Egypt bans underground hip-hop. It’s now the soundtrack to Marvel’s Moon Knight

Egypt Marvel moon knight

The soundscape transports. You are transported to Cairo by the soundscape’s sharp electronic snare beats, deep bass rumble, and samples and autotuned lyrics written in street slang. It’s loud

This underground Egyptian rap genre is called mahraganat and elevates the soundtrack to the new Marvel series Moon Knight.

Egyptian director Mohamed Diab brought the controversial sound to the show. Oscar Isaac plays the role of an antihero who is suffering from mental illness. He is also an avatar of an ancient Egyptian God.

The Disney+ program Cairo678 was shot in another location and had a fantastic topic. However, the director behind Cairo678 wanted to portray the real-life of Egypt. And stated that Egypt was a challenge because it is always seen in an orientalist way and is stereotypical.

The third episode features a bright Egyptian pop song that wafts down to the Nile before it cuts to a loud mahraganat track which gets a group of boaters moving. This song is by Hassan Shakosh who is censored in Egypt.

Shakosh triggered a nationwide attack on music. The Egyptian Musicians Syndicate, which licenses all musicians in Egypt, banned mahraganat performances just two days after he sang raunchy lyrics at a Valentine’s Day concert at Cairo Stadium in 2020. Shakosh is a worldwide superstar thanks to online streaming and digital distribution.

Moon Knight, which is a breakthrough for Egyptian rap artists, offers an opportunity to share some information with international audiences. In a country with a dictatorial president, underground music has been a battlefield. The regime targeted TikTok and young creators, so mahraganat is important.

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Andrew Simon, a Dartmouth historian, said that Mahraganat “reveals an ongoing struggle over Egyptian culture, and who has the right shape it.” The appearance of the Mahraganat in Moon Knight is a disconcerting sign that Egyptian authorities are actively trying to silence this genre.

Mahgaranat music was popular before the Arab Spring

In the early 2000s, underground rap began its journey from Egypt’s urban corners to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the back streets of Egypt’s working-class landscape were emcees, deejays, and emcees who pioneered mahraganat (which means “festivals”) in Arabic.

Street festivals are the best place to have a wedding. Block parties that are loud and chaotic take over entire backstreets. Everyone is welcome. An ensemble used to play shaabi music, or “popular,” which is the same as “of people” and mixes folkloric sounds with spiritual tunes associated with Sufism and Egyptian pop traditions. There was also heavy dancing and lots of drumming. A full band is expensive so the deejays or emcees began to use MP3s and other cheap software to share files with others in internet cafes. They added electronica to traditional shaabi sounds and quickly added layers of raps, chants, and more.

The new genre was created by the emcees who hypnotized the wedding crowds and collected some money for the newlyweds. They circulated it on mixtapes.

Mahmoud Refat, the founder of the 100Copies label, in Cairo, said that “all these nerds behind computers doing these strange loops” helped create a new musical vocabulary. They used samples of these men talking about struggle, marriages, drugs, and you know, the hard life.

The Moon Knight’s Nileboat blasts the song ” Salka,” which roughly translates to “unobstructed.” This scene points towards mahraganat’s roots in the city’s streets. Marc Spector (Isaac), a former mercenary, says to May Calamawy, an archaeologist, “I haven’t heard that song since we got married.”

The lyrics depict a Ferrari racing through Cairo’s traffic jams: “Strong and nobody but us/ Sweet, nobody except us/ Sweet, sweet / Feet the gas pedal on the highest gear/ I’m the teacher, everybody’s at their desks / Unobstructed” (The song was featured in an Egyptian advertisement about an app called Hala which is similar to Uber, but for motorcycles.

Tarek Benchouia is a Northwestern University Ph.D. candidate who studies mahraganat. He describes it as a complex and ever-changing form that combines aspects of hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall with local traditions. He said that it was a similar story to hip-hop. “Because that is where hip-hop came from in the Bronx in the 1970s. It’s a culture of deejaying that plays block parties. It’s fascinating to see how they share similar genealogies, but sound very different.

The 2011 Egyptian people-power revolution, which ousted Hosni Mubarak as a dictator, saw mahraganat become a musical companion to the uprising. It captured the anger and angst at the economic conditions that fueled the youth movement. Because mahraganat’s popularity increased so quickly after 2011, many in international media misunderstood it as the music of revolution. Ted Swedenburg notes that the insurrection had made people more open to listening to something new, filled with youthful energy, and streets.

Benchouia claims that the music’s undertones have a lot in common with the revolution. It’s nuanced in its critique of what it means for poor people and men in urban Egypt. He explained to me that mahraganat is also explaining a lot of the frustration and anger that boils over during the revolution.

However, irreverence is key. Benchouia said that there was a bit of humor in the revolution, as well as some mahraganat songs that were inspired by popular chants from the Tahrir Square demonstrations. “Salka” has a line that says, “We made it/we are not copying [from the West]/ We don’t make it better than what it is/ Or make a big deal out of it.” Mahraganat’s anti-establishment rhythms spread through the sound systems of Okotoks and microbuses in urban centers as well as the fringes of Egyptian official culture.

2013 saw the military overthrow Egypt’s first democratically elected leader. Former Gen. Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is now the head of the country, more brutally than Mubarak. Mahraganat music is becoming more popular amid a crackdown on political expression. Many of the most popular songs are being recorded in rappers’ bedrooms and wardrobes. The regime’s tradition-based, nationalistic music preferences are being challenged by the millions of Spotify and YouTube plays.

Mahraganat’s founding musicians have made their mark in Egypt and elsewhere. Alaa 50 Cent and Sadat, two of the key figures in Mahraganat’s founding, collaborated with Cypress Hill to create a song that combined the California group’s love for weed culture with the passion of the Egyptian rappers for hashish.

Although mahraganat music may not be overtly political in protesting the regime or policies, it is very political in its grievances about the economic and socio-economic conditions that are affecting Egypt’s working class. The lyrics are also deeply personal, ranging from macho-campy to revealing thoughts about authenticity and masculinity.

This gritty brand captures the fraught politics and youth culture of disenchantment and dissatisfaction at the lack of opportunities that set the scene for the Marvel series. The scenes in Moon Knight’s Cairo show that street sellers are struggling to make ends meet and young people seem out of work.

The credits for Moon Knight’s 2nd episode include the song ” The Kings” by Ahmed Saad and two mahgaranat singing duos, 3enba & Yang Zuksh. It’s more a rap-rap hybrid, which is where the genre is heading. The chorus sums up the gangland vibes performed by underground singers shouting out their neighborhoods by their crew: “Bro/Papa / Here comes gang / Simple / You can do it if you wish / I don’t need anyone/I take care of my own.”

The next episode will see Oscar Isaac awaken in Cairo.

What does the presence of Mahraganat in Moon Knight and its censorship say about Egypt?

The brashness of mahraganat has always challenged the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate. This professional gatekeeper has the power to issue licenses to musicians for performances at nightclubs, restaurants, and concerts in Egypt. Some claim that the Sisi government has backed the syndicate and made it a proxy in the culture war against Egypt’s young rappers.

The syndicate declared in February 2020 that no licenses would be granted to mahraganat performers. This effectively banned it from performing live. This type of music is based upon promiscuous and impure lyrics and is therefore prohibited. We want real art,” said Hany Shaker, the head of the syndicate, A spokesperson for the Parliament called mahraganat even more dangerous than Covid-19.

Ahmed Naji, a novelist, and critic, told me that most of the songs Diab used in this program are from Egyptian singers. It caused a lot of controversies, and generated a lot more buzz.”

In 2021, at least 19 musicians were refused licenses. This includes Shakosh. Saad, the hit song “Kings” from Moon Knight was disqualified for violating the ban. Two other singers were found guilty in March of violating family values.

However, mahraganat musicians work around the rules, posting directly to YouTube or Spotify, onto algorithms that place them alongside Kendrick and Lil Wayne, or holding shows in Egypt’s informal venues. They are playing gigs all over the Middle East and have formed partnerships with European and American artists. We are getting investors directly to us. Hollywood is coming to us. Rafat said that Sony Music is available to us. It doesn’t connect to the Egyptian music scene. It does not link to the Egyptian music industry.

Simon, the author of a book about Egyptian sonic culture called Media of the Masses, believes that the fault lines do not only concern free expression but also class. The mahraganat censorship is about who is allowed to make art in Egypt, with hierarchies that are enforced by the regime. He explained to me that these ‘vulgar songs’ are not the real issue. It is the fact Egyptians of the working class are creating Egyptian culture. “They are cultural consumers and not cultural producers, according to local authorities.”

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As Egypt’s freedom of expression has been reduced since 2013, Diab has had to confront the issue of censorship of art. Diab’s latest film Clash is the dark story of conflicting political leaders, Muslim Brotherhood protesters, secular critics, journalists, and other people caught in the wrong places. As Cairo erupts with political carnage, they are all locked in a large police van. His depiction of the complexity of Egyptian politics was viewed by the regime as criticism. It premiered in 2016 in Egyptian theaters, but it was not available for a truncated.

The mahraganat tracks of Moon Knight brought to life scenes from contemporary Egypt during a difficult time for Egyptians. The Sisi government has imprisoned thousands of political prisoners. Blogger Alaa Abdul-Fattah is one of the most prominent voices in the 2011 revolution. He has been on hunger strike for seven weeks in protest at the squalor in his cell.

The series Moon Knight has violence in the same way that superhero comics are, superficially and sensationally. Diab has tried to show audiences the real Egypt by bringing them into it, but he also highlighted the violence of daily life in Egypt today. Underground rap can land you in jail or fines, and free expression can be almost outlawed.

Egypt bans underground hip-hop. It’s now the soundtrack to Marvel’s Moon Knight