‘Proper culture’: Mahraganat music sparks new controversy

Ati Metwaly , Tuesday 23 Nov 2021

Last week, Hani Shaker, head of the Music Professions Syndicate, announced a ban on 19 musicians, including Hamo Beka, Hassan Shakoush, and Magdi Shata — all of whom perform within the popular Mahraganat genre.

Mahraganat genre

Withdrawing their membership of the syndicate and refusing performance permits means the 19 musicians will face serious problems accessing performance venues, especially those linked to state institutions.

Mahraganat music, with its easy beat, rap-like style, electronic instruments, and lyrics that address everyday issues, is not only hugely popular in Egypt but has gained ground internationally, with its leading proponents regularly performing across the Arab world.

Unlike the 1970s Shaabi music, with its almost exclusively working class audience, Mahraganat crosses class boundaries, and now regularly features in smart weddings and beach parties. On YouTube, the most popular performers can clock up more than 100 million views of newly released videos.

In an interview for the BBC, Tarek Mortada, a spokesperson for the Music Professions Syndicate, insisted that “the syndicate’s role is to guard the music profession and its values and protect the taste of Egyptian listeners.”

The syndicate’s decision immediately sparked controversy which escalated when businessman Naguib Sawiris, whose family sponsors the El Gouna Film Festival, denounced the move in a tweet of 18 November. Sawiris went on to call to Al-Hekaya Maa Amr Adib, a popular primetime television show, arguing that Shaker has no right to impose his personal tastes and ban music he does not like, and that it is up to the audience to decide what they want to listen to.

Mahmoud Refaat, a music producer and supporter of Mahraganat artists for over a decade, says “the argument based on questions of taste is unconvincing.” Mahraganat music has played an important role in shaping contemporary music and is one of the most vibrant areas of the independent scene: it has, Refaat adds, inspired a new way of thinking which now extends to cinema and fashion.

“Mahraganat introduced a new formula, and succeeded in moving away from institutions. These musicians found a successful recipe. Their lyrics talk about important day-to day issues and are direct.”

Refaat played an important role in Mahraganat through his production company 100 Copies, providing a platform for artists like Oka and Ortega and Islam Chipsy before they broke into the mainstream.

Refaat’s support of Mahraganat musicians is countered by well-known tabla player Said Al-Artist whose objections to the genre focus mainly on the lyrics employed by Mahraganat musicians, and the overt sexuality of their songs.

“Children imitate them, and they are pushing an entire generation in the wrong direction,” he says.

“Many Mahraganat musicians offer interesting rhythmic structures and music. It is their language that I object to strongly.”

Al-Artist supports the ban, insisting it is the duty of authorities to put in place rules that can “assure growth of proper culture”.  

Refaat, meanwhile, characterises the whole debate as a musical storm in a teacup.

“These clashes between supporters and opponents of Mahraganat music emerge every few months or so. Yet these young men are doing a really good job, most of their lyrics are stimulating, they are developing constantly and finding their way through life. So why not live and let live?”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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