CAIRO — The song begins as standard Egyptian pop music fare: a secret infatuation between two young neighbors who, unable to marry, give each other mischievous glances and engage their hearts in a bittersweet dance of nostalgia and waiting.
But then the lyrics take a radical turn.
“If you leave me,” lambasted the singer, Hassan Shakosh, “I’ll be lost and gone, drinking booze and smoking hash.”
The song, “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” became a huge hit, garnering more than half a billion views of its video on YouTube alone and catapulting Mr. Shakosh to stardom. But the explicit reference to drugs and alcohol, substances culturally banned in Egypt, 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 decided.
The battle, which pits Egypt’s cultural establishment against a renegade musical genre embraced by millions of young Egyptians, recently escalated after the organization that licenses musicians banned at least 19 young artists from singing and performing. produce in Egypt.
The organization, the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate, accused Mr Shakosh and other singers of the genre, known as the mahraganate, of normalizing, and therefore encouraging, decadent behavior, distorting Egypt and spoil the taste of the public.
“They are creating a chaotic movement in the country,” said Tarek Mortada, the spokesman for the union, a professional union that issues permits for artists to perform on stage and which, although technically not an arm of the state , is governed by state law and its budget is supervised by the state. “What we are facing right now is the face of depravity and regression.”
Banned singers were barred from clubs, concerts and weddings. Some continued to perform overseas or at private parties, but had to say no to publicity deals and other income opportunities. The union’s stance has also cast a cloud over Egypt’s cultural scene, sending a strong message that artists are not free agents and must always respect the restrictive lines set by civil and state institutions. The musicians see the union as an old-fashioned entity clinging desperately to a strictly organized vision and image of Egyptian culture that is crashing against an inevitable wave of youth-led change.
“They can’t convince themselves that we’re here to stay,” said Ibrahim Soliman, 33, manager and childhood friend of Mr Shakosh. “How can you say that someone like Shakosh is distorting Egypt when his songs are heard and shared by the whole country?
The fans were furious. A meme depicts the syndicate leader, a pop singer of 1970s romance classics, ordering people to stop singing in the bathroom.
The battle reflects cultural conflicts across the region where autocratic governments in socially conservative countries have attempted to censor any expression that challenges traditional mores. For example, Iran arrested teenage girls who posted videos of themselves dancing, which is a crime there. And in 2020, Northwestern University in Qatar canceled a concert by a Lebanese indie rock band whose lead singer is openly gay.
But online streaming and social media platforms have gouged giant holes in this effort, allowing artists to bypass state-sanctioned media, like 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 produced a thriving underground rock and hip-hop scene. The question facing Egypt is who now has the power to regulate matters of taste – the 12 men and one woman who lead the syndicate, or the millions of fans who stream and download mahraganat.
Mahraganat was born from the dense and rowdy working-class neighborhoods of Cairo more than a decade ago and is still generally made in low-tech home studios, often with no equipment other than a cheap microphone and pirated software.
The raw and candid genre – with candid lyrics about love, sex, power and poverty – reflects the experience and culture of a large segment of the disenfranchised youth who live in these neighborhoods on a dancing and haunting rhythm.
But its catchy rhymes and electronic beats quickly became mainstream and now resonate from the glamorous wedding ballrooms of Egypt’s French-speaking elite to the exclusive nightclubs of Mediterranean resorts to the concert halls of Qatar and Egypt. oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
“Mahraganat is a true representation of this moment in time, of globalization and information technology, and of social media in guiding our tastes,” said Sayed Mahmoud, culture writer and former editor of a weekly 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 allusions to sexuality that characterize traditional lyrics.
“We use the words that are close to our language, without embellishing or embellishing, and it reaches people,” said Islam Ramadan, who goes by the name DJ Saso, the 27-year-old producer of Mr Shakosh’s hit hit.
Many lawyers and experts say the union has no legal right to ban artists, insisting 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 control over the media and passed laws to help monitor and criminalize so-called immoral behavior. on the Internet.
The executive members of the union have adamantly defended their decision, saying that an essential part of their job is to protect the profession against substandard work which they say is carried out by uneducated impostors who tarnish the country’s image.
And government officials have reinforced the message.
In 2017, a special police division that targets moral crimes arrested the creators of a mahraganat song and vowed to continue to search for works that “present content that is offensive to the Egyptian viewer or contain sexual innuendo”.
In 2020, after a video emerged showing dozens of students at an all-girls high school singing along to “The Neighbor’s Daughter”, the Ministry of Education warned schools against the “noticeable” broadcast of songs that incite “bad behavior”.
Shortly thereafter, the Minister of Youth and Sports pledged to “combat depravity” by banning the playing of mahraganat music in arenas and sports facilities.
Union leader Hany Shaker defended the banning of a late-night TV show, saying, “We can’t be in the age of Sisi and allow this to be the main art.”
So far, the union claims to be winning the fight.
“We actually arrested them because they can’t perform in Egypt,” said the organization’s spokesperson, Mr. Mortada, adding that it had gone so far as to ask YouTube to remove the videos. videos of banned singers. He did not receive a response from YouTube, he said.
But who will win in the long run remains to be seen.
The very structure of the union is reminiscent of a bygone era. To be admitted and allowed to sing and perform on stage, a performer must pass a test which includes a classical singing audition. The test is anathema to a genre that relies on autotune and prioritizes rhythm and fluidity over melody.
Although the union’s efforts may prevent the mahraganate from entering clubs and concert halls, the music has never stopped.
Mr. Shakosh’s popularity continues to rise. He has over six million followers on Facebook and over four million on Instagram and TikTok, and his clips have surpassed two billion views on YouTube.
He is one of the greatest performers in the Arab world. Since his ban, he has performed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq, and “The Neighbors’ Daughter” has become one of the biggest Arab hits to date.
“These are not the same old love songs,” said Yasmine el-Assal, a 41-year-old bank executive, after attending one of Mr Shakosh’s concerts before the ban. “His stage presence, the music, the vibe, it’s fresh and it’s all about having fun.”
Mr Shakosh would not agree to be interviewed, preferring to keep a low profile, his manager said, rather than appear to publicly defy the authorities. The ban has been tougher on other artists, many of whom don’t have the means or the international profile to tour abroad.
They have mostly remained silent, refusing to make statements they fear could ruffle more feathers.
Despite the pressure, however, many are convinced that their music is beyond the grasp of any single authority or government.
Kareem Gaber, a 23-year-old experimental music producer known by the stage name El Waili, is still burning tracks, sitting in his bedroom with a double mattress on the floor, bare walls and his instrument, a computer personal with a $100 MIDI keyboard. .
“Mahraganat taught us that you can do something new,” he said, “and it will be heard.”