs for many of the fighters killed in Syria, talking first with family and friends to learn the details of their lives. "Each one is a mini-profile," he said. "We don't cry when our martyrs come home. We make a nice song."