It’s the one year anniversary of the release of difrent:, on the International Day of Peace, 2011. Years went into making difrent:, and many trials and tribulations beyond my control delayed it’s release, but it seems it was destined to happen as it did. I have given my career and voice to building a global movement for equality, systemic change, and human rights. difrent: was the first album I released reclaiming my born name, Said, after music industry professionals had claimed “I could never have a career in America with an Arabic name.”
More than three years before it’s release, when I had begun tracking for the album, I’d decided to record ‘Aheb Aisht Al Huriya,’ one of the most beloved, classic Egyptian anthems to freedom, reinterpreted, entirely new music. I intended to make a statement, a beautiful call for unity rising out of the Middle East. I asked my father to teach me the words to the song, and the band wailed it out in one take. It was my identity, stretched across the biggest conflict of our generation, screaming to come out as the crisis reached boiling point, that compelled me to record the song. Zeitgeist isn’t an accident. It occurs when thousands of people simultaneously, and independently, are swept up in the convergence of history and their identity. It is inevitable. It doesn’t occur by choice, but out of dire necessity.
From the first days of 2011, it seemed as though the album’s themes were unfolding across the globe, one after another. The day the Egyptian revolution started, “Aheb Aisht Al Huriya” was already done, ready for release. Film-maker Matt Kohn shot a video of me two days later on a snow covered rooftop in Greenpoint, New York City, with the Manhattan skyline in the background, with me, making an appeal for a global movement, flipping the translated lyrics line by line, page by page in a poster board pad – in a post-apocalyptic, East-meets-West Subterranean-homesick blues mashup. In the end, there was nothing subterranean about it, but rather, homesick for a world in which we lived as one, as the biggest wave of revolution in decades was about to unfold.
We released the video and song immediately, along with the first of several pieces I wrote in Middle East and US press on how and why change in the Middle East and North Africa could not come through national or regional movements, but only through a global movement for a more equitable economic system. The struggle could not be limited to Tunisia, Egypt, or the Middle East and North Africa alone. We needed, and still need, not an Arab Spring, but a global one – the great movement humankind has waited for and dreamt of for thousands of years. We need an idea big enough to elevate our dignity, and commit us to sustained non-violence across borders to create a society in which we live equally with each other and our planet.
I continued writing throughout the spring and summer while preparing for the album launch, and the first single, “Take A Stand”, was released as a free download via the Huffington Post on September 8. The following day, September 9, The Progressive Magazine published the liner notes to difrent:, a short manifesto calling for an international movement for a more equitable society called “A Song United for A Global Spring.” I appeared on PRI/BBC’s The World the same day. PRI’s host, Marco Werman, was keen to understand the role of identity, the individual’s personal story, at the core of the album and the zeitgeist both.
One week later, a few hundred people began a small protest on Wall Street that would grow into the Occupy Movement. The album was officially released four days after, September 21. An Al Jazeera cameraman caught me leading hundreds of people in downtown Manhattan chanting in Arabic, the words to Aheb Aisht Al Huriyah, with me. The April 6 movement and Al-Ahram, the biggest Arabic newspaper, among others, picked up the clip and reposted and distributed it. Not much longer and I would be introducing the April 6 movement’s Ahmed Maher and Asmaa Mahfouz on the steps of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, again chanting the words.
My purpose remained and remains resolute since my debut album “Now’s the Time,” which announced the beginnings of this great and growing global movement for equality, in advance of the Seattle demonstrations in 1999. Thirteen years and several local and global efforts later, we have learned that we need to create something bigger. It is that great hope, across all borders, across all political boundaries, for a movement to unite humankind, This is the hope that inspired this album, difrent:
As artists, we’re at our best not when we create, but when we’re merely witnesses to inspiration around and within us, to our world and to our feelings. When these converge, something beyond us happens beyond our control. I’m grateful to my family, friends and supporters for sticking by me to make work that truly has and continues to have a real impact helping to ignite social change across the world in the face of a music industry that has silenced the most important songs of our generation. I am grateful to Hal Willner for enabling the vision and crafting it with me into something enduring, free of artifice, something fresh each listen, something bigger than myself. I am also grateful to the amazing musicians and professionals, whose souls and sensitivity are all over and up inside the notes on the album: Cindy Blackman, Kevin Hunter, George Mitchell, Yousif Sheronick, Lenny Pickett, Howard Johnson, Art Baron, Earl Gardner, Mark Plati, Marty Brumbach, John Kilgore, The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Rob Clores, and Phil Klum.
As TIME Magazine named ‘The Protestor’ its ‘Person of the Year,’ neither the Grammy’s nor the Billboard Top 100 featured a single song from the movements. These songs that made and continue to make history, we gave and give away for free, not for fame or fortune, but out of necessity, to help give birth to a global movement for change. We are not alone. Another World Is Possible, and we will make it real.
Friday, Sept. 21, at the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC, is a party for the digital release of the amazing compilation of Allen’s life recordings, Holy Soul Jelly Roll. I was lucky to join Allen for the release tour, just the two of us, him singing, reading, harmonium and me singing, fiddle, guitar, banjo and dobro when angel-voiced friend Steven Taylor ended up on tour in Italy with The Fugs. The tour was heavily publicized, several Days at McCabes (shout out to John Chelew), Viper Room (Johnny Depp), City Lights (Lawrence Ferlinghetti , and the incomparable Shig Murao), The Presidio, I still have set lists and notes from shows.
First night at McCabes Joni Mitchell was there, Rick Rubin and Donovan hung backstage before the show while we tuned up and made our set, the room was vibrating. Corso joined us one show, busting an amazing “Wild Nights” that brought Emily Dickinson into the room wrapping around the strings of lutes, 12 strings, banjos, ouds. I was pretty much a kid.
At The Viper Room, because the show would be taped and broadcast by major networks, production crew spent tons on a stage set to look like a stuffy Harvard Library… complete with a cumbersomely dark throne for Allen, which they proudly invited him to sit in. In the most unassuming language, Allen quickly informed them he had to have a standard metal folding chair, nothing else, upsetting the whole design, quite perfectly in one fell swoop, old pond frog jumps in kerplunk.
A true to form Tim Leary schmoozed Allen and whoever else, while a knowing Exene Cervenka, oh so brightlove Exene, gave me a half hour download on hype and scenester transcendence. Some young blonde with Tim lost her breakfast before the show started almost on Allen.
We flew into SF, my first time there ever with Ginsberg as my tourguide, Allen took photographs of my hands with his old Leica. We talked movement building and Buddhism, nonviolence, the bankruptcy of commercial media and art as agents of social change, the next, the future, the global human rights movement that needed to be cultivated and grown.
On the ground, Allen told stories, this happened here, here’s where this, this this and beautiful Shig Murao, who without saying a word tells you the most sublime poem. Danielle from Gwar with me there, at Shigs house. We came in too late and made too much noise, and decided to move to a hotel. Before the show at the Presido, Jello Biafra joined me and Allen for dinner – fresh off his MRR leg breaking and not totally solid healed, he chewed a cold rare steak with an open mouth while talking politics. Allen and I sipped miso’s. Jello knocked a home run with that steak for a bat when he joined us on stage that night.
I would never be the same again, I’d seen too much cool humbled by Allen’s presence – I’d never be phased by false Hollywood pretenses poser rokstars media, yet, only to be always in service to the moment, open to everyone and thing around us, putting one’s shoulder to the wheel.
The all-star Beauty Love Turth cast, bringing of some of the best improvisers come to improvise a play inspired in the moment by Stephan Said’s songs, performed live. Thursday, Sept 27, 8pm at The PIT 123 E 24th BTW Park & Lex This is a one time event. You will never see this show again!
Angela DeManti (The Weird Sisters, Magnet)
Matt Higgins (Centralia, Burn Manhattan)
Bradford Jordan (Story Pirates, PIT)
Nick Kanellis (Trike, Story Pirates)
Roy Koshy (Yes Andersens, Magnet, PIT)
Shannon Manning (Second City, IO, UCB, “Conan”)
Doug Moe (“Doug Moe is a Bad Dad,” UCB’s MOTHER, “30 Rock,” “Conan”)
Louie Pearlman (Story Pirates, The Spidey Project, Buckshot N Benny)