CAIRO — The song begins as a standard Egyptian pop fare: a secret infatuation between two young neighbors who, unable to marry, sneak flirty glances at each other and plunge their hearts into a bittersweet dance of longing and waiting.
But then the lyrics take a radical turn.
“If you leave me,” says the singer, Hassan Shakosh, “I’ll be lost and gone, drinking alcohol and smoking hash.”
The song, “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” has gone on to become a massive hit, racking up over half a billion views of the video on YouTube alone and catapulting Mr. Shakosh to stardom. But the explicit reference to drugs and booze, culturally banned substances in Egypt, has made the song, released in 2019, a lightning rod in a culture war over what is an acceptable face and subject for popular music and who gets to decide.
The battle, which pits the Egyptian cultural establishment against a renegade musical genre embraced by millions of young Egyptians, has recently intensified after the musician licensing organization banned at least 19 young artists from singing and performing in Egypt.
The organization, the Egyptian Musicians’ Syndicate, accused Mr. Shakosh and other singers of the genre known as mahraganat normalize and thus encourage decadent behaviour, misrepresent Egypt and spoil the public’s taste.
“They’re creating a chaotic movement in the country,” said Tarek Mortada, the spokesperson for the syndicate, a trade association that licenses performers to perform on stage and which, while not technically a state arm, is governed by state laws and its members. budget is controlled by the state. “What we now face is the face of depravity and decline.”
The barred singers are barred from clubs, concerts and weddings. Some continued to perform abroad or at private parties, but had to say no to advertising deals and other revenue opportunities. The syndicate’s stance has also dampened Egypt’s cultural scene, sending out a strong message that artists are not free agents and must still abide by the restrictive rules set by civil and state institutions. The musicians see the syndicate as an outdated entity desperately clinging to a strictly curated vision and image of Egyptian culture battling an inevitable wave of youth-driven change.
“They can’t convince themselves that we’re here to stay,” said Ibrahim Soliman, 33, Mr. Shakosh’s manager and childhood friend. “How can you say that someone like Shakosh is misrepresenting Egypt when his songs are heard and shared all over the country?”
Fans were furious. One meme depicted the syndicate’s leader, a pop singer of 1970s love classics, ordering people to stop singing in the bathroom.
The struggle reflects cultural conflicts in the region where autocratic governments in socially conservative countries have tried to censor any expression that challenges traditional mores. Iran, for example, has arrested teenage girls who posted videos of themselves dancing, which is a crime there. And in 2020, Qatar’s Northwestern University canceled a concert by a Lebanese indie rock band whose singer is openly gay.
But online streaming and social media platforms have poked giant holes in that effort, allowing artists to bypass state-sanctioned media, such as television and record labels, and reach a generation of new fans hungry for what they see as more authentic and relevant. content.
Iran’s draconian restrictions on unacceptable music have spawned a thriving underground rock and hip-hop scene. The question Egypt faces is who now has the power to settle matters of taste: the 12 men and one woman who run the syndicate, or the millions of fans who have streamed and downloaded mahraganat.
Mahraganat first emerged more than a decade ago from the densely populated, noisy working-class neighborhoods of Cairo and is still generally made in low-tech home studios, often with no more equipment than a cheap microphone and pirated software.
The raw, candid genre – with blunt lyrics about love, sex, power and poverty – reflects the experience and culture of a large part of the disenfranchised young people living in those neighborhoods to a danceable, throbbing beat.
But its catchy rhymes and electronic rhythms quickly became mainstream, now echoing from the glamorous wedding ballrooms of Egypt’s French-speaking elite, to exclusive nightclubs in Mediterranean resorts to concert halls in oil-rich Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“Mahraganat is a faithful representation of this moment in time, of globalization and information technology, and of social media that define our tastes,” said Sayed Mahmoud, a culture writer and former editor of a weekly magazine called “Alkahera” published by the ministry. of Culture. “If you remove the reference to drugs and alcohol, does that mean they don’t exist? The songs represent real life and real culture.”
They are certainly more direct, avoiding the sanitized euphemisms and poetic hints of sexuality that characterize traditional lyrics.
“We use the words that are close to our tongue, without embellishment or embellishment, and it reaches people,” said Islam Ramadan, who goes by the name DJ Saso, Mr. Shakosh’s blockbuster hit.
Many lawyers and experts say the syndicate has no legal right to ban artists, stressing that the Egyptian constitution explicitly protects creative freedom. But these arguments seem academic in the authoritarian state of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which has stifled free speech, tightened media controls and passed laws to help control and criminalize allegedly immoral behavior on the Internet.
The executive members of the syndicate have adamantly defended their move, arguing that an important part of their job is to protect the profession from inferior work they believe is being done by uncivilized impostors who tarnish the country’s image.
And government agencies have reinforced the message.
In 2017, a special police department that focuses on moral crimes arrested the creators of a mahraganat song and promised to continue to look for work that “provides offensive content to the Egyptian viewer or contains sexual innuendo”.
In 2020, after a video circulated showing dozens of students at a girls’ high school singing along to ‘The Neighbours’ Daughter’, the Department of Education warned schools about the ‘noticeable’ spread of songs inciting ‘bad behaviour’.
A short time later, the Minister of Youth and Sports vowed to “fight the depravity” by banning mahraganat music from being played in athletic arenas and sports facilities.
The head of the syndicate, Hany Shaker, defended the ban on a nighttime television show, saying, “We can’t be in the era of Sisi and allow this to be the leading art.”
So far, the syndicate claims to be winning the battle.
“We even stopped them because they can’t get on stage in Egypt,” said Mortada, the organization’s spokesperson, adding that he went so far as to ask YouTube to remove videos of the banned singers. It has not received a response from YouTube, he said.
But who will win in the long run remains to be seen.
The structure of the syndicate smacks of a bygone era. To be admitted and allowed to sing and perform on stage, an artist must pass a test that includes a classical singing audition. The test is anathema to a genre that relies on autotune and prioritizes rhythm and flow over melody.
While the syndicate’s efforts may be to keep mahraganat out of clubs and concert halls, the music has never stopped.
Mr. Shakosh’s popularity continues to rise. He has more than six million followers on Facebook and more than four million on Instagram and TikTok, and his music videos have been viewed more than two billion times on YouTube.
He is one of the leading artists in the Arab world. Since his suspension, he has performed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq, and ‘The Neighbours’ Daughter’ has become one of the biggest Arab hits to date.
“It’s not the same old love songs,” Yasmine el-Assal, a 41-year-old bank manager, said after attending one of Mr. Shakosh’s concerts before the ban. “His stage presence, the music, the atmosphere, it’s fresh and it’s all about having fun.”
Mr Shakosh would not agree to an interview, but he preferred to remain inconspicuous, his manager said, rather than publicly defy authorities. The ban is more severe for other artists, many of whom don’t have the resources or international profile to tour abroad.
They have mostly kept quiet, refusing to make statements that they fear might upset more feathers.
However, despite the tightness, many are convinced that their music is beyond the grasp of a single authority or government.
Kareem Gaber, a 23-year-old experimental music producer known by the stage name El Waili, is still burning songs, sitting in his bedroom with a double mattress on the floor, bare walls and his instrument, a personal computer with $100 MIDI keyboard.
“Mahraganat has taught us that you can do something new,” he said, “and it will be heard.”