A preview of a project on Shaabi music in Egypt, and it’s latest iteration Maharagan. What follows is part of the story proposal.
Through the warren of Cairo’s unplanned slums, mahraganat (festival) music blasts from tuk-tuks, cigarette stalls and cranked up cellphone speakers; auto-tuned voices mixing with heavy electronic rap beats. The sound quality is low and the lyrics are unmistakably vulgar. Egyptians can’t get enough.
Sha’abi music (literally translating to the music of the ‘people’) is the new anthem of a new Egypt, recorded in bedrooms, mixed on shoddy laptops and capitalizing on the anger at the country’s economic and political situation. The young singers discuss pride, community, sex, and religion, seething about their frustrated expectations of a better life through irreverent, comical and sarcastic lyrics like “The people want phone credit! Just phone credit,” a play on the popular 18-day Tahrir Square uprising chant: “The people want the fall of the regime!”
Walking down the street, Okra, Ortega and Wezza’s blend easily into the crowds of the Egyptian youth that have spontaneously amassed for the last two years at city intersections—throwing stones at police, demanding a better life, chanting for freedom, against Hosni Mubarak, against president Mohammed Morsi.
The scrawny 24-year-olds are a far cry from the country’s previous state manufactured pop idols’ well-toned muscles and Adonis faces. Dressed in tight t-shirts and even tighter jeans, they combine American rap fashion with Egyptian street swagger. Two of them sport gelled hair, the other wears a massive hat that covers a ‘fro. But their band “Tamanya Fil Meya” [the eight percent] has become the new voice of Egypt, of the Sha’abi (poor).
Tamanya Fil Meya knows the masses: They perform on rickety wooden stages in alleys and at impoverished weddings in their neighborhood of Matareya, (the birthplace of this music style). Their latest recordings are passed from phone to phone by bluetooth. Their YouTube videos have over 1 million listens, their Facebook page has hundreds of thousands of likes. (The state won’t play their subversion on the radio and the mass marketing companies won’t sell their albums in stores.)
Like the American generation weaned on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” these young men’s lyrics are becoming the mantra of the Egyptian youth, and by extension the voice of the changing times in the Middle East, post-Arab Awakening. As the state can no longer contain the rage of the impoverished youth, the popularity of pre-packaged, predictable pop crooning about love and marriage are out, replaced by the uncontrollable and uncensorable shouted lyrics about life in the street — the demand for dignity and recognition.