Egyptians in Dar El Salaam district of Cairo hold a festival-style street wedding featuring mahraganat singers on February 10, 2014. Photo: Mohammed Elshamy / Anadolu Agency

Tens of thousands of people were cheering in the Cairo Stadium on Valentine’s Day when Hassan Shakoosh and Omar Kamal, stars of the mahraganat pop scene, took to the stage. 

The experienced singers were nonetheless timid.

The official setting of Cairo Stadium meant that all of the performers for that night needed to go through specific bureaucratic phases that guarantee state approval. For Shakoosh and Kamal, this meant they had to change the lyrics of their popular song, ‘The Neighbors’ Daughter,’ to adhere to a conservative audience.

But as they sang to a background playing of their recording that night, they realized the original track was played instead of the censored one.

“I’ll drink alcohol and smoke hashish!” an ecstatic crowd of young people sang out. 

Forty-eight hours later, the Egyptian Musicians’ Syndicate issued a legally binding decision effectively banning all mahraganat singers, including Shakoosh and Kamal, from performing at any venue or wedding in the country.

YouTube video
The Valentine’s Day performance

Commercializing the people’s music

In the first decade of the new millenium, from the heart of the slums and marginalized neighborhoods of Cairo, rose a new form of popular Egyptian music: mahraganat, which literally translates in Arabic to ‘festivals’.

Similar to the rise of hip-hop in the United States, this music genre was free from middle-class conservative values, and the lyrics reflected the people’s reality in the rawest form. This meant reflecting violence, using profane language, and bypassing social restrictions. It also meant reproducing sexism and discrimination through popular music.

In ‘The Neighbors’ Daughter’ song, Kamal uses his soft voice to compliment the girl he loves, before Shakoosh joins with his high pitch and strong tone to reflect his possessive love. In the lines the Musicians’ Syndicate head Hany Shaker, sought to censor, Shakoosh sings: ‘If you leave me, I’ll hate my life and years, I’ll lose my path and won’t find myself, and I’ll drink alcohol and smoke hashish.”

Shaker, an old school singer, expressed repulsion at the mention of alcohol and hashish in a song. While trading and consuming alcohol is legal in Egypt, it remains a social and religious taboo, especially among the middle class. Hashish is illegal to either trade or consume, but it is widespread.

In a telephone interview with a television show, Shakoosh explained that he had promised Shaker to change the line on alcohol and hashish to: ‘Without you I won’t survive.’ He then said that the original track was played by mistake and that he apologized.

Fans of the genre on social media were divided on the repercussions of the decision. Many argued that people would continue to use online platforms to share and listen to mahraganat music. But others worried the decision could cut off the singers’ source of income.

By singling out formal venues and registered businesses that are most likely to adhere to the law, Shaker sought to cut off the singers’ livelihood.

“Several gigs have already been cancelled,” Tarek Mortada, the spokesperson for the Musicians’ Syndicate told Asia Times over the phone.

While the mahraganat singers began in marginalized neighborhoods more than a decade ago, they soon gained a massive fan base and made profits from performing in weddings and concerts.

However, even if the concerts and live performances are banned, the singers can still make money from YouTube profits, which for Hamo Beeka, an equally popular singer, amounts to 90,000 Egyptian pounds (US$5,762)  monthly, he told local media.

The incident ultimately highlights how the ability of the originally marginalized musicians to integrate into the formal sector after gaining a massive fan base resulted in more means for the state to control. The trigger was a song that went viral and was listened to tens of millions of times over just two months on both Soundcloud and Youtube, even becoming the second most listened to song on Soundcloud worldwide.

Egyptians in Cairo’s Dar El Salaam district hold a festival-style street wedding on February 10, 2014. Photo: Mohammed Elshamy / Anadolu /AFP

State seeks control

It remains unclear how the Egyptian Musicians’ Syndicate will be able to ban singers who have millions of young fans in a country whose population just hit 100 million.

The body, while meant to represent musicians, is effectively acting as a state institution and gatekeeper for licenses. In the period from November 2015 to April 2016, the syndicate had the judicial authority to issue an arrest warrant for singers and performers who violated its regulations.

While the syndicate, currently the state arm to control the music scene, no longer has the authority to issue arrest warrants, its regulations are legally binding for performers. 

“We have existing forms of cooperation between the syndicate and the tourism venues, as well as state agencies,” said Mortada in his interview with Asia Times.

In the meantime, other state institutions have also rushed to join the ban. The Ministry of Education announced that anyone who plays mahraganat within its institutions will face punitive measures. 

Further, Egypt’s highest religious authority Dar al-Ifta, which is the Islamic university Al-Azhar’s arm for deciding on what is halal, or sanctified, and what is forbidden, declared that music that bashes morals is not halal, including mahraganat.

Even the Chamber of Commerce for Touristic Entities has declared its support for the syndicate’s decision, claimed Mortada.

However, chamber head Adel al-Masry, condemned what the body considered an ‘unwelcome intervention,’ and said that the Musicians Syndicate should have coordinated with the Ministry of Tourism.

The Musicians’ Syndicate, playing a guardian role over who is allowed to play music and who is not, in recent years accepted several mahraganat singers into its ranks, including Omar Kamal, Shakoosh’s collaborator in ‘The Neighbors’ Daughter’, who has even composed a song for Shaker.

“We will reconsider some of the syndicate memberships,” said Mortada. He insisted there have been no negotiations with the mahraganat singers so far. 

Yet Syndicate head Shaker has continued to express his contempt at the working class genre.

He told local television over the phone that the problem lies in the singers’ unwillingness to commit to discipline and morals after the syndicate had attempted to contain them. He implied that things would not have had to go so far had they sung “normally” without the use of profane language and reference to drugs.

“It is over,” said Shaker in reference to previous attempts to discipline the mahraganat singers. “They won’t perform anymore.”