Hip hop on the Nile
There are no limits to the cultural empire of rap. Pierre Loza investigates the Egyptian scene
Hip hop is not simply a musical genre; it is a whole culture, including clothing, graffiti art, street slang and break dancing. Hip hop guru Kurtis Blow differentiates between rap and Hip Hop, defining rap as "talking in rhyme to the rhythm of a beat", while hip hop is a "culture, a way of life for a society of people who identify, love and cherish rap, break dancing, DJing and graffiti". Blow explains hip hop's rise to global prominence as thanks to a "generation that refused to be silenced by urban poverty, a local phenomenon fuelled with so much passion and truth, it could not help but reach the entire world."
Today, not even Egypt lies beyond the reach of hip hop. The culture has developed a presence here, reflected in a new night life and the emergence of local rap talent. Although today there are dozens of rappers, both famous and obscure, many would argue that the phenomenon actually began from an ironing man-turned-singer named Shaaban Abdel-Rehim. Shaaban first rose to stardom with the controversial hit "I hate Israel", which caught the attention of the international media. If there is anything that qualifies Shaaban as a by-product of hip hop, it's the fact that he represents the common man. His language reflects the social background of the majority of the Egyptian masses. With witty street lyrics that are anything but elitist, Shaaban brought ghetto culture to the mainstream.
Indeed, the only hip hop staple Shaaban lacks is the fact that he does not write his own lyrics. The words that put him on the map were in fact composed by school teacher Islam Khalil. Yet an essential part of a rapper's identity is in his or her ability to write creative lyrics, and present them in a raw and innovative form. For this reason, rappers go far beyond defining themselves as simply performers: they are street scholars, or poets with a vision.
Shaaban remains very present on the Arab music scene, especially after his latest collaboration with the Kuwaiti pop group Miami. The video clip features Shaaban in a boxing ring, sparring with one of the members of Miami as they poke fun at each other using humorous lyrics. The scene is one more take on the tradition of MC battles -- when rappers duel with one another by showing off their lyrical skills, in an attempt to dominate and undermine their opponent poetically, rather than physically.
The first local rap albums that came out in the early 1990s were mostly doomed to failure. In the wake of the first wave's demise, a more consumer-friendly Egyptian rap act developed, which kept more closely in line with acceptable middle class norms. The first Egyptian hip hop group that has succeeded in delivering market hits with professional beats and good promotion is MTM. The group's name stands for the first initial of each member's rap name; Mikey, Taki, and Mado. The Alexandria trio have given rap fans an authentic taste of modern hip hop with an Egyptian twist. Using Arabic slang terms that sound more middle class than street, MTM has recently completed their second album, "My phone is ringing". The group's lyrics bring a passionately positive style to rap that criticises and sometimes pokes fun at social problems.
The song "A word I never said", written by Takki and performed by Mikey, is a heartfelt account of his friend's fall into addiction and the guilt he felt for not having tried harder to get him to quit. Taking its inspiration from daily life, their work gives a vividly realistic picture of youth culture. "When in the song I talked about being in the army doing my national service, I really was in the army at the Military University. And it's true that Mikey gets hassled by female fans, and that creates problem for him, cause he has a girlfriend whom he loves," said Mado. Mikey, who was portrayed in the video as a ladies' man, seems refreshingly more shy and humble in real life. "I wish that we could make it internationally some day," he says, when asked about his ambitions. "Maybe we could make it onto MTV, and even have our own production company."
Still, it's not clear whether hip hop is really set to catch on in Egypt. A society that traditionally relates to music through a melodious singing voice may not easily take to the genre's dominance by its down-to-earth lyrics. Record sales, however, give some reason to be optimistic, and as Taki puts it, "people are becoming more open to the music."
Omar and his fellow band members reject the idea that hip hop is foreign to Egypt's cultural identity. An 18-year-old American University in Cairo (AUC) student, Egyptian rapper Omar Shami, better known as "poetic justice", is part of the hip hop group Mad Skillz Empire (MSE). "In pre- Islamic Arabic poetry, poets would use rhyming to criticise or praise one another," says Shami. "If this isn't an early version of an MC battle, then I don't know what is." MSE rap in English and are in the process of signing a record deal with an independent label in the UK. Their oldest member, 24-year-old Karim Adil Eissa, believes it is important to rap in English so as to counter a certain cultural stigma. "We don't have any Arab rappers in the West," Eissa explains. "We need a rap hero who will present the true identity of Arabs abroad, and we hope we can do that." The third member of the band is 17-year-old Dane Odekirk, a white rapper born in California. Odekirk hates to confine rap within rigid lines of race, culture, or social standing.
"Rap is about self-expression," he argues. "My family is a big part of my life, so I tend to rap a lot about them."
Still, even English can be a cultural barrier of a kind. The group, which wants to be heard in Egypt too, is currently planning to transform itself by incorporating Arabic lyrics into their repertoire.