Egypt: Mahraganat artists challenge limits

23 February 2016

For many youngsters in Egypt, mahraganat artists represent the voice of the people. They address social issues, relationships and drug problems. They operate in a landscape of recognition, occasional public and self-censorship and the consequences of the newly suggested committee for “the development of morals and conscience and the promotion of work ethics and values of belonging”.

A Freemuse Cairo Correspondent writes about mahraganat artists on their “bumpy” way to recognition.

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“Come on guys! It’s not going to work this way! You came out here yet plenty of you aren’t dancing. I want to see all of you in the middle, in front of the stage, dancing! And where is Mafia? Can someone get Mafia?” Misho shouts out the groom-to-be by his nickname, standing on stage with a microphone in his hand to be heard over the bass shaking through the surrounding sixteen speakers. Dozens of youngsters and boys have gathered to celebrate and dance, dance, dance. Lights are flashing, the smoke machine is installed, fireworks are pulled out. The night is young.

Together with Samaka and Kamal, Misho is one of the core members of Samaka ʿala Bolteya, a group of mahraganat artists that was hired to organise the engagement party of Mafia and his future other half. On the street in their own Cairo neighborhood of Ayn Shams, they have created an enclosed space by setting up a five-metre tall scaffolding, somewhat shielded by long, blue and white pieces of fabric. They brought a sound system, and put a DJ set and electronic drum on stage. In addition to their shark featuring logo painted on a black cloth, the decibels announce their presence from afar.

For those familiar with the music scene in Egypt, mahraganat needs no introduction. For those who are not, mahraganat researcher Ferida Jawad defines this music style best: “Emanating from the poor, disenfranchised urban classes of Egypt’s capital and other big cities, mahraganat (festivals) is a dance music that combines tunes from traditional music of the popular classes, known as shaabi, with a score of foreign influences – primarily electro, hip-hop and trance. The music is often accompanied by heavily auto-tuned, melodious rap vocals of predominantly young male MCs, who sing in their local dialect in plain terms about the issues they deal with as an age group among the poorer class.”

The first mahraganat song came into existence in 2007. Eight years later, the genre has developed enormously. It is now connected to a steady audience that keeps on growing, a blooming wedding party business which employs many, a particular dance style, and thousands and thousands of artists who are trying to find their way into the scene, which professionalised more and more over time. Not only are mahraganat songs widely available on YouTube and through other online media, the genre also has a strong presence on the street. Whether you take a microbus, youngsters pass you by on a vespa, or you go for a fun evening Nile trip on a boat, mahraganat is everywhere. The music style has earned a spot during Saturday afternoons on Nile FM, there is an exclusive, privately owned mahraganat channel on TV, and it has been embraced by alternative organisations such as Al Mawred Al Thaqafy, 100Copies, and the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF). At weddings, a big source of income for most Egyptian artists, mahraganat artists and DJs are regularly invited to play.

“Four years ago they started performing at tourist resorts,” Jawad explained. “El Madfaʿgeya, Sadat & Fifty, and Oka & Ortega have all been in Hurghada, Sharm El Sheikh, and Sahel.”

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Licenses and registration: a double-edged sword
For many youngsters in Egypt, mahraganat is what researcher Elle Schiemer calls their representation in the cultural landscape. This is mostly the case for those living in deprived neighborhoods, where the mahraganat genre was established in the first place. From the very beginning, the songs’ lyrics have reflected the reality these youths live in, spoken up about social issues, and criticized society.

“We can take something of what is talked about on the streets. We can sing about anything that happened, anything in the world. Girls, problems, drugs, the revolution, anything. Misho for example sang about the gas prices that went up. The mahraganat are our way of expressing ourselves,” Samaka, who has been making mahraganat since 2009, explained.

Misho explains in his turn that every mahragan has a name according to its content: “One of our songs is called ‘Don’t bring trouble (‘ﻞﻛﺎﺸﻣ ﺵﻼﺑ’). It talks about a fight that happened between two people in our area, and says that the fighting should stop. Another song is named after our neighborhood Ayn Shams. It represents it.”

The genre’s audience has widened from the initial crowd of youngsters from popular neighborhoods to listeners from all classes of society. “It’s very clear, however, that the upper class audience has a distinctive choice of which artists from the mahraganat scene are accepted,” Jawad pointed out. She compares upper class weddings where mahraganat DJs are invited to play to white upper class people in the US “going gangsta” for an evening. “Although it is very likely that younger generations, particularly the children, actually seriously like the music, which could have been the case initially.”

“Oka & Ortega have good connections now. Oka is married to a well-established singer/actress called Mai Kassab, who has a vast network in the art and cinema world,” Jawad mentioned as an example of those “accepted” artists. “El Madfaʿgeya is known for being solid performers, with a professional manager who’s a real business man. He used to be a wedding planner and was asked more and more to bring mahraganat artists, and when he became their manager he immediately took care of things in a professional way. They are registered at a Registration Office (ﻯﺭﺎﻘﻌﻟﺍ ﺮﻬﺸﻟﺍ ﺐﺘﻜﻣ), so whatever they produce musically has an ISBN number and copyrights. This counts for their lyrics, too. They, as well as a number of big mahraganat stars, have a license – a carnet (ﻪﻴﻧﺭﺎﻛ) of the Musicians Association (ﻦﻴﻴﻘﻴﺳﻮﻤﻟﺍ ﺔﺑﺎﻘﻧ). This has been a very important development over the past year.” The other licensed mahraganat artists are Sadat & Fifty, Amr 7a7a, Oka & Ortega, and Figo.

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This form of acknowledgment by the government-approved Musicians Association, however, has only been granted to a small number of artists and is hard to obtain for the smaller fish in the scene.

“If you do not have this carnet, you are officially not allowed to perform in places like hotels,” Samaka said. “I heard it costs about 550 Egyptian pounds a year.”

If artists who do not own the carnet go and perform anyway, the police can show up and make the concert stop or demand bribes at any given time. If an artist is not registered, his songs cannot be registered to obtain copyrights either. Yet if he is, lyrics have to be handed in at the Musicians Association, which decides whether or not the lyrics can be used.

“It is a double-edged sword,” Jawad observed. “Artists want to be officially registered in order to be able to perform and earn a living. Yet being registered means being limited in what you can do, unless you produce a lesser version of what you initially intended to make.”

“Because the mahraganat became so popular, the government must have decided it needed to be supervised in a way. Listening to the songs produced by the registered artists over the course of the past year, I have noticed they don’t contain as many topics that can be called social criticism anymore – although the artists themselves probably wouldn’t want to admit it,” Jawad explained. “There’s not a lot left of the spirit of the first songs, which talked about how they were a part of society that was spit out, and how they had had enough of that.”

Although Jawad agrees that singing less about the problems of your neighborhood comes naturally once you are a settled star, she thinks that acknowledging a certain, small minority of the mahraganat world possibly offered the government a method of control.

As for any artist wanting to give a concert in public in Egypt, it is hard to obtain licenses. “Mahraganat artists aren’t reduced to wedding singers, although that’s what they are being asked for mostly,” Jawad said.

This resounds in Samaka’s words: “Most of our income still comes from performing at wedding parties. Either somebody wants a DJ for the wedding party he is organising, or somebody wants us to compose a song for his wedding. That is how it started: a DJ played music at a party, accompanied by a singer who sang without recording the song. So far we have only done concerts when someone wanted to organise a party and asked us to perform. In a park, in a villa, on the birthday of someone, a wedding in a hotel. Once we did a party in Obour. But it was always organized by someone else.

“Of course the mahraganat artists want to organise their own concerts,” Jawad said. “But they don’t have the finances nor the licenses to do so. The biggest performances they usually have take place when somebody spends a lot of money on a big wedding, or when somebody rents a villa to organise a party. If you want to organise something in a public space, you need a license of the police, of the Interior Ministry, and the local governor. It also depends on who you’re talking to and where the event will be held.”

Jawad added that the number of locations where underground artists can perform is limited, mentioning Vent, Cairo Jazz Club, After Eight, and Room. The 100Copies Music Space is an exception, as it really pays attention to mahraganat and annually offers mahraganat artists a spot at D-CAF.

“That’s why the spread of the mahraganat has always depended on local weddings, which take place in a residential area. You don’t need a permit to organise a wedding in front of a building in a neighborhood. So this is the only way for artists to spread their name,” Jawad said.

For artists like Samaka, who neither have the support of the media and public opinion, nor a steady financial status, building a well-known repertoire and a strong network is a must to break through on a wider basis than just within the wedding business.

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The music establishment’s denial
Even though some mahraganat artists have earned time on the radio and television, and a small number of established artists such as Mohamed Hamaki have publicly acknowledged them as true music artists, the music establishment and public opinion are still generally skeptical of the mahraganat music style and the artists behind it. One example of this is when Amr 7a7a and his band in 2014 decided to cancel their participation in the ‘Raise Your Voice’ event, organised at the Cairo Opera House for people to speak up about sexual harassment. The reason for their decision to cancel was that some of the attendees publicly attacked these artists on the event’s Facebook page, describing them as “harassers” and talking about them as “those types”, based on common discriminatory stereotypes about the popular neighborhoods and the people who live in them. These stigmas still prevent many mahraganat artists from making it to the top, as the voices from popular neighborhoods might well be exactly those alternative voices some do not want to hear.

This attitude is comparable to the way the working class’ shaʿby music was received in the 1970s, brought by artists such as Ahmed Adaweya.

“Since the onset of media technologies, Arab scholars, intellectuals, music connoisseurs, trained musicians and social conservatives have frequently criticised newly emerging, mediated music as aesthetically inferior or low brow, overly commercial, excessively Westernized, even dissolute,” Michael Frishkophf describes in ‘Music and Media in the Arab World’. Parallels between then and now are not hard to draw. “The social importance of this music thus tends to be downplayed (if not decried) by those eager to assert what is sometimes assumed to be ‘timeless’ Arab ‘art’ or ‘classical’ traditions (the turath, or heritage) of al musiqa al-3arabiya instead,” Frishkophf confirmed.

This negative reception, often covered with a thick layer of nostalgia yearning for Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez, usually hits music listened to by youth, including mahraganat. But it concerns more than just a generational gap.

The music establishment is a hard nut to crack – one that does not accept its norms being challenged on how music should be produced, distributed or consumed, conforming to rules and structures that stem from religious, cultural and political expectations, Schiemer explained in her research. Especially in the beginning of the genre’s rise to fame, mahraganat artists were heavily criticised in newspapers and on television. And according to Jawad, this is still the case.

“There are still people who say that the mahraganat aren’t worth a thing. And they still come up with the same programs, and the same corrections they use to look at the world, with the same prejudices, as if nothing has changed even though the efforts to remove prejudice and create understanding have been made for years now, ever since 2011,” she said.

Jawad further explained that there is a small group of what are considered high-brow artists and little to no cross-pollination between music genres, making it impossible for other genres to officially become mainstream.

Samaka remembered an incident in 2013 when the ‘Cairo and the People’ (‘ﺱﺎﻨﻟﺍﻭ ﺓﺮﻫﺎﻘﻟﺍ’) tv channel brought the mahraganat duo Oka & Ortega, as well as shaʿby singer Shaaban Abdel Rahim, on television for a talk show and were set up to be publicly criticized and humiliated by Egyptian composer Helmy Bakr.

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The public opinion
“Some people say that mahraganat music is impolite; that they don’t understand a thing of it. But there are always people who love something while others will criticise it. This criticism was more a thing of the beginning. It has become a lot less now,” Samaka observed.

Mahraganat artists are often prejudged by those who do not listen to the genre. One example is the overly popular song ‘No friend acts up as a friend’ (‘ﺐﺣﺎﺼﺘﻳ ﺐﺣﺎﺻ ﺶﻴﻓ ﺎﻣ’) by Shobik Lobik. On a superficial level, the lyrics could be perceived as violent.

“A lot of people misunderstand this song,” Jawad explained. “I stab you, you stab me. You hit me, so I hit you. But you have to listen to the full text to understand what they sing about, which is the concept of masculinity and what men are expected to be like and do. What they mean is: if you stab me, and I stab you, does that make me a man?”

In an interview on CBC Egypt, Shobik Lobik’s singer/songwriter Hassan El Brins explained the meaning of some of the song’s verses and says the lyrics are about the values of true friendship, which are lost.

“I love music and singing,” he replied when asked if he sees it as his role to convey a message to those listening. “But I also have to realise what I’m talking about. I confront society. When I speak, I have to say something that is right.”

With ‘No friend acts up as a friend’ (‘ﺐﺣﺎﺼﺘﻳ ﺐﺣﺎﺻ ﺶﻴﻓ ﺎﻣ’), Shobik Lobik has criticised the existing, famous mahraganat groups like Fifty and Oka & Ortega, Ferida added. “Instead of writing fun songs like those artists do, Shobik Lobik made the conscious decision to bring back what the mahraganat were about in the beginning: talking about what matters in a popular neighborhood in a direct and open way. In defense of their song, they claimed they sang about what the other established bands have forgotten or no longer do. And that is exactly why the song appealed to the people.”

“Everyone listens to the mahraganat now, the whole of Egypt. From youngsters to older people, people from all levels, businessmen. Out fans even actively encourage us to make more songs,” Samaka said. “They said: give it a year and people will stop listening. But the opposite happened. More and more people are listening to mahraganat now, and it will continue that way in the future.”

The presence of a small minority of mahraganat artists in films, advertisement, election campaigns, tv interviews, and supporting programmes during concerts of famous artists such as Amr Diab can be explained by the realisation that mahraganat attracts a big audience.

Although the presidential approval of a committee for “the development of morals and conscience and the promotion of work ethics and values of belonging”, proposed by Egypt’s Scholars Council, possibly points to the direction that having the official carnet could become a must for mahraganat artists to be able to work, they actually have received true recognition already. With a continuously expanding fan base, the question of whether or not mahraganat needs to be acknowledged by the music establishment in the country might be superfluous. For one thing, it already has put the areas where the mahraganat artists come from on the map. The road towards a more general acceptance of the genre, and of the voices of the popular neighborhoods that speak through it, has not been fully crossed yet. But all signs point to one direction: mahraganat is here, and it’s here to stay.

All photos by Mohamed Sabry


» Mada Masr – 26 November 2015:
Sisi approves committee for development of morals and values

» – 1 October 2015:
Hamaki explains his opinion on songs and festivals

» – 18 May 2015:
Research Prospectus: Counterculture resistance through Egyptian mahraganat music

» – 27 November 2014:
Amr Hama team apologises for participating in “The Voice” festival

» Afropop Worldwide – 12 June 2014:
Mahraganat – Musical revolution in Egypt

» Youtube – 21 March 2013:
Oka and Ortega and Shaaban Abdel Rahim speech

» American University in Cairo Press – 2010:
Music and Media in the Arab World by Michael Frischkopf

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