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Egypt's Musicians: Revolutionaries Or Opportunists?

As Egyptians prepare for massive protests on June 30, the nation's musicians debate their role in the revolution.

Two and a half years after the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is still marked by conflict and divisions and the music scene, which flourished among the revolutionaries, reflects some of the strife. It is divided between idealists and cynics, heroes and opportunists, die-hards and "cafe-latte" revolutionaries.

There is an Egyptian saying about a “wedding fight.” Everyone is happy and celebratory, and then a fight breaks out. A chair flies, the lights go out and the party is over. The title of MC Amin’s new track Morsy fel Kolob, released on June 21, plays on that saying.

“The wedding is canceled; now the wedding fight will end it all. Lights out for Morsi,” said Rush, a rapper of Arabian Knightz in an interview with Al-Monitor. He is among the ranks of those who continue to push for protests through music even though he grapples with the role art plays in the uprisings.

Rush, also known as Karem Adel, and MC Amin have been part of the Tamarrud (Rebellion) campaign that is behind a big anti-Morsi rally planned for June 30, the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration. MC Amin will be protesting in his city Mansoura, and Rush in Cairo. Rush said the campaign intends to hand over a petition to the Supreme Court on that day with millions of signatures demanding Morsi's ouster.

In response, the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood from which Morsi hails, and other groups have called for a “million-man march to protect the revolution.”

A battle is lined up and the marching band has started to play.

"Morsy fel Kolob" was released last week in preparation for the planned demonstrations, and will be followed by another track titled "Makshofen [Exposed] Part 3" — the latest of a series of Rush and MC Amin’s so-called “diss tracks” criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Prices went up three times and people still get paid a few hundred a month. If people were poor before, they will literally eat out of the trash now,” Rush said. “Egypt is reaching a boiling point. People feel that [the Brotherhood] is waging war on Egypt. We fight back.”

But some artists who were initially part of the ouster of Mubarak have since left the scene. When 25-year-old Farah Beatbox demonstrated in Tahrir Square in January 2011, the unity there and the absence of harassment infused her with an almost magical feeling of love. The only female Muslim beatboxer in Egypt with her long, wavy nut-brown hair was even free to stand and smoke without comment.

And when Mubarak finally announced his resignation, Farah, who has spent most of her youth in Canada, shed a tear.

"Suddenly everyone was interested in politics and knew Article 2 in the constitution by heart," she said over a cappuccino in Star City shopping mall in Cairo a day before the anniversary — which she didn’t join in in celebrating.

In the run-up to the constitutional referendum in December 2012, Farah started hearing rumors that people were paid to show up in Tahrir Square to represent political parties or instigate violence. One day she saw her doorman packing his bags to go to Tahrir.

“He said that people from the Muslim Brotherhood came and gave him money and brainwashed him that he would go to heaven if he went,” Farah recalled.

“Egypt has changed. People hate. You can even feel it in traffic. It’s part of the regime. They just want to harass people and make them hate each other, so they can go home and just sleep and not think about the state of the country.”

Farah pulled out completely when heavy fighting broke out in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country. “Tahrir Square lost its purity,” she said. “I do not feel the same anger that motivates me to participate.”

On the positive side, Farah sees a greater appreciation among Egyptians for hip hop and alternative music. She is, however, critical about those musicians who suddenly appeared with songs praising the revolution, opportunistic artists who she said are “just riding the wave” of revolutionary romanticism.

Her words are echoed by singer and producer Bosaina II from the Egyptian electronic music collective Kairo is Koming, which includes the groups Vent, Wetrobots, Bosaina, Wonderful Morning and Quit Together.

“The revolution has made pop stars out of the masses of revolution singers. If you write a song about Tahrir, you made it,” she said in an interview in January. “It makes me cringe every time I see music and revolution in the same place. It is insulting to people who did fight for something they believed in — even died for.”

Producer and DJ Asem Tag from Vent studied political science, and he took to the streets when he saw the level of police brutality. Now he has withdrawn. “Everything is a joke, both people in power and in the opposition,” he said. “Apathy has crept up on me, I just don’t give a f---.”

Bosaina is also cynical about the political process, saying, “I don’t think this revolution was organic, but that the people were being used as f---ing marionettes to carry out a bigger agenda that benefits rich people in the world.”

One of the hip-hop groups that has benefited from the increased interest in the alternative music scene is the duo Asfalt.

“A lot of rappers will tell you that we contributed to the revolution — I think it's total bulls---. No one heard of us before the revolution," said the rapper Ibrahim Farouq in an interview with Al-Monitor in January. He said that before the revolution, they had occasional performances in small venues. Now they gig regularly and receive decent payments, especially for the commercial ads they now get hired to do.

Before, the video for the song "Asfalt Remix" got 50,000 hits over five years. After the revolution, a video like Ana Satreen easily gets more than 500,000 hits.

“So I would say that the revolution influenced hip hop. Now people are more open to new types of genres — and not just hip hop, there are lots of underground bands that had no fan base before, " he said.

“But there are a lot of rappers who before the revolution had no message, and suddenly become revolutionary. They contributed nothing to society before. It tells you how fake they are. These are people just riding the wave,” he said, echoing Farah.

Farouq, who was part of the protests in 2011, didn’t join the demonstration on the anniversary. “Now the square has turned into a festival. People use it to sell their products. Others come to shout, and then they go back home,” he said.

He doesn’t want to say whether he is joining the demonstration on June 30, something he treats “as a personal matter.”

Even Rush, who continues to push for change through his work, tries to separate music and activism when it comes to the demonstrations. He has been engaging discussion and grappling with the idea of the intersection of art and politics for years now. Back in Tahrir Square, during the second anniversary of the ouster of Mubarak, Egyptian-Danish emcee Zaki Yousef, questioned the hypocrisy of the artists.

"My impression is that sometimes, we as artists talk about revolution and change, and then we join protests. But how much do we actually live by that in our daily lives?” Zaki, who has been an artist and activist most of his life, asked Rush. “Isn’t it a bit contradictory to march to Tahrir Square and talk of revolution and what should be done, and then leave and continue the discussion over a caffe latte?”

Many of the artists have been asking themselves that same question, in one form or the other, for over two years now. For now, while Farah, Ibrahim Farouq and the members of Kairo is Koming may have come away with a bad taste in their mouths, Rush is still in the struggle — and seems to have come to peace with some of the apparent contradictions of his work.

“We hit and get hit with everyone else. This isn’t a stage to perform [on] and try to get known, this is a fight for Egypt’s future. We do our music bit and release it before June 30. Then it’s action-taking time.”

Janne Louise Andersen is a New-York based Danish journalist who specializes in the Middle East. She has written for Rolling Stone Middle East, The National and various Danish media such as GaffaOpinionen, Weekendavisen, Politiken. On Twitter:@jannelouisa

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