By Maurice Chammah
On Saturday at El Sawy Culture Wheel in Zamalek, a crowd of several hundred fans gathered to watch eight hours of continuous hip-hop.
The festival, called “Hip-Hop Non-Stop 2501,” featured a diverse set of acts ranging from the obscure to the more well-known. Flashing lights and fake smoke enveloped the stage as one MC after another ran out to face the hundreds of fans and swaggered, danced, and clutched the mic, rapping, for the most part, over simple, very loud beats.
Although many of the rappers expressed political themes, and the 2501 in the event’s title seemed to indicate a revolutionary dimension, the longer I stood and took in the scene, the farther I felt from Tahrir Square. Perhaps I had been expecting the rhythmic venom characteristic of Palestinian rappers like DAM or the emotionally charged urgency of Ramy Essam’s protest songs.
I was not expecting an American-style promotion festival, complete with corporate sponsorships, company booths, and free candy bars, which I was offered five times in under an hour, the number of candy bar representatives clearly out of proportion to the crowd.
When I first arrived in the afternoon, most of the fans were aged between 12 and 16. By the end of the day, their average age had risen to perhaps 18 or 19. “I don’t understand most of the words,” one older fan told me, “but I love the beats.” Others, however, knew every word, excitedly rapping along to their friends and imitating the swagger of the performers.
MC Amin closed out the show. Wearing a wide-brimmed baseball cap and large black T-shirt, he riled the crowd to a new high.
“Blind imitation in Egyptian youth has become the norm,” he rapped angrily in Arabic, “look at the foreign world that is invading the republic.”
“At times when dialogue is needed,” he continued, “instead we get extremism…and blurred vision…Instead of laughter, we get anger.”
The vaguely political edge of his lyrics was drowned out by the promotional tone of the festival, which seemed to be more about selling the products of the sponsors than politically galvanizing the young crowd.
Perhaps, as an American, I was too ready to focus on the dichotomy between commercialism and social relevance. In the US, the two forms of hip-hop are seen as being, if not mutually exclusive, at least in tension. Here, however, they seemed to go together naturally.
How this tension between social relevance and commercialism will play out remains an open question in the evolution of Egyptian hip-hop.