Musician who helped inspire Egyptian Revolution speaks on art, resistance

Meara Isenberg

Ramy Essam strummed his guitar, filling a lecture room with the melody of his song “Irhal” — the same tune that once played through Tahrir Square in Egypt as the anthem of a revolution.

Essam, an Egyptian musician, visited the Belo Center for New Media on Wednesday to share his experience as an artist during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

“I was so lucky to witness a moment in the revolution, to see the power of the music,” Essam said. “In the square, it was really uniting people from different backgrounds that might have never had a chance to talk in Egypt, but in that moment we were all singing together.”

The revolution sparked when protesters against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak lead demonstrations across Egypt, speaking out against police brutality, lack of freedom of speech and other issues with the regime.

Essam’s role would come as a surprise to him. He had began writing activist songs just three years before the revolution, but it was in those songs that he would find his voice, Essam said.

“In the beginning, I was just writing love songs,” Essam said. “I met a poet in my hometown, and he was the first one to show me political poetry and words that had meaning. I found that you can have a message in your art.”

Performing in front of 300,000 people in Cairo, Egypt, Essam used his art to effect change.

“This is a really cool and unique experience because we don’t usually get to see Egyptian voices about the revolution,” history senior Ashleigh Pearce said. “The only way that you can develop an idea about it is by hearing different perspectives.”

Garrett Shuffield, Middle Eastern studies graduate student, said understanding different perspective is essential.

“The more informed we are, the better we will understand the world and the better decisions we can make, not just on large scale issues like policy, but we can just have more compassion for other people and their experiences,” Shuffield said.

Essam’s song “Irhal,” which translates to “Leave,” got him imprisoned and tortured during the revolution. However, Essam said he would do it again.

“It was so good to see the fear in their eyes, to see really how afraid they were of just words and songs,” Essam said. “It was important to know I was on the right path.”