Mahraganat lets Egyptians Say the Unsayable

Egypt's protest dance music scene arrives in London. We caught up with MC Sadat and DJ Figo at Rinse FM.

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27 January 2014, 5:16pm

The revolution in Egypt that would eventually see Hosni Mubarak run out of Presidential office and lead to the country’s first democratic elections began three years ago, on the 25th of January 2011. That day an MC named Sadat, then aged 24, was among the hundreds of thousands protesting on the streets of Cairo, looking for change. When he got home that night, Sadat couldn’t sleep.

“I started writing, and the next day I went to Figo’s house to write and compose the song,” he explains with the help of a translator, sat in a back room at the Rinse FM studios in east London. “It was about corruption and killing and everything that I had witnessed.”

Sadat, along with his collaborator DJ Figo and a handful of others, was already at the forefront of an underground dance music scene which many people call “electro chaabi” (which roughly translates as “electro folk”) but which he’d rather you call “mahraganat” (“festivals”), because he thinks of it as something new, and not just an electro version of the music that’s gone before.

But what they wrote after the protest was different. While Sadat scribbled down observations from the streets, Figo, who taught himself to make beats by watching YouTube tutorials, set to work on the music. “We had to think of how to make the music reflective of what was happening,” says Sadat. “We had to think about how the music could reach the hearts of people because if the music turns them off they won’t even listen to the lyrics. To make the people listen to the lyrics you have to do it with the right kind of music. It’s like how I feel about hip-hop. The first thing that attracts me to a hip-hop song is the tune. Then that would make me listen to what the guy is saying.”

They called their finished song “The People And The Government” (الشعب والحكومة), and stuck it straight onto YouTube:

As the revolution spread, musicians continued to chronicle it in song. Another mahraganat MC called Knaka, who works with DJ Diesel, tells me the song he’s proudest of is called “The Dream of Development”. “It was mainly about saying that it’s not important which party the president of Egypt comes from,” he says. “Whether he’s from the [Muslim] Brotherhood or any other party doesn’t matter. The important thing is that the people, along with the President, develop the country.”

Mahraganat isn’t necessarily protest music. The scene predates the various uprisings that Egypt has witnessed in the last three years, but it has exploded in the popular consciousness since Mubarak fell. It’s given a voice to the streets. Here’s a translation of some of Sadat’s lines from “The People And The Government”:

“The people and the government, the machine guns and clubs / Egypt rose up, and even those who didn’t steal dove into it / I’ll talk about those standing, the survivors and the dead / I’ll talk about the church, the mosque and the Brotherhood.”

That’s the point of mahraganat, it creates the space for people to talk about anything. They can say the unsayable. “Before I started to sing I used to listen to American hip-hop,” says Sadat. “I noticed the way that rappers would rely on their lyrics, not their singing. They were giving a message. We didn’t have anything like that in Egypt. In Egypt, most lyrics talk about love and pretty things, but nobody cares to talk about the real issues in life. I noticed that hip-hop was tackling that and that it was missing in Egypt. Our type of music is free and we can sing whatever we want.”

One of Sadat’s earliest songs that he feels proud of is “All Our Youth Is Gone”, about his fear that young Egyptians were wasting their lives hooked on painkillers and prescription drugs. “My song was tackling this problem and saying that the youth are drowsy and nobody focuses on anything,” says Sadat. “I named all the types of pills in the song. They’re supposed to be prescription drugs but they’re widely available. These pills could destroy an entire generation. Hash is fine, people use that and it doesn’t destroy the young people as much as these pills. A lot of kids listen to our music so it’s good to scare them off that kind of life.”

Wildly popular on the streets, mahraganat music now gets used to advertise many Egyptian films, although the studios don’t pay the artists to use their music. “They are ripping us off,” says Sadat. “We are always being ridiculed by the media, who say that the music we make is not art. They say it’s just a phenomenon and that it will end, but we’re developing ourselves. Everything has its time.”

The only money they do make is from live concerts and appearances at wedding parties. Sadat’s own wedding attracted a crowd of thousands. “Our existence relies on the people who like us, our fans, because no-one can stop us from uploading music to the internet,” he says. “Even if they ban us from the internet, they can’t stop us playing music in the streets. If Hosni Mubarak was still there he would cut down the internet or arrest us in our homes.”

The reputation of mahraganat is growing at home and abroad. Sadat, Figo, Knaka and Diesel are in London to take part in a project called ‘Cairo Calling’. Supported by the British Council, they've come to Brick Lane to lock themselves in a studio at Rinse FM with collaborators like Kode9, Artwork and Faze Miyake. The idea is to fire them at each other in a Large Hadron Collider of frenetic beats, and we could already hear a taste of the results echoing around the corridors of the studio. Rinse is hoping to introduce mahraganat to a wider UK audience as a way of financially supporting the under-tooled Egyptian scene, so they send the four artists to take part in a ferocious Boiler Room session. Even for those of us who can't keep up with their quickfire Arabic rhymes, the star power that has made Sadat and the others folk heroes in Egypt is impossible to miss.

The future of Egypt looks increasingly uncertain. The unseating of the first elected president Mohamed Morsi was followed by a recent vote on a new constitution, which was backed by a landslide 98.1% of votes. Most Egyptians consider the new constitution likely to pave the way for General el-Sisi, whose armed forces deposed the Islamist Morsi in July, to assume power. Sadat and Figo aren’t sure what to make of this. Figo is blunt: “I’m not very hopeful about the future. The country is going to deteriorate,” he says. Sadat is more circumspect:

“The people have been divided in two now. Everybody listens to me. Either my tongue and my words reach both types of people or I don’t speak at all and I don’t sing at all. The people have always been one, in Egypt. Nowadays, they are divided. There are people who are pro the constitution and people who are against the constitution. People are very narrow minded. They are not prepared to listen to the other side and they close their eyes to anything bad happening on their side. I don’t want to support one party over the other. I don’t confine myself to one category of people. Art, for me, should reach everyone.”