Rap music rebels against Egyptian society
CAIRO - Ahmed Mekky’s song “Akher Cha’awa” has been a big hit, claiming more than 10 million views on YouTube and highlighting the originality of that unique musical phenomenon that is rap and its ability to stir up social issues.
Rap music is a full-fledged artform, having succeeded over decades in imposing itself globally and in gaining widespread popularity. Its strength lies in its subversive rebellious elements, which do not require great skills but can express human or political conditions in a way other musical genres cannot.
Mekky said rap was an expression of the self, of the street and of life. This musical genre is extremely popular in the Arab world, not just because it was a novelty but, Mekky said, because it has a unique style conducive to fostering dissident ideas and vocabulary in reaction to prevailing socio-economic conditions.
A rap singer does not need any particular vocal talent. Rap songs rely essentially on strong words and music. This has prompted many entertainers to dabble in the genre. In Egypt, rap gained popularity when actor Ahmad el-Fishawi tried his hand at it. Soon, many others got into the game and put together bands that have achieved great successes.
Some of the most prominent rap acts are Essam Karika, Zap Tharwat and MTM. Tharwat specialises in socially oriented songs, dealing with issues such as sexual harassment. His song “Nour” features Amina Khalil. MTM’s hit “Ommi Mesafra” represented a turning point for the genre in Egypt.
Some may say the irrelevance of vocal abilities in rap renders the genre easy to perform. This can’t be further from the truth. All art forms follow strict rules and rap is no exception. Rapping requires painstakingly composed lyrics that fit a fast beat and resonate in content with rap-consuming audiences, mostly those aged 18-35.
The success of Mekky’s “Akher Cha’awa” demonstrates that rap songs can express the reality of youth more so than other musical styles.
Experts say rap’s popularity among young people is due to the rebellious and critical nature of the genre. Some see a correlation between the increasing repression of personal freedoms coupled with the lack of platforms for free expression and the flourishing of rap songs, which act as a cloak for those seeking freedom. This is why rap artists face censorship when they engage in overt criticism of the political system; yet, defying the system is a cornerstone of the genre.
Mekky explained that rap music is an art form that enjoys credibility because it is intimately tied to reality, that this distinguishes it from genres that transport the listener into a fantasy world. A rapper needs to possess certain attributes, such as the ability to describe life’s struggles and a level of education and culture that enables the artist to string together words in a structured manner.
Mekky said the genre is not popular enough in Egypt and that it is sloppily executed at times. That motivates him to perform in a different fashion.
Perhaps Mekky’s Algerian roots played a role in helping him master rap, because rap is widespread in Algeria. These roots may have been a factor in propelling the artist to stardom in Egypt and can be noticed in his many movies and TV series.
Rap has an ability to tackle any issue and debate it more compellingly and widely, leading observers to describe the genre when it first appeared in the United States as “a tool that is more powerful than organising protests or awareness campaigns.”
Taki, a member of MTM rap crew, agreed. He said the power of rap lies in its words and its ability to educate listeners in an entertaining and politically interesting way. He pointed out that “what appeals the most to youth in rap are the lyrics because they address real life and events, unlike songs that highlight romance and drama. This is what brings audiences to rap music.”
Taki said rap can focus on one specific issue or deliver a specific message. He compared it to “a painting with a message.” Each singer can convey a personal, social or political message.
The lingering problem that rappers face is that most lack a beautiful singing voice that would give them the opportunity to perform in concerts and directly interact with fans.
Rap music continues to be controversial among music critics in Egypt. Some of them consider it a “non-genuine” art form, an “American import” that just imitates a foreign culture. These critics have overlooked the depth of changes in societies and the ability of young people to appreciate and keep up with global musical trends.
Yasmine Farraj, a teacher at the Academy of Arts, said rap was a kind of art that carried political purposes. “It started in the United States and spread among black people as a mode of protest against discrimination and racism,” she said.
Farraj pointed out that political censorship is heavy in Egypt. When rap songs criticise social practices, they “indirectly criticise the political order” because the ruling regime represents the society’s “soul” and shapes it through education, media, culture and art.
She gave the example of Mekky’s “Wakfat Nasiyat Zaman,” which focused on the death of morality and gallantry in society due to the disintegration of the family and harsh economic conditions. Such issues can very easily be tied to governmental policies and connote political messages.