Mohammed Jamal "Jimi" is an Egyptian singer and lead vocalist of one of Egypt’s wildly popular bands Salalem. After going through scores of different engineering studies, Jamal found himself giving up everything to follow his true passion.
A man of various talents, we speak to him about the hurdles that he and his band has had to overcome to stand by their choice of being a social commentary indie band in the arab world. From censor boards to the musician’s syndicate, politics, money and more. Beating all the odds, Salalem has risen to be a strong voice in bringing social issues in Egypt to notice in a fun but insightful manner.
You can follow Jamal (Jimi) on his Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
You can follow Salalem on their Facebook and listen to their music on Soundcloud. We advice you play the playlist to the right before you continue reading the interview.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Mohammed Jamal. I am Egyptian. I am 28 years old. I was raised in UAE in Abu Dhabi, graduated from high school in 2002 and started engineering university in Egypt. Being a musician was not part of my plan, it just happened. My plan was to become a petroleum engineer...cause you know when you live in the UAE you kinda get the vibes from the family that you have to become a petroleum engineer and make shitloads of money! Haha!
So I didn't do so well at engineering school, studied for nine years as a result! I moved from electronic to chemical and finally to industrial engineering and graduated with a major in industrial engineering and a minor in management. I wanted to study sound engineering, but unfortunately in Egypt there is no school for that and I could not afford to go study that abroad.
But then I started professionally performing in 2005 which was half way through my university. At first it was just something for fun. It was just a hobby, something to vent my energy. However as soon as I graduated I started focusing on Salalem, which was slowly becoming big in Egypt. Now we are considered as one of the top 6 bands in Egypt and quickly edging forward hopefully. I studied engineering but I never worked as an engineer ever! Luckily for me though being an engineer helped me throughout my music career as well.
"That's the thing with music, it's a universal language. You can relate to it one way or the other. Whether to the spirit of the band or the kind of music we play or maybe even just the looks of the band members remind you of something."
When did you first start playing music?
Well my father is a musician, or he used to be a musician before he decided to quit music and start a salary. So I have had this passion for music since I was a little kid in school. I used to go to school in UAE and I met a few friends backs in high school who had an interest in music. We used to just write and record songs at home and when I moved to Egypt for university, I started performing professionally. I was 20 years old. That was with my first band that used to do rock covers and finally joined Salalem in late 2005 and things took off from there. Before that I was just an amateur experimenting and Salalem is what made me want to really stick to my passion.
What's it like to be a musician in Egypt?
In Egypt you can't really make a living out of just doing music unless you are the top band. If you are not that band you need to do other things to maintain a lifestyle, especially the one I’ve gotten used to living. I needed to make a certain amount of income and so I joined my passions and started to organise, plan, and manage events.
During my university years I joined AIESEC, which is a global student organisation. When I first joined the organisation I was only interested in one aspect--leadership. I wasn’t interested in any of the other opportunities like travelling abroad or other functional roles. But surreptitiously I ended up doing event management for AIESEC and realised that I had quite a talent for it.
So the eight years that I spent at university in Alexandria I grew up in the organisation and eventually worked my way up to be the Vice President of the biggest conference in the Middle East and North Africa. It was a crazy event because we held it in the heart of Cairo and it was a tough time because it was in the middle of an economic crisis in 2009 if you remember that. We had zero sponsors and zero budget to run a conference for 300 delegates and 4,000 attendees that day from the public making it the one of the biggest AIESEC events in the world. Having run that successfully is still one of my proudest achievements. Since then I started doing events as a freelancer while at university and making music with Salalem.
Once I left university I started working at an NGO called Nahdet el Mahrousa. I worked as a programme co-ordinator at the incubator for just over a year and then I left to Saudi to work as a freelance Stage manager/Show caller for a cultural event for 5 months. Once I finished that gig I came back to Nahdet al Mahrousa, this time as Event Manager. Of course as I travelled around we did gigs with Salalem all around and now I am also recording my solo album for fun.
How did your journey with Salalem start?
The band started in 2005. One of the founders of the band was a childhood friend of mine from the UAE and one day he just called me and said “Our vocalist left the band, do you want to join us?” I had never even sung in Arabic before that, I had only sung and written in English so it was quite a roller coaster ride to join one that sang only in Arabic. I just joined for the fun of it but it became serious as the days went by.
At first the music wasn’t very clear. We had an identity crisis for years! Trying to figure out the music and what we wanted, how we wanted people to relate to us, what is the message that we are trying to deliver through our music… it took us three years to discover that.
Finally we discovered what we are good at and the songs that mean the most are the ones about social criticism. We were focused on the things that we see in people and in our society. We try to convey this to our audience in a sarcastic manner. Well, we think it is kind of funny and apparently so do our fans. But we also talk about these problems in society in kind of a positive manner so that the listener can actually think about it.
Do you guys address possible solutions as well instead of addressing only the problems?
Well I don’t want to give you solutions on a silver platter. I just give you something to think about positively. If I give you something to think about negatively you may come up with bad solutions or get depressed. Instead what we are trying to do is balance between happiness and actually trying to focus on the root causes of problems in society.
We try to steer away as much as possible from politics, because nothing good comes from politics. Also there are already a lot of bands that talk about political issues and we are just not one of them.
We can’t even relate to them because we are six people and each one of us have a different political view. We are actually very different people. In fact, it is one of the things that makes us unique. Sometimes I am shocked that we can still get together because if it wasn’t for the band I don’t even know if we would be friends! We are such different people.
The only thing that joins us together is the music.
"We had two options. Either split up or figure out something new. We were almost on the verge of choosing the former."
How did you guys decide to write songs that address social issues?
There was a point in 2007 when we were playing old songs. We had a setlist of songs that we never play anymore, but when we did, we had no fans. At one point we had a concert and ten people attended.
Obviously we discovered we were doing something wrong. We had two options, either split up or figure out something new. We were almost on the verge of choosing the former when we got a call from one of the popular downtown bars called After Eight. It used to be one of the most popular bars.
We finally decided to give it a shot and see what happens. When you start performing once a week, you are actually forced to be productive and come up with new songs because you can’t perform the same songs again and again. It was the perfect place to write new material as well because the capacity of the venue was only a hundred to a hundred and fifty people. We could actually see the impact of the songs right there on people’s faces and figure out what worked and what didn’t.
As we got more and more positive reviews we started to get bigger and bigger gigs. This is where we got our breakthrough and realised that the songs that the audience loved the most were the social commentary ones with a sarcastic twist.
What does the word "Salalem" mean?
Salalem in Arabic means stairs. I wasn’t there when the band was named. The original founders in the band used to meet up on a flight of stairs at university and that’s where the name comes from.
"They would only give us a permit if we changed the name and the 'violent' nature of our songs. Of course we refused to do so."
You said that you don't talk about politics but only social issues. Despite that, given the recent political situation in Egypt, have you faced any issues with the government authorities because of your music?
Well, the album we released in 2011 was called ‘Kelma Abiha’. ‘Kelma Abiha’ means curse word...I mean it literally means curse word! We were trying to get an authorisation to sell this album in shops and stands all over the Middle East but unfortunately there is something called a censor board.
And because of the name as well as the content of some of the songs, which they deemed “violent,” they refused to give us a permit. They would only give it to us if we changed the name and the “violent” nature of the songs which of course we refused to do. In the end instead of selling the album officially we just did it unofficially at our stadiums and then we put it up on soundcloud for our fans to listen to.
That’s one of the issues we have had with the authorities and then of course there is the Musician’s syndicate.
This syndicate is basically led by some of the worst people in the industry in Egypt. In the past four years they have seen how the young musicians are being heard more and have more media focus especially since the revolution, the old pop stars are being forgotten. As a result they make it hard for us to perform live. Everywhere we go they send people to collect money from us in order to allow us to play even though we aren’t even members of the syndicate.
That is crazy. Why does this syndicate exist?
No reason actually! The original intention of the syndicate was to help older musicians. Basically we pay a percentage of the gig’s revenues to the syndicate to help support the older musicians who are no longer able to get the gigs and maintain their original lifestyle, sort of like a pension.
It’s kind of an unofficial tax. However over the years instead of being just a donation, it became a forced policy by the syndicate. Even worse the syndicate doesn’t actually pay the pensions instead the corrupt officials’ cars and houses get bigger with that money.
So yeah, we have problems with the syndicate and the authorities that we are slowly trying to get over and change, but it definitely is not going to be easy.
Salalem is very popular on social media. Do you get covered in mainstream media as well?
Our music is played on radio and TV as well as long as there are no violent statements which we generally stay away from anyway. We are a fun band you know. My favourite description of the band that I have ever heard is one that we got from a Jordanian audience. We played a couple of concerts there and they call us “the happy band!”
The best thing I like when we perform is to see smiles on peoples’ faces. In fact, the stations are constantly asking to feature our new songs.
What did the Arab Spring mean to you? Both as an individual and as a musician?
Arab Spring means shit to me.
Seriously, it’s a dream that was not steered properly because we did not focus on the main problem as Arabs. We just focused on the outcomes. The root causes are the people itself--education.
When education itself is corrupted nobody is going to learn about their rights. My opinion from day one was that nothing was going to happen with the revolution unless people are educated properly.
"If anything, the revolution has made things worse. People no longer have respect for each other's views."
Has this opinion of yours had any impact on your music?
Not really because we still don’t talk about politics in the band. We actually tried to make two songs that were politically oriented but were a total failure. It’s just not our style and the people didn’t even accept it from us … so we just said throw them in the garbage.
If anything, the revolution has made things worse because there is no acceptance. People no longer have respect for each other’s views. We are in an arena now where if you want your opinion heard, you have to fight for it. There is no open platform. People are fighting each other constantly because of this.
Right and wrong is relative, it’s just perspective. Tell me about one revolution that was successful in the whole world. That’s why I say Arab Spring was shit, because no revolution has ever been based on improving education. They were all based on food, social or political rights. As long as nothing is based on education, nothing is going to change.
What is your favourite lyric from any of your songs?
What does that mean?
I don’t give a fuck.
Ok It doesn’t actually mean I don’t give a fuck, it just means I don’t care. Maybe not.
What is your take on "mainstream music?"
My take is that I don’t like the term "underground music/bands." If you want to be underground, you are going to be underground for the rest of your life. I don’t want to be underground, I want to be commercial.
Mainstream music doesn’t necessarily have to mean that it is bad music. It’s just music that makes money, music that gets sold, you know what I mean. This is what we want to do, we want to become commercial without having to sell out on our lyrics.
We don’t have to talk about love and chasing girls. We can still talk about the social commentary that we do and still make it commercial. I mean hold on…Pink Floyd is an underground band...and they are commercial! There are a lot of international artists that don’t really sing like Rihanna or Lady Gaga but they still make it to the top of the charts.
What advice would you give to aspiring young musicians in Egypt and around the world?
I am not the one to preach because I still haven’t fulfilled my dream. But if I were giving this advice to my younger self it would be to always believe what you are singing. Because there were times I had to sing something because it is the “in” thing but I didn’t believe it.
So even if you are singing about a trash can, if you believe in that trash can enough and you believe in the lyrics of the song enough, then the people will too.
What does success mean to you?
As a musician success is measured by the amount of loyal fans that you have. As a person success to me is being able to make music not worrying about income. Being able to free myself from the stress of living and just make music. I would consider myself successful every time when I go on stage and have an impact on as many people as I can even if this impact is that they go home after a concert smiling. That’s it!