In the hazy heat of a Cairo summer night, the rumbling of Egyptian hip hop band Y-crew taking the stage rouses the crowd gathered riverside at Sawy Culture Wheel last Saturday.
“Ayzeen hip hopna?” shouts a band member, before switching to English: “Do you want our hip hop? Then everybody make some noise!” The crowd complies; the musicians are emboldened.
“Everybody in the back of the room needs [to] come up to the front,” drawls another member of the crew. “I know it’s hot, but y’all, the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire.”
It may have been hot, but the organizers of Hip Hop Connection succeeded in proving that cultural exchange and social commentary doesn’t need to be stuffy.
All too often, “dialogue” is reduced to something that can only be stiff, intellectual, and political, explained Frida Köppe, project manager at the Goethe Institute in Cairo. Hip Hop Connection aimed at broadening the concept of inter-cultural dialogue, showing that it can be a lot of fun, and still carry importance, she said.
Organized by Goethe, the French Cultural Center, the Anna Lindh Foundation and the Turkish Consulate, the event featured five bands of diverse artistic influences and cultural backgrounds: Berlin Allstars from Germany, Les Gourmets from France, Ayben from Turkey, and Wighit Nazar and Y-Crew from Egypt.
After a three-day workshop in which the group of 22 jointly wrote three tracks, they came together to perform these tracks in addition to their own music at Villa Antoniadis in Alexandria on Friday followed by Sawy the following day.
Musically, the workshop aimed at encouraging improvisation and allowing the musicians to express their styles, themes and beats, then fusing these into joint tracks, said Edward Lewis, project coordinator at the Anna Lindh Foundation.
During the workshop, the group co-wrote three multi-lingual songs incorporating English, French, German, Arabic, Turkish and Persian.
This should definitely be seen as a success given the short time they had, the large size of the group involved, and the variation in language and musical style, said Lewis.
Pyranja of the Berlin Allstars agreed. “It’s really cool what you can do with less than a week’s work,” she said. “Between us there are a number of different languages and different styles, but when the beats started rolling, it just all came together.”
In the workshop, the musicians talked about their lyrics, and through them, they were able to get first-hand insight on social and political issues in their different countries of origin. They also tackled issues concerning the whole Euro-Mediterranean region, including migration, economic crises, social injustices, terrorism, racism, gender and politics.
Performers were chosen for musical diversity and originality in using hip hop as a means of self-expression, said Emily Rocher, head of musical projects at the French Embassy. She gave the example of the Berlin Allstars, who met through a social project (“Gangway Beatz”) where rap artists worked with Berlin youth to explore the roots of hip hop and give participating youth a voice through this medium.
“Ayben, the Turkish singer is musically very diverse, working with rap, Balkan elements, oriental sounds and rock,” continued Rocher, “While the French group Les Gourmets has a very contemporary/electronic approach to hip hop. As for the Egyptian groups Y-Crew and Wighit Nazar, we chose rising performers from Cairo and Alexandria.”
“We hoped to create a cooperative atmosphere where the experiences of every musician would be equally respected and incorporated into a common result — finding expression within the common musical language,” said Köppe.
For some of the groups, the bonds formed during Hip Hop Connection will influence their work going forward. “We’ll come back to France with a lot of new ideas,” said Tarafa Sahloul (aka “Liqid”) of Les Gourmets. “We’ll keep in touch online and perform together again if there’s a chance.”
“As an organizer, this collaboration is exactly what you want to happen,” said Rocher. “You never know if it will come together though, because it all relies on spontaneity and personal connections between the artists.”
The group performed to eager audiences in Alexandria and Cairo. (Photo by Amr El-Sawah)