Stephan Said Sings The American Dream The Iraqi-American musician once went by the name Stephan Smith — his mother's maiden name — after record-label executives told him he would never make it in America with an Arab name. On his album difrent, he reclaims his name and sings about freedom and social justice.
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Stephan Said Sings The American Dream

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Stephan Said Sings The American Dream

Stephan Said Sings The American Dream

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NEAL CONAN, host: As uprising spread through the Middle East and North Africa this spring, this new version of a classic Egyptian folk song became part of the soundtrack of the Arab Spring.


STEPHAN SAID: (Singing in foreign language)

CONAN: The song's title translates as "I love the life of freedom." It's now part of a new album from Iraqi-American musician and activist Stephan Said called "difrent" and part of his project to promote social change. And part of that is to reach a wider audience.

Musicians, if you make music with a message, what are the challenges of reaching that wider audience? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. The name of Stephan Said's album is spelled D-I-F-R-E-N-T, "difrent." He joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.

SAID: Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And how did that song get heard in Tahrir Square some six months ago and just now part of a new album, came out last week?

SAID: Well, I recorded my new record - already, the song was recorded for it before the uprising started in Tunisia and Egypt, and I guess that's only because, in many ways, I'm part of a global zeitgeist because of my identity, you know?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SAID: I've been raised with an identity that straddles, probably inarguably, the biggest conflict of our generation, and I've had to make peace with myself. And that is required that I try to make peace in the world. And I've chosen to sing and wanted to record a song, a freedom song that was famous in the Arab world and make it modern and put it on the album, which I recorded with Hal Willner, a great producer. And so we went for it. And then here we go, right? Before I was - we're getting ready for the album to come out, the uprising starts so, you know?

CONAN: And it speaks also to the new methods of distribution these days. This is a song that, again, before the Internet, this - there was no way to get a song out before the album came out.

SAID: Yeah, it does. I mean, it's - specifically, it also is, in terms of getting music out, it has a social message about it. I mean, my whole career has been sort of at the forefront of using music for social change and pushing new media and the Internet from the advent of the MP3 in the late '90s because it's the only way to get around a corporate monopolized radio system here in the United States, for example, that hardly plays any music with a message anymore despite that our generation is probably faced with more mounting global crisis than any generation before.

CONAN: You may be best known for a song people may remember called "The Bell," which you recorded with Pete Seeger.


SAID and PETE SEEGER: (Singing) Oh, I'm sounding drums of war, said the man at his desk. Oh, I will not fight your war, said the child. And he stood, and he stood, and he stood and 'twere well that he stood. Oh, I will not fight your war, said the child. And he stood...

CONAN: And that was another example of a song that went viral, a song very much with a message and a song at a time when that message was, well, difficult to spread.

SAID: Yeah, it was. You know, at that time, it was a real broadside in the classic sense, and that was the intention of it at that point. And it came out on the first-year anniversary of 9/11. And at that point no - even an intellectual kind of author - except for - in one op-ed that Susan Sontag had written in The New York Times, I don't think there had been a single piece of literature, anything that entered the mainstream, questioning what was an apparent build toward war in Iraq.

And, you know, I talked to Pete and members of this rock group Ween that I used to play in and Spearhead, a socially conscious hip-hop group that you may know about. And I - we recorded the song and made a video that was probably the first, like, crowdsourced video ever. I mean, footage came in from Korea, from Japan, from all over the world in less than six days. And it was just an amazing thing to witness. And it was just before the days of YouTube. So for a song to get hundreds of thousands of views when YouTube didn't exist, it was eye-opening to us all, and, I think, helped set a precedent for our generation to then replicate that now.

CONAN: You said that, obviously, you've had difficulties with the commercial broadcast media in this country, commercial radio. They don't play your songs or songs with messages, you say. There's also - I've read that you were effectively blacklisted after 9/11.

SAID: Well, I mean you can imagine as somebody who's breaking out into The New York Times with a big article about having an antiwar song when, you know, Springsteen's "The Rising" is still coming out and, arguably, you know, let's say ambiguous in its meaning and having the article declare that I'm Iraqi-American. All of a sudden, I started showing up in all kinds of - all the hate lists on the Internet. I didn't have to be anywhere near as prominent as, let's say, the Dixie Chicks or somebody else that ended up on those lists eight months later.

But you have to remember "The Bell" came out eight months before the Dixie Chicks made an offhanded, almost banal, quip, right? Here I was taking a very, very strong, unequivocal stance with the song, with, you know, with Pete Seeger and people like that, and you can imagine the difference. I mean, I started - I got added to all these hate lists. I got emails, long ones, angry from editors of major music magazines saying that I would never ever be in their magazine.

I got - what can I say? I mean, I did a show that was sponsored by the major public radio station in Tucson, Arizona, at the university, and somebody called a SWAT team and had them come down, thinking I was a terrorist. Of course, luckily, the radio station was there and was like, come on. This guy is a totally all-American guy, and his message is beautiful. And they didn't stop the show, but just to think of the climate back then.

Now that's all turned around because we are in a situation, a global context in which we have a generation worldwide from Wall Street, right now, that's happening, to Egypt; Syria; Athens; Santiago, Chile; Madrid and Barcelona; all over the world who are realizing and have realized that the global economic system that we have is no longer tenable. And that's been proven in works by our leading economists, from Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, Benjamin Barber writing in his political theory, or my friend who just passed a few days ago, the Nobel Peace winner Wangari Maathai. This is now a mainstream idea in the hearts of people, both conservatives and progressives, and we've got to face - we've got to use every means to unite people, worldwide, to face, probably, the greatest crisis and challenge of human history. That's what my music has always been about.

But I do think that, right now, we're faced with an era in which, wow, that message and its time has come. People really want to connect and we need to. So, you know, that's what my new album was about, was trying to make the most accessible and beautiful message I could, to reach out to people to say, hey, even if we have to start with small shows, let's network, let's build a trusting community, worldwide, that can believe in this dream that, you know, Gandhi and MLK and Christ and Muhammad dreamt of but never achieved, and let us be the first generation that goes to the valley below, you know?

CONAN: We're talking with Stephan Said. We'd like to hear from other musicians whose music has messages and about the difficulties of breaking out to a wider audience. 800-989-8255. Email: Fred is on the line with us from Fort Wayne.

FRED: Yes. I work with refugees, and especially the young people, I find absolutely fascinating - they're the bridges. And, you know, we - and my website covers that and we have rap groups on the website, that - from nine different languages. And the importance of music in assimilation, the importance of music in social movements, including just feeling like you're welcome is so important and I salute your music. And it's like K'naan from Somalia, known all over, now, in the world with the "Wave The Flag." It's just a phenomenon that cannot have any other purpose except wonderful expression.

SAID: Yeah, I don't know if you want me to respond there, Neal, but I...

CONAN: He was talking to you.

SAID: I mean, I agree - I think that the world is ready for it, but I think we have an obligation and a responsibility to really take a stand to unite each other. We have so many forces that are dividing us and not enough talk that's bringing us together. I mean, you speak about refugees, I have - I always have a joke that my family is the family that is - in its DNA is somehow pre-planned to marry into whichever ethnic heritage is going to be the next refugees.


SAID: I mean, my mother is - my father is from Iraq, part of the family, you know, my mother is from Austria. I was raised by a Jesuit priest with a Muslim and Christian background, and then families in my Austrian - members of my Austrian family were part-Jewish and died in the Holocaust. So I had it from all sides and had to grapple with that, and that refugee mentality certainly marked me. I think the thing that's most remarkable about people who have to straddle conflict, both sides of it, which is the case of any refugee, is that they are forced - they're at the epicenter. They're at the epicenter of the - of conflict and they are forced to come to peace, the same peace that if it could be projected globally, we need to reach as a human race. They have to come to that peace themselves, just to live with themselves, you understand?

FRED: Yes, well...

SAID: And I think that that's, you know?

FRED: Right, with the early Burma refugees, the rally songs from the democracy movement in 1988, '89 proves and still is their rallying point here in Fort Wayne - we have about 6,000. And it - that music can unite all the ethnic groups that have come since that time - multiple religions and ethnic groups, but the music of the revolutionary period can unite the entire room.

CONAN: Fred, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

FRED: Yes.

CONAN: We're talking with Stephan Said about his new album, "difrent," and about his movement that he's trying to start. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Kevon(ph) is on the line with us from Kansas City.

KEVON: Hi there. Thanks for taking my call. I listen to the show a lot.

CONAN: Thank you.

KEVON: I just want to say, I'm a Persian-Irish-Mexican student here in Kansas City, and I wrote music about breaking down walls. And I think that the biggest challenge for us who are trying to get the message of the global, you know, the global crisis out, is apathy. And especially in my generation, you know, you see so much pressure to focus on school, focus on work, and you don't get a lot of voices that say, hey, there is a big thing happening right now. We all have a part in it. We all have a stake in it.

So, I mean, how do we get that message out? I'm not a kind of person who thinks that we need to be cordial about it, because I think it's very urgent. And I think that music is a great medium for that message to get across. So how did you get your start in that?

SAID: You know - and you know, I'm amazed. I was joking with somebody last night, you know, when you talk about your mixed heritage. And, of course, we're all mixed, you know, whether or not somebody was, in the old days, was part-Hieland and Lowland Scottish or something like that. You know what I mean? It's like, they were still mixed, because they were at war. But, you know, that identity, at least, definitely for me, I should say, just made it in - had a lot to do with it, in that it made impossible for me to not take a stand after the first Gulf War when I was in my, you know, just 20 years old or something-ish.

I felt like - already, I was aware that, wow, this is the first war of globalization. This is happening for one reason only, and that is that because the economic system, which actually drives Wall Street, which drives the global economic flows and finance and so forth. That is at the heart of this, right? And so that just made me feel like I had to. So I guess it made me somehow stubborn.

But then I was lucky to have some really great mentors, and I can't deny that. You know, I maybe suffered some - not being able to tour after "The Bell" was released, but I had the support of Dave Matthews and DJ Spooky and members of the Okayplayer, you know, the Roots clan who were playing with me even though I couldn't get shows, let's say, with mainstream groups just because it would've been too dangerous, and they would've risked losing CD sales.

CONAN: Kevon, thanks very much for the call. You say your identity is important, and the message has been consistent. Yet earlier in your career, you went under the name Stephan Smith.

SAID: Yeah, actually for the same reason if you can imagine. The late 1990s, I came to New York City using my born-name, which I wasn't raised with, just so you know. I had a stepfather, and I was raised, actually, with the last name Gutowski. So as a result, I was just totally all-American. I mean, if you want to, I can throw on a heavy-duty Southern accent. I grew up in Virginia, in Appalachia. I was a champion bluegrass fiddler. I fixed cars, I was an Eagle Scout, the whole works. You couldn't be more assimilated into the culture than I was.

And I - only when I became older than, you know, 18, I said, hey, well, that's - this was my real father, and I want to get to know him and embrace my heritage. And so I took that name without, let's say, the armor of having been raised with it right, where - oh, when I reached prejudiced at school, I came home, and my dad said, hey, don't listen to them. Peace and love is the way. You'll grow older. You know, I didn't have that.

And I came to New York City and sort, you know, it was actually the poet Allen Ginsberg that first, sort of, and that - and his coterie that had me - brought me to New York City in the mid-'90s and using Said and, of course, I was writing so I was desperate. And I had, in terms of the global situation, the first Iraq war had already happened, and I could see that something else was going to happen - as many members of my generation. I mean, we knew that something was going to happen before 9/11. The first attempt on the World Trade Center had already happened, the running joke on the Lower East Side at clubs then, was, oh, where are you going for July 4th or New Year's Eve because everybody wanted to get out of town because they were expecting it to happen again, you know? I mean, we all remember this.

So I was kind of desperate, and when I was told by folks at major labels, more than once, by like executives, look, you know, we want to sign you, but, of course, you can't have a career in America with an Arabic name, as though it was a joke, like I would just get it - of course, man. Come on, Marketing 101 - without realizing, wow, that's my entire life. That's who I am, and that's the importance of who I am in today's context. But I felt that around the year 2000, with the potential of jubilee, I really wanted to get my message out and not be held back. So I said, oh, I can't take a fake name. I'll take my mother's name and knowing it would always be temporary.

Now, as soon as I'd been, then, blacklisted after "The Bell" came out, I realized it didn't make any difference, and I was having to tour alternatively at that point in time. And then I - I was very lucky to become a father. And when I knew that my own daughter was coming into the world, that's when I realized, oh, my God. The world will never be a world that accepts children for who they are unless I take that stand myself, and I take that stand for my own daughter.

CONAN: Stephan Said, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

SAID: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Good luck with the record.

SAID: It's great to be on.

CONAN: Stephan Said, musician and activist, joined us from our bureau in New York. His new album is called "difrent," D-I-F-R-E-N-T. You can find a link to his website at, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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