Analysis

Saudis, Egyptians Wage War on Spiking Rap and Electronic Music Scene

Male and female artists alike under fire for video clips gone viral on YouTube and Twitter

Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman's vision for the future unpopular in his conservative country.
Amr Nabil/AP

“Who gave that foreigner the right to speak for Saudi women in general and the women of Mecca in particular? Who benefits from depicting the noble Arab women of Mecca in such an improper way?” This was what Abd Allah al-Tawila wondered on his Twitter account, using the hashtag “They’re not the girls of Mecca.”

Added someone named Abdallah el-Ghamadi: “Mecca is not African, Mecca is not amphibian, Mecca is not foreign, Mecca is noble Arab. This video clip is very dangerous. I demand that the responsible officials take the suitable steps.”

Under an image posted of thousands of women during the pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed and Islam’s holiest site, was the caption: “These are the true daughters of Mecca.”

What sparked the anger on social media of these and thousands of others was a short video clip in which a young, dark-skinned Saudi woman appears, rapping about the virtues of the women of Mecca – their generosity, beauty, power and freedom.

Entitled “Mecca Girl,” the clip, posted on the YouTube channel of a woman named Ayasel Slay – which has since been shut down – contains no hints of “depravity” or foul language, but is considered provocative because of the genre and especially because the singer is accompanied by a mixed group of young dancers.

“Our respect to other girls but the Mecca girl is sugar candy,” sings Slay, who is modestly dressed, in the video.

It took just a few days for the governor of Mecca, Khalid bin Faisal, to issue an arrest warrant against her and the producers of the “insulting” video, stating that it “offended the customs and traditions of the people of Mecca and contradicts the identity and traditions of its esteemed population.”

Some of those posting messages about the clip were quick to decide that the ostensibly offensive rapper herself was not even Saudi, due to her dark skin color. Others attributed the presence of the video to a conspiracy by countries seeking to harm Saudi Arabia – among them Qatar, for example, which has for the past three year been the target of an economic boycott by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.

There has also been a backlash. For one, @MsSaffaa tweeted, “Had it been an affluent, well connected, light skinned Saudi influencer who created the video, it would have been used in MBS’ [Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia] propaganda as a sign of progress and reform. Double standards & hypocrisy at its best.”

This turbulent debate is raging even as Crown Prince Mohammed attempts to create and advance a modern and liberal image of the kingdom he rules, as part of his Saudi Vision 2030 concept. This scheme – which has yet to make inroads among the country’s conservative public – calls for reducing dependence on oil and economic reforms, but also for opening movie theaters, promoting culture tourism, issuing permits for women to work in dozens of professions from which they have been banned in the past, and restricting the powers of the so-called morality police.

Members of this public mainly listen to Western music via their cellphones, but are not prepared to hear controversial expressions by Arabs in the public domain, either in performances or video clips on social media, especially when women are conveying the message. Thus, while the kingdom proposed for an Oscar nomination a film called “The Perfect Candidate,” by the female director Haifaa al-Mansour (it describes a young female doctor’s fight against prejudice), and it agreed to launch an exhibition that opened last week by world-famous graffiti artist Banksy in Riyadh – the social media continue to tell a different story.

‘Alcohol and hash’

Egyptian music video under fire

Saudi Arabia is not the only player in the conservative battle against “obscene music.” This month the chairman of the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate, Hany Shaker, issued a sweeping directive that “festival singers” may not be hired for public performances or at nightclubs, on Nile cruises or tourist sites. The term “festival singers” refers, among others, to wedding singers, popular performers and anyone whose songs “do not meet the criteria of society’s values.”

Shaker’s war is aimed directly at the popular singer Hassan Shakosh, who has garnered more than 100 million views on YouTube and has more than 4 million followers on Twitter, after he released the song “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” in which he sings: “You’re mine and I’m yours, we’re stuck together / If you leave me I’ll hate my life / I’ll be lost drinking alcohol and smoking hash.”

The syndicate is not a government agency but is committed to act according to the norms and laws set forth by the regime; as such, it sees itself has having a monopoly over public taste. Only members of the syndicate are allowed to perform at tourist sites or in public venues; anyone wishing to join the organization must undertake to obey strict criteria.

Indeed, from now on, Shaker stresses, the music itself is not the only criteria for acceptance: “A candidate must adhere to the highest values of society and to moral customs. He must choose lyrics that do not include insults or describe offensive acts. The committee screening the voices of the singers is only the first stage. After that the organization’s council will meet to discuss the other conditions.”

As in Saudi Arabia, government agencies in Egypt are fighting to be the primary arbiters of taste by enlisting “values and tradition,” nationalistic feelings and patriotism. This is an uphill battle because most of the so-called festival singers have achieved popularity through YouTube and social media, and don’t really need a license or membership card in a union to become stars.

However, many of these performers still don’t want to relinquish the legitimacy granted by membership in the syndicate. Caution requires that they not butt heads with that organization, because it has the authority to bring to trial those who don’t obey its rules. Which is why Shakosh was quick to apologize on Facebook to Hany Shaker and the Egyptian people for using references to alcohol and hash.

“This was a mistake…please don’t punish us by taking away our livelihood and suspending our work,” he wrote. “There are people who work with us and need to make a living.”

No doubt about it, Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev could enjoy life in Egypt.