[This is the second installment in a series on artists of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Click here for the first interview.]
Of all the artists who rose to fame during the demonstrations leading to the fall of deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, Ramy Essam was the most renowned. A twenty-three year old singer-songwriter from the Nile delta province of Mansoura, two hours away from Cairo, Essam’s perseverance, talent and enthusiasm quickly made him a staple of Tahrir Square’s daily life. Many demonstrators described him simply as the singer of the revolution.
But it was not only his political songs in the square that made him famous and earned him that title. His steadfast support for the demands of the revolution established his reputation even among those who did not follow the happenings in Tahrir Square. During the notorious “Battle of the Camel,” when camel-mounted government thugs attacked protesters, Essam was injured alongside other demonstrators. Later, on 9 March when the military attempted to crush the sit-ins in Tahrir Square by force, Essam was dragged along with other demonstrators to the nearby Egyptian National Museum and detained without charges. Identified by officers who had been searching for him by name, Essam was given a special torture session that left him bedridden for two weeks. He emerged with scars and bruises covering his upper torso but his spirit was not deterred. I spoke to Essam on 30 August about his music and his experiences in the square. Here is what he told me:
I have no formal training in music. I am actually an undergrad at the Faculty of Engineering in Mansoura University. I am now twenty-four years old so I should have graduated but I got very busy with my music and haven’t finished yet.
I learned to play the guitar seven years ago with a friend of mine, Mohammad Ali, who taught me the basics then I started listening to musicians and imitating them. I chose the guitar because ever since I was a kid the sound of the guitar attracted me the most. From a young age I wished I could play the guitar and this was before I even realized that I can also sing. I began first to play music then to compose my own music. Singing was the last stage.
I was influenced by Nirvana, Metallica, Scorpions, limpbizkit and System of a Down amongst many others. I was also influenced by Muhamad Munir as well as by Sheikh Imam and Sayyid Darwish but not so much their singing style as their embodiment of the idea of a political singer and how they succeeded in representing the demands and aspirations of the people in Egypt.
It was only three years ago that I started writing and singing political songs. However, given the situation in the country at the time, there was a very limited space where I could present them to the public.
Until 25 January I was never a political activist, I just expressed myself and my dreams through songs. I did not go down to the streets on 25 January. I did not expect it to be that big, it was only on 28 January when the government became increasingly violent against the protesters that I started demonstrating with my family in Mansoura on 28, 29, and 30 January.
On 31 January, a Monday, I went to Tahrir Square. By that time things in Mansoura had cooled down. The police had withdrawn and the epicenter of the events in Egypt was Tahrir Square in Cairo so I decided to go there with my older brother and one of my closest friends, Muhammad Abdul Fattah. While packing my brother and my friend insisted that I take my guitar. I was not planning on taking it since I did not think that I would have the chance to play it.
When I arrived in the square there were no stages just one guy and a couple of his friends walking around with a microphone and loud speakers. So I just sat on the side walk and sung a little, people started gathering and the guy with the microphone came up to me with the microphone and by coincidence there were some television channels nearby and they started filming.
The next day, a Tuesday, I woke up to find that some people had set up a stage. That was right after Mubarak’s second speech in which he announced that he was not going to step down. It was a very depressing speech for all of us who were in the square and that was the day I wrote my song “Irhal!” (Leave!). It was my adaptation of the slogans chanted by the demonstrators plus a couple of lines that I added:
When I saw that the people who set up the stage were letting singers on it to sing or chant for the revolution I went up to them and asked them to let me sing but because I had long hair they thought that I was going to go up on stage and sing love songs. I pleaded and they finally allowed me to get on stage where I sung my songs. From that day onwards whenever anyone set up a stage or needed a singer they would ask me to come and sing.
I was in Tahrir Square for the remaining eighteen days and never left Cairo until 1 August. The day of the “Battle of the Camel” is the only day that I was in Tahrir Square and did not sing. I was attacked and got hurt twice and the next two days, Thursday and Friday, I sung with bandages on my body and this earned me a lot of respect from the other demonstrators in Tahrir Square who now believed that I was there for the cause and not to use the revolution to advance my singing career.
That was when I sung my song “Idhaki Ya Thawra” (Laugh O Revolution!). This song and “Irhal” are the only two songs I wrote and composed in Tahrir Square. Towards the end of the revolution the square had some six or seven stages and I would sing all over.
I met Ahmad Foad Negm for the first time in Tahrir Square and that is how I learned that a poem I sung more than a month before the revolution and which came to be considered one of the most important songs in Tahrir Square was actually not his. That is the song titled “El Gahsh ‘al lil Humar” (The Ass told the Donkey). It is a very insightful and brilliant poem. And it was actually written by Muhammad Nabil, a young poet who, until Negm denied that the poem is his, was too shy to tell me that the poem was his because he thought that I would not believe him.
I was very happy to meet Negm. When I did, the first thing he said was, “so you are the guy they call the singer of the revolution.” I said “yes.” He said, “then sing to me.” I sung and he said, “sing something else.” I sung something else and he said, “sing more” and after several songs he said that I deserve the title and then he added that he never thought he would live to see another singer who would remind him of Sheikh Imam. This, coming from Negm, was very touching. It was an honor.
I am actually adding my meeting with Negm to other video material I have of me and will make my own documentary. There is already a documentary about me out there, it’s called “Lahn al Thawra” (Melody of the revolution), but I would like to make my own documentary so I can tell my own story.
Other than these two poets, the main poet I work with is Amgad al-Qahwagi who wrote my famous song “Dabboura wi short wi cab” (A badge, shorts and a cap), the song about the Egyptian police:
Usually when I come up with a song idea I call him and we work on it together, but sometimes, especially in the Tahrir Square context when I am demonstrating I do not have the time to do that so I write my own songs and sing them on the spot.
My family was very supportive of me being in the Square. Like I said my older brother was with me, but my mom and my sister were home and they would sometimes get worried. However, ever since I became famous as a singer in Tahrir I was on television almost every day so that way my mom would know that I am alive and that she does not need to worry.
After Mubarak was ousted the majority thought that things are over and left for home which was a big mistake. We demonstrated on 25 February but that day the military with the help of thugs beat us real bad then they apologized the following day saying they did not mean it.
We continued our sit in until 9 March. This was the sit-in that ousted Ahmad Shafiq, the prime minister that Mubarak put in place before leaving. And that day the army entered the square to clear it and they took us to the Egyptian Museum where they tortured us. I was called by name and was given a “special treatment” whereby they whipped me for hours, tied me down and tortured me and one officer even kept jumping up in the air and then hit me with both feet as he came down on my back and head. They electrocuted me and disfigured my body and they cut my hair with broken glass and when I was released I went back home in Mansoura where I could not move for two weeks. The minute I was able to stand on my feet I returned to Tahrir Square where I sung my song “El Geish el Araby Fein” (Where is the Arab Army)
I composed this song before the revolution to mock the Arab armies who have abandoned their duties. It was not out of personal vengeance but as time went by the ugly face of the military was slowly exposed.
As for the public’s initial disbelief and denial that the army would do such a thing, I guess the good thing about me being tortured too was that more people believed what I said. I had credibility as a singer and people knew that I was not a baltagi (thug), which is what the army claimed all the ones they arrested were. However, sadly, it is true that the majority of people did not believe in the beginning that the army would do such a thing. As time went by more people started believing especially that now there is this sense that the military is stealing our revolution. Since January to this day there are roughly twelve thousand civilians in military prisons! For this reason we are going out on 9 September to demonstrate against military trials of civilians. This will be our biggest unified effort to address that issue so far.
The military council needs to know that, since it got itself involved in politics, it should expect and accept criticism. We are also demonstrating on 9 September to denounce the rule of the military especially that the military has tried several times to indefinitely hold on to its current position as transitional ruler of Egypt.
After that we will have to focus on the upcoming elections which will help the country stand on its feet. That is where the real battle lies today. Unfortunately, the revolution has deviated from its route and so the elections are our only hope now. We should not have left the square after Mubarak left. We should have organized revolutionary committees headed by public figures to publicly try Mubarak, his family and cronies. That way our rights would have been regained in no time. Leaving the square was the biggest mistake and now we will have to deal with these issues and try and solve them for many years to come.
The claim that the army protected the revolution is false because if it did protect the revolution our demands would have been met a long time ago. The military just calculated things right and realized that it stands to win if it remained neutral. Taking a clear pro-government stance would ultimately have destroyed the army since many soldiers would have sided with the people.
Also, the Islamists’ call for an Islamic state is not acceptable. The majority of Egyptians are Muslims but together with other minorities in the country we want a secular president with no ties to the military and a secular government that together will rule justly and will give freedom to people to think and do as they believe.
Currently I am recording a new album that hopefully will be out before the anniversary of the revolution in January. It will be called "El Midan" [The Square]. It is a collection of all the songs I sung in the square. My album is self-produced. I did get very lucrative offers from major record label companies but they had a lot of conditions that, if I accepted, would turn me into something very commercial. I want to continue to sing what I want and say what I want and that is why I am trying to self-finance my album with the help of friends.