For the longest time, music artists have depicted the world around them as it unfolds. The change, the revolutions, the social injustice , and the universal story which connects us all : hope. The term ‘activist ‘ has long since been overtly used to describe those artists who use their voice to talk about the world. And what of it? I like to think we can challenge the often negative connotation that comes along when talking about music artists and music artists who are activists. What I find fundamentally inept in calling artists activists is that people seem to misinterpret the role of the artist : they see , observe, and relate . So yes, they are actively engaging in social and human stories, and by way of doing so they take ‘action’ to send their message across.
In my mind, that’s the definitive role of the artist, activist or not.
This time round, I’m delighted to shine a light on a fellow such artist, the incomparable Egyptian born singer Ramy Essam. He is best known for his appearances in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. One of the few singers in Middle East to sing hard rock, he’s considered the voice of the Egyptian Revolution, and has gone on to receive world -wide fame as a powerful voice. He’s collaborated with the likes of PJ Harvey, released in June 2017 to benefit displaced children in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley fleeing the Syrian Civil War.
Today, at Backseat I sat down with Ramy and his collaborators to talk about his latest project, the music video and release of ‘ Mafi Mafi ‘ (Khod), performed by Ramy ; video by the incredible Tariq Keblaoui, and lyrics by Samir Skayni ‘. This is something which resonates deeply with me, as it quite boldy depicts the demise of Lebanon, a country whose people have been crippled under its government. To put it in Ramy’s own words :
“I am so lucky and honored to be welcomed by Lebanese artists and activists to collaborate on creating this important and valuable project. Mafi Mafi (Khod) is one of the best teamwork experiences I’ve had in my life. It all started when the Lebanese revolution unfolded, and I saw the footage of the free people raging in the streets, fighting for their better future. It looked and felt exactly like the revolution in Egypt. I can’t explain how proud I was to see the people of Lebanon playing my song El Ars in the streets. I felt so connected to what was happening. And so, I decided to start “Mafi Mafi (Khod)” with a talented group of Lebanese artists working alongside video director Tariq Keblaoui and lyricist Samir Skayni.
In our region we share the same pain. We unite together through art to oppose those in power who oppress us.” The song is performed in arabic, with Eugene Ionesco- like theatrical depictions of current Lebanese state brought about by the charismatic documentary footage of Kablaoui ( a videographer for CNN Lebanon).
BSM: Ramy , how did ” Mafi Mafi ( Khod) ” come about?
Ramy : After the revolution started in Lebanon, the streets needed more political art like Mafi Mafi, and here comes what we all shared. We wanted to take responsibility and contribute as artists. Ramy has been doing the same for Egypt since 2011. One of his songs, 3ahd El 3ars reached the Lebanese revolution and took part in the streets protests all over the country. Which encouraged Ramy to start searching through social media public posts (Ganzeer post) for Lebanese artists/activists that want to say something. Then we found each other and started working on the song in September 2021.
BSM: What inspired this project?
Tariq: At some point in September of 2021, after the economic crisis felt like it reached its peak, Ramy reached out to me on instagram after I replied to his friend’s post about a music video. I was shocked to see that it was the Ramy Essam, who I knew had the very popular song “Age of the Pimp” that went viral in the Lebanese revolution. We arranged a meeting and talked. He had told me that he wanted to make a song about the situation in Lebanon because of how attached he felt to the country through the popularity of his song and the connection he felt with it and the Egyptian revolution. I told him all about the dire circumstances of how in Lebanon we lack water, food, electricity, medicine, etc. and somewhere in course of our conversation he decided to make the song about just that: “Mafi Mafi”, meaning “There is nothing”. We eventually got Samir Skayni, a good Lebanese friend and colleague of mine, to co-write the lyrics with Ramy to help have the song really grasp the dire and absurd context of life in Lebanon in the past two years. Eventually, once the song was ready to go, he sent it over, and working alongside my graphic designer we were able to somehow make a video using my archive collection of footage between 2019 and 2022 and animated graphic elements in two weeks time.
BSM: So ultimately your role as both an artist and activist is what drew you in to collaborate on this project ?
Ramy :I believe that Mafi Mafi would never be real and reflect the streets of Lebanon as it is now without collaborating with local Lebanese artists/activists, especially with super talented people like Tariq Keblaoui and Samir Skayni.
BSM :The song refers to the current Lebanese state, yet speaks universally. Can you relate yourself and how ?
Ramy : I have lived in Exile now for 8 years, and one thing that I definitely have learned is the more I travel the world, the more I believe we all share the same pain and suffer from the same corruption, especially when it comes to the SWANA region.
BSM : The video is truly mind blowing, capturing the song’s message. What was the envisioning process like ?
Tariq: We wanted to portray the chaos and absurdity of the situation in Lebanon, and we believed that footage alone would not grasp the intensity of the situation. So, alongside my video archives from my journalistic work between 2019 (the start of the Lebanese revolution), 2020 (Corona and the Beirut explosion) and 2021 (the peak of the economic collapse), we used animated graphic elements to portray those who are being criticized in the song (the banks and politicians) in a image we thought suited them– which was to portray them satirically. So we came up with things like a cyclops Riad Salami (Governor of the Central Bank) and animal head politicians. Overall it was really my first ever serious attempt at directing a fully experimental piece, but through the mix of multimedia I feel we were able to capture a feeling of what it feels like to live in the midst of a rapidly collapsing society run by incompetent politicians.
BSM: Musically speaking, the song is inherently a contemporary fusion of both Egyptian and Lebanese rhythm changes. Was this intentional ?
Ramy : Yes, this was 100% intentional. We wanted it to be a Lebanese song while keeping my identity (Egyptian identity) in it as well.
BSM : Can we expect more collaborations like this? Any future plans ?
Ramy : The answer is absolute, yes, and we have talked about it already. This was one of the healthiest and most productive teamwork environments I ever had.
Tariq: I would love to collaborate more with Ramy in the future, and hope that anytime he needs a filmmaker that I’ll be able to be his guy.
I for one would love to see another collaboration, and have no doubt it will be as empowering. Clearly, music has that uncanny ability to speak for those who cannot.