On Valentine’s Day this year, the rising Egyptian musicians Hassan Shakosh and Omar Kamal performed their new song, “The Neighbor’s Daughter,” at the Cairo Stadium. The next day Egyptian government denounced the song and a few days later banned it completely. While about it Cairo also banned the entire genre of electronic dance music in Egypt known as “Mahraganat.”
“It’s more dangerous than the coronavirus!,” one official said, a quote that made headlines in Egypt. All this was because of a single line in the song: “I drink alcohol and I smoke hashish.”
Three months after the ban on Mahraganat was imposed in February, “The neighbor’s daughter” has surpassed 300 million views on YouTube (including quite a few in Israel). The ban, one suspects, backfired.
To explain the song’s phenomenal success in defiance of the government, we need to examine the success of the entire genre, which arose in the margins of Egyptian society. Mahraganat, Arabic for “festivals”, is a sort of reincarnation of Shaabi, a musical genre that appeared in Egypt during the 1970s. The word “shaabi means “of the people.” The songs of this type were written in a style in keeping with the impoverished regions of Egypt.
“The Shaabi genre is a contrast to classical Egyptian music,” says Dr. Nadeem Karkabi of the University of Haifa’s anthropology department. “It’s also a genre of the people in terms of its style: relatively simple music that also has elements of political provocation, double entendre and humor. In songs from this genre, one can find sentences like ‘I hate Israel’ and ‘I love Mubarak,’” he added, referring to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “It was created by the working class, and the songs also talk a lot about the lives of the poor. Music in this genre was heard mainly at social events and weddings and developed through the sale of tapes. It wasn’t completely subject to the big companies that dominate the Egyptian music industry.”
The birth of electro-Shaabi
In the early 2000s, a new genre of Shaabi-type music began to arise, an electro-Shaabi, that came to be called Mahraganat. “Mahraganat was a continuation of Shaabi’s original direction, but in more extreme form,” Karkabi says. “It was born of the same social class, but now it’s boosted by the internet.”
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Like Shaabi, Mahraganat also gained traction at gatherings such as weddings, helped along by wedding deejays, who rank at the bottom of Egypt’s musical ladder, Karkabi explains. The songs were performed rather like rap, with the deejays creating the mix and themselves singing the words or chanting to an electronic beat. In time elements of reggae and Shaabi itself were added, and the result was music to dance to, not just listen to sedately at home.
To an extent, the story of Mahraganat is like that of the “Mediterranean” music that began making the rounds in Israel in the late 1960s, disseminated on tapes at social events and offering sounds from cultures from Greece to Yemen. But the mainstream ignored it, generally sticking to Israeli army bands and their offshoots.
Yet while Mediterranean music was slowly embraced by the Israeli mainstream and the establishment (and has become more like pop in both content and sound), Mahraganat remained the enemy of the establishment. It still operated on the fringes of society, and the issues it dealt with also remained on the margins.
And then the Arab Spring began.
“A lot of what happened in Egypt was intertwined with music, because the creators of Mahraganat were themselves political people,” Karkabi says. “The main complaint was about socioeconomic issues, the fact that people were poor, and the creators of Mahraganat expressed this in song from a very personal and lyrical standpoint. They were all very young, and therefore, they could speak to a certain age group in its own words, and with a lot of verbal style. A lot of coined phrases, a lot of metaphors and a lot of talk about hashish and sex – things generally not acceptable in mainstream music, certainly not in Egypt.”
The youngsters who raised their heads and shouted their pain found a voice in Mahraganat and voted with their computer screens and their dancing feet. Musicians from this genre began racking up millions of views on YouTube, and names like DJ Figo, DJ Sadat and 3Phaz became household names in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. The state continued denouncing Mahraganat singers, but recording companies started getting interested and signing them on.
“The secret to our success is that people in their 20s feel represented by our music,” DJ Sadat told the Guardian in 2013. “We talk about our common problems: the difficulty of having a relationship with a woman, rising unemployment and drugs that we do to help us not get depressed.”
Suppress, suppress, suppress
Yet even as Mahraganat flourished with the younger generation, through online social networks and live performances, the state’s establishment media outlets, radio and television, continued to reject it, arguing that it “doesn’t jibe with Egyptian values and traditions.” The genre took one of its worst blows in 2015, when 21-year-old DJ Zola was shot and killed during the annual festivities commemorating the revolution. The Egyptian government accused the Muslim Brotherhood of the murder, but musicians, and especially DJ Sadat, who had been his close friend, blamed the police. A Facebook page created in his memory charged that “Ahmed Zola, a tortured martyr, is dead by the Interior Ministry’s shooting. His music was his entire life; he died by police fire even though he wasn’t connected to the Muslim Brotherhood and wasn’t a terrorist; he had no political ties. The police ignore the terror happening in Sinai and instead kill our youth.”
The Valentine’s Day ban was a new peak in the government’s war on Mahraganat. Its pretext for scapegoating “The Neighbor’s Daughter” was a few schoolchildren who were spotted dancing to the song.
One of the leaders of the battle against the genre was Hany Shaker, head of the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate, who told the media, “Legal action will be taken against anyone who violates this decision. The time has come for the state to pay attention to the real artists and to support things that are fit to represent Egypt’s culture.”
“What the song said was really direct, though it was preceded by quite a few songs like that,” Karkabi says, trying to explain the extreme response. “That’s part of this music. But when Shakosh and his partner sang it on Valentine’s Day, that was too much.”
Yet he predicts that even the government’s extreme response won’t dent the genre’s popularity: “The fact that Shakosh came to sing at the Cairo Stadium with Egyptian artists of the highest caliber says a lot. I have trouble believing they’d stop a wedding if a deejay plays it. Those are places the police don’t like to go.”
The Musicians Syndicate supported the ban because people with power always want to preserve it, not necessarily because it has real feelings about tradition, Karkabi adds. “This is an older generation with a different style that wants to stop a younger generation with its own style, especially given the sweeping interest in the genre,” he said. “But censoring music never works. After all, we know this from examples in the West. They even tried to do it with rock and roll, but they couldn’t stop it.”
And musicians from the genre aren’t giving in. “You can just make tracks in your bedroom or in your home studio. You put them on SoundCloud and YouTube and they’re available for everyone,” 3Phaz said in an interview with Billboard in March. “How can you stop that?”
A star in Israel
And what about Shakosh? The 300 million YouTube views for “The Neighbor’s Daughter,” and many more for his other songs following the events of Valentine’s Day, prove that he profited from the government’s disapproval. In Israel too, in Haifa and Jaffa, his songs emanate from homes and cars – even though his media presence is mixed. It’s hard to find interviews with him and he doesn’t even have an Arabic Wikipedia page (though he does run an Instagram account). According to Karkabi, this might be due to covert censorship against him.
Judging by the few interviews Shakosh has given, his profile is similar to that of many others working in the genre. He grew up in a poor neighborhood in Egypt and played soccer as a boy, but couldn’t pursue an athletic career because he lacked the money. Over the years, he supported himself through jobs like shoe repair and carpentry. His love of music was instilled in him by his father.
“It’s nothing new for Egyptian music to reach Israel and other countries worldwide, but the scope is truly enormous, certainly for someone who wasn’t so well known before,” Karkabi says of Shakosh’s dizzying success. “There’s no doubt that the incident boosted him further, but even musically, this song was a bit different, and well done. It’s a bit different from the typical Mahraganat in its recurring beat,” he explains. “This song plays with the beat in a more sophisticated manner.”