What happens to a protest music artist when the soldiers are rolled back and the tear gas disperses?
This was a question Ramy Essam faced when he landed in Malmo in 2014. Hailed by some as the "voice of the Egyptian revolution" for his Tahrir Square anthem Irhal, the then 27 year-old rocker had gratefully accepted the offer of safe city residence. Essam describes the initial relief of being away from the eyes of the Egyptian security establishment, who had locked him up twice before, as being quickly replaced with a gnawing sense of isolation.
“It was weird, man,” he says on a recent visit to Dubai. “You are talking to an Egyptian from the streets, from a revolution that came straight from Cairo to Sweden. It was a culture shock in so many ways.”
It wasn’t Malmo’s mixture of modern and 14th-century Gothic architecture, a world far way to gritty streets of Cairo, that struck Essam.
Instead, he points to the Scandinavian city’s lack of social interaction and hustle and bustle as the most disconcerting element.
“Everyone is in his own bubble and they just walk by,” he adds. “I don’t want to generalise – I’m sure there are some people who are not like that. But this was really difficult for me. Especially if I’m comparing Egypt and Sweden, it’s like warm people compared to this coldness there [in Sweden]. One thing for sure, it is the kind of place you get a lot of time to think and do things.”
In the case of Essam, he did what is most natural to him, he composed a batch of songs that would form his latest album, A Letter to the UN Security Council.
Released through Universal Music Middle East and produced in a professional studio (other recordings have been DIY affairs recorded at home studios), this major-label debut is a fiery and polished dozen song set focusing on regional hot-button topics – from the structural barriers facing the Egyptian underclass (El Horreya Lel Geda'an) to the empowerment of Arab women (Segn Bel Alwan).
What makes the release impressive is that it manages to avoid the major pitfall of many protest albums, where message prioritises the music. Nothing here sounds forced or polemic. Most of the lyrics, written by Egyptian poets Amjad Al Kahwaji and Jalal Al Bahairy, are delivered in a crisp, clipped, conversational style.
Essam, who is responsible for all the arrangements, marries the words with a classic rock and punk aesthetic that recalls that of the calibre of The Rolling Stones and The Clash.
Indeed, from Irhal to the new album, Essam shows how natural the Arabic language can sound on top of rock arrangements.
Take, for example, the politically charged Dabora We Short We Cap. Over strident chords, Essam gives snapshots of the action in Tahrir Square before elongating the final syllable of the defining line – "We will celebrate in January, come dance with us" – to form the chorus. It's a technique straight out of the alternative rock and grunge songbook, and one to surely cause Arabic purists to howl.
Essam welcomes it – reverence of the language has been the downfall of many Arabic rock groups.
“You need to be flexible and not have this mentality that it should be sung in a certain way,” he says. “My journey really has been trying to make the language work for me.
“I stretch letters, I stretch words; I can do whatever as long as it sounds good. I don’t have any borders when I’m composing.”
That said, Essam’s work is purely confined within the Egyptian context.
Born in Mansoura, a city hailed by locals as the “pride of the Nile” and located about 120 kilometres north-east of Cairo, Essam was born into a family of four, to a father who was a lawyer and engineer and a mother who is a housewife.
Inspired after seeing a fellow school pupil playing guitar, he learnt at the age of 17. Three years later, powered by a diet of rock and grunge (influential bands being Nirvana and Linkin Park), Essam branched out into songwriting.
“They were mostly love songs at first,” he admits, sheepishly, quickly adding: “But they weren’t for me. I wanted them to be sung by other artists. They were not really a good fit for me.”
He credits activist older brother Shadi, who raised Essam from the age of 11 after their father died, for making him politically aware.
“He was teaching law in a university over there,” Essam says. “Shadi was all the time talking and teaching me about corruption and what the government was doing.
“There is a connection between that and the political songs that I began to write. Irhal was one of them, I began writing parts of the song before the revolution.”
Essam recalls not taking part in the Mansoura leg of the January 25 protests in 2011 – the day that kickstarted the revolution.
“Because it was only for the activists and I didn’t see myself as one yet,” he explains. “To me, it was only events posted on Facebook saying: ‘We would make a revolution on the 25th.’ I didn’t go, I just went to the sports club to play football.”
Like many, Essam was awed by the more than three million people who took part in the first wave and immediately joined the second day of protests three days later in Mansoura.
Swept by the revolutionary fervour, which Essam describes as “this one big force”, he made the two-hour trip to Cairo for another mass sitting at Tahrir Square three days later.
This time, Essam – who only played five small concerts at the time – took his guitar. With no stage erected during the day and with more than two dozen songs under his belt, Essam proceeded to walk around the area – an equal mix protest site, carnival and triage – and sing among the angry and wounded.
Understandably, it wasn’t the easiest of crowds. “They didn’t like me the beginning,” he says. “But after a while, they started to get what I was doing.
“What convinced them, I think, was when they found that I was not some guy coming to sing and leave. I was also sleeping there with them. So when there was an attack on the square, I was leaving my guitar and being a protester. That’s why I never looked at myself as a protest singer. I was a protester who can sing. There is a difference.”
The following chilly night, the stage was finally up, Essam, clad in a black overcoat, stepped up with his acoustic guitar to perform the song that came to become one of the symbols of the revolution.
It was an electrifying moment. With spare yet direct lyrics built around a rudimentary four-chord guitar progression, Irhal synthesised the various slogans shouted by different students and social movements that made up the protests
The call-and-response nature had the raucous, million-strong crowd repeating the song’s main refrain: “All of us/ As one/ And we demand one thing/ Leave, leave, leave”.
Essam says the song’s notoriety lives on. He only played one more gig in Egypt after that – a return date at Tahrir Square on December 31, 2011 – before taking refuge in Sweden and most recently in the Finnish capital of Helsinki, where he is now based.
Having turned 30 last month, Essam is now set to return to Egypt to reunite with loved ones.
He says this visit will be a low-key affair: “I will be going soon, [I’m] just finalising a few things,” he says.
“When I’m in Egypt, I’m not going there to work, not at all – I’m going to be with my mom, to see my friends, to chill out and then travel again and perform. I know that no one is going to guarantee my safety, but Egypt will always be my home. I just need it.”