Arab-American artist-activist Stephan Said cuts classic Egyptian song of unity

Featured, News Feb 03, 2011 No Comments

Arab-American singer-songwriter and peace activist Stephan Said has just released a new version of the classic Egyptian civil rights anthem “Aheb Aisht Al Huriya” (“I Love the Life of Freedom”) in both YouTube video and MP3 formats.

The MP3 version, says Said, is free for use “by all those who are non-violently working to build the international movement for a more just society.” It can be downloaded at

Both the MP3 and YouTube video are accompanied by a taped statement by Said expressing hope and stressing nonviolence within the context of the current turmoil in the Middle East.

The lyrics to “Aheb Aisht Al Huriya” were written by the great Egyptian poet-laureate Ahmed Shawki, with music by the legendary singer-composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

“It’s an anthem to global unity and equality that I learned from my father,” says Said of the 1930s song. Reflecting on the current political climate, both in the Middle East and throughout the world, he states, “This is our moment — the moment when each of us must summon our highest, most poetic selves to courageously step into the brilliance of the next world, a world already in the making.”

Said had previously recorded “Aheb Aisht Al Huriya” for his forthcoming album difrent, which is produced by Hal Willner and will be released in September on the International Day of Peace.

“It’s bizarre to have recorded this renowned Egyptian freedom anthem from the ’30s and to see what’s happening now,” marvels Said. “I couldn’t have handpicked a song be more perfect: such high poetry, that’s absolutely apolitical but Kahlil Gibran-esque as an allegorical poem to freedom and global unity. So what else to do but give this expression as support to those people who are taking such a stand — and give a loving cultural voice to it that can help unify people’s emotions and spirits and lift them.”

Said sings the song in Arabic and, in the video, displays the English translation on handheld poster boards. The song played yesterday on Democracy Now! the daily TV/radio news program airing via public media, and has also been programmed on the U.S. government-financed Middle East news/information satellite TV channel Alhurra.

Meanwhile, difrent is slated for release via The Orchard Group, which will reissue Said’s entire back catalog this spring — including a previously unreleased album with John Alagia, who has produced John Mayer and Jason Mraz. The reissue conincides with Said’s residency at East Village world music club Drom, where he’ll perform the second Thursday of the month in March, April and May.

Difrent is Said’s first album to be released under his given name — which is pronounced sigh-EED. The Iraqi-American has gone by Stephan Smith, and won acclaim for his song “The Bell” — “the first major song against the war in Iraq,” according to The New York Times, and the first viral protest MP3 and music video, according to Billboard.

Later the title track of a 2003 EP, the song, which was recorded with Pete Seeger, Ween’s Dean Ween and hip-hop artist Mary Harris and backed by a viral video, was also hailed by The Guerilla News Network as the “anti-war anthem for our generation” and aired on over 100 public and college radio stations.

“My whole career direction is in using my music as much as possible as an agent for social change, and updating and pushing the envelope as to how much we can do for the global generation,” says Said, who’s using the new album to advance its namesake organization, difrent, which started up last year. He characterizes it as a global broadcasting platform for music for social change.

“More artists and organizations are using music as an agent for social change,” he says. “The political processes are failing, but the Internet is opening doors to bypass it and use our art to spearhead necessary change.”

He cites independent involvement by the likes of John Legend, the Roots, Nas, Damian Marley, South Korean female group The Messenger Band, Brazil’s Afroreggae, Sudanese rap artist Emmanuel Jal, Alicia Keys, and Ghanaian hip-hop artist Blitz the Ambassador, all of whom are likewise using music to express global realities and effect social change.

“We need a place to bring us all together to form a movement and build momentum instead of having one-offs that disappear,” says Said, who envisioned the difrent platform when his career began a decade ago — but technology wasn’t there to enable it.

“It was pre-YouTube and Facebook, but a lot has changed since then,” he continues, noting that organizations like Amnesty International, Oxfam, and Keep A Child Alive now incorporate music and musicians in their campaigns. “Right now the tools and organizations are there, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel in putting them together.”

Difrent is based in New York, “but really, it’s global by nature, involved with schools and partnering with groups all over,” says Said. “The main thing is the partnership with thousands of Model elementary, high school and university UN schools worldwide [Model UN schools simulate the United Nations bodies like the General Assembly and Security Council] and the Millenium Development Goals Awards [the New York-based ceremony honors governments and individuals who strive to meet such goals as eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and achieving universal primary education] and a growing number of interfaith and youth organizations to develop and distribute curriculum that engages youth worldwide in making their own music and culture for a more equal and sustainable world.”

Said headlined the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Awards gala last fall, where he announced the launch of difrent. In December, he received the 2010 Meyer Risk Taker’s Award from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the organization that organized Jewish support for Nelson Mandela in the early 1990s.

Concludes Said, “The movement begins with us.”

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