Mahraganat artists in Egypt are defining hip-hop culture, despite government crackdowns
Hip-hop has taken root in Egypt. Authorities are trying to suppress it. But the raw power of the music may be unstoppable. Yasmine el Rashidi, author of "Laughter in the Dark: Egypt to the Tune of Change," tells host Marco Werman how young Egyptians are pushing hip-hop to the limit.
Marco Werman: Yasmine, tell us about the roots of Mahraganat. Where did it all begin?
Yasmine el-Rashidi: Mahraganat is inspired by American hip-hop. It grew out of the deepest alleys in Cairo, in lesser privileged neighborhoods where young people began to experiment with beats, sounds and lyrics expressing their socio-economic realities.
So, it really was kind of an expression of frustration before the 2011 revolution. We know many feelings among the public were suppressed under [former President Hosni] Mubarak, and I wonder if you see Mahraganat as almost more of an attitude, a new approach to not self-censor — a generational shifting of gears, even, in Egypt.
Absolutely. I mean, hip-hop is a very interesting way of measuring political stamina in Egypt at this moment. And political stamina, I don't mean in terms of actually a political movement, but the will to speak out.
Marwan Pablo, first known as Dama, is one exponent of that shift. You call him one of Egypt's most popular and successful young rappers. Marwan Pablo came off the street scene in Alexandria, an especially conservative part of Egypt, right?
Yeah, he comes from Alexandria. One of the things that the revolution revealed to us was that Alexandria was sort of the breeding ground of the most ultra-orthodox currents of the Islamic movement: Salafism. It’s part of what makes his rise so interesting. In the song "El Gholaf X Ozoris,” he's talking about drinking to forget … drinking, obviously referring to alcohol. It's really a pushing back against all the norms and expectations, against the history of conforming, silence and swallowing your words. And he speaks very freely about things that certainly my generation was raised to not speak about, from drinking to relationships to even speaking about money.
Well, these days, as you've already alluded to, there are many things to push back against. In recent years, Mahraganat musicians have often run headlong into government censors. Things really came to a head at the start of 2020 when two singers, Hassan Shakosh and Omar Kamal, played “Bent El Geran” live at a stadium in Cairo. Why did it stir up so much controversy?
The song is “Bent El Geran,” meaning "The neighbor's daughter." And they rap about being so preoccupied with the neighbor's daughter and needing to smoke and drink to forget her. It had been out for a while, but then it headlined at a concert in Cairo Stadium, where tens of thousands of audience members were present. And it was aired on TV. It [had] millions of viewers. The next morning, we woke up, and everyone was talking about the song. By singing those words at Cairo Stadium, where our official football team plays, officials go … it was almost like it was normalizing the talk of smoking hashish or drinking.
Right. I mean, it's a song that marked a turning point. Egyptian authorities made the musicians apologize, then released a sanitized version. And then, authorities decided that all Mahraganat musicians would need a license to sing. How did musicians and fans react?
On the one hand, of course, there was outrage because as soon as you begin to crack down on music in any form, you're cracking down on culture. On the other hand, there was a big question of how on Earth you crack down on Mahraganat or any kind of music when most music is streamed online.
One other artist I want to focus on is Mohamed Ramadan. He's one of Egypt's highest-paid performers. His hit “Tanteet,” released last year, comes with a music video where he flaunts his phenomenal wealth. In the video, he strides into a billionaire's casino with a loaded gun, like he owns the place. It's pretty gangster, and yet he's allowed to perform. How do Egyptian authorities square that circle?
It's a bit of a Catch-22. Mohamed Ramadan is extremely popular. He was popular first as an actor. He made his name and his fame from acting. He has reached a level of fame and fortune, sort of like Jay-Z, and he is all about flaunting his private jet rides, his fleet of super expensive sports cars, and his gold and watches. It's tricky because, on the one hand, a lot of Egyptians see him as co-opting social norms and values; on the other hand, you know, one of his close friends, and he's constantly showing this off, is the Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, who is respected and liked. And you can't really stop him. You know, even if the music syndicates and the authorities want to crack down on Mahraganat, there's nothing that they can really do with a personality like that. His wealth has afforded him privilege.
There is another rising international Mahraganat star, Wegz, whose song “Ezz Al Arab” was released with a video as part of the official soundtrack to the FIFA World Cup in Qatar last year. I wanted to bring up Wegz because perhaps it tells us where Egypt’s Mahraganat scene is headed. Is this genre a voice for change, or is there a part of this community that's been co-opted by El-Sisi and his government and another that's firmly underground for the foreseeable future?
Wegz has exploded now onto the international scene. He's extremely talented, and he's a really good role model. I think he can raise this genre and this form to a new level where the government will not be able to touch it. What is interesting, important and powerful about Mahraganat is that it gives voice to a generation that the government traditionally and historically has tried to silence. And somehow, through this music, they are speaking out, and they are expressing and exploring creativity. The key is how the government will give them opportunity with that. I think that will define where this goes. When people say, "What happened to Egypt," "What happened to the revolution," "The revolution is dead" and "What happened to that energy?" The energy is there. The energy is in this music scene. And in these artists and what they're doing.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.