[Marxism] Out of Egypt’s Chaos, Musical Rebellion

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 12 18:12:50 MDT 2013

A youtube clip of Ortega, a musician mentioned in the article: 

NY Times May 11, 2013
Out of Egypt’s Chaos, Musical Rebellion

CAIRO — One washed towels in a barbershop. The other sold fast food. 
Some nights, they would grab the microphones at outdoor weddings and try 
out raps they had written, only to earn a hail of stones.

Now they are among the fastest-rising stars in Egypt, the Arab world’s 
most populous nation and its largest music market. Under the names Okka 
and Ortega, they play sprawling shows in Egypt and abroad.

In just a few years, these and other young musicians have created a new 
genre of youth-driven, socially conscious music and forced it on the 
Egyptian soundscape.

Their music predated the political revolution that ousted President 
Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, and most of the musicians did not join 
the uprising in Tahrir Square. But the turmoil since has left Egypt’s 
huge youth population searching for voices that address issues they care 

Half of Egypt’s 85 million people are under 25, and many found what they 
were looking for in the raucous, defiant new music known as 
“mahraganat,” Arabic for “festivals.” The songs’ addictive beats helped, 

“We made music that would make people dance but would also talk about 
their worries,” said Alaa al-Din Abdel-Rahman, 23, better known as Alaa 
50 Cent. “That way everyone would listen and hear what was on their minds.”

The music is a rowdy blend of traditional Egyptian wedding music, 
American hip-hop and whatever else its creators can download for free 
online. The singing is fast, often improvised and heavily doctored with 

The songs have racked up millions of views on YouTube and have won their 
creators international shows and appearances in Arab films and 
television commercials. In Cairo, their sound is everywhere, blasting 
from taxis, rocking boats on the Nile and jangling from cellphones.

The music’s swift rise from the alleys of neglected Cairo neighborhoods 
to car stereos and high-class weddings and even television commercials 
reflects the profound shifts in Egyptian society since the revolution. 
More people are looking for open discussion of social issues and willing 
to reach across class lines to find it. Like the revolution, the music 
came from young people who looked at their lives and did not see much to 
look forward to. So they made noise, spread their ideas through social 
media and were surprised by the results.

Mr. Abdel-Rahman and his partner, the singer Sadat Abdel-Aziz, 26, grew 
up in the Cairo neighborhood of Medinat al-Salam, a poor, drug-ridden 
district of rundown apartment buildings. The pair have always had two 
musical goals, they said, to talk about life in their neighborhood and 
to make people dance.

“I could sing at a street party, dancing, but touch on the situation 
that I am in and that we all feel,” Mr. Abdel-Aziz said on a recent 
evening, standing in the trash-strewn, unpaved lane leading to his 
apartment, his long braids tied behind his head.

In 2008, the pair teamed up with a shy young man named Amr Muhammad, who 
had a knack for manipulating sound with pirated software. Now a 
sought-after sound guru known as Amr Haha, he is widely credited as one 
of the prime creators of the mahraganat sound.

The group’s early songs dealt with hashish, sex, friendship and 
deception, not politics. That changed when the anti-Mubarak uprising 
erupted in January 2011, and Mr. Abdel-Aziz sang a song called “The 
People and the Government.”

“The people and the government, the machine guns and clubs

Egypt rose up, and even those who didn’t steal dove into it

I’ll talk about those standing, the survivors and the dead

I’ll talk about the church, the mosque and the Brotherhood.”

Young revolutionaries, seeking a soundtrack to their movement, sought 
them out. They were soon invited to perform abroad and at fancier 
Egyptian locations.

They have since tackled other social issues, often with a healthy dose 
of mischief. When sexual harassment and abuse became an issue at street 
protests, they addressed the subject, perhaps not as women’s groups 
would have liked, with a song called “Hit on Her, Yes. Harass Her, No.”

And as Egypt’s economy slowed, they subverted the famous protest chant — 
“The people want the fall of the regime” — with a more worldly demand: 
“The people want five pounds cellphone credit.” (Five Egyptian pounds is 
about 70 cents.)

The rise of a musical style considered the domain of the poor has 
surprised many, including Mr. Abdel-Aziz’s neighbors, though they 
understand the appeal.

“People found something new in the music,” said Ayman Abu Bilal, 41, a 
butcher who watched Mr. Abdel-Aziz grow up. “You don’t understand 
three-fourths of the lyrics, but then you hear a something good and 
realize the whole song relates to you.”

Arab popular music has long been dominated by beautiful stars who croon 
about love and heartbreak and market themselves with music videos shot 
in luxurious settings that many Egyptians will never visit. Mina Girgis, 
an Egyptian ethnomusicologist, said that left a wide opening after the 
revolution for music more in touch with its audience.

“I’m not going to listen to cheesy pop songs when people are dying, but 
I will listen to songs about social problems,” he said. “So there was a 
void and people were looking for a sound that echoed what they were living.”

Groups in other genres, like folk and rock, have also addressed social 
issues, but lack the mass appeal of mahraganat. Some critics find the 
rise of mahraganat indicative of a societal decline since the revolution.

“May God end my life,” said Hilmy Bakr, a prominent member of the 
musicians’ syndicate, raising his voice until his face turned red. “How 
do people know the society is crumbling? When these songs become best 

Of the new stars, none have risen higher — and infuriated Mr. Bakr more 
— than Okka and Ortega.

The pair, whose real names are Muhammad Salah and Ahmed Mustafa, started 
out as rappers, writing rhymes about their neighborhood and paying by 
the hour to record on computers in Internet cafes.

They made their first mahraganat song as a joke and were surprised when 
it spread: soon after, a cart blasting the song passed them on the 
street, and they chased down the driver to tell him it was theirs. He 
thought they were joking, they said.

They bought a computer for $400 so they could record at home, and they 
put their names in their next song so no other singers could steal it.

Two more of their songs went viral, so they hired a manager, stopped 
doing street weddings and started singing for commercials. So far, they 
have recorded songs for an Egyptian phone company, a frozen food line 
called Meatland and an Egyptian version of Viagra, known as “The Golden 

While early on they flaunted their underclass credentials, they have 
since changed. On a recent night in their modest studio, they bragged of 
things to come: an album and music video on June 1, trips to the United 
States and elsewhere later this year, and a commercial for hair gel.

“We need to take this music to the whole world and tell those who used 
to insult us that we are not doing something stupid,” Mr. Mustafa said.

“I want to walk down the red carpet,” Mr. Salah said, strutting across 
the room and waving to an imaginary crowd. “I’m Okka!”

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

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