Of all the artists who rose to fame during the demonstrations leading to the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Ramy Essam was the most renowned. A singer-songwriter from the Nile delta province of Mansoura, two hours away from Cairo, Essam has a perseverance, talent and enthusiasm that quickly made him a staple of Tahrir Square’s daily life. Many demonstrators describe him simply as the singer of the revolution.
But it is not only his political songs that 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, when the military on March 9 attempted to crush the Tahrir sit-ins 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 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. This 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. He taught me the basics and 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. I started to first play and then to compose my own music. Singing was the last stage.
I am influenced by Nirvana, Metallica, Scorpions, Limp Bizkit and System of a Down among many others, as well as Muhamad Munir, Sheikh Imam and Sayyid Darwish. Not so much their singing styles as their embodiments of the political singer concept and how they have succeeded to represent the demands and aspirations of the Egyptian people.
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 in which I could present them to the public.
Before January 25, I was never a political activist, I just expressed myself and my dreams through songs. I did not go down to the streets on January 25; I did not expect it to be that big. It was only on January 28, when the government became increasingly violent against the protesters, that I started demonstrating with my family in Mansoura.
On January 31, I went to Tahrir Square with my older brother and one of my closest friends, Muhammad Abdul Fattah. While packing, Muhammad and my brother insisted that I take my guitar. At that time, there were no stages in Tahrir, just a guy and a couple of his friends with a microphone and loudspeakers. So I sat down on the sidewalk and sung a little. People started gathering, the guy with the microphone came up to me, and by coincidence, there were some people from TV nearby who started filming.
The next day, people had set up a stage. This 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 in the square. That was when I wrote Irhal! (Leave!). The song is my adaptation of the demonstrators’ slogans, plus a couple of lines that I added:
For the remaining 18 days, I stayed in Tahrir Square. The day of the ‘Battle of the Camel’ was the only day in Tahrir Square that I did not sing. I was attacked, got hurt twice, and the next two days, I sung with bandages on my body. This earned me a lot of respect from other demonstrators. I wrote and composed my songs Idhaki Ya Thawra (Laugh O Revolution) and Irhal in Tahrir Square. Towards the end of the revolution, the square had some six or seven stages and I sung all over.
I met Ahmad Foad Negm for the first time in Tahrir Square. I learned then that a poem that I sung before the revolution, El Gahsh ‘al lil Humar (The Ass told the Donkey), which came to be considered one of the most important songs in Tahrir Square, actually was not his. It is a very insightful and brilliant poem, written by Muhammad Nabil. He is a young poet, and until Negm said that the poem is not his, Nabil was too shy to tell me that he was the author. He thought that I would not believe him.
I also work with Amgad al-Qahwagi, who wrote the text to my famous song Dabboura wi short wi cab (A badge, shorts and a cap) about the Egyptian police:
Usually when I come up with an idea for a song, I call Amgad and we work on it together, but sometimes, especially 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.
After Mubarak was ousted, the majority thought that things were over and people left for home. This was a big mistake. We demonstrated on February 25, but that day, the military with the help of thugs beat us really bad.
We continued our sit in until March 9. This was the sit-in that ousted Ahmad Shafiq, the prime minister put in place by Mubarak before leaving. That day, the army entered the square and took us to the Egyptian Museum where they tortured us. I was called by name and given a “special treatment”; they whipped me for hours, tied me down and tortured me. One officer kept jumping up in the air and hitting me with his both feet as he came down on my back and head. They electrocuted me, disfigured my body, and cut my hair with broken glass. I could not move for two weeks after that. But, the minute I was able to stand on my feet, I returned to Tahrir Square and sang my song El Geish el Araby Fein? (Where is the Arab Army?).
The song was composed before the revolution to mock the Arab armies who had abandoned their duties. It is not about personal vengeance; as time went by, the ugly face of the military has slowly been exposed.
I guess the good thing about me being tortured was that more people believed what I said after that. I have credibility as a singer and people know that I am not a baltagi (thug), which is what the army claimed that all arrested were. Sadly, in the beginning, many could not believe that the army would do such a thing. But as time went by, more people got the sense that the military was stealing our revolution. From January to this day, roughly 12,000 civilians have been put in military prisons.
I am currently recording a new album that hopefully will be out before the January anniversary of the revolution. It will be called El Midan (The Square), and is a collection of all my songs from the square. It is self-produced and self-financed. I did get very lucrative offers from big record label companies, but they came with a lot of conditions which, had I accepted, would have turned me into something very commercial. I want to continue singing what I want and saying what I want.