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.