Egypt's Mahragan ban renews debates over the popular genre

Eslam Omar , Monday 17 Feb 2020

The ban came following the TV broadcast of a Mahragan song that sparked a backlash over its controversial lyrics

Hassan Shakoosh and Omar Kamal
A screenshot of Hassan Shakoosh and Omar Kamal's performance of 'Bent El-Giran' at a full-house Cairo Stadium on Friday 14 February 2020

The Egyptian Music Syndicate has banned musicians from performing what is arguably the most popular musical genre today in Egypt, Mahragan (or Mahraganat).

The Music Syndicate, which is responsible for issuing permits for public music performances, has instructed all clubs, hotels and music venues to not host Mahragan singers.

"All touristic facilities, Nile cruises and nightclubs are obliged not to deal with so-called Mahragan singers," reads a statement by elected head of the syndicate Hany Shaker.

"Legal measures will be taken against anyone who violates this decision," said the statement, which has been circulated on local media.

Shaker, a longtime star singer whose five-decade-long career first saw success during the era of music giants like Umm Kulthoum, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Abdel-Halim Hafez, reaffirmed the statement on various TV channels on Sunday.

"It is time for the state to give attention to the real arts, and support and back the things that deserve to represent the culture of Egypt," the 67-year-old singer said, adding that “the state is backing the ban.”

The new decision contradicts earlier statements made by Shaker suggesting that the syndicate was leaning towards recognising the genre and allowing its artists to operate under a new division of the syndicate.

"This is a final decision. There will be no licenses for this style anymore. Only a few [Mahragan artists] have passed the syndicate’s tests, and they will be banned too," Shaker said, slamming the lyrics that are common in the genre, which he says promotes violence, drugs and alcohol. Shaker added that the ban also applies to performances by popular actor/musician Mohamed Ramadan.

The syndicate also released a statement on Monday saying that composer and singer Omar Kamal, who has been a syndicate member for four years and has composed for Shaker himself, has also been banned from performing.

The syndicate’s ban came a few days after Mahragan artists Hassan Shakoosh and Omar Kamal performed their smash hit song Bent El-Giran to a full-house Cairo Stadium concert celebrating Valentine's Day.

The performance, which was broadcast live on local TV, generated backlash on social media over a line in the song referring to smoking hashish and drinking alcohol.

Shaker said that Mahragan artists “make money by promoting drugs and alcohol use,” and that they sing these kinds of lyrics to increase their sales.

Shaker added that prior to the performance, “Shakoosh and Kamal had given me their word that they would change the line 'I'll take liquor and hashish,' and still they sang it," Shaker explained.

The two singers, whose song has won them popularity beyond Egypt’s borders, with hundreds of millions of streams on various audio and video platforms, had already uploaded a censored version of Bent El-Giran.

"It was a playback performance and the DJ played the wrong version. Look at my reaction during the performance and you will see that the 'I'll take liquor and hashish' line surprised me, because it was a mistake," Shakoosh later said on local TV.

Mahragan (roughly translated to “hullaballoo”) is an Egyptian music genre that was created by a number of working-class artists more than a decade ago, fusing hip-hop styles with the popular 'Ma'soom' beat.

After sneaking its way into the mainstream through movies and TV series, Egypt's once-underground 'Mahragan' genre has proven extremely popular among the majority of music listeners in the country, transcending social class.

"The music kitchen is now full of cockroaches and insects, and no kind of insecticide would help," said renowned 82-year-old composer Helmy Bakr, a longtime gatekeeper of Egyptian music, being a member or head of various committees that administer singing tests for the syndicate, radio and TV.

The debate over the Mahragan genre is still ongoing and is dominating headlines in many news outlets, and the genre has been the target of official bodies in the country like the education ministry and Dar Al-Ifta, both of which have issued statements slamming the genre.

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