‘Take it’ back please, Ramy Essam

On Friday a song was briefly released on YouTube by Egyptian musician Ramy Essam. The song, Ashan Takhdoh (So You Can Take It), is directed by successful artist Ganzeer. An angry, pseudo-punk track full of overdrive electric guitar and rough beats, it features Ramy’s usual confident, sexualized singing style with a new touch of metalish agonized screams.

Essam became famous during the 18-day sit-in in Tahrir Square in 2011. Later there was a backlash against him, fed-up opinions about revolution hype and overratedness. I didn’t like his singing in the square much but it seemed inevitable that the continual musical experimentation with chanting would eventually lead to some sort of organized entertainment practice. Also the personification of the revolutionary act in the image of a good-looking young man made perfect sense in the context of an over-romanticized history of political struggle. I may have felt slightly uncomfortable about the mixture of such basic emphases (one man’s charisma and ambition) and an actual fight for existence where people die. But people will always like life and sex more than death and rubber bullets.

After June 30, 2013, a lot of “revolutionary” voices felt threatened and surrounded by both official harassment and public suspicion. Many artists who had enjoyed a space to do almost whatever they wanted now had to deal with the general fading of the revolutionary atmosphere. The people wanted stability and the authorities wanted to help them feel it was happening. Essam was one of those who felt that danger — maybe he thought his history of songs denouncing the authorities with strong language might put him in a prominent place on the watch list. He was granted something called “a safe city residence” for two years by the Malmö Municipality of Sweden, according to his Wikipedia page. From there he carried on making songs with even stronger language and more direct attacks on those running Egypt and the way they run it, as well as on the way people are cooperating with this.

In his previous video clip, Essam mocked Aahd al-Ars (The Age of the Pimp), repeating “cheer for the pimp” over footage from Boshret Kheir (Good Omen), a famous pro-Sisi music video. He was clearly blaming the massive numbers of Egyptians who got involved in the propaganda campaign for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The popular involvement in the huge counter-revolutionary shift three years after the uprising confused, disappointed and depressed a lot of pro-revolutionaries. Various debates are taking place right now around the communication between activists and the majority, with discussions on who is to blame and how much a normal citizen’s involvement in a reactionary sort of activism can be morally evaluated. But Aahd al-Ars wasn’t as controversial as Ashan Takhdoh is.

I don’t know where to start, to be honest. Perhaps the title. For many, it has a very obvious sexual connotation. I don’t know who the “you” is. Is it everybody other than Essam and the people who helped him make the song? Is it everybody who disagrees with Essam? In the previous song where Essam sings “We got stuck with the pimp,” he was included as an Egyptian, and we all were stuck with the pimp. Is Essam not with us any more? What is it that Essam and his friends have that we don’t that make us two separate groups?

The main jist of the lyrics is: As long as there is no justice (a rather late realization) the rifle is the solution (what a conclusion!). The words were written a while ago by Mostafa Ibrahim, a young and brilliant poet who has been and still is embedded in revolutionary discourse, dreams and confusion like most of us. Ibrahim wrote on his Facebook page after the release of the song that he declined to give permission to Essam to use the lyrics, that they were used against his will. Did Essam think it was okay to use them despite this refusal, or was it a communication problem? Or is the project too anarchist to care about shit like that?

By Saturday, the song was taken off YouTube and Ibrahim had deleted his Facebook post. You can still find the song on YouTube uploaded from a different account, because guess what? This is what happens when you put things on the internet, they’re there forever.

The rifle solution

The clip, in which a black-and-white Essam with long curly hair wields an electric guitar, is edited with notorious bits of footage from the revolution and ornamented with shaky, angry doodles, in Ganzeer’s signature style. Cartoon lightning and explosions burst off the guitar and Essam’s angry face, and speech bubbles are drawn on demonstrators’ faces. A Ganzeer drawing of a rifle appears every now and then, celebrating and emphasizing the straightforward call for action the song delivers.

If the justice scales are tipped upside down
honor can only be brought back by blood
when throwing stones no longer works
guns make more sense.
You either roll up your sleeves
and take it
or bend over
and take it.

So. In a country that elected a military president after three years of turbulence. In an area of the world sinking into armed sectarian fighting. After months of organized pro-regime mainstream-media brainwashing and xenophobia, two artists not living in Egypt (Ganzeer now lives in the US) make a video telling people that the best way to bring back justice is to carry guns. Or else, kneel down and be sodomized. I’m unable to see where the metaphor or artistic symbolism is in a message like this. I don’t think there is any.

Perhaps this piece is the natural result of a stupid, sentimental relationship with the revolution since it began. A relationship where the boring repetition of chants and quotes and values ended up emptying everything of meaning. The human values on which the revolution was meant to gain popularity get commercialized and abused until people make songs about carrying guns without even actually thinking about what that means. Yeah, because “guns” here don’t really mean guns? No? The same way the word “martyr” no longer refers to a person with a life and a family and a choice as much as it refers to public ownership of the meaning of your death.

This helpless commercialization of values must be examined, as well as failed attempts to get people’s sympathy through blaming them. Emotional blackmail and constant trading of guilt have to be put on the same table as revolutionary failures and poor understanding of the political sphere. Revolutionary responsibilities and the aims and gains of activism itself must be discussed, in order to help those who only see a sad story of rise and fall to see the wider picture, scope and impact of an event of this size.

Ashan Takhdoh opens a lot of important conversations and recurrent questions concerning revolutionary discourse and that which calls itself revolutionary art. What does that label mean in the first place? Are you a revolutionary artist if you’re on the opposition’s side? Does that mean Muslim Brotherhood propaganda is revolutionary art? Would the Rabea sign be considered art if it was designed by an artist connected with international art institutions and speaking good English?

Revolutionary art seems to always have a problem with reactionism and conservatism. Revolutionary artists want to push boundaries and change things. In the Ashan Takhdoh video, a speech bubble has the line “Can you please change?” handwritten in it. I feel very insulted by this line. I really don’t like the passive-aggressive tone of advice given to me unsolicited by someone who wants me to change because I’m clearly worse than he is.

How successful is a video like this in that sense? How much of it is about what’s going on in here in Egypt and how much of it is about what’s going on in the lives of its makers?


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