Stephan Said and Music for Global Change

Stephan Said (pronounced Sy-eed) is trying to change the world. He's in a unique position to do it, with parents living in Iraq and a mission to stir global change through music. An Arab American born in Cleveland, he's highly educated, musically gifted and new-media savvy. He's also, the best we can tell, sincere in his beliefs and doggedly determined to spark activism through music. Exactly how he plans to do this is what we wanted to find out.

Musicians and musical styles - think Bob Dylan and Rock & Roll - have changed the social and political dynamic in the past, and it might be possible that we're at the beginning of something big right now. Woody Guthrie had to hop on trains and travel the dustbowl to sing his message, but today a musical uprising looks very different. With so many divisions wedged between Americans and the Arab world, Said's movement is a step toward unity - we all want freedom and a government that represents our interests. Ordinary people around the world are rising up against their oppressors, and there is a soundtrack to their story.

Said has been at this for a while, releasing an anti-Iraq War song called "The Bell" back in 2002. Since then, he's been building a network to encourage activism, and in 2011 released the album difrent:, with the first single "Take A Stand." With an open mind, you can see how this just might work.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Historically, what artists have been the most successful in bringing social change, and how did they do it?

Stephan Said: Most often, it is artists who've operated at the forefront of change and the fringes of society, ahead of their time. Look at Rumi, William Blake, Van Gogh, Woody Guthrie, Florence Reece, or John the Baptist, for that matter, who was selflessly slain for starting the revolution most credit Christ for. These people died without widespread recognition or fame, but what they did was so real, it has continued to inspire people who dream of equality for generations. You could argue with me, but I will tell you one song that speaks the truth to one child who hears it is worth more than a song that represents something less than the truth but reaches 50 million.

Songfacts: Are there any common misconceptions Americans have about the Arab-American community, and have you addressed this in any of your songs?

Stephan: The misconception is obviously that Arab Americans are any less American than English Americans, Irish Americans, African Americans, German, Italian, French, Spanish or any other Americans. I do address it on the new album in the song "Song From Below," though the perspective is at once decidedly global as well. In many ways it kind of reminds me of "Redemption Song," in that it's an autobiographical song of a global citizen oppressed by society, but irrepressible in spirit, irrepressible in song.

Songfacts: Your song "Take A Stand" is a call to action, but many Americans are struggling financially and have lost faith in our political leaders. How can people help bring about the unity you describe?

Stephan: The majority of the world knows we need a more equitable global economy, but no politician will risk being the first to state this obvious fact in the hearts of so many. We are at a classic juncture once again where artists must help society push into a new era. My hope is that "Take A Stand" can reach people across borders, and instill in people a hope that we can unite in the dream and effort to create that more equitable society humankind has always dreamt of but never achieved. The whole concept of difrent: building a broadcast platform for music for social change is that we create a global distribution and touring network that can help our generation's movement grow worldwide.

Songfacts: What is the musical culture like in Iraq, and has that changed since the war? 

Stephan: Well, Iraq has an amazing musical heritage from street songs to sufi music to the well known Iraqi Maqam. But then, today, there's every style you can get here, hip hop, pop, to metal. Did you see that movie Heavy Metal Baghdad? That is bangin.

Songfacts: When you combine your ambitious mission of global change with your music, which comes first, the music or the message?

Stephan: To me, music and message are one and the same when they're most powerful; a border-breaking message can be conveyed in a border-breaking sound. If we could create a new, global sound with global lyrics, we could inspire a global generation and I believe I'm part of a generation and global artistic revolution that is declaring itself as such.

Songfacts: How does your Iraqi heritage affect your music, and are there specific songs where we can hear this influence musically? 

Stephan: In affects me deeply, entirely. I've scarcely had a day in my life that I wasn't confronted by the fact that my family could die of a bomb or shooting, and so I've had no choice but to be marked by this identity, by the need to seek peace and equality. On this album that identity is sonically most represented in "Aheb Aisht Al Huriyah (I Love the Life of Freedom)," which combines an Arabic rhythm in 10 with a 6/8 rhythm layered overtop of it, Imam-like call-to-prayer ecstatic singing, and heavy metal guitars to turn a clash of civilizations into a confluence of chaos and music. Singing on top of master percussionist Yousif Sheronick with Cindy Blackman-Santana pounding out a killer 10, with George layin' this OkayPlayer style bass wonk, is like being propelled by the blow of a bomblast, like it's some kind of new surfing or drifting.

Songfacts: What is the history of the song "Aheb Aisht Al Huriya," and why did you decide to record it? 

Stephan: I wanted to sing a beautiful song about freedom rising from the Middle East/North Africa to help bridge east and west. The lyrics are a poem by Egyptian poet-laureate Ahmed Rami, and were set to music once before in the 1930s by the famed Egyptian composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab as a universal message against colonialism. So I thought it would be a perfect song to carry that legacy into the future for today's generation, with a post-apocalyptic musical sound. It was recorded well before the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt started, and I suppose I was tapped into that same consciousness or zeitgeist simply by virtue of my heritage.

Songfacts: With attention spans dwindling, folk music seems to be getting lost on young people. How do you address this in your music?

Stephan: I've always mixed hip-hop, rap, rock, country, and world musics intentionally to break borders, while having deep knowledge of and respect for tradition. Folk music to me isn't a style, it is music of the people, music that takes a stand for change, for humanity's age-old quest for equality, in every genre, and makes it as popular as possible so that we can overcome.

Songfacts: How do you typically go about writing a song?

Stephan: Usually I get a very strong inspiration, either out of the blue or generated by feelings or thoughts on a subject, and music and/or a phrase comes to me. Then I'll just start riffing on the beat, the horn section, a repetitive hook, melody or sample, and rock out on it in my mind and let the song build itself both lyrically and sonically. It used to be I had the time to regularly pursue these ideas to finished compositions immediately, working all day or night on them. Now, I find myself busy or on the road, sending myself emails with song ideas or recording sung fragments into my phone that I come back to later, when I'll put in a week or weeks solid, living in songwriter/poet mode, completing the ideas.

Songfacts: Can you talk a bit about one of the songs on your new album (other than "Take A Stand") that is very important to you?

Stephan: "The Child In Me" is a song I wrote about how deep inside us each one of us still has a child, still knows the truth, believes the world can live in harmony, isn't jaded, and is playful and trusting. Because I believe we need all of those qualities, we need to hear the child inside of us, and all children, to achieve a better world. I wrote it when my daughter was born, thinking about the heartache I'd suffered personally being told I could never have a career in America with an Arabic name and so forth, and knowing I wanted her, and every child, to be born into a world in which they were truly loved and accepted as they are, for whom they are, where they have a chance to be heard.

Get the album and find out how to take action at difrent.org. For more Stephan, check out stephansaid.com.
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Comments: 1

  • Will from AlaskaHey Stephan, you came to my school today. I had the chance to not only listen to you during my school's chapel, but listen to you talk in a small group. I was inspired from your amazing talk. I also went to your concert after school and heard you sing, and play fiddle and guitar. It was so good!!! You are truly inspiring. Keep up the good work! #Peace #LightTheWorld
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