Ramy Essam’s latest album, Resala Ela Magles Al Amn (A Letter to the Security Council), makes no effort to conceal its politics.
Much like Essam himself, a bona fide Egyptian rock star who rose to fame as the voice of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, the album is bold, direct and inventive: it combines guitars, drums, tabla, oud and darbukah to create something that evades definition.
The 12 tracks, which are primarily sung in Egyptian street language (sans the title song, which is performed in classical Arabic), take aim at intergenerational tensions in the Middle East.
But in person, Essam is anything but confrontational.
He was a smiling, laughing, affable ball of energy when he met me in the offices of Universal Music Mena in Dubai, shortly before the release of his album on June 25. He swiftly got comfortable on the couch, putting his boots up onto the cushions, with his substantial mane of coiled hair bouncing at every movement.
“Having curly hair is the best,” he said, when I complimented him.
A jovial remark, but beneath it something more grave: his long hair is a symbol of resistance. After all, just six years ago, it was forcibly cut off him during a brutal eight-hour arrest.
Essam was only 23 years old when he joined the revolution, unwittingly becoming a spokesperson for it. His song Irhal (Leave) became a political anthem, calling for then president Hosni Mubarak to step down, and amplifying protester chants in Tahrir Square.
On March 9, when the army was vacating the square, Essam was taken into custody, where he was tortured and beaten at length, he said.
“It [lasted for] eight hours. I said it was four in the beginning, but my brain was blocking the [memory]. After that, I remembered it was eight,” he said.
Photos of him surfaced online, with short-cropped hair and welts across his back. Essam recalled his mother’s worry when his friends had to carry him home. But he also recalled her understanding when he told her he had to go back and continue the fight.
Essam decided to leave home after the revolution. Not because his life was at risk, but because military service would have been mandatory for him until his current age of 30, he explained, and he didn’t “support the idea of someone holding weapons for any reason.”
He packed his bags and went to Sweden, armed with a two-year residency scholarship at a music school in Malmo. Career-wise, it was one of the best decisions he could have made — he met his manager and producer there, and recorded his album, a collection of old and new songs, inside top-notch studios.
Personally, the move to Europe took a toll.
“I’m far from my family and friends and my life. All my life is still in Egypt,” said Essam, who now lives in Finland, but has unequivocal plans to return home.
CHANGE OF FATE
Born in 1987 in Mansoura, to an engineer father and a stay-at-home mother (“She’s the most beautiful lady in my life”), Essam is the second of four children, including a half-brother from his father’s side.
The siblings, from oldest to youngest, are Mazin, Ramy, Shadi and Heidi. Their father died when Essam was only 11.
As a young adult, Essam was on a fundamentally different path than he’s on now. He completed three and a half years out of a five-year architecture degree in Mansoura.
“I was a football player all my life, until I was 17. That was my biggest dream. I didn’t know I would be a musician at all. My brother and sister, they were the ones who were into theatre and music, and I was into soccer,” said Essam.
One day, while dropping his sister Heidi to theatre rehearsals in the summer, he came across a friend playing guitar. He asked if he would teach him. Essam soon discovered that not only could he play an instrument and compose music, but he could also sing. He began to perform love songs.
At the age 20, he met his favourite poet, Amgad Al Qahwagi, who introduced him to political poetry. (Al Qahwagi would later write Resala Ela Magles Al Amn, the title song off of Essam’s album.) For Essam, that was a formative encounter. Much to his mother’s dismay, he ignored his university professors who told him he would become a great architect and decided to pursue music.
“My mentality changed so much. I’d grown up like most of the guys in Egypt — we’re in a very male, masculine country. I didn’t believe so much in equality, I didn’t believe in all kinds of human rights that I believe in now,” said Essam.
“I don’t think so if I stayed a football player, and I just took the same path, that I would be like that. I don’t even think that I could join the revolution. Music was the key,” he said.
Essam had already been protesting for three days in Mansoura by the time he heard of a “big sit-in in Tahrir Square” in January of 2011. He wanted to go to Cairo, even though he had never been politically active before.
“In the beginning, I didn’t want to take my guitar. I was afraid. My guitar is like my kid, and it was quite bloody days at that time — it was a big fight,” recalled Essam.
At the behest of his brother and friends, he did take his guitar. He listened to the demands of the crowds day in and day out, primarily calling for then president Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for 29 years, to step down.
But Essam grew bored of simply chanting. He sat down in a tent to write, and Irhal came to him in the form of a simple, three chord groove, combining all the catchy phrases he had been repeating on a loop.
The song took on a life of its own. This, during a movement that saw two million protestors, hundreds of deaths, thousands of injuries and countless arrests. Irhal was named one of Time Out’s 100 Songs That Changed History. It also changed his own life.
The song became so popular that it landed on English musician PJ Harvey’s radar, someone Essam had long dreamed of working with. By December of 2016, Essam and Harvey had co-written a song called The Camp, an ode to refugees.
“She’s singing as a Western person, outside the camp, looking inside, in English. I decided to sing as someone from within the camp, in Arabic,” said Essam.
His brother and sister, who had once been the artists of his family, now practice law, while Essam continues on the path of an artist. He’s preparing to tour North America this year, but hopes to grow his career in the Middle East.
He has another album in the pipeline, slated for a 2018 release, focusing more on things like love, friendship, work and family — perhaps a by-product of becoming a father and starting a family of his own.
“It’s a very specially album for me. Much different than anything before,” he said.