A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey France.
The screen shows voluptuous women jiggling about on the deck of a yacht, champagne flutes in hand. In their midst, a man shakes a half-empty bottle. He wears an open shirt, white pants, a gold chain, and a confident expression. The resemblance is striking: Nasrat Al-Bader is a dead ringer for the French rapper Lacrim in his music video for “A.W.A.”. He lights a cigarette, furrows his brow, and acknowledges it frankly: “The guy looks like me, but in front of a camera I’m always more handsome than he is.” Al-Bader's face is marked with creases, his features hollow, the bags under his eyes pronounced, and his voice tortured. Thirty seven years old and not one spent in jail, unlike his doppelganger Lacrim. And yet, the big boss of Iraqi music has had a rather rougher path than his Francophone doppelgänger.
Situated in northeastern Baghdad, Al-Bader's studio is accessible from a dark street, guarded at its entry by armed officers. “The government wants to give me bodyguards, but I don’t care about that—I don’t need them. Everyone in this country likes me,” he claims. And yet, all throughout his life, Nasrat Al-Bader has never stopped flirting with death—chatting with it, on a first-name basis with it even, without ever actually succumbing to it. When he was 23 and Baghdad was being bombed by the US, the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party requisitioned him with a gun against his temple. At that point, he was a young beatmaker, fresh out of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad. “Since the early 2000s, a lot of musicians have fled Iraq, fearing war was coming,” he recalls. At the first bombings, the streets emptied as Iraqis fled the capital. “The problem was, Saddam Hussein needed propaganda clips and [war] hymns in order to encourage the national army and the people to fight the Americans. But his intelligence services couldn’t find a qualified sound engineer, composer or beatmaker.” So it was that Studio Hikmet became his gilded cage.
Like a handful of singers requisitioned in the rush, Al-Bader’s goal was to compose 100 pieces, which would then be played on national television and radio. Under the increased surveillance of armed Ba'ath Party members, everyone had to compose despite the incessant noise from bombings. “Since the studio was facing one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, we heard bombs falling night and day.” Under the orders of the Iraqi leader, Al-Bader and his unfortunate colleagues were cooped up inside the studio. “We all slept there. Saddam Hussein made sure we stayed there until further orders,” he recalls, sitting against the backdrop of the acoustic panels in his studio.
Whisky and Cookies
It was at Studio Himket that Al-Bader developed an addiction to alcohol. Situated just across from the studio was a booth that offered bottles of whisky, which he bought in droves. The young beatmaker was drunk morning, noon, and night—a necessity, as far as he was concerned. “I diluted my glasses of whisky with water and I drank them one after another after another to forget the sound of the bombings. Sometimes I was close to a coma,” he recalls, looking at an empty vodka bottle in the shape of a Kalachnikov. In a month, the little group of prisoners succeeded in finishing the 100 pieces demanded of them. No bomb would fall on the Studio Hikmet.
But on the outside, the situation grew worse. The Iraqi army was about to be undone; the bombings were intensifying. The infamous Mohammed Saïd al-Sahhaf, Saddam's brutal Information Minister, took refuge in the studio with his dozen bodyguards. In Iraq, he was one of the last faithful members of Saddam Hussein’s guard to inundate national radio and television with his propagandist lies. Nasrat Al-Bader was again requisitioned—this time, to accompany Sahhaf’s announcements with music. At Studio Hikmat, the widely feared minister would lose all his credibility: Like a rapper, Sahhaf insulted American soldiers, calling them “desert animals, swindlers, lackeys, colonialists, racists.” “He said that his army was fighting against the Americans, that they had shot down American planes and tanks, while in fact nobody—or almost nobody—knew that he was a recluse with me, and never so much as poked his nose outside,” Al-Bader smiles.
Time passed, and the men were still forced to remain bunkered in the studio. All of the minister’s bodyguards ended up making a break for it, and the food supply was rapidly dwindling. By the end, only a few packets of cookies were sustaining their hope of survival. “We couldn’t go out. The Americans, the crowd, or the bombs would have killed us,” Al-Bader recalls. “One day I was very hungry. I went to look in the reserve and the guy in charge told me that that son of a bitch Sahhaf had locked himself inside so he could finish off the cookies himself!” he laughs.
Outside, the war finally ended. A large group of people arrived before the Studio Hikmat to demand the head of the Information Minister. Al-Bader surrendered national radio materials and machines to them. And yet, he didn't turn over the man who yet had kept him prisoner for more than a month. “What became of Sahhaf after that? Well, he’s still alive. He joined his family who had fled to the United Arab Emirates,” he said, with a smile and no hard feelings.
“I hated them and I was afraid”
The singer finally stuck his feet outside for the first time in over a month. Baghdad was in ruins. His family had succeeded in taking refuge in the north of the country near Mosul, but he couldn’t join them. Cars and other means of transport to take him there were scarce. He was obliged once more to take refuge at Studio Hikmat. This time, new men awaited him, just as dangerous as their predecessors. “Before, under Saddam Hussein, the singers had a costume, a tie and neat hair. But after the regime, singers of another style appeared: Religious men. They wanted to interfere with Iraqi music and create another form of propaganda. The men who were there that day were part of the Mahdi Army [Shiite Islamist militia] and were the allies of the militia's founder, Moqtada al-Sadr. They asked me to compose two Islamic melodies.”
Once again, Nasrat Al-Bader really didn’t have a choice. But when someone brought him lyrics, he stiffened, leaped from his chair, and got to work. The lyrics they gave him strongly insulted Saddam Hussein and praised Ayatollah Khomeini, the ex-enemy of the regime. “For a month straight, I’d been making music that sang Saddam’s praises. And 15 days later, I had to make music for lyrics calling on Saddam to go fuck himself. I asked the studio manager if it was reasonable to do this, since his partisans were still in Baghdad and they could've killed us. It had been only 15 days since he’d been the leader of Iraq, so you can bet I was scared.”
The Iraqi leader was indeed MIA, leaving the populace in fear, wondering if he might return. But despite it all, Al-Bader was resolved to compose the songs demanded by the Shiite Daawa party. Meanwhile, there was a problem: He no longer had access to alcohol. The little whisky seller had been assassinated just after the arrival of the religious men. “I hated them and I was afraid. I needed that alcohol, and it was obvious. They'd realized I was suffering from withdrawal. So I told them point blank that I couldn’t work without it. Since [they needed me], they let me drink,” he recalls, chain-smoking slim cigarettes. This experience would go on for seven months, after which the musician would head to Damascus, the capital of Syria. There he would relearn to sleep again—and to live without drinking.
Four million dollars
In Damascus, Al-Bader continued making his music and produced famous songs, both sung and rapped. He came down hard on Americans, calling, via his music, for a resistance against the invader. “A peaceful resistance, of course. But you know, at that time, we couldn’t approach the Marines; we couldn’t speak with them for fear of getting killed,” he sighs. The Iraqi state of Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite leader propelled to power by the Americans after they had separated the Sunnis, placed the singer on a blacklist of terrorists to eliminate. “They called my family to say that if I didn’t stop, they’d send them all to prison.” From his exile in Syria, the young singer gained popularity. His committed words on the war had an instant effect in the Iraqi diaspora. “One day, Nouri al-Maliki called me personally and asked me to come back. He promised to strike me off the blacklist and give me four million dollars. In exchange I had to write a song to ask the Iraqi exiles to come back.” This was in 2008, just before the provincial elections. Iraq was in need of unity. The singer took the risk of returning, despite the possibility of it being a trap. But his return to Baghdad was triumphant. He was constantly visited by different members of political parties who wanted him to participate in their campaigns. Al-Bader refused to align himself with any party. He made, as promised, a solemn video clip in which he appeared before important Iraqi politicians while wearing a three-piece suit, his hair well-coiffed. He called for the end of terrorism and for the creation of a government equal to the beauty of Iraq.
Ten years later, the bloody civil wars are only a memory, and attacks in Baghdad have become more rare. Today, the singer’s troubles have become a little more insignificant. Al-Bader launches the careers of today’s young talents, and some of his students aim to surpass their master, even going so far as to try and challenge him. “Some young singers whom I’ve put onstage and made famous, they’ve wanted to attack me and surpass me, even though I was the one who raised them up; I was their master. And these are kids, for that matter… they’re only drawn to it for the easy girls and the money,” he sighs. One of his friends pushes open the studio door, his hand filled with contracts and checks with multiple zeroes for the boss to sign. “I had some problems with the older generation too. But today they come to see me because I've got the money and I produce the best sounds in the country. I’m the showpiece in Iraq and they finally understood that. No one can make problems for me or say bad stuff about me.” The singer is part of a vast, ancient tribe called Al-Saidi. He says sometimes he can settle his squabbles with competitors via the tribe and its sheikhs. Competitive beef between high profile rappers? Unthinkable in Iraq. “They need to create that tension and agitate their fans to sell their CDs. But here, those sort of media-hyped stories wouldn’t work because Baghdad already has tension 24/7,” he laughs.
Quentin Müller is on Noisey.
All photos by Sebastian Castelier. He is on Instagram.