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Egypt bans 'music of the slums'

Egypt's powerful Musicians Syndicate bans mahraganat music and asks streaming giants to take down the songs with "unethical lyrics."

“Please do not punish my child,” a woman in her 50s tearfully told the reporter of Mehwar TV channel. She offered no name, except to say that she is the mother of Hamo Bika, a popular singer.

Her son, with his trademark of gelled hair and a thick chain around his neck, was also beside her as she received the TV reporter at her modest home in Imbaba, a working-class neighborhood in northern Cairo.

The plea of Bika’s mother was aimed at the powerful Egyptian Musicians Syndicate, which has banned the singers of “mahraganat," a hybrid music genre that combines folk with electronic music and uses colloquialism in lyrics, from pursuing their profession. The genre, whose name literally means “festivals” in Arabic, originated in the Cairo slums in the early 2000s.

The ban, announced on Feb. 16,  said that the street musicians' songs promote “unethical and immoral” behavior in society — a reference to the lyrics of the song that started the controversy on Feb. 14. The song, called "Bent el-Geran" ("The Neighbor's Daughter"), suggests alcohol and hashish to get over a heartbreak.

The singers have been banned from performing at all tourist establishments, cafes, nightclubs and Nile cruises. On Feb. 20, the powerful syndicate said it will also ask streaming giants, such as YouTube and SoundCloud, to take down these songs as well.

In response to the ban, Bika, who applied for membership to the syndicate several times but was rejected, filed a lawsuit in an attempt to overturn the decision. 

Hany Shaker, head of the syndicate and a musician, told local media that the decision was based on a widespread social consensus over the immorality of the songs. These songs "threaten public taste" and "encourages moral decline," he was quoted as saying in a statement from the syndicate.

Shaker’s decision came after the controversy over the lyrics of "Bent el-Geran," whose lyrics include the words, “If you leave me, I will drink wine and take hashish” — both of which are forbidden in Islam.

The song became a hit on YouTube with so far more than 113 million viewers and 59.9 million listeners on SoundCloud. 

Singer Hassan Shakosh performed the song with those lyrics in a ceremony on Valentine’s Day at Cairo International Stadium, but removed the sentence from the lyrics following the reaction.

This did not deter the syndicate. “The decision is a final and irreversible one and it will include all street music singers,” Shaker said in the statement.

But it would be difficult to stop those songs that have been playing in buses, cars, cafes, restaurants and at wedding parties in both poor and upscale areas. “They are attacking a genre that cheers us up and makes us forget all our grievances,” Saeed Abdel Hameed, a 40-year-old construction worker, told Al-Monitor. “It is an attempt to put restrictions on people's choices and tastes. I believe that these songs will win in the end because they talk about people's problems."

Sameha Mohamed, a housewife in Ard el-Lewaa neighborhood, Giza, said that people should listen to whatever they liked without censorship from the government. “We know how to choose what we like. As long as there is a demand for these songs it should be considered a musical genre,” she told Al-Monitor.

The street music songs, known as "music of the slums," have also started to attract an audience from other social groups, including the upper classes, over the past five years.

“I think that it is very good music. The syndicate can try and organize the performances but banning it altogether is wrong. It will never prevent people from listening to this music,” Rasha Mahmoud, an engineer living in the upscale neighborhood of Maadi, told Al-Monitor.

The decision has also been discussed among members of the parliament. Parliament spokesman Salah Hasaballah backed the decision, saying that these songs are more dangerous than the coronavirus to Egypt and all Arab societies — and spreading just as fast.

Mohamed Abu Hamed, a parliamentarian, said that the songs contain words that should neither be pronounced nor heard. He accused the songs of distorting the language through colloquialism, swear words and obscenities.

“If left unchecked, the songs will spread more in society, and unfortunately they will turn into a dominant language,” he told Al-Monitor.

Adel al-Masry, head of the Chamber of Tourism Establishments, told the local media that the chamber supports the syndicate’s decision as it preserves Egyptian identity, culture and art.

The decision drew mixed reactions from intellectuals and composers.

Veteran composer Helmi Bakr said that he had long urged actions against songs that promote illegal practices and use bad language. “These songs ruin art and heritage with the language they use,” Bakr told local media.

Hanan Shoman, an art critic and writer for Youm7 newspaper, said the syndicate should "embrace" these popular singers rather than "ban" them altogether. “We cannot deny that the songs have become popular and many people like them. Instead of banning them, the government should regulate such artwork, and train and educate those singers,” she told Al-Monitor. 

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