Lyrical inspiration can come from anywhere — personal experience, the day's headlines, bits of dialogue overheard in a cafe. Ramy Essam, a student with a ponytail and guitar in 2011, strung together the chants he heard in Cairo's Tahrir Square. He turned them into the song “Irhal” (Leave), and with its refrains “down, down Hosni Mubarak” and “he leaves, we stay” it quickly became the anthem of Egypt's Arab Spring revolution.
Mubarak, the president, did step down, as this baritone folksinger urged. But Essam kept on agitating: he would go on to pen protest lyrics that hit military regime and subsequent not-so-democratic rulers; sometimes authorities literally hit back, beating up the artist.
To dodge compulsory military service, Essam moved to Europe. He's travelled to alert the world to Egypt's ongoing struggles with democracy, but he continues to reach Egyptians through YouTube where his videos routinely get millions of views. In one single last year, more hard-rocking than his early Dylanesque folk, he called current ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “stupid.” The Egyptian government responded by jailing his lyricist and revoking Essam's passport.
Essam's voice is determined, with a judge-like sternness. He knows the country he can't return to deserves better: it's fought for better. Eight years on, it remains a long way away from that goal.
Biography by Jason Markusoff