How to Ban Working Class Music: Politics and Popular Culture in Egypt

In a previous article I discussed part of the wider cultural-economic situation in Egypt and introduced some research ideas on the relationship between national/international institutions and local subcultures that have emerged in Cairo since 2011. In a recent podcast we looked at this more closely, and the conversation came to focus on the regulatory architecture of artistic and cultural expression in Egypt, particularly the role of the country’s artists syndicates in seeking to protect their members from the fallout of cultural and technological shifts. 

On one hand, that sounds like a union that might actually be doing its job. The trade-off (of course, there is one) is that artists syndicates in Egypt tend to deny the validity of newer and emerging cultural forms, which are often deemed to be artistically degenerative and even immoral by the (government appointed) artists and musicians who run them, and whose livelihoods (including cultural capital) depend on the dominance of older forms such as classical music. Indeed, the recent actions of this union-like organisation suggests that its main role is to police culture and cultural workers rather than support them.

Artists Syndicates

The Federation of Artistic Unions (FAU) was established under former Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, in 1978. Under Law 35, any artist or musician performing in public must be a licensed member of the appropriate syndicate for cinematography, music or acting. Syndicate membership tends to be reserved for “reputable” artists, which often means those who have graduated from a high-end educational institute. That excludes pretty much every working-class person, and, as Ramy Malek points out, “the result has been the effective criminalisation of independent and amateur production and performance”.

A recent addition to the law requires every public performance to be accompanied by at least six other syndicate licensed classical musicians, regardless of the main genre being played. Therefore, in the unlikely event of, for example, a jungle DJ/producer being given a syndicate license, every set they play in Egypt now has to have something akin to a strings section in order to be strictly legal. In 2015 the government gave the FAU powers of arrest, meaning they can shut down gigs at the discretion of whichever official is in charge that day. Practically speaking, this often occurs through the application of an obviously unpayable, on-the-spot “tax” laid on events organisers. 

Laws, wanton amendments, and draconian practices such as this point to the real purpose of artists syndicates, which is to assert officially sanctioned cultural forms at the behest of others. Yet there is nothing new about this form of governmental interference in the cultural sphere, either in Egypt or Europe. As Azzouni says in the podcast “the processes that the UK and EU went through 40 years ago, that’s what Egypt is going through now”. 

The main difference between the two regions is not just the timeframe, but the discursive arena in which the argument takes place. In the UK it would likely centre around questions of perceived social, moral and cultural decay being fomented by “the youth”, particularly their choice of drugs and their “repetitive beat music”. In Egypt we have that debate too, but there is more of a religious grounding to it, and (especially since 2011) there are serious concerns among the authorities about the relationship between culture and national security. “The logic is unmistakable” according to Malek. “The wrong kind of art is also the wrong kind of politics”.

Subcultures and the Egyptian Revolution

The role that certain subcultures played in facilitating protest during the 2011 revolution has been well documented. Ronnie Close’s book on Egyptian football fans, particularly the Cairo Ultras, is a good example, and explains why football stadiums in Egypt are, thirteen years later, still kept largely empty during matches. Outright bans have also been placed on certain genres of music, a recent example being the ban on Shaabi (working-class) music, which began to emerge around 2008. It is characterised by lively beats, heavy auto-tuning, and social critique. In February 2020 Shaabi was banned on the basis of its offensive lyrics and its promotion of “immoral behaviour”. 

These examples highlight some of the intersections between class, culture and governance in Egypt post-2011. Looking more closely at the Shaabi case serves to delineate which forms of creativity are permissible within the boundaries of Egypt’s long-term “sustainable development goals”, and which types of cultural production are to be suppressed. 

The Ban on Shaabi Music

People without money are often dependent on amateur and DIY production processes, as illustrated by Salma Al Tarzi in her film Underground/On the Surface (2013) which follows a group of Shaabi musicians around Cairo as they were starting to become popular. The film begins with two of the genre’s biggest names, Okka and Ortega, in the back of a car buzzing around Cairo as they explain the relationship between Shaabi music and the working class. According to Okka 

Rap music abroad is equivalent to Shaabi music in Egypt…they started like us. The lyrics were everyday words. They talked about drugs, women, gangs, everything,…the words are free. Same here, our lyrics are free.

Ortega responds with a comment on Egypt’s class structure:

We have four classes [in Egypt]. Poorer than poor, poor, middle class and high class. We are happy to be poorer than poor, as long as we do what we want.

Okka continues the conversation with a question:

Do you know why they call it Shaabi music? Not because of the drums and stuff. Classic music has all of this. It is because it is from within the people…It is the music of the poor.

This causal exchange is not just about the connection between Shaabi music and poor people. It also points to the ways in which new genres of music can develop and gain a popular following, in this case partly through technological change and a decrease in costs around music production and distribution. Shifts such as these make it more difficult for the artists syndicates to maintain cultural and market dominance. Shaabi music was first recorded using pirated software and cheap equipment. It was (and still is) almost never played on mainstream radio and television channels in Egypt (except for those artists that been approved and licensed by the syndicate, which has only happened to a Shaabi musician if and when they explicitly announce their support of the government). 

Underground/On the Surface (Credit: Salma Al-Tarzi 2013)

While mainly distributed via YouTube and Soundcloud, Shaabi’s online presence materialised into live performances (Okka and Ortega started by playing at weddings) and street parties that would make any authority nervous. Al Tarzi’s film features scenes of charged up young men climbing walls and dancing around topless. Aerosol-tin flamethrowers are a constant feature among the liberal mixture of men and women, as are bright neon colours and an incredibly loud sound system that hammers “morally questionable” lyrics into the night sky. Looking at these scenes from the film, the viewer is left with no doubt over who controls the street. 

When Shaabi was banned in February 2020, one Egyptian official described the music as “more dangerous and harmful than the infectious coronavirus disease”. “Infectious” is about the right word to use, because Shaabi’s popularity is now growing among the middle-class youth too (God help us all!) A 2019 study carried out by Egyptian scholar, Dina Abou Zeid, surveyed 100 university students from Cairo’s richer districts. The study found that 95 per cent of them listened to Shaabi “and that they liked it because of the energetic beats and the brave topics discussed”. 

Okka and Ortega’s music was one of the main reasons Shaabi was banned. They are seen by the syndicate to be people of ill-repute, whose music is detrimental to the values of “Egypt”. The relationship between culture and the state is clear. To quote Malek again “the Egyptian state [and the syndicates] sees itself as the arbiter of what constitutes art and culture…Absent is any sense that the state should reflect the culture of Egyptians. Rather, it sits above them, hailing them to subscribe to an imagined formulaic and allowable culture”.

Scene from a shaabi street party in Underground/On the Surface (Credit: Salma Al-Tarzi 2013)

Culture and Commercialism

The relationship between culture and economic growth is firmly embedded within the sustainable development goals of various countries. With that in mind, the harsh regulatory measures described above are obviously counterproductive with respect to the emergence, development and flourishing of new subcultures. But they are also detrimental to the government’s own drive towards commercialising public space, culture, and virtually anything that might alleviate the country’s woeful economic outlook. This contradiction between censorship and commercialisation forges an odd, bleak cultural landscape wherein, on the one hand, the Egyptian underground scene is maligned, while on the other, Carl Cox is about to play a gig in front of the pyramids.

The question that remains is whether the economic arguments for cultural facilitation will ever outweigh the government’s concerns over any resulting political, social and cultural fallout. The answer, sadly, is more than likely a big fat “nope”. Yet the argument continues to be made. As Azzouni says in the podcast “there is economic value in a local subculture, or a local network of venues. These are venues that you can tax, they pay for permits, all of this. But they should at least have space to exist”. 

You can find part one of our discussion with Azzouni here, and part two here

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