Egyptian rap music became increasingly politically charged during the final years of dictator Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Poverty, police brutality and state corruption were all common themes. The musical style was well known but never commercial.
The lack of mainstream attention shielded Egypt’s most daring lyricists from being stifled by the state. DaCliQue 203, a rap group from Alexandria, went so far as to criticize explicitly Mubarak and his youngest son, who many believed was being groomed to succeed his father in power.
The track ‘Yam el Haj’ (‘Uncle Haj’) was released in 2009. The lyrics were damning and the accompanying video received thousands of views. “Before ‘Yam el Haj’, we released another track which criticized the behaviour of society. We weren’t only rapping about politics. We wanted to address social issues as well,” Shakur, the stage name of one of DaCliQue 203’s members, told Fanack.
Shakur and his group were not alone. Following Mubarak’s resignation in 2011, rap musicians took advantage of the unprecedented media freedom. Hip-hop, which is rooted in dialectic expression, made its move.
Revolution Records, a label established in 2006, began rapping exclusively about politics once the military assumed power. Temraz, the stage name of one of the founding members, said that he personally felt that his message was reaching people.
How could he not? His label recorded some of Egypt’s most confrontational lyrics. In March 2011, the group released ‘We Will Continue the Revolution’. Soon after, ‘They are Liars’, which became their most popular song that year, came out.
The latter criticized the Egyptian military, which frequently abused demonstrators in the months leading up to the country’s first democratic election. Speaking out against the military had been unthinkable before then.
Egyptian rap maintained its fervor once the Muslim Brotherhood under Mohamed Morsi came to power in 2012. Artists became more focused on including nuance in their music. At the time, Egyptian society was freer but polarized. Many rappers, especially those disillusioned with the Muslim Brotherhood, attempted to bridge the divisions among the Egyptian youth.
“I’m not going to say [rappers have to] be neutral,” Ahmad Hareedy, another rapper from Alexandria, told Muftah in 2013. “But [rappers have to] be on the good side. [They] have to be truthful and not make up stuff; [rappers] have to find out what exactly happened [in Egypt] and then write about it.”
Other rappers, such as Badr Dahi, insisted that the revolution was not complete. Justice and greater civil freedoms still needed to be realized under the new government. And if they were not, the ruling elite had to be held accountable. In this climate of turbulence and mistrust, artists were taking a unified stance to attract a larger audience.
Everything changed in June 2013, when General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi. Like most of the country, Egypt’s most vocal rappers were ambivalent about the future.
However, al-Sisi soon revealed his intentions to stifle all opposition. First, Muslim Brotherhood supporters and secular activists were killed or jailed. The press was then muted and police brutality returned with a vengeance. The crackdown intimidated critics into silence, although some notable rappers refused to back down.
In April 2016, Revolution Records released their most daring song yet. It was called ‘Masahsh Keda’ (‘that’s not right’), a phrase al-Sisi uses patronizingly when addressing his citizens. The group sampled al-Sisi’s voice and incorporated it into the chorus. They also made a music video before uploading the track to YouTube. When it was first released, the song received more than 200,000 ‘likes’.
However, members of Revolution Records feared state reprisal. Media coverage of the song was relentless and Temraz expected that he and his group would be beaten and jailed. Neither happened. However, a friend who works in the presidential palace told the group that the government would arrest them if they released another song that defied the state. “We decided from that moment not to make any more political tracks,” Temraz told Fanack. “Now, I just want to get out of Egypt.”
He is not the only rapper hoping to get out. Y-Crew, one of Egypt’s first hip-hop groups, has already gone to Dubai. “We will be rappers until we die,” said Shahin, one of Y-Crew’s two members. “We have rapped about social and political issues since we started, but after seeing nothing change, we decided to leave Egypt.”
Y-Crew is now working on their EP. Like most artists in Egypt, they are avoiding controversial topics. That does not mean that rap music is not gaining popularity. Hundreds of new songs are being recorded. But instead of talking about politics, more artists are focusing on raising awareness about social issues.
F-Killa, a male rapper from Cairo, whom one local newspaper described as the ‘rap terminator,’ is one of several who have written lyrics about the epidemic of sexual harassment. Others have reverted to rapping about themselves or recording tracks that insult fellow rappers. That appears to be the growing trend, which not everyone is happy about.
Temraz said that the latest obsession with making self-glorifying tracks is undermining the true essence of hip-hop. After all, it was the genre’s confrontational stance that first attracted him as a young boy.
“I fell in love with rap because of its passion,” he told Fanack. “When I first listened to ‘Gangster Paradise’ by Coolio, I loved it so much because it was talking about real issues. In Egypt, our music just talks about love. Rap is supposed to be about keeping it real.”