CAIRO: In the Arab world, where the man-against-the-machine musician is an unfamiliar concept, a number of 20 something hip-hop artists are working their way through Egypt’s underground music scene, armed with piercing lyrics and original music.
With the teenage rebel trapped inside, these rappers are rolling up their sleeves to change the world. Not only do they have messages they want to shout out, they want to reshape the face of Arab music. They mix hip-hop beats and electronica with old-school oriental melodies.
Apparently, their struggle for their voices and music to be heard is resonating with audiences, mostly with people in the same age bracket. At a recently held concert in El-Sawy Cultural Center, a two-hour performance of four underground hip-hop bands attracted around 400 people on a Tuesday night.
The audience was a congregation of baggy pants and trendy caps. Like most of the performers on stage, audience members were a mixed group of Arabs, Egyptians and Westerners, mainly dressed in Eminem meets Usher meets 50 Cent fashion.
But don’t let this Americanized dress code fool you; these rappers are anything but westernized. They don’t even follow in the footsteps of 50 Cent.
Unlike mainstream music, they are trying to go back to their roots in every aspect.
Karim (stage name A Rush), 25, member of Mad Skills Empire, noted, “Arabs are not dressed like Arabs anymore.As long as nobody is dressed like Arabs, I can pick whatever style of dress I want. Yet, his wish to perform one day on stage wearing a galabyia [traditional long gown] was shared by a number of his colleagues. “I would go on stage and rock in a galabiya. That’s cool.I would go for that.
Criticism of the way they dress is not new to them. Hossam “L Hoss El-Husseiny, a solo performer and the master of ceremonies at the concert, rapped, “You look at me and judge the way I dress/Think I came here just to impress/All the pretty queens and the princess/What you are looking at/ Don’t look at me ‘cuz only God can judge me/No one else does. Most performers demonstrated the ability to rap in colloquial and standard Arabic as well as English, saying that standard Arabic was made for rap because of the pauses and stops in the language. As for the causes and direct messages they were screaming at the enthusiastic audience, they are all Arab-related, hitting the bull’s eye in terms of Arab concerns and problems.
A two-man band called Jaffa Phonix is aiming, with the use of electronica and Arab rap, to raise awareness for the Palestinian cause, refugees and Arab identity, among other related issues. “The band is trying to eliminate the image of the victim, said band member Faisal Abu Ghaben,21,who is a Palestinian refugee himself.
“Yeah, I’m a victim, I don’t deny that, but at the same time I’m a dangerous person. I am a victim but I will retaliate. I have the ability to scream and speak my mind.To bring back to the people the culture that was evident in mid-1980s, the culture of the resistance, he added.
“Arabs are the new minority of the world, said Hesham Abed, 24, member of Meya Meya, a band that originated in California as the brainchild of two Egyptians, who have recently moved to Egypt. Referring to the time when hip-hop first originated in the United States as the voice of the minorities and an art to expresses their problems, Hesham explained why hip-hop is now the perfect medium for Arabs to express themselves, “[Arabs] are the new nigger.
Although Abed admitted that hip-hop has recently been diverted from its origins to talk about money, sex and drugs, major international labels are going back now to sign underground acts.With this reverse, minorities and their concerns are back in focus.
Seeing many problems that require rectification within the Arab world, especially Egypt, Karim has more than one message to send. Karim is the founder and member of Mad Skills Empire, a hip-hop/rap band based in Egypt,which occasionally features American rappers performing with Egyptian members.
“You can’t change the world until you change yourself. There are a lot of things in Egypt that we need to change before we even think about changing the world, he explained. Abu Ghaben stressed the importance of addressing the prevalent “ultimate apathy.
Angry at the lack of Arab unity – growing up in Oman, Karim saw that Arabs do not “stand each other – the educational system and the current status of Arab music, to name a few, MSE’s lyrics cover many topics with a criticizing, sometimes rebellious, attitude.
“Hip-hop is a form of music where you can say whatever you want to say, Karim noted. Adding, “I go to clubs. I have a girlfriend. I rap about that, but I also rap about something serious. There is no harm in doing fun music but the harm is to only do fun music and close the eyes on reality. I can’t only rap about clubs when my people are struggling.
But their own personal struggle is not confined to getting their messages through; establishing hip-hop as a respectable form of art is proving to be a quite a challenge.
“Hip hop is the most selling form of music in the world right now, and people [here] are still scared of dealing with it, said Karim,who also noted that producers now prefer the mundane commercial formula in music over the risk of introducing a genre that they don’t properly understand.
Abu Ghaben recalled an incident when he was almost signed to an Arab record company. He said he found the producer interfering in his dress code (wanting him to dress more like Usher) and requesting him to tone down his lyrics.
“There is no music scene in the Arab world. Some people say it is there but there are defects. The idea is that it doesn’t even exist, Abu Ghaben explained, “Here in the Arab world you have to do something from the standard.
You make a boy band, sing in voice harmony or don’t sing at all.
They are not planning a musical coup, however.”We don’t want to change the industry; we just want to broaden the spectrum and broaden the minds of the people who listen, Abed said.
Karim added that producers and record companies “don’t support anything new.They are scared of anything new. Abed explained that “they have already found a routine.They know what works they know what people like and they keep on just giving it to them.So they want to make a lot of money [out of] the product that they have now until they can’t sell it anymore and then they switch to something new.
“What we are trying to do is say no,we are not going to wait. We have something to say now and you have to listen.
But surviving in today’s music scene without producers who are willing to spend money on production, advertising and marketing is almost impossible. Calling themselves the “brokest rappers in history, these young artists are continuously struggling for funds. Abu Ghaben and his brother and band member refrained from going out for three years to save enough money to record their first album “194 – one of its singles Osti (My Story) was aired on Nile FM last year.
Add that to the difficulties they’ve face due to their unwillingness to compromise on their music or tone down the messages carried in their lyrics – they differ, though, on whether putting a “fun song as the lead of a “serious album helps or hinders their success.
They also face the obstacle of audience apathy.”The idea is that everyone is in a blackout state. Everyone sees that there is nothing that deserves art. No one goes to art galleries, Abu Ghaben said. “The human soul without passion or problems won’t have anything inside it.
They acknowledge all these challenges but at the same time are optimistic.
“All big rap bands started by se
lling their albums from the trunks of their cars. Wu Tang sold one million copies by selling them to people who they know and by word of mouth.We can do this here in Egypt, Karim explained.
Whether it is using the money they get from shows to pay for studio time, advertising their music through word of mouth or selling their albums via e-mail, the bands have found more than one way to get around the system.
They are adamant that they will make it or at least pave the way for other artists to make it. They know they will make enough money to establish their own label. For Abu Ghaben, he is sure and aspires to be “the number one public enemy of the Palestinian authority. “
We’ll run the show and we’ll take over, Karim said.
To buy albums or contact the bands, visit www.jaffaphonix.com.