As the Free Speech Radio News radio documentary –Rhymes to Revolution: A Soundtrack to the Arab Awakenings– makes its way across the United States and the world, we take this opportunity to release a series of articles, interviews, and commentaries that have informed the research and content that have gone into making this documentary. We begin with an introduction to Egyptian rapper Mohamed El Deeb aka MC Deeb.
Deeb’s EP “Cairofornication” is a tour de force in my mind of what is being offered by the Egyptian rap scene. The two singles Bilady (produced by Arketekt) and Masrah Deeb (Deeb’s Theater produced by Gen K) are amazing examples of Deeb’s lyrical flow and content. I conducted this interview with Deeb during the post Tahrir square fervor in February.
BEIRUT – In hip-hop, “Revolution” is a loaded word filled with visions of Gil Scott-Heron and his prescience as a rap forefather. In his wake, the word – the meaning of the word – had lost much of its resonance; regurgitation blunted the blade. The sharpness had been replaced by Saatchi and Saatchi salesmanship. But this past January and February, as Tunis and then Egypt were set alight by people in the streets -hundreds of thousands demanding an end to decades long despotic rule -at least one sub-culture within the larger hip-hop pantheon was ready for the revolution: the Arabic hip-hop massive.
Consider this. Few events in the Arab world – and that includes the intractable Palestinian issue – have galvanized Arab hip-hoppers the way the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunis have managed to. The outpouring of solidarity and respect shown particularly to the Egyptian uprising by MCs, DJs and producers in the MENA and the rest of the known Arab rap Diaspora became a sort of (Gamal Abdel) Nasserite pan-Arab galvanization. This had never happened before.
I decided to reach out to my favorite Egyptian MC, Mohamed El Deeb aka Deeb on the eve of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s historic departure.
Deeb comes from an Egyptian hip-hop pedigree, having been a part of the crew Asfalt that was selected in 2008/9 to represent Egypt on the short-lived MTV Arabia show, HipHopna (“Our Hip-Hop”) that was fronted by LA-based Palestinian producer FredWreck. Deeb is also a member of the Arab League, a pan-Arab super star crew that includes the likes of Egyptian crew Arabian Knightz, another phenom Egyptian rapper, MC Amin, UK-based Palestinian soul singer Shadia Mansour, Iraqi-Canadian MC The Narcicyst, UK-based Lebanese-Syrian MC Eslam Jawaad, Moroccan-Dutch MC and Wu-Tang family member Salah Edin and Lebanese based turntablist DJ Lethal Skillz among many others.
His latest musical project, Wighit Nazar (“Point of View”) was started in 2007 and includes MC Mohammed Yasser and producers KC and Arketekt. Deeb’s debut album is due to drop in 2011 with two videos already burning up the YouTube hit count. But it was his latest video ‘Masrah Deeb’, released on February 3, in the heat of the Egyptian uprising that became our jump off point to the interview.
BEATS AND BREATH: You’ve just released the dope video ‘Masrah Deeb’ at what couldn’t have been a more perfect time. Tell us about the concept for the video, how it was shot and the message of that song/video?
DEEB: My director friend Mustafa Eck, an Egyptian/American who lives in California, contacted me and told me he wants to do a video for ‘Masrah Deeb’. ‘Masrah Deeb’, which means ‘Deeb’s Stage’ in Arabic, is a song reflecting on my daily experiences; my personal relationship with music; how the microphone is my friend and how it appreciates my honesty when I speak through it. We tried to keep a balance between street shots to represent the true essence of my Egypt (my stage), and the main story, which shows me constructing a microphone, which I later use at a performance. In the song’s hook I mention how I’m trying to wake up my people, which is why we decided to include random faces from the Egyptian society singing along.
B&B: Let’s talk about the revolution in Egypt…How did you feel when Mubarak’s newly appointed vice president Omar Soleiman announced he was stepping down? I mean – in Beirut with my friends – we were going buckwild! Tell me what you thought?
DEEB: I was watching the news, which was interrupted by an announcement saying that a presidential speech is due soon. I thought to myself, “Could this speech be it?” The president already gave a speech the day before, and was not received well by the Egyptian protestors. When VP, Omar Soleiman, appeared on the screen to read the speech, I had a feeling that Mubarak and his regime was over. You could tell by the VP’s facial expression. I was watching the announcement with a friend who doesn’t understand Arabic, and he was asking me what the VP was saying in the speech. It took me a while to reply because I was still in disbelief and my eyes were still glued to the TV. “He’s gone! He’s gone!” I shouted back.
And from there the festivities started. I went downtown to Tahrir square with my friends and partied like there’s no tomorrow. Everyone in Tahrir was in a state of ecstasy and disbelief. I still don’t believe it to this day.
B&B: As the revolution unfolded in Tahrir Square and in the urban centers and rural townships throughout Egypt, what do you think artists such as yourself brought to the table in helping with the struggle?
DEEB: I was out on the streets protesting since day one, January 25th. I heard about the protests from a Facebook event invitation, which was scheduled to be held on ‘Police Day’, a national holiday. I went down to Tahrir Square with no expectations; it was my first time demonstrating. I must say it was a scary scene seeing lines of police cued up to prevent the protestors from marching into Tahrir and ready to attack at any time. That fear disappears when you see the numbers of protestors increase and when deep down you believe that what you are demanding is a human necessity. I also met a lot of actors and musicians who were protesting with the people. I believe artists are very influential in voicing the peoples’ demands as they have a large following.
Pre-Jan25, I feel that I had been contributing indirectly to the struggle by talking about the Egyptian people’s social and political sufferings in my songs. I was brought up in the Gulf most of my life and ever since moving back to Egypt, 6 years ago, I started observing and commenting on a lot of contradictions and social inequalities that exist here. As an Egyptian ex-pat, I had a bird’s eye view on the problems facing the country because I had a nostalgic and ideal view on how Egypt should be.
B&B: I’ve confronted MCs in the Arab world about this before – the idea that what they say can land them in a place where the governmental powers that be, or even political entities, can bare their full might against them as artists -including jail time and even worse. As a conscious MC in Egypt, were you afraid that what you were saying before the uprising could be taken in a way that would get you in trouble with the Mubarak regime? Or was Arabic hip-hop even considered strong enough to invoke that response?
DEEB: Hip-hop originated in the West as an art of expression against oppression and discrimination. Dictatorships don’t allow freedom of speech and they limit it to certain topics and issues. So we can say that the principles of hip-hop conflicts with the policy of dictatorships and namely the Mubarak regime. Pre-Jan25 I wrote political songs but I would camouflage my lyrics with metaphors and general accusations rather than mentioning specific names. There were many incidents where newspaper editors and writers were thrown in prison for speaking against the regime. Today, the situation is different. National and independent newspapers and media are objectively reporting the latest developments with regards to the corruption cases that happened during the Mubarak regime and with the lawsuits filed against officials who were responsible for the killing of the revolution’s martyrs.
B&B: If the Egyptian State Security stays in power, and considering that you and other crews like Arabian Knights are speaking out/spoke out in support of the masses, are you afraid of any blowback from the secret police, that are still likely to be in place even now that Mubarak is out of power?
DEEB: Not at all. Initially, when we went down to the streets, we were requesting three things, ‘Dignity, Freedom and Social Equality’. The army communicated to us that it will act as a guarantor to make sure that the Egyptian revolution’s demands are met. I personally trust the army and I believe that they are working hard not to disappoint the Egyptian people. Freedom cannot be granted with the current state security structure which means that it has to change in the near future. This is why I’m not afraid anymore to speak up. If people get locked up for speaking freely after the revolution, then we haven’t accomplished anything and we will go down to the streets again to demand that right.
I’m positive on the latest developments with regards to the cancellation of the Ministry of Information. This ministry, which was created during Nasser’s socialist regime, was responsible for censoring and controlling the information communicated to the masses. It was also responsible for the state-TVs’ scandalous coverage of the revolution.
B&B: What do you think of the Arab hip-hop response to the uprising?
DEEB: Arab hip-hop was very close to the uprising since day one. Locally, hip-hop artists including Arabian Knightz, Ahmed ZAP, Ramy Donejwan and myself made songs for the revolution. Internationally, Arab hip-hop was present too with songs like #Jan25 by Omar Offendum, The Narcicyst and hip-hop veteran Freeway. It was great seeing my Arab hip-hop family abroad protesting in front of Egyptian embassies in their respective countries in solidarity with our revolution.
B&B: Do you think the recent unrest has the potential to unite the Arab hip-hop movement in a more pronounced way – or do you think that was going to happen anyway? Or hell…do you even think there is such a thing as an Arab hip-hop movement?
DEEB: I believe that there is a strong Arab hip-hop movement with a unified voice. Arabs today are reminiscing on the good old days when borders between them meant nothing. We share similar history, language and culture and so we relate to each other on many levels. Before the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution, Arab hip-hop was addressing other issues such as the occupation of Palestine and the invasion of Iraq. I recorded ‘Alamna Marfou3’ a politically charged song with Edd from Lebanese group Fareeq Al Atrash. When the people in Egypt heard it, they got the sense that all Arabs are facing the same problems (e.g. unemployment, corruption, lack of social and cultural awareness) and are in a constant battle to revive their glory days again.
B&B: What’s on the horizon for Deeb artistically?
DEEB: I am currently working on my second EP, with plans to release an EP every couple of months or so. Artistically, I want to take Egyptian hip-hop to new a place which is why I’m looking to collaborate with musicians doing other types of music (e.g. rock, reggae, and funk). I think this is the best time to be doing hip-hop in Egypt now that we are a free country. Egyptians are sick of ‘habibi (love) songs’ and are demanding to hear music with a strong social and cultural message.
B&B: Any last words now that Mubarak’s gone and you and the Egyptian people have to build a new country now?
DEEB: I’m participating in a social movement called ‘Eed Wa7da’ which is organized by Egyptians who want to help in re-building their new country. This social group is divided into many committees, which includes Education, Political Awareness, Urban Planning, Culture, Healthcare and many more. I joined the Culture committee and we are currently coming up with plans on how we can increase the culture awareness in Egyptians to revive and promote the ideal Egyptian identity in a post-Jan25 revolution context.