BEIRUT: Performers often express political opinions in their work. Witness the rise of political protest music in the U.S. during the 1960s and ’70s or, closer to home, the passionate commitment to the Palestinian cause expressed in the music of Marcel Khalife in the last decades of the 20th century.
Recently the escalating political divisions in Lebanon and the region have begun to weigh heavy on the country’s music scene. As performers take positions on – or are interpreted as taking positions upon – contemporary politics, it raises the specter of their using the stage to advance their personal views.
This has left some to wonder whether entertainers should stick to entertaining and leave politics to more dispassionate analytical voices.
Two Lebanese artists have been the butt of attacks because of speeches they delivered before recent concerts, expressing political positions about recent developments in Lebanon and the region.
During her Beirut Holidays concert at the Souks Saturday, Lebanese pop diva Elissa commenced her show with the Lebanese national anthem and a patriotic song by Fairuz.
She then commented upon last week’s deadly car blast in the southern suburb of Ruwaiss that killed 30 people and wounded hundreds.
“I did not denounce or regret [the blast],” she said, “because I considered that what happened to them is also happening to us.
“We are all resistance and as an artist, I resist my own way through drawing a smile on your faces and through love and joy.”
While inaugurating the Bahrain Summer festival last week, renowned Lebanese vocalist Majida Roumi saluted the Bahraini government and people and congratulated them for confronting “the forces of darkness,” a remark that was interpreted as her taking sides against Bahrain’s political opposition.
Bahraini activists and dissidents and some Lebanese critics attacked the soprano, and began tweeting against Roumi’s statements.
“She did not respect the blood of innocent people in her country so how do we expect her to respect our suffering,” Bahraini critic Ali Dairy tweeted. “While the southern suburb of Beirut is recovering its wounds, Roumi is singing to the partners of exporters of terrorism to her country.”
“Roumi is turning from a national and patriotic singer to an artist who sings for dictatorship and for the support of governments who persecute their people,” Bahraini activist Mohammad Masqati tweeted.
Roumi issued a statement two days later slamming what she described as “a programmed defamation campaign” and denied rumors that she had been given Bahraini nationality.
“The best response to the distortion and non-innocent, inaccurate interpretation of my sincere and spontaneous words in Bahrain,” Roumi said in her statement, “are my long history which proves to everyone my commitment to the causes of the Arabs and my ongoing calls for respecting justice and freedom... In the face of oppression and divisions.”
For her part, Elissa slammed her critics during a recent telephone call to a local television chat show, saying, “I am responsible for what I say, but I am not responsible for how each person interprets my words and analyzes them.”
Pierre Abi Saab, the arts and culture editor of Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar daily, criticized both artists in recent articles, saying that Roumi, whom he described as a “national icon,” had committed a political mistake and had given up her “distinguished moral” position.
Journalist Nidal Ahmadieh lashed back at Abi Saab’s remarks, as did pop singer Ragheb Alama, who said, “It is such a shame to play the words of Elissa. ... This is a crime and slander against her.”
This is not the first time Roumi has come under attack over her perceived political position. She was once subject to fierce criticism for singing during a ceremony, organized by late Lebanese President Elias Hrawi, to honor former U.S. President George Bush during his Beirut visit.
Her participation in celebrations held by Lebanon’s March 14 coalition and her political support to this faction have also provoked anger.
For their part, March 14 supporters have criticized Lebanese vocalist Julia Boutros for supporting Hezbollah.
After the 2006 July War, Boutros quoted a speech by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and turned it into a song “Ahebai” (My beloved one), which hailed the achievements of the Lebanese resistance party.
The case is not much better for Lebanese composer and musician Ziad Rahbani, who is virtually as well-known locally for his outspoken political punditry. In April, while Rahbani was speaking at an American University of Beirut event, a group of Syrian and Lebanese students interrupted to protest his staunch support of the Syrian regime.
As for the once-popular Lebanese crooner Fadl Shaker, who retired from his career in music a couple of years ago, his transformation into a Salafi radical was a shock to many fans and colleagues.
Shaker, whose career had begun to skyrocket in the early 2000s, is accused of taking part in armed clashes alongside his mentor, Sheikh Ahmad Assir, in Sidon’s Abra neighborhood.
When he retired from music, Shaker said Islam was his true calling and that he was turning to combat oppression and defend Muslims. His last music appearance was at a Moroccan festival in May 2012.
As such incidents accumulate, the question remains as to whether performing artists should share their political views with their audience or just keep them to themselves.
“No one has asked Elissa to denounce the terrorist Ruwaiss explosion,” Abi Saab wrote in his Al-Akhbar article. “No one was expecting her to, anyway. ... She could have remained [quiet] and kept her feelings to herself.”