Q&A: Stephan Said On Creating A Generational Zeitgeist, Collapsing Genre Boundaries, And Meeting Allen Ginsberg
New York-based songwriter Stephan Said has played in punk bands, toured in Ween, worked as a migrant worker and befriended and worked with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Pete Seeger and Patti Smith. The Iraqi-American musician is a longtime grassroots organizer; he had a hand in the 1999 WTO demonstrations in Seattle and recently set up a Diferent.org, a web site connecting musical activists from around the globe.
Said has released several albums--most under the name Stephan Smith--and he has a knack for prescience. His 1999 Rounder debut, Now is the Time, called for the need of the Arab world and Western world to come together peacefully because things were looking bad. In the early '00s Said's antiwar song "The Bell," which featured Pete Seeger, was an online hit, a feat even more impressive given that it came out in the pre-YouTube era. Several months ago he recorded the Egyptian folk song "Aheb Aisht Al Huriyah" ("I Love the Life of Freedom"), and it's currently part of the soundtrack to uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
Said is playing a monthly series of live shows at Drom leading up to the June 7 digital release of his album difrent and re-release of his back catalog. Sound of the City spoke to him about the shows, the people he's met in New York City, and the current political climate.
It's amazing that you picked that Egyptian folk song "Aheb Aisht Al Huriyah" ("I Love the Life of Freedom") to record as a show of solidarity some months ago and now that whole revolution has come to pass.
I can only say that I guess I was part of the zeitgeist that was building in advance of uprising. No radio stations in the U.S. were ever going to play the song, or any of the songs I'd recorded. But thousands of people were forwarding the song and listening to it. It was having an impact on a large audience that had nothing to do with the music industry.
What do you think the impact of Osama bin Laden's death will have on the Middle East and World politics?
I don't know. I almost think it's inconsequential. I think it's probably good for people to have some resolution, but it doesn't really change the situation on the ground. He was one guy who was a figurehead that represented something to people. Right now we are in the same place as before. But I think there is an enormous opportunity to create peace and change the dialogue in the Middle East right now. The pro-democracy rebellion and the failure of Al Qaeda's vision mean that we have an enormous opportunity over the next six to eight months for forgiveness on both sides. Let's hope our administration will be that brave and bold. Hopefully because of my heritage and the position I'm in I can be a part of helping seize this opportunity to create peace and a brighter future.
What's up with these Drom shows that lead up to the record release?
For these shows I'm bringing a diverse list of voices as guests. They are all involved in different ways, usually in music, but maybe art or culture or social change in some way.
What's the point of that?
This helps a movement to coalesce because right now we have so many voices out there. But they are handled in isolation of each other. There is something happening in Japan, Madison, Somalia, Hurricane Katrina or these other things. But as soon as they are put in the same room in the same conversation then people come together across borders in real way. That creates a real movement or a generational zeitgeist for global change.
It's a dual purpose of creating a borderless movement but I'm also creating a new global music that brings people together. My set goes from rap and hip-hop to world music to rock and pop all in a number of songs. We need to bring together these different styles of music to create the changes that we need.
So this same kind of thinking also applies to your web site?
As far as music is a tool for social change, I was always an organizer. So with my songs, my words were about change and also about being integrally involved with social change. When I got ready to do my next album, I thought about that fact that I had been doing songs my whole career and I wanted to go beyond that. I wanted to create a web site and maybe a TV show that would be a CNN for social change. This could promote lots of songs for lots of artists globally as opposed to another song about another cause. I don't want to throw another song there almost into the void because we need to build a movement.