Music for Egypt’s post-revolution generation

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Egypt’s respectable citizens look down on it and the revolutionaries don’t know what to think. But nothing can stop the boom in popularity of Mahraganat music. It’s become the soundtrack of the post-revolution generation.

By Michel Hoebink

Total rubbish, according to some. Vulgar street music by and for drug users. Mahraganat artist DJ Sadat (26) couldn’t care less what the critics think. “People attack us for our tastes”, he said in an interview with the Egypt Independent, “when maybe we should be attacking them for theirs. Look at the crap on Starmaker and Arab Idol and those shows. Those people are singing nonsense.” 

Missing footwear
Mainstream Egyptian pop music is dominated by sentimental love songs and videos that glamourise the luxurious lifestyle of the middle-class. It’s all nice clothes and eye-candy. Mahraganat music is the exact opposite. It’s a raw, unvarnished take on daily life in the slums of Cairo. The songs are about drugs, sex, friendship and – a classic irritation – a lost sandal:

F**k I’ve lost my sandal
F**k it was new
F**k I got them for Eid el-Fitr
F**k they were my best slippers

Authentic Egyptian rap
Mahraganat was born in the sprawling outskirts of the Egyptian capital, in suburbs like Medinat al-Salaam, Sabtiya en Matariya. It is music from the country’s heart, with its roots in the popular music played at weddings and in the Sufi musical tradition whose rhythms are believed to date back to the time of the Pharaohs. But at the same time it’s ultra-modern with electronic techno and hiphop influences. The result is a sort of Egyptian rap, as authentic as it is contemporary. The artists themselves resist any suggestion that they’re heirs to a musical tradition. “No-one has ever done what we’re doing!” insists DJ Sadat

Going viral
The young pioneers of the Mahraganat style such as DJ Sadat, Amr Haha and the duo Okka and Ortega began by performing at weddings. In 2009 they downloaded their songs onto YouTube. Oka and Ortega can still remember the first time they heard their music booming out of a car window. They raced over to the car and told the driver excitedly “We made that”. He didn’t believe them and just laughed before pulling away.

Once available on internet, Mahraganat music took off. Some of the videos on YouTube have had millions of hits. After the revolution it rapidly crossed over from the underground to the mainstream. It was adopted as the music of the young post- revolution generation. Now it can be heard everywhere – on the street, in taxis and shops, on TV and radio and as background for advertising. Suddenly the genre’s stars were performing in nightclubs and travelling abroad. Sadat, Okka and Ortega have given concerts in Paris, London and New York.

Five pounds of phone credit
Although Mahraganat songs describe the troubles of poor people, they were not originally explicitly political. They were not sung on Tahrir Square - that music was mostly from an older tradition of protest songs. It was only after the fall of the Mubarak regime that Mahraganat stars began using their music to comment on political developments. The song “I’ll Catcall, But I Won’t Grope” is a response to the endemic sexual harassment suffered by women on the streets of Egypt. Another well-known number is “The people want five pounds worth of phone credit”, a satirical comment on the famous revolutionary slogan: “The people want the fall of the regime.”

The people want something new to think about
The people want five pounds worth of phone credit
The people want the fall of the regime
But the people are so damn tired!

Click here to listen to ash-Sha’b yurid 5 jinih rasid (The people want five pounds worth of phone credit) by DJ Figo and Amr Haha.