Think music doesn’t matter? Ramy Essam is here to tell you otherwise. He’s been arrested, tortured, and exiled from his native Egypt for writing songs that are critical of the government—both the now deposed Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military kleptocrats—but the knowledge that he’s made a difference is what keeps him going.
In Egypt, he explains, underground music remains a vital source of encouragement and information for those fighting a brutal regime. With the mass media heavily censored, songs such as his Arab Spring anthem “Irhal” serve as beacons of hope for those who know there is a better way to live.
“Because the education sucks and it’s full of lies, and we don’t get right information from our parents or from the government or from the teachers, art is the only way to get the truth—and to open the hearts of the people who used to be silent all the time,” Essam explains, on the line from a day off in Halifax. “That’s why it’s extremely important in our world—and it works.”
It works slowly, he admits. In Egypt, his informants tell him, “the shit is increasing, but we’re also increasing the good.” The first generation of Egyptians to have grown up with social media is now coming to the fore, and it’s not going to stand for the repressive policies of the past.
Today, Essam is feeling hopeful; he’s even looking forward to returning to Egypt to catch up on the new developments. But he’s also grateful for his new life in Scandinavia; there have been lonely times, but these have allowed him to hone his blend of poetic lyrics in Arabic, gutsy Middle Eastern oud, and bone-crushing, Rage Against the Machine–inspired rock.
Some of his newer songs remain explicitly political. “Ya Askary”, for instance, is a direct address to the Egyptian military, asking its enlisted men to see that their struggles are also those of the general population. Others, like the one he’s just finished, are more general in their import. “Wahdah”, based on a poem by the Palestinian literary icon Mahmoud Darwish, refers specifically to the solitary denizens of Arab-world coffee shops, but it’s just as applicable to any alienated laptop wielder on the Drive.
“People are fucked-up and sad, but Darwish turns it on its head,” Essam says. “He saw this person from another angle. He’s saying, ‘Hey, the forgotten person, sitting alone all the time in the coffee shop? Lucky you. No one notices you. No one sees you. You are the only free person in this world.’ ”
It’s not lost on Essam that Darwish’s poem speaks to his own condition of exile.
“Part of my optimism is that I’m a human being that’s lost my fear,” he says, “and I’ve seen so many people who’ve also lost their fear. We can lose this fucking feeling and love each other and keep going—and I’ve changed so much that I believe other people can change.”
Ramy Essam plays the Vancouver Folk Music Festival’s Stage 5 at Twilight on Saturday (July 15).