Sheikh Imam: “A Voice of the People”
For much of his adult life, Sheikh Imam ‘Issa (born Muhammad Ahmad ‘Issa, 1918- 1995) lived as many musicians did in early- to mid-twentieth century Cairo: eking out a living in a dual role as Quran reciter/muezzin, and singer/composer of secular songs for the commercial market. But in 1967, aged 49, he shot to prominence alongside colloquial poet Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm with a song criticizing President Gamal Abd al-Nasser for his role in the 1967 Arab-Israeli defeat. From here, Sheikh Imam went on to become an icon of dissent, and the Arab world’s best-known and most prolific oppositional singer.
According to the story normally told, the Sheikh Imam phenomenon is a significant but straightforward one. A dissident singer who spoke truth to power, he was accordingly banned from state media, shunned by the world of officialdom, and imprisoned by President Nasser and President Sadat for his oppositional stance. His simple but catchy compositions complemented Nigm’s verse, and the duo performed at universities and political rallies in Egypt, and later across the Arab world and Europe, earning him the title of “the voice of the people.” Leftist students and intelligentsia in particular embraced him and his music during the 1970s, with its apparently astonishing mobilizing power and ability to move the masses, but his music fell out of favor with the broader decline of the political left in Egypt, amidst rising Islamist and neoliberal currents. Imam’s songs resurfaced during the January 25th 2011 revolution, their revolutionary themes consonant once again with the atmosphere of the times.
However, Sheikh Imam actually holds a rather more ambivalent position in the collective Egyptian imaginary than the above story (and the scant existing literature on him) suggests. When one looks a little deeper, one finds a myth replete with paradoxes: a “voice of the people” who remains unknown to the majority of Egyptians; an artist who was embraced by the same educated elite that his songs often mocked; a singer for the communists who never spoke politics; remembered, variously, as a critic and a fan of socialist President Nasser; revered by some and detested by others; at once a traditionalist and the creator of a new political aesthetic. Blind, but, as his fans would have it, saw the world more clearly than anyone.
This post will explore one of these paradoxes: how this “voice of the people” was actually embraced by only a particular section of society—leftist students and intelligentsia. It is based on fieldwork conducted in Cairo in 2016, part of which consisted of conversations and shared listenings with those most intimately familiar with Imam’s music—veteran student activists, now in their 60s, whose coming of age occurred during the cultural and political ferment of the post-1967 years. Going beyond oft-heard claims that Sheikh Imam was beloved by all Egyptians by virtue of his simple style, and was able to “move the masses when, without [him], the leftists could not do so” (Sa’ad Zahran cited in Booth 2006:22), I will explore why his music found favor with this particular demographic, whilst remaining largely unknown beyond these circles.
"Shayyid Qusurak," by Sheikh Imam
A Voice of the People: Lyrics and Musical Style
Fans and detractors seem to agree that much of Sheikh Imam’s appeal rests on the lyrics. Although he worked primarily with Nigm, he composed music to the works of dozens of other colloquial poets from across the Arab world, with whom he produced some of his best-known songs. Listeners highlight the political immediacy of the songs, which were uniquely explicit in lampooning specific politicians and policies. The political criticism conveyed in songs such as “Al-hamdulillah” and “Ful w-lahma” aligned with left-wing students’ and intelligentsia’s ideology; it is perhaps clear why opposition activists would be drawn to them.
As well as these topical songs that critiqued specific situations, policies and people, there was another side to Sheikh Imam’s corpus: straightforwardly patriotic songs that were pro-Egypt rather than anti-regime. Songs like “Ya Masr ‘Awmi” and “Bahia” speak in universals about the struggle for liberation, and about loving Egypt, and were free from mocking sarcasm or double entendre. “These songs were like our own national anthems,” several people told me. These two complementary sides of Sheikh Imam’s repertoire ware a central means through which Imam was able to express patriotism, whilst still standing outside the establishment-controlled narrative, which was an important balancing act, and key to his aura.
In addition to the lyrical content, the fact that Imam’s poets wrote in heavily colloquial (‘aamiya) Arabic as opposed to more formal (fusha) Arabic was pertinent to listeners. This, his fans suggested to me, appealingly positioned him in opposition to his “high-art” predecessors and contemporaries such as singer Umm Kulthoum, and proved Imam was “of the people,” a truly authentic Egyptian. As Magdy, one of my interlocutors, understood it, “Nigm wrote as people speak on the street. This way, everybody understood him. At this time, there were a lot of big poets, but writing in classical Arabic; you needed an education to understand the words. . . their words would not touch ninety-percent of Egyptians.” It seemed to serve as something of an authenticating trope for his listeners—I was endlessly told that this made him a “man of the people.” His colloquialism was also central to fans’ claims that Nigm and Imam enjoyed widespread popularity across all classes.
But it was not purely the lyrics to which people responded. Sheikh Imam’s musical style and performative presence were central to his appeal. Sheikh Imam mirrored the lyrical accessibility with his musical settings. His songs are rhythmically simple, using ayyub, malfuf, maqsum and wadha rhythms, and his use of maqamat (melodic modes) was basic. This, according to his fans, meant his music was able to (politically) engage the uneducated masses, and confirmed his status as a “voice of the people.” My interlocutors endlessly repeated these authenticating tropes – it was hard to get beyond them. His fans also commonly authenticate him by highlighting his ties to older musical giants such as Zakariyya Ahmad and Darwish al-Hariri, claiming that he harked back to a style perceived as more authentic, untainted by the apparent corrupting influence of the increasing encroachment of western musical styles.
However, it is important to acknowledge the limits of these claims. Ultimately, Sheikh Imam didn’t “move the masses.” Although his fans often assert that he was known across Egypt and to all classes—“he wrote a song and within two days it would be in Aswan!” suggested one particularly enthusiastic interlocutor—ask your average taxi driver or shop worker from that generation, and they have almost certainly not heard of Sheikh Imam. We might also question the logic behind claims that Imam, an unmediated voice of the people, was beloved by all Egyptians purely by virtue of his colloquial lyrics and simple melodies—assumptions that are reproduced in journalistic and academic literature (see, for example, Abdel-Malek 1990)—or at least try to deconstruct these authenticating tropes. Colloquial poetry, for example, actually has a history of being written and read largely by the educated elite, not the diverse audience Sheikh Imam’s listeners often seemed to assume.
Similarly, whilst his listeners perceived his style as harking back to a lost authenticity, his compositions actually sound distinctly different from this older style. Recordings of him singing songs in this older style suggest he was familiar with and proficient in it, but his lack of vocal ornamentation, and the way he used the ‘oud simply to lay out the melody under the vocals and the resulting lack of heterophony (central features of the earlier style of which he is apparently an authentic representation), set him apart from his predecessors. His compositional style differed drastically too. Cynics say he merely retained the simple elements of this style, as opposed to developing (or even sustaining) it. Fans, on the other hand, attribute this simplicity to the necessity of producing something “the masses” can listen to and easily memorize. But claims that attribute Imam’s musical simplicity to the necessity of producing something “the masses” can listen to and easily memorize seemingly ignores the fact a broad range of music with far greater complexity was in fact comprehensible to and popular among “the masses.”
"Nixon Baba," by Sheikh Imam
The Leftist Movement in 1970s Egypt
So, ultimately Sheikh Imam didn’t move the masses, and he wasn’t beloved by all Egyptians. Moving beyond these oft-heard claims forces us to consider more closely why this particular demographic were so invested in Sheikh Imam’s music, and so insistent on authenticating him, which ultimately leads us to some rather more interesting conclusions.
Claims of authenticity are, of course, bound up with more complex self-positioning claims; they are performative. As Alan Moore suggests, “in acknowledging that authenticity is ascribed rather than inscribed in a performance, it is beneficial to ask who, rather than what, is being authenticated by that performance” (2002:220). For those politically invested in the songs of Sheikh Imam, the stakes are rather higher to prove his authenticity, as it is tied up with their claims to speak for and from and to the masses. Imam was central to leftist intelligentsia’s claims to be the authentic representatives of the Egyptian nation, amidst many competing claims.
This becomes apparent if we consider the broader context these listeners were negotiating. For left-wing student activists and intelligentsia, the 1970s are remembered as a bleak period. Sadat’s gradual abandonment of state socialism, his push to make peace with Israel, his political realignment with the west, and his policies of economic infitah (opening) with its associated rise in consumerism, represented the opposite of everything for which they stood. In contrast to the privileged discursive position they had held within Nasser’s vision of nationhood, under Sadat they were increasingly marginalized. They were forced to renegotiate their place in a fast-changing nation that seemed to have less and less space for them. Sheikh Imam’s music was central in this renegotiation: his songs helped his listeners “make sense of a senseless Sadat”, as one veteran activist put it. As the decade wore on, this need to prove one’s national belonging grew more pressing: leftists were not only pushed out of official imaginings of nation, but also found themselves competing with other unofficial imaginings: most notably, Islamism. It seems that leftists’ embrace of Imam as their mouthpiece was central in bolstering their vision of themselves as speaking for and from “the masses,” thus positioning themselves as the true representatives of the nation. Through their embrace of Sheikh Imam, their claiming of him as “our [the left-wing student movement’s] voice” but simultaneously “the voice of the people,” his listeners were able to reinforce their claims to be able to speak from and to the masses even though their audience was largely limited to the educated, urban, left-wing elite. Sheikh Imam’s songs and presence were fundamental to their claims of represented the desires of the nation, which was central to their political project and their experience and negotiation of their shifting place in a fast-changing society.
Today, Sheikh Imam’s legacy softly but unquestionably permeates the atmosphere in Cairo, his songs heard at concerts put on by the numerous recently-formed bands who perform his songs both in their original form and in electro-pop and hip-hop re-imaginings; on playlists at parties and bars; and in more spontaneous conversational utterances of particular songs to frame particular moments.
Cover of Sheikh Imam's "Iza al-shams Ghirqit," by Revolution Records
In order to understand how and why his music circulates today, it is necessary to locate the singer in his heyday. As David McDonald notes in his analysis of Palestinian resistance music, “contemporary ethnomusicological accounts of power have largely stalled in their attempts to provide a theoretical framework for understanding both the social structures that create and sustain formations of domination and the potentialities for subverting those formations” (2013:25), which serves only in “foreclosing questions about the workings of power,” rather than elucidating them (26). Such is the case with Sheikh Imam: broader dynamics of power are obscured if we accept at face value the oft-told story of Sheikh Imam as an authentic voice of the people; a unifying figure, his music beloved by all.
Abdel-Malek, Kamal. 1990. A Study of the Vernacular Poetry of Aḥmad Fuʼād Nigm. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Al-Arian, Abdullah. 2014. Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press.
Booth, Marilyn. 2009. “Exploding into the Seventies: Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm, Shaykh Imam, and the Aesthetics of a New Youth Politics.” Cairo Papers in Social Science 29(2/3):19-44.
McDonald, David A. 2013. My Voice is My Weapon: Music, Nationalism, and the Poetics of Palestinian Resistance. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Moore, Allan. F. 2002. “Authenticity as Authentication.” Popular Music 21(2):209-223.
Mostafa, Dalia Said, and Anastasia Valassopolous. 2014. “Popular Protest Music and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.” Popular Music and Society 37(5):638-659.
Sanders, Lewis, VI and Mark Visona. 2012. “The Soul of Tahrir: Poetics of a Revolution.” In Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir, edited by Samia Mehrez, 213-244. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.
 Booth (2009) is the only English-language scholarship to deal at length with the Nigm-Imam phenomenon, and focuses solely on a few of their early “sung poems,” as she calls them. The duo’s role in the crystallizing alliance between students and workers in the 1970s is often given passing mention (al-Arian, for example, describes them as “the voice of the frustrated and disenfranchised masses” [2014:113]). Similarly, several recent articles mention the presence of Imam’s music during the 2011 Egyptian revolution (Mostafa and Valassopolous 2014; Sanders and Visona 2012). But my fieldwork suggests it is necessary to question some of the assumptions on which the above literature is grounded.
 The lyrics to “Ya Masr ‘Awmi” for example, are by Naguib Shihab al-Din; and “Hatta ya Batta” by Sayyid Higab.
Sophie Frankford is an ESRC-funded Ph.D. student at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford. She holds an undergraduate degree in music from King’s College London and an M.Phil. in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford. She is interested in popular music of the Middle East, and her current research focuses on Egyptian sha’bi music. She is also a violinist, performing regularly with her string quartet and Turkabilly group Brickwork Lizards.