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.
Do you have a formal background in politics?
I have a master's degree in international affairs from the New School. After helping organize the demonstrations in Seattle during the WTO meetings in 1999, I realized that we needed people that could cross over. People like me who are artists and organizers who have a deeper understanding of economics and understand international development. To figure where the problems are and fix things in a real way. To create that kind of activity, so it's not charity work anymore. Charity is by nature a band-aid fix and we need a systemic change to achieve peace and create a sustainable environment.
How did you initially get involved?
The first gulf war was a major catalyst for me. As a member of our generation, which I think is the first global generation, that war was the first war of globalization. It's less personal than you might expect. This was a war about oil. It was over a global economic situation that was untenable. It made me realize that this thing that is facing all of us is hitting me and my family right in the face.
And your musical background?
I started playing music at an early age. Mother is Austrian and my father is Iraqi. I was raised like a Southern all-American boy. I was kind of raised in Richmond, Virginia, at the precipice of our generation. I dealt with being an all-American kid while my country was bombing my family in the first gulf war. I quit high school and joined punk bands, but I was always a student of politics and history.
You've had an amazing luck meeting people when you moved to New York. How did you meet Allen Ginsberg?
I met Allen Ginsberg through a through a friend who played with the Fugs. He asked me to come out to the Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado. There I met Hal Wilner, Amiri Baraka and David Crosby. Allen was my mentor from the time I arrived in New York in '95, up until '97 when he died. And then Pete Seeger became my mentor. I don't think I would have made it through without them.
You try to integrate a lot of different ideas into your music. Why not focus on one style?
I'm looking to create an infectious music that can bring people together all over the world in every style of music. The industry as it is collapsing is becoming increasingly genre-ified. But almost all of my friends don't just listen to rock, hip-hop or folk music. They listen to what they think is the best of all of it. Yet the industry still wants to market artist as one or the other, almost as if they are caricatures of themselves. At this point I really think we are at a point where art really could lead to shift in consciousness.
Your first non-self-released album came out in 1999, but your second album is only coming out now after effectively being shelved. What happened?
One can only speculate, but I only know that I made an album that sounded like Stevie Wonder and Prince called Proclaiming Jubilation. It was a super pop album that was calling for massive change where humanity had to fulfill the dream to be more free and equal. I took it the pop hilt and at the same time was calling for change. I did it in 2000 and I was hoping to stop something like a 9/11 because I knew something was about to happen. Most of our generation knew that the shit was about to hit the fan, and the only way to avoid it was for everyone to wake up now.
I remember talking to record executives and them saying things like: "There are hit songs here, but no one wants to hear lyrics about trying to make a better world. If it was a love song it would be better." The world is falling apart and they want a love song? What can I say? It's an important story to hear. I think people are ready for it. Then when it didn't happen I just wanted to move on instead of waste energy for two years trying to get an album out. Instead I wanted to work on a new one. So it got put it in a box and it sat there.
How did 9/11 affect your career?
After "The Bell" in 2003 I started to tour and work with different organizations. I couldn't really work in the music industry after 9/11. I was in The New York Times and stuff, but as an Iraqi-American I was shut down in the music industry. After 9/11, managers couldn't risk having their artists perform alongside an Arab-American who was singing about peace. Look what happened to the Dixie Chicks for making a small joke--people started burning the band's CDs. I was shut down.
Is it still that way?
Now that's all changed. All that is now almost to my advantage. I now can look back and say, "Wow, what a story." But at the time it happened. Now I wouldn't have it any other way because it helped me to work with grassroots organizations around the globe to do something different that is having a real impact. It was invaluable.
Stephan Said plays at Drom tonight; doors are at 6:30, show at 8
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.