When the first wave of protestors took to Zuccotti Park in mid-September, few could have predicted that the Occupy Wall Street movement would soon spread throughout the globe, but Iraqi-American singer-songwriter Stephan Said can claim some prescience on that front. Said’s sixth album, Difrent, released on September 20 on his own Universal Hobo Records, has in its liner notes a call for “a nonviolent international movement for a more equitable society.”
Iraqi-American singer-songwriter Stephan Said, who has worked with antiwar movements since the 1990s, brings his message to the Southern on November 6.
“The timing seemed perfect,” acknowledged Said (pronounced Sy-eed), who, beyond forecasting the Occupy movement, went on to become one of its most prominent balladeers. During the second week of the Wall Street protests, Said led a crowd in reciting “Aheb Aisht Al Huriya” (I Love the Life of Freedom), an Egyptian civil rights anthem he covered during the Tahrir Square demonstrations and made available online to “all those who are nonviolently working to build the international movement for a more just society.” Said played a Zuccotti Park show after a rumored Radiohead concert failed to materialize, and in October, he helped a 92-year-old Pete Seeger lead about 1,000 demonstrators in “This Little Light of Mine.”
So when Said plays the Southern on November 6, the seated show should have a special resonance with Charlottesville’s own Lee Park occupiers (assuming they’re still out there braving the cold). For Said, who spent a lot of his youth in Nelson County, “getting to know every nook and cranny of those hills,” the concert will be something of a homecoming. Though he hasn’t yet filled the shoes of an oft-quoted piece of Billboard Magazine praise—“the closest thing to this generation’s Woody Guthrie”—Said’s advocacy for the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements have made him into something of a household name as an American protest singer.
But Said hasn’t always enjoyed the support of a popular movement. On September 11, 2002, he released “The Bell,” one of the first major antiwar songs that came in the wake of 9/11. In a political climate in which an offhand denunciation of war with Iraq inspired the public burning of Dixie Chicks records, the viral popularity of “The Bell” found Said effectively blacklisted from touring in the U.S., as most bands and managers could no longer afford his name on the bill. In 2003, the same year that Dave Matthews covered “The Bell” on a solo tour, SWAT teams were called on Said during a public radio-sponsored show in Tucson, Arizona.
In response to his own trouble retaining a booking agent, Said started the non-profit Universal Hobo Touring, organizing concerts at student rallies and benefits for peace. In 2003, aside from releasing New World Order, his fourth full-length solo album, Said collaborated with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine to launch Protest Records, a web archive of contemporary protest songs. His current project, Difrent, which shares its title with his latest album, is a broadcast platform meant to “brings numerous organizations working for equality, peace, and environmental sustainability together with artists for releases that support initiatives having a direct impact on communities worldwide.”
As the handmaiden of Difrent the organization, Difrent the album has a decidedly more world-music feel than Said’s earlier work. It’s also the first album Said released under his given name. Raised with his stepfather’s last name as Stephan Smith, he tried to reclaim the name Said in his early twenties, but was told by record company executives that “there was no way I was going to have a career in the U.S. with an Arabic name, as if the very idea was a joke.”
But in the end, Said is grateful for the experience. Raised as an “all-American boy who went to St. Christopher’s school and liked to fix up classic cars,” Said grew up without “the armor necessary to deal with anti-Iraqi prejudice when I was hit with it as an adult. But that gave me a very unique perspective after I took the name Said, to see how drastic people’s assumptions about me changed.”
Stephan Said’s songs paint in broad, goodwill-affirming strokes. “Take a Stand,” off of Difrent, finds him at his most tackily genial: “We all know that we’re all one family / A couple green leaves growing on the same tree / All we ever wanted was to be free / Can someone please help me with some harmony?” But as cheesy as this kind of language may sound, it resonates with the storm-weathered possibility expounded across generations of protest music. One can’t help but think that Woody Guthrie would be proud.