People dance at a live music venue on December 17, 2016 in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Analysis

Music in Egypt in the Last Decade: Hit and Run with the Authorities

I started my career in journalism seventeen years ago. In a series of unplanned incidents, I ended up covering musical activities and the contemporary music scene as my main focus. 

In a pre-2011 world, there were quite a few regulations and limitations controlling music production in Egypt and three adjacent, non-interlocking circles:

The first circle is official music production. This circle includes production funded by the government or giant Egyptian or Arab companies that are allowed to operate in this field, such as the Saudi-based Rotana and Al-Mamlakah or Egypt-based Mazzika and Free Music.

This “commercial” for-profit music genre is closest to pop music and can sometimes take in classical music rearrangements such as Om Kolthoum’s concerts and other songs inspired by Arab tradition and heritage. Combined with the music of most popular names such as Amr Diab, Nancy Ajram, Mohammad Abdo, or even Samira Said, this music makes the largest portion of the music market.

The second circle encompasses a small number of cultural institutions that are funded either by the community or by the European Union. These institutions in turn fund the musical production of some experimental “underground” artists. The market share of this music is rather small, and the only way to listen to it is by attending performances by these singers in small theaters. While these songs are not usually broadcast on radio or television, they are the closest to middle class Egyptian culture. Examples of this “underground” music are bands like Cairokee, Fareeq West Al Balad, and Yaseen Hamdan.

The third circle, which is the most widespread of all and the least-funded, is “shaabi” singing. This genre did not find homes in public or private theaters; rather, shaabi singers often sang in wedding parties and street theaters. And in spite of the popularity of their songs, they were not aired on TV but rather widely available on cheap cassettes recorded in modest studios. This music was easily accessible everywhere.

Then, the January 25 Revolution happened. At that point, public squares across the country became melting pots for these three circles of music—places where loudspeakers were installed at every corner and where all kinds of artists and singers were invited to sing through the loudspeakers. As I was walked in Tahrir Square, I kept noticing the classic old nationalist songs from the sixties returning to life. Soon, “underground” singers invaded the squares and immediately started producing songs that adopted the Revolution’s rhetoric. In the meantime, pop singers were hesitant to take part, while some were already involved in endorsing Mubarak and attacking the Revolution.

I remember the one week preceding February 11 very well. At that time, I visited the Tahrir Square and found about this unidentified, new song being sung everywhere. It later came to be known as the “mahraganat” song “Ya Husni Seebna Haram Aleik.”

After Mubarak stepped down, and during the street celebrations, I saw circles of youth dancing to this song. The music was not like any music I had ever heard, and the dancing style was not like anything I had ever seen.

Mahraganat was born within the January Revolution as a byproduct of the Revolution’s spirit and overflowing energy. Today, however, police patrols chase down mahraganat singers, with support from the Musicians’ Syndicate.

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The January Revolution undermined the old rules of music production in Egypt: commercial, for-profit music that had always dominated the market was completely destroyed with the fall of Mubarak. The masses went on further to curse singers of this genre because of their support for Mubarak, and their sexually and emotionally charged music seemed distant from the true feelings of the people at that time. In its replacement, “underground” music grew and rose for a few reasons. First, the European Union and Western organizations increased their funding to these institutions. Second, the public domain was open and ready for this kind of music. Instead of being restricted to small theaters, musical activities spread everywhere, and a series of “Al Fan Midan” concerts was given in a different public squares every month, where a stage would be constructed and “underground” singers would come to sing in open concerts free of charge. 

Shaabi singing, however, underwent a more violent transformation as a new musical wave started to grow in marginalized neighborhoods in the outskirts of Cairo, thus displacing the older traditions of popular music. Popular wedding music that depended on a band and singer was replaced with a DJ and a young boy synthesizing music with a computer—accompanied with singing to a fast, violent beat in a style that mixes rap with traditional Egyptian wedding music.

The main instrument in mahraganat music is the computer, with the keyboard being the figurative strings. Rather than mimicking Westernized electronic music, it synthesizes oriental rhythms and beats into its melodies.

In 2012, we would hear statements by mahraganat singers such as “We are the music of the street.” In separate interviews with artist Al-Sadat at that time, he often said “We are the voice of those deprived, of the underprivileged neighborhoods.” This discourse seemed in harmony with the heat of the revolutionary moment as the masses sang festival songs against military rule and mourned martyrs of massacres. 

With the arrival of Muslim Brotherhood in office, the Egyptian music scene witnessed a state of fear and restlessness, with the threat of new restrictions. When Abdel Fattah El-Sisi first started publicly cultivating his image as then-Minister of Defense, he have a group of singers and artists accompany him wherever he went in a not-so-common display, whether to exploit their fame or to appear as the guardian of Egyptian identity, art, and culture. While streets filled with demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammad Morsi in 2013, televisions was transmitted footage of El-Sisi inspecting a military unit, accompanied with singers such as Muhammad Fuad, Hani Shakir, and other older names from the commercial music circle.

When El-Sisi came to power, the state sought to immediately control media discourse from all angles. Controlling the music scene was therefore a prime target and was done gradually through a few direct and indirect legal and security procedures and steps.

This was first done by prohibiting “Al Fan Midan” and forcing any place intending to host a musical events to obtain a number of clearances and permissions, starting with the fire department and ending at the National Security Department. Such pressure pushed a number of artist organizations, such as “Al Mawrid Al Thaqafi” which managed the Al Juneina Theater, to leave Egypt and resume work in Lebanon and Jordan.

“Underground” music faced successive blows as it was dealt with as an extension to the January Revolution. This situation pressed a number of singers and musicians of this genre to travel outside Egypt after they had been directly threatened because of their music. Examples include Ramy Essam, Hamza Namira, and Abdullah Miniawy—all prominent voices in the post-January-25 world and who, because of their political songs and affiliations, were threatened and went into exile.

Those who could not travel for various of reasons stopped singing, such as Aly Talibab. On the other hand, those who continued singing were sometimes obliged to give up their old songs and remake their artistic personas in accordance with state censors, such as Abou who used to sing to the rebels in the Tahir Square and then turned into the “official” singer for El Gouna millionaires. 

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As El-Sisi took office and the 2014 Constitution was approved, a few modifications on the Law of Arts Unions were enacted, based on which many regulations controlling the work of these institutions changed. Then-Minister of Justice Ahmed El-Zend provided judicial investigation powers to the president of the Musicians’ Syndicate who in turn launched war on all that was new on the music scene. 

After that, under these judicial powers, the president of the Musicians’ Syndicate, or anyone representing them, had the authority to inspect hotels and restaurants and check clearances for singing or playing music by any singer or musician. In this respect, Hani Shakir and those around him turned into a “music and singing police” that mainly targeted mahraganat music under the pretext that it ruined public taste.

For anyone to become a member of the Musicians’ Syndicate, they would have to undergo an audition before a union committee—one whose tastes are based on its Arab musical traditions. For example, it does not recognize rap, hip-hop, or mahraganat music. Consequently, singers of these genres face difficulties in obtaining syndicate membership or permits to perform.

Some mahraganat singers were successful in becoming members of the Musicians’ Syndicate by registering as “DJ’s” and not as singers, whereas some others work and sing unofficially and illicitly—syndicate representatives are susceptible to bribes, provided you do not cross any red lines in your song choices. 

Despite that, mahraganat music kept growing and developing. Hamo Bika, for example, ranks as one of the most listened-to artists but is banned from singing in public parties or concerts, by Hani Shakir’s commands.

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El-Sisi’s regime has a tight grip on the world of music production. To be able to sing in Egypt, one would requires clearance and permission by the Musicians’ Syndicate. Moreover, song themes must be pre-approved and any that come close to political issues would be flagged and could lead to a prison sentence, and even death. Young director Shadi Habash who was arrested on grounds that he simply took part in filming a political song by Ramy Essam and passed away in prison. Poet Galal El-Behairy is currently serving a sentence of imprisonment for writing the song “Balaha.”

Giant music production companies that are allowed to operate in Egypt and that make the stars are either funded by Gulf countries or the ones funded and managed by Egyptian intelligence, such as the Egyptian Media Group and DMC Channels. Most often, these bodies handle the production of national songs and the organization of musical festivals accompanying the inauguration of infrastructure projects that El-Sisi takes pride in.

Yet, despite this grip of power in security and music production, there exists a crack in this wall that could give Egyptian music the opportunity to flourish and develop. The last five years in Egypt, for instance, witnessed increased popularity of music streaming platforms such as Youtube, Spotify, and Anghami.

Consequently, it is now possible for any Egyptian youth to produce music using a laptop, record in a home studio, and upload songs to these platforms—and have the change to earn income based on streams. This new production style has revolutionized Egyptian music, known as the “New Wave”, which mixes of rap and mahraganat music with rising names such as Wegz, Marwan Pablo, Abyusif, Sadat, Mostafa 3enba, Double Zuksh, Molotof, and Dj Tito. 

All these are singers and music producers who eluded the grip of the music companies of the Gulf and Egyptian intelligence, and most of them are not even members of the Musicians’ Syndicate. Despite that, they have been at the forefront of the music scene over the past year, and their music has become a staple in public. They also top online charts, and their popularity and influence, particularly on the rising generations, are constantly increasing.

The New Wave of rap and mahraganat music has breathed new life into the Egyptian music scene. Up until now, the state with its laws and institutions have taken no heed towards them. Media platforms that support the regime, however, have started talking about the sources of income for these young artists and the numbers they are earning through “selling music” online. Sooner or later, the government will try to crack down on this music scene or at least control the money that is flowing to these musicians through international music platforms out of state control.