Upon its premiere last spring, Ramy Youssef’s Hulu dramedy was showered with praise for bringing Islam and Arab culture—rarely seen with any nuance on American TV—to the masses in a heartfelt way. It brought Youssef an HBO standup special and a Golden Globe at 28. Two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali was such a big Ramy fan that he asked to be written into the new season—which he was, as a sheikh.
An underappreciated aspect of the show is its meticulously curated music. The soundtrack plays a big role in conveying the inner worlds of Ramy’s character, who navigates between religious tradition and millennial modernity, morality and sin, American life and his Egyptian culture. The music also telegraphs the outer world: When Ramy has sex with a white girl, “Every Day’s the Weekend,” by Australian indie rocker Alex Lahey, kicks in; when meeting with an elderly Orthodox Jewish man on Shabbat, an old-school klezmer-esque melody sets the mood. “A lot of television will throw a track in the background of a scene just to keep it moving, but this show is about leveraging the quiet moments, because it’s so intimate,” says Youssef. “I don’t even want a song to ramp up the drama, you know? I want music to be there only when it really enhances the feeling.”
For season one, Youssef and music supervisor Rob Lowry worked closely with Habibi Funk, a Berlin label dedicated to reissuing old North African funk, disco, and rock that’s little-known outside the Arab world. There’s an element of world-building there, too, says Youssef. The Habibi Funk songs contain traces of older-sounding Middle Eastern melodies, which are often worked into 1970s-style funk rock; at times, the songs’ quirky synth textures and vocoders even point to the future. That mix of looking both backwards and forwards gets to the heart of the show’s central theme: How does one reconcile being a religious Muslim with having premarital sex, desiring to drink or do drugs, or dating someone outside their culture? The season one soundtrack also spotlights contemporary Arab artists, like Iraqi-Canadian activist-rapper Narcy and Moroccan pop singer Psychoqueen, and other Youssef favorites ranging from rapper BbyMutha to cold-wave group Black Marble.
We talked to Youssef about Ramy season two, Arabic artists he loves, and how music mirrors his character’s struggle to live up to the past.
Pitchfork: How involved are you in the music selection process for the show?
Ramy Youssef: Very. The music on this show is a collaboration of many things. We have a great music supervisor, Rob Lowry. He connected with the Habibi Funk label early on, as we were defining the sound of the show. Leading into season one, I had a bunch of music ideas and we enhanced those by collaborating with Habibi Funk, who were unearthing all these old cassettes and records from North Africa. It’s an amazing pursuit, and a lot of the music that we leaned into was from Al Massrieen, the band that translates to “The Egyptians.”
I heard you call Hani Shenouda, Al Massrieen’s founder, the Pharrell of Egypt.
The guy is a legend, he’s one of the biggest producers Egypt’s ever had and was involved in so many of the great artists. I think Al Massrieen was more of a side project at the time, so it’s interesting that it’s getting this second shot in the arm like 40 years later, being as heavily featured as it is on our show.
Our theme song is an Al Massrieen track that Hani wrote, which used to be the Egyptian soccer anthem. I repurposed a part of it as the theme because, like a lot of [Al Massrieen] music, it does what the show does: It doesn’t feel old, but it doesn’t feel new. So many of their tracks have elements that were totally future-facing when they wrote them [in the late ’70s]—these synths and interesting things—but now they feel both contemporary and also classic. That emotionally spoke to what I wanted the show to be, which is this guy who’s living in New Jersey in 2020, but he really wants to live up to the history of his family and the rich history of his faith and his culture. So many tracks from that band really felt like what’s going on in Ramy’s head. They became a backbone of how we were presenting the journey.
Did you grow up listening to some of the music on the soundtrack?
Yeah, there are a lot of songs like that on the show, including Al Massrieen. In season one episode three, at the end of the episode, there’s a track [“Awhak” by Abdel Halim Hafez] that I had grown up hearing. Abdel Halim is like a staple in every Egyptian’s record collection.
My mom spent like a decade of her life living in Paris, and I grew up listening to a lot of French music as well as Arabic music. There’s a lot of that French influence—it ended up being in the title of one of our episodes, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” the Jacques Brel song. I grew up listening to that song. So many of the tracks are a mix of stuff that really were soundtracks to my life.
Do you feel like Arabic music still suffers from stereotypes in the West?
I think it’s a mix—like anything, it’s evolving, hopefully, as people get to hear more and see more. In the new season we have this really dope Arabic rap track. And it’s funny, ’cause I often have a hard time with rap not in English, but there is some really good Arabic rap. It’s fucking dope.
In general, the Arab world is an artistic hub that has such a variety, whether it be music, film, poetry. This is a place that, historically, has produced some of the best thinkers and therefore some of the best artists. The music palette is really wide, and maybe there’s an association with it being just like clangy, high-stringed instruments. But so much of how people view the Arab world is tied into a bunch of blanket statements, so it’s not really surprising that music would be included in that. There’s such a variety and a big depth, so it’s exciting to get to open the door to some of that depth via the show.
Tell me about some of the newer Arabic-speaking artists featured on the show, like Narcy.
I love Narcy, he’s such a good artist. I know him personally, he’s a friend. He’s of my generation—he puts out a lot of stuff through music that are themes I like to hit on in my writing and comedy. So I’ve always really felt a connection to him. I remember trying to figure out what song should end the pilot, when we were also trying to figure out the identity of the show. We went with that Narcy track [“Sun”] because it’s got that mix of what I love, which is the modern and the nostalgia looped into one.
Besides the Arabic rap you mentioned, what else should we look out for, music-wise, in season two?
There’s a lot of what we’ve established, but we took a couple cool stabs with some original score. The new season definitely leans a little bit darker and sometimes a little more abstract, so it let us play with the directions that the score was going, which was really fun.
We also have this Atlantic City episode, and I really wanted to do a fucking classic Jersey song. Part of me wanted to do Bruce, but we ended up using “Jersey Girl” by Tom Waits, which is a favorite. Rob shot me a bunch of options and then “Jersey Girl,” and I was like, “Oh yeah, we need that.” It’s the needle drop for one of my favorite moments of the series. I like being a show that’s able to do Egyptian tracks from the ’60s and ’70s, Tom Waits, and BbyMutha—and they all feel organic to what’s going on.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork