21st Century Freedom Fighters: Technology, Traditions, and Youth Political Agency in Egyptian Hip-Hop Music

Jasmine Wee


There is no denying that hip-hop, both as a musical genre but also as a lifestyle and everything that entails it—think street clothing, breakdancing and DJing—has spread across the globe since its heyday in 1970s New York. Originally a music created by African-American and Latino youth in the Bronx, hip-hop has now spread far and wide to arguably every corner of the globe, with young people from Japan to Egypt and China to Norway listening to both American and local hip-hop and consuming hip-hop culture. However, given the extremely different cultural, historical and political backgrounds of each nation and region, it would be presumptuous to assume that the impact, spread, function, and popularity of hip-hop are the same throughout the globe. Specifically, I am interested in the hip-hop movements found in Egypt, and by extension the Arab region. Using the theories of Hebdige on youth subcultures and Paul D. Miller on musical postproduction (among others) as frameworks of analysis, this project seeks to investigate:

  1. What specific qualities of hip-hop and Egypt’s traditional culture enabled the genre to become a popular subculture?
  2. What are the functions of hip-hop music in Egypt – political, recreational, and/or entertainment?
  3. To what extent are hip-hop artists in Egypt merely “copy and pasting” American hip-hop and to what extent are they creating local, organic hip-hop?

Frameworks of Analysis and Literature Review

“What IS hip-hop?” Dictionary.com defines the term as “the popular subculture of big-city teenagers, which includes rap music, break dancing, and graffiti art.” [1] Throughout the text I will be using theories by Hebdige on youth subcultures and Paul D. Miller on musical postproduction, and refer to previous research that has dealt with global hip-hop and Arabian hip-hop in particular (Osumare, Alim, Bunt, et al). In Subculture: Meaning of Style (1979), Hebdige posits that subcultures are youth movements that also double as political statements on race, class, gender, and other social issues; the reason they are “sub” is because they present an ideology that undermines or offers an alternative to the dominant (parent) culture. Using the example of punk rock in the United Kingdom, he argues that punk’s reggae influences shows how both black immigrants and middle-class white youths produced subcultural music forms to express dissatisfaction with the dominant culture at the time. Drawing on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, Hebdige argues that subculture is therefore “a metaphor for potential anarchy”, an “actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation.” [2]
If a subculture breaches the expectations and norms of the parent culture, the parent culture will first condemn that subculture, then attempt to recuperate it into mainstream culture through 1) the conversion of subcultural signs into mass-produced objects – namely dress and music – and 2) the ‘labelling’ and re-definition of deviant behavior by institutions of power, such as the government and the media. [3]
Punk’s subversive and angry potential was diffused by turning the punk “culture” into a consumer product, relabeling it as part of the mainstream and rendering the movement meaningless, and therefore harmless. I would like to test whether Hebdige’s theory applies to Egyptian hip-hop, from its underground origins in the mid ‘90s to the genre’s immense popularity among young Egyptians, which was especially bolstered since the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. For the twenty years Hosni Mubarak was in power, Egypt has developed a highly constricted state media apparatus with a strict political agenda, and a creative environment where artists of all types are stifled from presenting political and social views that do not align with the state doctrine.

In Rhythm Science (2004), Paul Miller (alias DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid) puts forth numerous ideas related to the hybrid nature of all cultural products in general, but the argument most pertinent to my thesis is: any music form that requires a DJ and computers—from hip-hop to reggae to techno—are inherently intertwined with technological developments, hence drawing a direct parallel between the mash-up nature of electronic music with an increasingly rapid exchange culture. “Rhythm science builds on the early successes of file-sharing to create a milieu where people can exchange culture and information at will and create new forms, new styles, new ways of thinking.”[4] Throughout its history, hip-hop music has retained its hybrid nature of sampling, looping and appropriating from a variety of genres, making it a perfect genre for global exchange, mashing, and copy-and-pasting. Now, when file-sharing has reached a global scale and has become ever easier for people to participate in exchanging information, both Americans and foreign hip-hop musicians have benefitted from increased exposure to sounds that were previous inaccessible. As I will demonstrate later, history of the development of Egyptian hip-hop is inextricably linked to Internet usage within the country, and the increasingly globalized transmission of information in general.

Lastly, a seminal text on global hip-hop which I will refer to throughout my project is “Global Hip-Hop and the African Diaspora” by Halifu Osumare. Osumare argues that hip-hop appeals to people around the globe, especially youth, because of the quality of “connective marginality” it has. He proposes four types of connective marginalities: class, culture, historical oppression, or simply “youth” as a peripheral social status.[5] Hip-hop culture, as an extension of African American culture, has become a global signifier for several forms of marginalization. Three of the four marginalities draw direct connections to Egyptians hip-hop. First, the music genre culturally resonates with traditional Arabic musical and poetry traditions; second, the “historical oppression” experienced by Egyptians, though not rooted in race, has been ongoing for arguably centuries: The Ottoman Turks controlled the country from 1517 until 1805, then ruled as an absolute monarchy under the Muhammad Ali dynasty from 1805 to 1882, followed by British occupation from 1882 to 1914, domestic volatility, bouts with socialism, and until recently, Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial, 30-year long rule;[6]third, “youth” as a connective marginality is particularly significant for a country with such a large youth population. According to Joe Austin and Michael Nevin Williard, the term youth “can become a metaphor for perceived social change and its projected consequences; as such it is an enduring locus for displaced social anxieties.”[7] Given these historical, cultural and social circumstances, I will test Hebdige’s theory against the subculture of Egyptian hip-hop.

Rage and Rebellion

In mid-2010, Hasham Alofoq, also known as “MC Sphinx” of the Egyptian hip-hop group Arabian Knightz, was rushing to finish a track titled “Rebel.” He got the beat—basically a continuous loop of Lauryn Hill’s “I Find It Hard to Say (Rebel)” with a drum rhythm added to it—from a German producer. Even though he thought nothing would come out of the song, he wanted “…for there to actually be an Arab revolution with the oppressed Palestinians and Iraqis and Egyptians,” and so quickly recorded the demo, skipping the mastering process entirely.[8]
Two minutes after he uploaded the song on YouTube, the Internet was shut off in Egypt for a week. Such incidents were commonplace under the Mubarak regime, in which the dictatorial government imposed strict curfews, regularly cut off Egypt’s connection to the outside world, and where local media was heavily censored. However, nobody would have guessed that just eight months later, “everyone [was screaming] [“Rebel”] on Tahrir Square. I mean they were singing the part from Lauryn Hill out there in the street while they were protesting.” Rapping in both Arabic and English, the Knightz’s message was clear: “Eyes wide as I see the violence / while you slumber, poverty and hunger break the silence / while the screams of a mother left childless / echo like sirens as the media denies it / masses just buy it ‘cause they keep us all frightened / Rebel!”[9]

The serious discontent brewing among Egyptians had been growing for years, especially for the country’s youth. With a total population of 81 million, as the most populous of the twenty-two Arab countries, a quarter of Egypt’s population was between 18 and 30 years old in 2010, and half of the population is below age 25. However, at least 90% of Egypt’s unemployed are under the age of 30.[10] Meanwhile, Egypt’s Internet penetration rate grew from less than 1% in 2000 to 24% in 2009, with 80% of users located in either Cairo or Alexandria.[11] As Egyptians gained increasing exposure to the opportunities, lifestyles and cultural products available to other people their age, but do not see the same choices offered to them, what options do they have? For hip-hop artists, they choose to vent their frustrations through rap music. Rap music’s origins – as a medium for disenfranchised Black and Latino youth to express their political and social views during the late 1980s and early 1990s – when songs such as NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police” (1988) came out – is not lost in Egypt. Alofoq, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, grew up listening to the hip-hop of this era. Similarly, native Egyptian Karim Adel Eissa, another member of Arabian Knightz and CEO of Arab League Records (a pan-Arab hip hop label), was introduced to hip-hop through his friends, who brought recordings of Wu-Tang Clan, Dr. Dre and 2Pac from America and Europe back home.[12] The advent of the Internet allowed less well-off Egyptians to gain access to hip-hop, and even now Egyptian rap is disseminated largely through websites as opposed to media such as television, as these are still tightly controlled by the state. Additionally, I believe that because Arabic is a shared language spoken throughout North Africa and the Middle East, and given that many of these countries’ (Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Iran) youth share similar dissatisfactions regarding their governments, Arabic hip-hop has become a shared imagined community for many Arab youths, a digital community where the young could find others who are equally concerned with the state of their country, even if they were a thousand miles away. Furthermore, while it may not be its key function, these websites also serve as Middle Eastern cultural diplomacy for the occasional Westerner who might stumble upon them. For example, the website Revolutionary Arab Rap was formed in 2011 during the Egyptian Revolution but catalogues hip-hop tracks from all over North Africa and the Middle East, complete with downloads, subtitled videos and translations into English. This clearly suggests that while most listeners of Arabic hip-hop remain within the region, there are efforts to make the culture form more accessible to non-Arab speakers and/or Westerners, perhaps in an attempt to legitimize Arab hip-hop as a proper genre of hip-hop music.[13]

Roots and Origins

Founded in 2006, Arabian Knightz is often acknowledged as Egypt’s first hip-hop group. “I’ve heard that people were rapping back in the early ‘90s and late ‘80s…but there was no real “scene” at that point,” said Alofoq. “And I don’t want to give names, but they weren’t really hip-hop. They were rapping in the songs, but it wasn’t really rap …I didn’t see the scene really start to spread until after we started playing shows and dropping our videos.”[14]
They released a video for their first single “Fokkak” (“Unwind Yourself”) featuring vocalist Lana in June 2007, and have been popular on the hip-hop scene ever since.[15]

Over the instrumental of Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode” (2000), Lana croons (translated from Arabic): “Unwind yourself from what you’re burdened with/ we’ll bring music for you and it’ll grab you!/ There’s nothing else like it!”, followed by a slightly subversive verse from Hoss: “By the way, the music from you is innocent/ You came to blacken it with kohl. You set it on fire/ Rulers, unfortunately, are lacking in etiquette/ Art is dying and you’re the reason!” It’s interesting to note that while some groups rap exclusively in Arabic, others such as Arabian Knightz use both English and Arabic, probably due to the fact that several artists, like Alofoq, grew up in the United States and is more comfortable rapping in English. In the words of Kraidy, transnational migrators such as Alofoq are key ingredients in the world of “transculturalism”: an importer of hip-hop to Egypt, Kraidy cites Appadurai that not only media, but also migration, are “major and interconnected diacritics” for international communication.[16] The transcultural qualities of Egyptian hip-hop is thus made apparent – simultaneously an American creation and performed in the “original” language of hip-hop, but also accessible and relevant to the local culture.

I have established that hip-hop appeals to Egyptian youth because of its historically subversive qualities and its connotations of marginalization. But another key reason why the genre has taken hold in Egypt, and arguably a reason unique to the Middle East and North Africa, is the region’s extremely strong tradition in poetry and rhyme. In “A New Research Agenda: Exploring the Transglobal Hip Hop Umma”, Samy Alim claims that even before the time of Islam, griots, people who were repositories of oral tradition, passed on knowledge through poetry, storytelling, and song throughout North and West Africa. Muslim American rapper Wise Intelligent even goes so far to claim that the “potency of the melanin in the black man makes him naturally rhythmic. So when he hears anything that has the rhythm he’s going to become a part of that instantly. Anything that rhymes…this is our blood.”[17] During the Islamic period, the “very means by which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet—that is, orally and, in large part, through rhymed prose—exhibits parallels to the linguistic and literary mode of delivery found in hip hop lyrical production.”[18] Therefore, Egyptian development of hip-hop should not come as surprising given that the local culture is predisposed towards poetry and song. However, judging from a sample of around thirty Egyptian hip-hop songs I have heard, it seems that while Arabic language and “flow” has played an instrumental role in defining the aural traits of Egyptian hip-hop, the beats – instrumentals of which musicians rap or sing over – are overwhelmingly Western, many of which either heavily sample pre-existing American hip-hop songs or appropriate the entire instrumental altogether. The following video is a sampler of Egyptian hip-hop, showing musical influence remains rooted in Western norms. I was particularly surprised, when rapper Jemy from rap group Ismali Soldiers spits rhymes over a reggaeton beat (starting 4’04”), an eloquent demonstration of the truly transcultural and global nature of hip-hop music.[19]

What’s Next? Post-Mubarak and Moving Towards Mainstream

While Mubarak’s regime has been ousted, the revolution is far from over. Young (and old) Egyptians continue to campaign for a more transparent government, demand for jobs, and improve income equality, among other pressing issues. And while the messages of Egyptian rappers are anti-Mubarak, they are also anti-religious extremism and anti-political hegemony in general. To quote female Moroccan rapper Soultana: “...rappers have now become the revolutionaries in…the Arab World. Arabic music is usually about love or cheating boyfriends or girlfriends. But when you listen to rap, you find ninety percent of it is about our real problems, even the taboo topics—things no one else is willing to bring up in public.”[20] Given that Egyptian rap seems to be “anti” a lot of things – from the ousted government to the new government to the Brotherhood of Islam – the genre has solidified its position as a subculture, a culture for those who are marginalized and have discontents to voice.

It was, therefore, for good reason that the Mubarak regime sought to suppress hip-hop. Alofoq recalls having to give the propaganda police all their lyrics before every show they did, and if they said anything political they would be thrown in jail. However, “because we rap too fast or something like that they didn’t catch on most of the time,” or he would deliberately make the lyrics “as poppy and rainbow-bright as possible,” in a way that is obviously mocking of state authority.[21] Then, seemingly out of nowhere and less than a year before the revolution erupted, hip-hop entered the Egyptian mainstream. Microphone, a documentary-drama that weaves a fictional story with real underground music groups in Alexandria, somehow managed to avoid censorship. The immensely popular film exposed all of Egypt to the city’s vibrant youth culture, including rap music, street art, skateboarding, and “girl power” punk rock. The film depicted these musicians not as lazy hooligans, but rather young adults with intelligence, dreams, frustrations, and a political agenda. A particularly poignant scene in the movie shows rap duo Project X denouncing their government through rap, foreshadowing the fall of the regime only months later. Mubarak’s name was not explicitly stated, but any Egyptian watching this would know who the duo was referring to with these lyrics (translated from Arabic): “They’re all against me, but I’m not alone / You’re not gonna get away with it. Take it as a challenge / There ain’t no peaceful solution, not one that’s fair for me / Those around us are running ahead but under this state, we’re crawling.”[22]

Microphone went on to gain national, regional and international recognition in 2010, having hosted three sold-out screenings in the London International Film Festival, won the “Tanit d’Or” prize at the 23rd Carthage Film Festival and earned the prize of Best Arab Film in the Cairo International Film Festival.[23] Enthusiastic response from both the established artistic circles in the region and abroad combined with favorable local response to the film has catapulted Egyptian subcultures, especially hip-hop, into a grey area between the underground and mainstream.

To Be Continued: The Global Power of Hip-Hop

Egyptian hip-hop artists rap about issues that matter to them: as young Arabs under an oppressive regime in a third world country, and not trying to pass off as Western and rapping about American issues. In this sense, Egyptian hip-hop is not a mere appropriation of American rap music but rather a 'glocalized' genre, with considerable independence from the original. Furthermore, it appears that Hebdige’s theory does not apply to Egyptian hip-hop. Not only did the parent culture fail to absorb the subculture under its fold and hence depower it — or precisely because it failed to do so — the subculture in fact increased in dominance and effectively established itself as the “new” popular culture. It’s too early to say whether hip-hop would enter the mainstream and become increasingly commercialized in Egypt, and therefore lose its political activism function. Or, it may lose traction and be replaced by some other up-and-coming subculture. But at least for now, hip-hop, along with social media such as Facebook and Twitter, is crucial in keeping the revolution alive for millions of Egyptians. As a follow-up, studies should be conducted to investigate whether hip-hop music serves a similar popularity, function, and connection for citizens of tightly politically controlled states, and make a comparison study as to why hip-hop was successful in "liberating" Egypt and not in the other state -- or why hip-hop never emerged as a tool for grassroots/youth political advocacy. Lastly, there should also be a study as to whether Hebdige’s subculture theory would apply to nations with closed and restrictive political constitutions, as in Egypt's case Hebdige's theory is proven false (or has yet to be proven right). Further studies should be made so policymakers, artists and culture advocates can more fully harness the global and unifying language that is hip-hop music.

Annotated Bibliography

  1. ^ http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hip-hop?s=t
  2. ^ Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge, 1988. Print. 90.
  3. ^ Hebdige, 94.
  4. ^ Miller, Paul D. Rhythm Science. Cambridge, MA: Mediawork/MIT, 2004. Print. 65.
  5. ^ Osumare, Halifu. "Global Hip-Hop and the African Diaspora." Black Culture Traffic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2005. 266-88.Print. 269.
  6. ^ "History of Egypt." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 05 Apr. 2012. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Egypt>.
  7. ^ Osumare, 268.
  8. ^ "Egypt’s Hip Hop Soundtrack (an Interview with MC Sphinx of the Arabian Knightz)." Interview by Alex Billet. Hip Hop Diplomacy. 11 Mar. 2012. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://hiphopdiplomacy.org/2012/03/11/egypts-hip-hop-soundtrack-an-interview-with-mc-sphinx-of-the-arabian-knightz-4/>.
  9. ^ "Rebel (Arabian Knights Feat.Lauryn Hill)." YouTube//. YouTube, 06 Feb. 2011. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z696QHAbMIA>.
  10. ^ Roudi-Fahimi, Farzaneh. "Youth Revolt in Egypt, a Country at the Turning Point."Population Reference Bureau. Population Reference Bureau, Feb. 2011. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://www.prb.org/Articles/2011/youth-egypt-revolt.aspx?p=1>.
  11. ^ Bunt, Gary R. "Islam Interactive: Mediterranean Islamic Expression on the World Wide Web." Shaping the Current Islamic Reformation. London: Frank Cass, 2003. 164-86. Print. 165.
  12. ^ Unitednile. "Karim Adel-Egyptian Hip Hop." YouTube. 30 Sept. 2010. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://youtu.be/dghwQfzT3J0>.
  13. ^ "Revolutionary Arab Rap: The Index." Revolutionary Arab Rap: The Index الراب العربي الثوري: الفهرس. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://revolutionaryarabraptheindex.blogspot.com/>.
  14. ^ Billet.
  15. ^ Ghettopharao. Arabian Knightz - Fokkak. 20 Jan. 2008. Web. 7 May 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmmw0nC8Q8M>.
  16. ^ Kraidy, Marwan. Hybridity, or the Cultural Logic of Globalization. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005. Print. 5.
  17. ^ Alim, H. Samy. "A New Research Agenda: Exploring the Transglobal Hip Hop Umma."Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop. Ed. Miriam Cooke and Bruce B. Lawrence. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2005. 264-74. Print. 266.
  18. ^ Alim, 266.
  19. ^ HipHop3rby. Top 10 Egyptian Rappers. 31 Mar. 2010. Web. 7 May 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKvcDEGzRtc>.
  20. ^ Wright, Robin B. Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion across the Islamic World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print. 124.
  21. ^ Billet.
  22. ^ MycomputersaysKill. Microphone - Project X. 29 June 2011. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://youtu.be/aKWfLi_n7MU>.
  23. ^ "Microphone Movie." Microphone Movie. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://www.microphone-film.com/>.