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In early July, Ahmad Dogary’s song “Television Remote” went viral on TikTok.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” the Egyptian musician told Fanack. “I expected it to be popular, but not to this extent.”
The catchy tune belongs to the “mahraganat” genre, which translates to “festivals.” The genre originally appeared between 2006 and 2009, and it gained popularity during the January 25 revolution in 2011.
Young men from low-income communities in Alexandria and Cairo would perform at street weddings to save money on the extravagant expenditures of hiring a singer, a dancer, and a band.
From there, the genre took off to become one of the most defining music styles in Egypt. Played in buses, coffee shops, tuk-tuks, and weddings, it’s an easy route to fame in today’s connected world.
“I used to be a shaabi (folk) singer up until a year and a half ago. I went in for the fame and amassed some of the success I wanted, but I still have a long way to go,” Dogary said.
For the Alexandria-born singer, these songs are authentic to the experiences of the Egyptian lowbrow culture that he and his friends hail from.
However, not everyone is a fan. Egypt’s Musicians’ Syndicate has already barred mahraganat singers from working in Egypt and has continuously criticized the genre for its use of vulgar language.
For Dogary and his team, the genre is too big for anyone to restrict.
From the slums to the charts
This type of dance music started as a do-it-yourself genre that largely relies on computer sound synthesizers and auto-tune.
A low-budget production with heavy percussion and bass sounds, the genre continuously produces hits, racking up millions of views on YouTube and thousands of streams across various platforms.
According to Dogary’s manager Houda al-Efrit, the name “mahraganat” came from the way wedding parties are titled. For instance, the wedding of “bride X” and “groom Y” would turn into the mahragan (festival) of “bride X” and “groom Y.”
“You have these kids that grew up in working-class neighborhoods of Cairo and Alexandria where the biggest social events on their calendars were weddings,” Tarek Benchouia, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University and researcher on the topic, told Fanack.
“They also grew up with the internet, downloadable mp3s, and especially YouTube, so they are inspired by a mixture of genres. This also allowed early mahraganat artists to download production software and experiment,” he added.
Before its current social media popularity, the genre gained recognition for its ties to the 2011 uprising where millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand then-president Hosni Mubarak’s departure.
“When Egypt made international headlines during the uprising, mahraganat got a lot of attention as people wanted to understand the cultural underpinnings of the revolution,” Benchouia said, adding that the music was not a direct result of the 2011 movement.
One of the most popular mahraganat songs produced as a response to the uprising is “the people want five Egyptian pounds worth of phone credit.”
However, a conflict of class, ethics, and freedom has swept over the mahraganat scene in recent years.
Bans and restrictions
Egypt’s state-sponsored Musicians’ Syndicate began its campaign to limit the expansion of the genre two years ago. In February 2020, the syndicate’s president, famed Egyptian singer Hany Shaker, issued an order prohibiting mahraganat performances in private places.
Shaker described the genre as a kind of music that “relies on sexual references and inappropriate words,” adding that he believed that the Egyptian people desire a “decent [popular music scene]” and that the Central Authority for the Censorship of Works of Art (CACWA) would listen to the music and then decide if it should be banned or not.
In this year alone, 19 artists have been barred from performing.
Some performers have considered this ban an attempt to restrict lower-income artists from achieving fame and success, thus reserving the arts to the elites.
The song, “The Neighbor’s Daughter” by Hassan Shakosh and Omar Kamal was a giant hit across the MENA region and has garnered more than half-billion views on YouTube at the time of writing. However, the phrase “if you leave, I’ll be lost and gone, drinking alcohol and smoking hash” compounded the cultural war that the elites have waged against the straight-talking, uncensored working-class singers.
While the syndicate has accused the singers of misrepresenting Egypt, Lebanese freelance music writer Danny Hajjar told Fanack that the authenticity attached to the genre goes beyond its lyrics and lands on minute details such as the way artists present themselves.
“Mahraganat singers tackle taboo subjects such as sex, alcohol and explicit flirting that is not found within traditional pop music in the Arab world,” Hajjar said.
“Unlike pop artists that are always dolled-up and glamorous, mahraganat singers show up in t-shirts and ripped jeans. They look and sound like the neighborhoods they hail from,” Hajjar added.
A cultural identity here to stay
In March 2022, an Egyptian court sentenced mahraganat giants Omar Kamal and Hamo Bika to a year in prison and a 10,000 EGP ($538) fine, with an additional EGP fee to suspend the prison sentences, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
The duo was found guilty of “violating family values in Egyptian society and profiting from a video including dancing and singing.” The 2020 music video for their hit “Ente Ma’alima” (You are the master) shows the two men dancing alongside a belly dancer that is wearing a black blazer and a red top – unlike the traditional Egyptian belly dance attire.
Both performers continue to perform abroad, much like other mahraganat singers.
“They can ban singers from performing in Egypt but they can’t restrict us from releasing songs online. TikTok and YouTube especially are where we rake in the bucks and amass huge success,” Mohamad Gendi, mahraganat music producer told Fanack.
Gendi explains that the use of explicit language, which the syndicate condemns, is another way to emulate the street language present, not only in Egypt but everywhere in the Arab world.
“Mahraganat takes one sentence which is placed in the title – and develops it into a playful song that the audience can relate to because it’s used in our colloquial everyday language,” the producer said.
Hajjar asserts that to deny the genre is to deny an entire facet of Egyptian identity.
In his article on “How Egypt’s Mahraganat music marvels in Disney’s Moon Knight,” Hajjar notes that the inclusion of the genre in a large-scale Western production sends a message that “these artists, who are banned from performing in their own country, and this genre of music are inherently part of the fabric of Egypt and Egyptian culture.”
Popular but problematic
Both Hajjar and Benchouia note that while the music is infectious and entertaining, the lyrics can carry heavily problematic and misogynistic messages.
“Since the genre itself mirrors the reality of Egyptian communities, this is another aspect that is accurately mirrored. Misogyny, machismo, and objectification are as prevalent in Egyptian society – and the MENA at large – as they are in the songs,” Benchouia said.
Omani music producer and owner of popular mahraganat YouTube channel “ME music” Said Ben Hamd told Fanack that provocative and vulgar language help the artists garner more publicity online. Therefore, the Musicians Syndicate needs to embrace these musicians to give them proper guidance and offer them a separate division.
“What’s forbidden is desired,” Ben Hamd said. “Therefore, I worry about possible negative influences on younger generations that are continuously exposed to this music and can easily absorb messages without proper awareness.”
In Egypt and across the MENA region, women are still brutally murdered at the hands of men whom they reject. Sections of societies also fault the victims for their choice of clothing or lack of obedience to patriarchal norms.
As for women in mahraganat, their participation remains shy as the podcast “Masafat” explains: “Mahraganat originates from rural working-class areas where women and men don’t normally mix on a social level. Therefore, this is carried onto the scene.”
Salma Adel, a retired opera singer, is now the sole woman to have broken the mold in the male-dominated mahraganat realm with controversial duets. However, whether this will draw more female singers to the scene remains to be seen.