Sha'abi Music

Photographs by David Degner

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Through the warren of Cairo’s unplanned slums, mahraganat (festival) music blasts from tuk-tuks, cigarette stalls and cranked up cellphone speakers; auto-tuned voices mixing with heavy electronic rap beats. The sound quality is low and the lyrics are unmistakably vulgar. Egyptians can’t get enough.
Sha’abi music (literally translating to the music of the ‘poor’) is the anthem of a new Egypt, recorded in bedrooms, mixed on shoddy laptops and capitalizing on anger at the country’s economic and political situation. The young singers discuss pride, community, sex, and religion, seething about their frustrated expectations of a better life through irreverent, comical and sarcastic lyrics like “The people want phone credit! Just phone credit,” a play on the popular 18-day Tahrir Square uprising chant: “The people want the fall of the regime!”
Walking down the street, Okra, Ortega and Shehta blend easily into the crowds of the Egyptian youth that have spontaneously amassed for the last three years at city intersections—throwing stones at police, demanding a better life, chanting for freedom, against Hosni Mubarak, against president Mohammed Morsi. 

The scrawny 24-year-olds are a far cry from the country’s previous state manufactured pop idols’ well-toned muscles and Adonis faces. Dressed in tight t-shirts and even tighter jeans, they combine American rap fashion with Egyptian street swagger. Two of them sport gelled hair, the other wears a massive hat that covers a ‘fro. But their band “Tamanya Fil Meya” [The 8%] has become the new voice of Egypt, of the Sha’abi (poor).

8% knows the masses: They perform on rickety wooden stages in alleys and at impoverished weddings in their neighborhood of Matareya, (the birthplace of this music style). Their latest recordings are passed from phone to phone by bluetooth. Their YouTube videos have over 1 million listens, their Facebook page has hundreds of thousands of likes. (The state won’t play their subversion on the radio and the mass marketing companies won’t sell their albums in stores.) Like the American generation weaned on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” these young men’s lyrics are becoming the mantra of the Egyptian youth, and by extension the voice of the changing times in the Middle East, post-Arab Awakening. 

As the state can no longer contain the rage of the impoverished youth, the popularity of pre-packaged, predictable pop crooning about love and marriage are out, replaced by the uncontrollable and uncensorable shouted lyrics about life in the street -- the demand for dignity and recognition.
For decades, the most beloved Egyptian singer was Oum Kalthoum. At huge concerts and over the mainstream radio her haunting voice represented the everyman’s life and longing for love; it was a rallying cry during times of war and a salve in times of hardship. But today, the manufactured pop beats of mainstream Egyptian artists are losing favor; the industry crumbled when the stars used their fame to buttress Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship and when they fell silent after the Muslim Brotherhood took power. Their lyrics no longer connect to the mainstream of Egypt, which grows poorer by the day.

In contrast, 8% and other shaabi bands pack shows, star in movies, and are quickly gaining a regional following, flying to weddings in the Gulf. Though official government organizations refuse to recognize them, companies are quickly catching onto capitalizing on their street legitimacy: snippets of their songs are being used in commercials and becoming the soundtracks for movies. 

They are proud of their poverty and proud of Egypt, but they also know they are being stripped of their opportunity by the state. “We have four social segments in Egypt: poorer than poor, poor, middle class, and upper class. We are happy to be part of the poorer than poor, but we do and sing as we want,” Ortega has said. At the same time, channeling the dreams of the impoverished, 8% sings about wanting more. And at least Oka and Ortiga are finding it: at one wedding they were the only people dancing in real Nike sneakers.
Young people form 75 percent of Egypt’s population. It is in their basements, in their street packs, and in these lyrics and shows that we can really understand the future of the most populated Arab country in the Middle East, and trace the trajectory of the frustrated revolution. This is the anthem for the kids throwing stones: defining those who feel they are out of opportunities and have nothing left to lose.