Since the 1970s, popular working-class music in Egypt has been synonymous with mini-bus and taxi drivers and noisy street weddings, but now a modern techno-influenced subgenre is becoming more widely heard. Mahraganat, Egyptian music that blends R&B, rap and techno, derived from the streets of Cairo, Mahraganat is nevertheless spreading through the class system, and can now be heard echoing at the most middle-class wedding parties, Egypt's exclusive night clubs, and even at nationalist events celebrating patriotic holidays or elections.
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Saied and Mohamed*, 20 and 21, two part-time tuk-tuk drivers from the working-class district of Mataryia (east of Cairo) are both aspiring Mahraganat performers. Working as part of a hip-hop dance team that accompanies wedding singers to warm up the audience, Saied and Mohamed split their time between the two jobs to support their families and buy new equipment with the aim of making their own music.
This underground music genre is popular on the streets of Cairo (Credit: Getty Images)
Saied has a closely-trimmed beard and mohawk haircut, and wears skinny jeans and a brightly coloured shirt. He describes the genre of music that features explicit flirting, and mentions of drugs, premarital sex and loyalty to the singer's neighbourhood. "It is loud, artistic, and shameless, just like Mataryia [my district]" he tells BBC Culture, as he pulls over his tuk-tuk to check its tyres. "It is the way many young people can say what they want easily and cheaply, and you can make money, lots of it."
Mahraganat is loud, artistic and shameless, just like Matarya [my district] – Saied
Walking the busy streets of Cairo and Giza, you can see massive advertising billboards for telecommunication companies, featuring the popular Mahraganat singers . Yet, despite Mahraganat's vast popularity both online and live, Egypt's state-sponsored Musicians Syndicate has been waging a campaign attempting to ban and limit the expansion of the genre. In February 2020, headed by veteran singer Hany Shaker, the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate issued a decree banning Mahraganat performances in private venues. The rule is enforced by the Egyptian Tourism Police, and those who do not comply can face legal consequences. With an esteemed career dating back to the 1970s, Shaker was elected in 2015 to be head of the Musicians Syndicate, the official entity with which musicians must be registered to perform commercially.
"This kind of music which relies on sexual references and inappropriate words is refused," Shaker said in February in a televised interview in February 2020. "We want a decent [popular music scene]. We will listen to every song as well as the Central Censorship of Works of Art (CACWA), and then we will decide whether this song will pass or not."
Citing the famous Egyptian saying "Whichever is forbidden is desirable", composer and Mahraganat critic Helmy Bakr tells BBC Culture that he doubts the efficacy of the ban, and that it will make the genre even more popular. "Nowadays, everyone is excited about what is odd; this is a catastrophe that the following generations and their kids will pay the price for." In an attempt to escape the syndicate's restrictions, many of the genre's singers were pushed to perform either abroad or in private households.
Mahraganat music is frequently performed at street parties, but attempts have been made to ban it (Credit: Getty Images)
In late October 2020, Saied and Mohamed, were invited by a friend to attend a private house party featuring two of the Mahraganat heavyweights: Hassan Shakoush and Hamo Beka. The police and and state employees entered the party, and sent the performers and guests home, citing lack of necessary permits, Saied and Mohamed tell BBC Culture."[The ban is an] attempt to stop hard working artists from poor areas to reach fame."
Bakr, who composed many of the nation's most famous classic songs, thinks otherwise. "These [singers] are famous anyways without having to sing; they are famous for how vulgar they are; and the inappropriate words they use," he comments.
Sound of the underground
Mahraganat, which means "festivals" in Arabic, rose to fame after the 2011 revolution that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak. With the attention of Western media, academics and filmmakers directed at the country's rebellious youth and the potential change they could bring, the unusual sound of Mahraganat caught the attention of many. Ten years after the Arab Spring, the music's explicit and raw lyrics, and the flashy style and names of its performers, have drawn criticism from classical musicians and composers within Egypt, who suggest it is ruining public taste and morality and pressuring singers to fit in and change their lyrics. "This genre must be called musical chaos. This is what Mahraganat means for these uneducated persons," Bakr has said.
The tension peaked in February 2020 after the two Mahraganat singers Hassan Shakoush and Omar Kamal played live their hit song Bent El-Giran (The Neighbours' Daughter), a flirtatious song with lyrics hinting that the protagonist might use drugs and alcohol to forget his beloved. The two singers apologised publicly for the lyrics and released a "clean" version of the song. However, the duo still use the original lyrics in live performances, which led the Musician Syndicate to place an embargo on the pair in September. "This cancerous type of music is not worthy of the name of Egypt, its arts, or the beautiful reign of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi," Shaker stated, justifying the ban.
Despite its humble origins, the music has found its way on to blockbuster films and advertisements for multinational companies
Such acts of censorship have taken place even though Egypt's classic musical heritage has several much-praised masterpieces referring to lovers, their touch or encounters as a long awaited "high" or "sip from a drink". For example, in her 1968 hit song This is my Night, the legendary singer Oum Kalthoum sings "Oh my beloved, you are my wine and my cup". Similarly classic singer Karem Mahmoud's famous song Samra Ya Samra (Oh Black Beauty) features a line saying "You are the glass of love and your lips are the drink".
Criticism of the genre is not only based on explicit lyrics. Bakr believes that Mahraganat's problem is also the quality of the songs and the singers' humble background; he calls them "uneducated". "The tunes are not good and not adding anything valuable to Egyptian music. The voices of some of [the Mahraganat] singers are not bad, but others are trash. These trash voices are the ones dominating the scene spreading the genre like a virus," Bakr says. On various occasions Bakr has even described the genre as being "more dangerous than coronavirus".
"When a virus kills a person, this is his fate, but to intentionally harm the society and damage its [artistic] taste is a wrongdoing that we will be accountable for in front of God; that’s why I say this genre is more dangerous than coronavirus," Bakr tells BBC Culture.
Mahraganat singers, El Sawareekh Team, Shehta Karika and others (Credit: Mohamed Attallah)
Trying to solve the so-called Mahraganat crisis, the Musicians Syndicate announced in October 2020 that it will hold try-outs to test those who want a license to sing. They said that the jury would be experts from the syndicate as well as professors at several arts academies. In a recent interview to the pro-state newspaper Youm7, Shaker said that he "will compromise to accept them [Mahraganat singers] to legalise their status and to be able to control the music and lyrics they present".
One of those who underwent these try-outs is Dokdok, one of the El Sawareekh crew whose songs on YouTube and Soundcloud have been listened to by millions. Starting in the early 2000s, the music was performed by young people with no music education who mixed popular songs with sample tracks from the internet, using cheap mics and pirated sound software programmes.
Mahraganat is the only way where I can freely say what I want and feel – Dokdok
For Dokdok, Mahragant is more than a performance; it is a tool of expression. "It is the only way where I can freely say what I want. Any word I want to say or feel I want to express, I can say it in a song." Along with his teammate Bassem, he used to work at a DJ store that rented stereos and lighting sets to street weddings. "We learned everything from YouTube, and used to do covers of famous songs at the time, till we created our own tracks." Dokdok is still waiting for approval from the syndicate, pending his university enrolment papers. He understands why critics take low blows at his music. "We are making the sounds of 2020 and 2021, while they are experts on classical Arabic music, so I understand their opinion."
In a recently published report titled "A closed Door" the Cairo-based Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) warned that if the syndicate continues in this way "this will change the concept of syndicates and empty its content, so that the process of joining syndicates – which is supposed to be voluntary to preserve rights – becomes an obligatory move to produce content in Egypt and a burden on the artistic community".
"The principle of syndicate membership is based on voluntariness, which means that individuals have the free will to join syndicates to get the support and privileges granted to members. In fact, syndicates used the weapon of membership – whether by granting it or revoking it – as a 'legalised' means against members of the cultural and artistic community," the AFTE added.
"Mahraganat has been always a strange genre to the mainstream music scene in Egypt, and its performers [are seen] as misfits," says Mina Ibrahim, an anthropology PhD researcher and lecturer at the University of Marburg. "Putting the performers through try-outs in the syndicates will only institutionalise them and put them into the category of 'acceptable misfit'’, where their content can be controlled," he adds.
Popular Mahraganat singer Mohamed Ramadan has millions of subscribers on YouTube (Credit: Getty Images)
Ibrahim cites the example of Mohamed Ramadan, a famous actor and Mahraganat singer, who started his career in low-budget action films playing thugs and macho men. "As he gained popularity, he was enrolled into several state-sponsored propaganda campaigns and is currently one of the highest paid performers in the country despite his contribution to Mahraganat music." In recent years, the battle of getting licenses to perform in concerts has not only affected Mahraganat musicians, but also other controversial genres like heavy metal, which has been long accused in the Middle East of having affiliations with satanism. In March 2016, police forces stormed into and stopped a concert by heavy metal band Sepultura. At the time Shaker and the syndicate also cited the lack of permits for the storming of the concert.
"There is always an ongoing search by the authorities to trim what they describe as 'public morality' or undermining 'family values'," Ibrahim adds. The same goes for Mahraganat, "The songs might be banned in a private party, but are allowed in a blockbuster drama or film," Ibrahim explains. In his opinion there is a parallel with other forms of censorship, and this approach by the authorities "might lead to censoring Mahraganat or jailing female TikTok performers," he says. "For example, a video of a famous Latin or Russian belly dancer can go viral and be celebrated online, but when a young Egyptian girl dances, she might be jailed." Recently, several female TikTok performers were jailed after being charged with inciting "debauchery" and "immorality" with the content they post on the video-sharing platform.
Salma El Tarzi, one of the first Egyptian filmmakers to capture the birth of Mahraganat visually and socially in her music documentary Underground/On the Surface (2013), tells BBC Culture that the current effort to censor the genre cannot be understood on its own. "It has to do with the hegemony which patriotically hails itself as a representative and moral saviour of the government and the conservative middle class," El Tarzi says.
Despite its humble origins, the music and its performers have found their way on to blockbusters films, advertisements of multinational companies, and even state-influenced political campaigns.
Mahraganat singers including El Sawareekh Team are gaining more mainstream success (Credit: El Sawareekh Team)
El Tarzi argues that the mainstream market has exploited Mahraganat as a source of profit while curbing its performers creativity. "The market embodied by the syndicate will not allow these singers to achieve. Hence it started to look down on them and force them to have permits," she says. However, she asserts that Mahraganat singers should be dealt with like any other performers. "We should not approach them in a romanticised classist manner which sees them as slums residents or simple thriving artists."
In its attacks on the genre, the syndicate has stated it is considering asking YouTube and Soundcloud administration not to publish any songs without permissions. El Tarzi says that not having control over performers’ use of these platforms is a headache for the syndicate. "They have the right to grow, be more financially [successful]. They are artists like any other artists. They can also practice self-censorship or self-preservation in order to be approved and to be able to enter the market," says El Tarzi.
Back to Saied and Mohamed, who are still to release their debut song. The duo thinks of success stories of Mahraganat singers like Dokdok and Shakhoush as an inspiration. "They started from nothing working as vendors or freelance musicians and now millions of people in Egypt and abroad listen to their work." Like Dokdok, they are waiting for the moment to take the stage and sing their songs. Recently, they participated in producing a campaign song for a parliamentary candidate who eventually lost.
"He lost but the song is still catchy and can be heard in several tuk tuks in Mataryea [their district]," Mohamed says. "Banning [Mahraganat] will make it more popular and will make people listen to it more and more." As Dokdok awaits his syndicate papers to be issued, he hopes that the authorities take them seriously. "They are in power and they can ban us. However, they can ban concerts and shows, but they cannot ban the music or singing."
*Some names have been altered
Additional reporting by Omnia Farrag
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