The Egyptian singer and musician Ramy Essam first made headlines back in 2011 during the Arab Spring and the Egyptian Revolution when he sang in Tahrir Square in Cairo. He was in his early 20s and performed protest songs in front of tens of thousands of people with his acoustic guitar and a very rudimentary sound system.
From that point on, Essam has dedicated himself to defending human rights through his music. His song from Tahrir Square, called “Irhal” (“Leave”), demanded that ex-president Hosni Mubarak step down. It went on to become the anthem of the protesters and launched him into a weighty role, being referred to as a “Voice of the Revolution”. He has developed his singing and composing repertoire since then and now performs around the world, singing in Egyptian Arabic and English and releasing politically charged songs, videos, and albums.
Starting in 2011, Essam was beaten, arrested, and tortured. By 2013 his songs were being banned in Egypt, he was forbidden from performing, and his concert dates were waning. Experiencing a sense of exile in his own country, he felt compelled to leave and seek asylum, accepting an artistic residency in Malmö, Sweden, with ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network) in 2014.
From his new homeland (he is now living in Sweden and Finland), Ramy has dedicated himself to the pursuit of revealing injustices and telling stories in his songs collaborating with poets, songwriters, and musicians. While incorporating Egyptian sounds, rock, grunge, and hip-hop into his compositions, he sings of suffering, longing, and torture and, at times, uses irony at times, to make a point about certain oppressive conditions. Over the years, Essam has been recognized with various awards for his commitment to activism, including the Václav Havel Prize in 2019 and the Rambaldi Prize in 2021.
He was recently in Italy for a month touring with the theatrical company Babilonia Teatri in a production called A Voice of Revolution. It is a musical-political production that recounts stories from Egypt, incorporating images, video clips, and predominantly his songs to illustrate some of the harsh realities of life under the regime. Essam continued to describe the process of developing the show, “It was made by workshopping and co-writing, a lot of conversations. In fact, the things I’m saying in the show are my words. It was directed by them, but it was written together.” Between his Italian performances, Essam took time in Torino to talk about his musical process, collaborations, and dedication to using music as a weapon to fight injustice along with his new album Metgharabiin (Outsiders)
Ramy is a formidable presence. On stage in this basically one-person show, he stands squarely at six feet tall, facing the audience with just his acoustic guitar much of the time. His long dark coils of hair form a kind of curtain that frames his face, partially hiding his strong but vulnerable character. He sings passionately in Egyptian Arabic in a voice that growls, croons, speeds up, and slows way down. Between most songs, he tells stories that explain his lyrics and are then translated into Italian by an Egyptian-Italian woman by the name of Amani Sadat.
While preparing for this interview, I wonder about my approach and what to ask a man who lives in exile, has been tortured, and lives knowing that if he tries to re-enter his home country, he will be arrested immediately. I understand that while he has had to leave his homeland behind, his story lives on in him. It is part of him, and at times it haunts him, but his music and legacy are to tell stories that must not be forgotten. Essam incorporates his experience into his composing and songwriting, which are often collaborations, to continue revealing past and ongoing injustices. He will not let go of this struggle but perseveres in his resolve to cast light upon ugly truths.
To prepare for our interview, I watch videos of Ramy in concert with his band and notice various versions of some of the songs that I recognize from the theatrical production. I am struck by how these songs seem to have their own lives, as if, in their rearrangements and performances, they are on a kind of journey, adjusting to different contexts and even to different injustices.
Essam pauses for a moment, seemingly puzzled by my anthropomorphizing his musical pieces, then shares, “My music had this part when there was the revolution, and I was in the street. Most of my work was acoustic because I didn’t even have time to go to the studio between 2011 and 2013. I was sleeping in the streets all the time, and most of the songs needed to be released immediately. Something was happening, and a song was created. It had to be out, so I would just sneak away from the clashes or sit-ins or whatever was happening, go to the studio, record, and leave.”
He further reflects, “People knew me acoustically because I was in the streets singing all the time during the revolution and the demonstrations, but that was never what I wanted musically. I’m a rocker in my blood, and if the revolution didn’t happen, I don’t think I would have ever started on an acoustic career like I did. It was part of the revolution and the movement, and I’m happy that I had this experience because I also realized that this can be very powerful.”
A turning point for Ramy came when he had to leave his homeland in 2014. As devastating as that move was and still is, he was able to take the experience and turn it into an opportunity to study music, among other things. “When I went to Sweden, I got the chance to rearrange some of the songs that were written and released acoustically during the revolution and make them in the studio with a full band. That’s how I had always seen them. I also was given access to the best studios, the best musicians. I was able to grow as an artist because when the revolution started, I was just starting my career, and I was still developing as an artist.
“For the first two years in Sweden, I attended a music school in Malmö, and I got the chance to study. I was just so lonely all the time. I had no life, but I had a lot of time to play music, go to school and learn new things. This was perfect for me at the time. Finally, now I have access, tools, technique, and the quality to release the songs how I wanted them.”
I’m fascinated by this notion of envisioning how his songs should have been, hearing them before he was able to make the arrangements himself. Pressing Ramy on this idea, I ask if it was like having the compositions in his head, and only once the pieces were in place could he come out with the songs he imagined. He lights up, “Totally! I could hear what I wanted to do. I found the sound long ago when I was still in Egypt, but I didn’t have the time, the chance, the tools, or the people to get it done. But all these pieces just met up in Sweden.”
Ramy takes time to talk at his concerts and to explain the meanings of his songs, which is helpful to many, as most are sung in Egyptian Arabic. In this way, he always credits his collaborators, especially the poets and writers, some who continue to write from their prison cells. He communicates pain, longing, and injustice through his voice; the tone changes during his songs, and his deep, expressive eyes gaze out at the audience.
Essam’s art is about words. He speaks easily in English, which he admits has improved greatly since moving to northern Europe. His work is often collaborative and comes from a long history of poets and poetry. “In Egypt, the poetry culture is massive, and this is something that’s been going on for thousands of years. Dissing and battling with poetry, it’s at the core of our culture. If you meet ten people randomly, at least three of them are writing poetry. Good or bad, that’s not the point.”
He admits that writing “is not my strongest point, but he both writes and co-writes. “Yet, if I live in this poetry-rich culture, why not use it? I’ve been privileged to have a lot of great poet friends. From the point of view of a composer, you need to challenge yourself to compose new text written by various people so the result can sound very different. Also, you as an artist can have a lot of variety in your sound and your songs.”
How does this work? Ramy explains, “Either I find a poet that I like, or most often I get an idea, call my friends and tell them that I want to write about this or that. Sometimes I’ve already written a few lines that I like a lot, so we make it into a full song. Other times I write the music and then ask people to write lyrics for it, but this is the way I work the least.” It sounds as if his method is to begin with the words, which Essam confirms ardently, “I’m sick with music. I have music in my head all the time. I hear music in everything. I have riffs, and I’m recording them all the time on the phone, but I always prefer to have the lyrics in my hands first. Read them, digest them, understand them, feel them, and then compose. Ninety percent of my work is like that. Words are the greatest foundation to start with.”
There is an upbeat-sounding song that Essam performs called “El-Gahsh Wel Homar” (“The Donkey and his Son”), which highlights the use of sarcasm and irony directed at the regime. He explains that in Egyptian culture, this form of expression is very common. I wonder what is behind this, to which Ramy points out that “Egyptians are really amazing. Life is so hard in Egypt, and people struggle so much. Yet people survive every day by just making jokes about everything, and we have a high tolerance for making fun of things that are very extreme and crazy. For example, somebody may have just died, and someone might throw out a joke and make everyone laugh in a dark moment.”
He pauses and reflects for a moment, taking his time as if he wants this idea to be fully grasped. “I understood that this is a powerful tool for surviving hardship. When it comes to revolution and political songs, and fighting suppression, this is also very hard. The first important part is to support the people and make them laugh about the hardship we are going through. The second part is when you are fighting against a brutal regime, a dictatorship. For years they have just been trying to build this monster image, and they want to scare the people. You can destroy this image by making fun of them; it works very well. So, I use comedy and satire in my songs for these two reasons, to destroy the image that they are trying to build for themselves and to make the people laugh at them, which is better than being afraid.”
The concept seems so simple and so effective, an amazing use of artistry to enfeeble a presumably insurmountable supremacy. It occurs to me that Ramy has ongoing music in his head, and while he is focused on talking to me, I sense he’s present on multiple levels. In this way, I’m curious about what inspires him musically. “My influences are really rock, like ninety percent. I know it might sound crazy to say, but I didn’t really love music that much growing up. I wasn’t that interested, and I always avoided music class. I didn’t know that I could sing, and I didn’t play an instrument.” He describes his eventual introduction to music in stages. “I started to play guitar at the age of seventeen. I decided to be a singer when I fell in love with rock, and I found myself and political poetry at around nineteen or twenty. In my early twenties was the time when I was finding my sound and how to merge the Egyptian language with rock music.”
How does he describe his sound? Ramy is clear about his desire to experiment and blend the things he likes. “Rock is the influence for most of my music, but there’s also traditional music from Egypt and North Africa, especially the beat. This is something that is definitely in my head all the time. The beat section is from North Africa. It’s crazy. It’s something in my core.
“The other thing that I love about my musical culture is how we sing. Since we have the quarter tone in singing, I have a lot of quarter tones in my head as well. I’m very influenced by hip-hop and rap. For me, finding the tune between the Egyptian Arabic language and rock music and making them sound right was my greatest discovery in my music career. How to make them merge and feel original.”
Ramy was an unrelenting participant on the ground during the Egyptian Revolution, having been arrested, detained, and tortured. While he is now forced to live away from his home country and the particular struggles there, he is adamant about remaining attentive and active. As oppression and conflict continues in Egypt and elsewhere in the world, he now mostly sings to audiences in the West, throughout Europe and North America. He realizes many of his audience members may not be directly involved in resistance. Essam also believes that Europeans must “rethink that everything is safe and stop taking things for granted.”
What must it feel like up there on stage, and what does he want to communicate to these people who come to his concerts? “When you are in front of an audience that is part of a movement or a revolution, the movement is made of the same principles, the same morals, the same fight, so it’s generally an easier gig because the communication is already there. But when I perform for people who are not part of anything like that, it’s different, and I must put more effort into communicating on the stage through my energy and, of course, by talking. Even if I’m singing in Egyptian Arabic, I speak in English, explaining the songs as well as discussing certain things. Speaking is one tool to bring them in, especially since I want them to understand that we are all the same.”
Essam’s art has taken him to many parts of the world where he experiences people’s take on their rights and the need to stand up, especially in the free world where it is still permitted. “One thing I always like to say is that the more I travel, the more I find, for example, here in Italy, people who are suffering from the same things as in Egypt. The scale and the brutality may seem different, but they’re not. So it’s like we are all connected. We are all alike.”
I saw Essam perform twice in the Italian production of A Voice of Revolution in small, intimate venues. At the Torino show, there were some Egyptians in the audience responding enthusiastically to Ramy’s songs. He lit light up during the performance and spent time with them afterward, sharing stories, laughs, along with some serious talk. He also made an effort to shake hands and speak with anyone and everyone interested and moved by the show.
Ramy appreciates it when people come to understand what is happening in Egypt and the Middle East. “I love when people come up to me and say, ‘Thanks, now I understand what is going on there.’ In a theater situation, like what I’m working on here in Italy this month, when people come up to me and say, ‘OK, now I want to do something. Now I want to take action.’ At a gig, I don’t usually have the space to say that much, but I do want them to understand that we are all part of a global fight and that we have to connect with each other to make changes. We can’t bring on change in Egypt alone.”
Essam has released five albums, including his most recent, Metgharabiin (Outsiders), released in July. In addition to calling out repression in his native country and shedding light on local rights infringements, other projects he has collaborated on with artists such as Malikah (often deemed the queen of Arab hip-hop) and P.J. Harvey, are songs about imprisoned women, inequality, and immigration camps. He seems indefatigable in his dedication to defending human rights, bringing people together, and touring.
Like most folk’s everyday lives, his, too, came to an abrupt standstill with the covid pandemic and worldwide coping mechanisms. Currently, numerous artists, writers, and filmmakers are creating works from and about their lockdown experiences. Essam explains how Metgharabiin was made in 2020 when he had time to reflect on the past eight and a half years. It is more personal than his prior work “because most of the albums before were about the movement and the revolution, a much larger point of view.
“Metgharabiin also has the fight and is related to the movement, but it’s much more personal. While it’s about my experience in exile, it’s also about the time before I left Egypt when I was feeling like an outsider in my own home country.” Though the album came together under the unusual circumstances of solitude, Ramy explores the concept of isolation, intertwining it with realities in which people have had to leave their homes and live in exile, but “also for those who have stayed and are fighting but are not heard and are pushed away and are feeling estranged by their own people.”
Metgharabiin was made with the producer Johan Carlberg from Stockholm and was initially made remotely. With the constraints of working from a distance, a new tone was encountered between the two who have collaborated over the years. “The album sounds different from anything I’ve done before. I also believe it will sound different from anything I will do in the future. It’s very cool that we managed to make a new sound. Many of the songs are just different because they were made with a lot of electronic elements. It’s electronic, industrial rock mixed with Egyptian/North African music culture. Even when the pandemic eased, and I was able to go to Stockholm and be in the studio with Johan, we kept it going in that direction.”
The cover artwork was made by fellow Egyptian artist in exile, Ganzeer. Ramy and Ganzeer are good friends and have collaborated over the years, so the album cover’s graphically strong image of an isolated Cubist combo figure, mouths wide open, speaks volumes about displacement, isolation, and activism. The title track, which Essam began working on when he was still living in Egypt, is his own lyrics and music. The first few lines talk of “strangers in our lands/years come and go/the world is against us” and describe the feeling he had of being an outsider in his Egypt. Metgharabiin also includes songs written by two of Ramy’s consistent collaborators, the poets/activists Galal El Behairy and Ahmed Douma, both still incarcerated in Egypt. This injustice is always on his mind.
Another thought that never abandons him is his line, a kind of personalized version of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti’s famous quote, “Music is the weapon.” In Ramy’s words, “Music is the strongest peaceful weapon in the world.” How did he come to this conclusion? “I lived and survived every day that I was in the streets of the revolution. I never wanted to carry a gun and fight back. Yet at the same time, when you are attacked by guns, you want to fight back. You don’t just want to be weak and vulnerable or get killed and lose your people.
“From my position, I was lucky that I was gifted with this very powerful tool, music. I could see the impact of it, with the people and uniting the people and also scaring the regime.” He goes on to describe when he first really comprehended the potential of music. “I could understand its power when they arrested us, and I got tortured on the 9th of March in 2011, very early on in the revolution. When it happened, I really understood how insane it was that these officers and soldiers, with their tanks and weapons, were afraid of a group of people and a guitar and songs. When I survived this day, I really understood that music is a weapon to fight back with; it’s not just words.”
Will music mean the same to him in the future? Essam doesn’t bat an eye and continues passionately, “So let’s say the regime could manage to oppress everything, of course not forever. But the point is that the only thing that they couldn’t take away is the music, the art. If there is a song that has been made, and it’s been released, it’s out, and people start to know it, and they can sing it, then there is no force in this world that can stop that. So that’s why it’s the best way to fight back.”
I feel gratitude toward this person who has dedicated so much of his life to fighting oppression with this non-violent weapon. Thankfully his voice continues to be heard in its mature and forward-looking transformations. With any luck, Ramy will keep on developing his sound and his resistance, exposing the ills of political repression, exploring the many sides of human rights, and persisting in life with words and music.
Ramy Essam’s tour kicked off in Sweden this month and will continue throughout Europe and around North America in 2024. For information, consult his website.