Issues
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Music

My Generation Knows What's What

By Ehab Abdelhamid
Translated by Humphrey Davies

Each generation makes its own rules, and dances to the beat of its own drum. That drum for this generation is Mahraganat music, or music of “festivals.” Ehab Abdelhamid discusses the changes and struggles experienced by young Mahraganat singers who challenge political and artistic stagnation with their songs, and “the gate-keepers” who set the rules. Mahraganat music gives a voice to this young generation and can be seen as the ‘soundtrack’ of Egypt’s streets, a cry of rebellion against the music of the previous generation. Much influenced by shaabi music, Mahraganat music includes the themes of betrayal, love, friendship, and values of honor and sincerity, as well as themes of rebellion, struggle, and challenge.

Despite which, rebelliousness alone will not be enough. Rebelliousness is enough to release the cry, but maintaining that cry needs a lot of effort. Mahraganat music is evolving, albeit slowly. It is sorting the chaff from the straw, trying to benefit from the poetics of rap and setting them to work in more joyous songs, songs more in harmony with today’s Egyptian ear. We may well witness along with this more original, rather than recycled, music.

I was in an Uber busy thinking about what to say in this article when this song came on. Naturally, like any rap song, I’d only heard fragments, though they had been enough to make me look for it afterwards.

Maybe it’s right
Maybe it’s all of us
Maybe I’m fine
What do I know?
Maybe I’m not, when my head blows its top and tells me I’m wrong
I die when I’m living
And seeing what I’ve still got to lose
I was born unlucky
My generation revolted
My generation bolted
My generation gave it a shot
My generation knows what’s what
My generation knows it’ll make it abroad

***

We loved and we learned
In a second we fell and got burned
We learned only our own feet will carry us
Being a man is what keeps us standing
We pay back favors and take care of ten
Listen: In our country we say all that glitters isn’t gold
You guys—Your words are wasting our time and that’s not cool

***

Give me a break—I’m here already on this earth
Outside I’m all gee whizz but inside it’s a war
Everyone my age is worn out from using
And they think it’s fine
Everyone makes mistakes, not every moon is full
My past’s a future whose price I’ll have to pay
I haven’t forgotten who I am
Life’s just a few breaths and it’s gone
We’re all fish in a net
My generation had nerve
My generation learned to dodge and swerve
My generation’s got honor
My generation’s under pressure
My generation’s head’s not in your galaxy

***

We’ve all got troubles—why make me the fall guy?
You think you’re better?
You live and won’t hear me
I’ve got brains and a tongue that hurt me and help me
And you’re putting out rules I don’t care about and don’t concern me
My outside looks innocent but I’m just a book with nasty pages
They say Turn a new one
My ID’s Mina el-Basal so which page would be a new one?
The fear inside of me wants me to start over
So I can make myself some kudos
Before they can give it to me
I haven’t yet given it to any
I depend on myself and get by on my own
I owe and I’m owed
I pay my debts
It’s all from the dirt of my land
If I got a quarter of what life owes me I’d be happy
I’m drawing my lines not just making dots
We loved and we learned
We fell and got burned
We’re here and screw the one who tries to divide us
I’ve been here from the start
Having it easy having it hard
Ice and fire
We have reasons we have excuses
Cruelty and mercy
We’ve got our big shots
But good and evil—everyone’s evil
I screwed up a 100 billion times
No one among us is better than any other
What we do goes away and doesn’t stick around
Everyone walks around with guilt in his breast
Don’t push it, life’s short
Depression’s the same for us all
Buddy, live with your own past
Before you criticize the rest of us
Present! (but not accounted for)
You and me we’re good friends
You’ll accept me with all my mistakes
Just don’t leave me holding the bag

***

I was born unlucky
My generation revolted
My generation bolted
My generation gave it a shot
My generation knows what’s what
My generation knows it’ll make it abroad

(“Born Unlucky” by Wegz, 2020)

Still from Sahbet El Saada interview with Wegz in December 2020

I had wanted to talk about “the gate-keepers of art” but it seems to me that Wegz is addressing all gate-keepers, all the ones with keys, all the people who think they have the power and the right to lay down rigid rules: this is an art, this isn’t. Wegz speaks for a generation. In 2020, Mahraganat songs were a threat to “the gate-keepers” and the latter launched a war that may have looked aggressive but was in fact defensive: they were defending their status, with the support of a section of the public (the older ones, naturally) who pined for the days when the singer had to pass through various “filters,” which might be full of holes, or old, or rusty, but were still filters, filters that made sure that not just any old person got to sing—the “audition committees” filter, the “big production companies” filter, the “music critics” filter, “ the censorship” filter, the “radio and TV officials” filter.

Now, music is transmitted directly from a little room in a popular/slummy district into the boundless space of the internet where anyone who wants to can listen to it and make of it what he likes. This is the way things are now, with modern means of communication, in everything, from politics to art. Yearning for the past leads only to a sigh of grief.

Before the January revolution we lived through more than three decades of political stagnation and for more or less the same time we lived in artistic stagnation, wedged between pop songs and shaabi songs which often differed from pop only in their mix and in beginning with some sad song that lent the words a touch of tradition. The only new music was in the margins—“underground,” “popular arts music,” and some rap. Nothing, though, with a mass following.

The generation that had introduced pop, quickly labeled “songs for the young,” was now in the autumn of its years. The “rebel” generation had become “classical.” The songs that had once been described as “dancing and jumping around” were now regarded as “fine singing.” Such is the way of the world.

The innate desire of any generation to rebel against the music of the generation before has produced Mahraganat. It is a music sung not by Amr and Tamir and Hani but by Molotof, the Trailer Monster, El General, and El Alamy, and it is not restricted to the themes of flirtation, love, and passionate relationships repeated ad nauseam. The words owe a lot to shaabi music, and you find in them simple “existential” concerns, such as the betrayals of fate, lovers, and friends, and the values of honor and sincerity. At the same time, though, you will find expressions of rebellion, struggle, and challenge. It is a music that gives voice to a young generation in a way that is a large step away from the one that preceded it, which makes it something new, something that deserves a new name; and because the music is marked by that “tumult” that has dominated the “soundtrack” of the Egyptian street for the past decades, it claimed for itself the name of Mahraganat, or “festivals.”

With the music came rebellious dancing too: new movements that correspond to young bodies, fit the tumult of the music and draw on knife dances, street fights, and the frantic movements associated with “using.” A “macho” style of dancing but not one that excludes girls. When the vibe (lower-class wedding party, high-class reception rooms) permits, the boy and girl dance as equals, and this may make it the first dance of this type: in the past, the girl would dance “oriental,” while the boy would attempt to come up with a mixture of uncoordinated movements based on shaking the waist and the chest and ending up with waving the arms around, breakdance style. Foreign female dancers, unburdened by the traditions of the “classical” heritage of “oriental dancing,” picked up on the new music and danced with more vigorous and less flowing movements. Egyptian dancers of an older generation—the gate-keepers of “oriental dancing”—attacked the new style, not by criticizing the technique but by saying that these foreign dancers had no right to dance in public in the first place. Some of them spoke of a “ban.”

There’s more chaff than straw, but that’s how it is with all the arts.

Mahraganat music will never be halted by a decree from above.

Mahraganat dancing will never be halted by a decree from above.

Despite which, rebelliousness alone will not be enough. Rebelliousness is enough to release the cry, but maintaining that cry needs a lot of effort. Mahraganat music is evolving, albeit slowly. It is sorting the chaff from the straw, trying to benefit from the poetics of rap and setting them to work in more joyous songs, songs more in harmony with today’s Egyptian ear. We may well witness along with this more original, rather than recycled, music.

“My generation knows what’s what,” says Wegz.

Maybe it just needs a little time, to be absorbed and accepted, not fought and rejected.