Ramy Essam

Exiled Egyptian musician Ramy Essam. (Courtesy photo)

“One does not need to have any formal knowledge of music — nor, indeed, to be particularly ‘musical’ — to enjoy music and to respond to it at the deepest levels. Music is part of being human, and there is no human culture in which it is not highly developed and esteemed.

Underlying this is the extraordinary tenacity of musical memory, so that much of what is heard during one’s early years may be ‘engraved’ on the brain for the rest of one’s life.” —Oliver Sacks, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain”

It was a great honor to have been asked by David Holbrooke, director of the Original Thinkers Festival, to read a longer version of this Oliver Sacks quote. It kicked off a fascinating program last Friday titled, “What does music really do to us?” The speakers addressed it from both soulful and scientific perspectives. I was left buzzing and thoughtful. And more, I felt determined to focus on taking all those fantastic ideas and the passion that just radiated from the featured artists and speakers and turn it into something world changing, even if it’s just my little corner of the planet.

Bernadette González flew from Mexico City to share her work with elderly people with dementia whose exposure to music brought them out of the collapsing labyrinths of their memories into an engaged and joyful present. Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who portrayed Aaron Burr in “Hamilton” and who is also an activist, filled the room with his glorious voice in a rendition of “Wait For It.” He’s the actor who famously delivered the post-show message from the “Hamilton” cast — “diverse America” — to Vice President Mike Pence who was in the audience that night. Sarfraz Manzoor’s profound spiritual connection to Bruce Springsteen was all too relatable to me — I, too, have absorbed the Boss’s lyrics and made pilgrimages to Asbury Park, New Jersey. Manzoor was funny and humble and warm. Of course, I bought his book, “Greetings from Bury Park,” which was made into the film “Blinded by the Light.” And Joshua DePerry, Native American DJ and dancer aka Classic Roots, charmed with his ebullient spirit and connection to tradition, while infusing it with modern electronic beats.

But it was Egyptian musician Ramy Essam who moved me most deeply. It was he who sent me home with a real understanding of the power of music and its ability to affect change and topple regimes. He told the story of growing up as a typical Egyptian boy, prowling the streets, getting in fights, becoming a man. But when he came across an acquaintance with a guitar, he realized he needed to learn how to play, despite the cultural view that being a singer and musician was “weak.” Before long he was composing and singing. Inspired by Linkin Park, his songs took on political themes. During the 2011 uprising that drew thousands of protestors to Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Essam turned protestors’ chants into sing-along anthems, songs that entreated then-president Hosni Mubarek to step down. He became famous for being the musical identification of the revolution, a notoriety that led to his capture and torture by the Egyptian army. His song “Irhal (Leave)” served a purpose, but with that purpose came pain.

He lives in exile now, and has called Sweden home since 2014. Last year, he composed a new song just in time for the presidential election campaign in Egypt. “Balaha” was critical of the previous four years of government and was written to spark debate among his country’s people. Again, the song’s effectiveness resulted in the jailing of the lyricist, the poet Galal El-Behairy, music video director Shady Habash and Essam's former social media manager, Mustafa Gamal, even though the latter two were not involved in the song's creation. They remain in jail to this day, a fact that pains him more than the scars on his back, more than not being able to live in his own country.

Essam spoke with quiet urgency, pacing a little, preaching the doctrine of artistic freedom. There is none in Egypt. According to Qantara, the online portal in German, English and Arabic, which exists to promote intercultural dialogue between the Western and Islamic worlds, “The right to freedom of expression, one of the five music rights outlined by the International Music Council, is increasingly under fire globally. Restrictions on musical expression are being talked about more today than 10 years ago.”

But Essam told the capacity crowd at Friday’s OT program, “They can’t take this,” he said, pointing to his head. “They can’t take our art.”

That stuck with me. Despite daily exasperation that’s delivered to our battered senses by the news media, artistic expression hasn’t — so far —been censored. But just suppose the oligarchy became oppressive? What if the government clamped down on messages delivered in art, song, dance, poetry and film that were critical of the regime? I do no believe that is beyond the realm of possibility. Right now, we have an occupant in the White House that believes he is above the law. What next? Would the people rise up, or would we sheepishly conform? Could we bear the pain of being principled? Could we live in exile if it became too dangerous to live here? Can we unite against repression and censorship, or would we live complacently? Essam’s words have had staying power. They tell me to write, always. To speak truth to power. To put a song on everyone’s lips.

This is what Ramy Essam got me thinking about — revolution, freedom and the power of song.