Four Questions With Stephan Said, Musician Inspired by Social Unrest

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Early in the second week of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, a man in a gray t-shirt stood on the park’s steps and put his hands to his mouth. He led the crowd of about a hundred or so in reciting an Arabic poem: “Aheb Aisht Al Huriya,” (I Love the Life of Freedom). A few days later, when a rumored Radiohead concert at the park didn’t materialize, Stephan Said again led the crowd in song, only this time, it was a few thousand people.

Said, in many ways, is as much an amalgam as the assembled crowds. The son of an Iraqi father and an Austrian mother, he grew up in Virginia where Appalachian bluegrass and country music fused with songs from his ethnic heritage to create a true musical chameleon. But while his inspirations may be disparate, his work has centered on themes of peace, positive change and global unity. He recently released a new album, difrent, which includes the single “Take a Stand” and a musical version of “Aheb Aisht Al Huriya.”

TIME spoke with Said about his new album, the Occupy Wall Street movement and his efforts to use his music to spread a message he hopes will not only travel far and wide, but unite movements across the world.

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How did the different aspects of your diverse background affect your music?

I grew up with heritage on all sides of most of the major conflicts of my generation: all-American, Arabic, European and some Holocaust victims. It compelled me from the youngest age to try to have peace with myself, to need to work for peace with my art and to dedicate myself to understanding. It always made me search for the most accessible and transcendent approach to conflict and global unity.

Music has long been at the forefront of progressive movements and social change. Did you have that in mind, or did you always want to be a musician?

I grew up in a musical family, and as the youngest child, I started playing before I can remember. I think I was playing piano at two and a half years old and I started making up my own melodies before I could really speak that well.

I was always an artist, raised with music from all around the world. My decision to want to use all kinds of styles, from hip-hop and rap to pop and world folks music to rock, that was something that had begun developing even in my youth. The south is a wellspring for American music. I was playing classical music and at the same time growing up in Appalachia playing bluegrass fiddle.

Your new album is an incredible mixture of musical styles, but furthers the central themes from your earlier work.

It’s recorded live with some of the best players alive­–hip hop artists, rock artists, you name it. It was a joy to make it with such amazing artists and have them supporting me.

When I was making the album, long before the Arab Spring began, I imagined just because of my heritage, recording a beloved freedom song from the Middle East, North African region. I wanted to bring it to an American audience and a global audience for understanding. I thought it was timely. So I asked my father what song would it be? For his generation and his parents’ generation, that was, perhaps, the most famous freedom song. If you read the lyrics, it’s a beautiful allegorical poem to global unity. I thought, what could be more beautiful for people to hear, particularly Americans and Europeans as a bridge between cultures.

Gearing up for the album to come out, Tunisia and Egypt erupt. It was amazing timing. It’s been an amazing year in which the subject matter of the entire album is coincidentally occurring.

What’s your take on Occupy Wall Street? Where do you think it will go?

I’m totally in support of the movement and as it matures, I want to help to clarify that vision because we have to approach a more equitable society at home. But all great social movements have to be for something, not against something. The change that we need isn’t limited only to Wall Street. It has to be systemic change worldwide. That great dream of unifying people for a more equitable society is a positive, universal dream that all humankind has had. It can give us the chance to unite people: from Republicans to Democrat Americans to freedom-loving people in Egypt to Somalia, Iraq, Spain, Greece. We need a universal, undeniable dream.  The future of the planet depends on it. That’s what my art and my music is about–to build that movement for that great dream.

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Nate Rawlings is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @naterawlings. Continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.