Voice of the Streets: the Birth of a Hip Hop Movement

Boikutt at the Voice of the Streets event in Cairo – Nov. 2011. Photo: Laith Majali

CAIRO – Last November, 12 of the re­gion’s best-known Arab rappers were set to per­form together at a public youth center in the swanky central Cairo district of Zamalek. Or­ganizers billed Voice of the Streets as a concert to re­mind people about “the contin­ued struggle for freedom of ex­pression in the wake of the Arab uprisings.” Indeed, it was an Arab hip-hop event without precedent.

Unlikely rap torchbearer, Tunisia’s MC El Général whose song Rayess Labled (Head of State) was a musical anthem for the uprisings, and MC Swat from Libya, who was featured in numerous international stories about the musical scions of the Libyan rebel movement, were both “prize-winning” elements to the stellar line-up.

But the day before the event was scheduled to take place, event organizer Martin Jakobsen, director of the educational NGO Turntables in the Camps and founding member of the legendary Danish DJ collective Den Sorte Skole (The Black School) told WHHM that neither rapper was going to make it.

Classic hip-hop prima-donna-ism or conspiracy theory to dim the luster of the event?

“Do you expect any trouble at the event or with the event?” I asked Jakobsen in a late-night interview at an activist hostel on Abd El Khaliq Tharwat street downtown – about one half-klick northwest of Egypt’s protest epicentre, Tahrir Square.

“We sure as hell hope not,” he said, clearly worried about the contingencies. “We got our security clearances. Actually, we had to pay for the security clearances.”

He told me that they got through to the “right” people in the military regime.

I’d heard from activists and journalists for months that changes to the regime since the fall of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak were cosmetic at best. Jakobsen one-upped that. ”Everything has stayed the same. You have to bribe your f*#@ng way through the process. The bribes we had to pay off to organize this event were unbelievable,” he said.

In the two days leading up to the event, Jordanian organizers Immortal Entertainment – owner and photographer Nasser Kalaji and his partner, filmmaker, editor and street photographer Laith Majali – were out with the MC’s shooting footage of them breaking into impromptu guerrilla raps on the streets of Cairo.

The energy with the MC’s was manic according to Kalaji. “What we did was hit areas with high concentrations of students. And to see the reaction of kids and students walking by pausing – totally dialled in to what these guys were spitting – that was incredible.”

It was a bold move. Besides the marketing potential of the stunt, such actions would have landed the MC’s (and entourage) in jail pre-Mubarak. “One time we were shooting a video for Arabian Knightz,” Kalaji explained referring to Egypt’s power rap crew, “And while we were shooting, a national security officer almost arrested us. Luckily, we were able to buy him off with $20.”

Mai’a, a blogger in Cairo who runs guerrilla mama medicine wrote:

“on wednesday night, happened to be sitting next to a group of guys at a bar.  when one of them starts beat boxing and another starts rhyming in arabic. it was this beautiful unexpected moment.  after that me and my friends took pictures of them and talked with them and found out that they were holding a show called, the voice of the street, based on the arab spring, two days later.” 

Ground Zero

On the day of the event, I headed over to the Gezira Youth Center in Zamalek. It was not the location I had envisioned for the concert itself – more upper West side Manhattan than South Bronx – home to a preponderance of European expats.

The concert venue was adjacent to the members-only Gezira Sporting Club, built by the British in 1882, but the youth center itself was community enough, with 3 football pitches and a fair amount of green-space for the general public to enjoy.

I arrived around 2 in the afternoon to interview the artists and record the sound check, having bought some wheat paste for the organizers in a Zamalek art store so heads could bomb Cairo with posters later on.

As I walked through the gates of the Gezira Youth Center, the massive stage was being built on one of the soccer pitches, but with three hours until the start of the show, it was far from ready. (Par for the course in Egypt, my homies told me.)

What was worse was the presence of two suited spooks skulking around the youth center grounds asking questions of the organizers as the stage hands continued to build.

“Where are all the MC’s?” I asked photographer Majali.

He pointed to a small cafe on the youth center grounds that had little kiddie rides and plastic picnic tables scattered near the center’s admin building. “All the guys are there,” he told me.

Over the years I had been in contact with or worked with nearly all of the artists assembled for the event, but asthey must have felt when meeting all of their hip-hop peers for the first time, I was nervous when I walked up to their table to greet them.

Jordanian hip-hop stalwart, Hicham Ibrahim aka DJ Sotusura, that unpretentiously smooth musical/DJ backbone of the Jordanian hip-hop underground and the DJ for the Voice of the Street event, was the first to greet me.

“Yo! Brother Jacks. What’s up!?”

After a pound, a hand-shake and a hug, I looked up to see an Arab hip-hop summit in full effect. They all extended an obligatory hip-hop “What ups?” with their hands raised, and I was fully humbled.

Egyptian MC Mohammed el Deeb aka Deeb (right) flowin’ for the Shebab – Laith Majali (Immortal Entertainment) on the lens in the background alongside the DJ for the event Sotusura. (Photo: Edouard Abbas)

Cairo’s MC Amin (center) in Egypt hip-hop 101 (from l to r): Nasser Kalaji (Immortal Entertainment), Khotta Ba (Jordan), Amin, DJ Sotusura (Jordan/Palestine), and Boikutt (Palestine). ©Laith Majali

There was Boikutt formerly of Ramallah Underground repping Palestine; two young lions Khotta Ba and Tareq Abu Kwaik aka El Far3i from Jordan; veterans Edd from the Lebanese live hip-hop group Fareeq al Atrash andMalikah also from Lebanon representing as the lone female MC of the event; and you had your bevy of the best Egyptian talent – Deeb and the Arabian Knightz(E-Money, Sphinx, Rush) and MC Amin from a dusty-city called Mansoura 120km north of Cairo.

I made my way around table giving pounds to the MCs from Jordan and from Egypt who, with the exception of Deeb, I hadn’t met yet. It didn’t take me long to notice that despite the historic occasion, these MC’s were serious about their purpose in Cairo. While the stage was frantically getting built, these homies were making the most of the delayed soundcheck.

Sotusura went over set lists with the artists while they figured out where the collabo tracks were going to fit in with the solo sets. He played Instrumentals off his computer and the MC’s each took turns spitting their verses around the table, tweaking things until they were tight. Listening in to the various sessions was this rare glimpse at their talent, especially because the laptop speaker volume wasn’t very loud. (Shit was so impressive.)

Then the first sounds came from the stage and slowly the MC’s made their way across the football pitch. The time was 5:30 in the afternoon or thereabouts – a full 30 minutes after the intended start time and more than 4 hours later than the originally scheduled pre-performance warm-up.

By that time the crowds were beginning to grow outside the Gezira Youth Center gate, and the organizers and local MC’s all began getting calls that people were being refused entry at the gate.

Hip-hop response

For nearly 3 hours the crowds grew outside the gates of the youth center. Egyptian b-boys and b-girls, college students, activists, ex-pats, and a group of people invited by the organizers who had been injured during the revolution – all clamored to get in.

As the impatience grew on both sides of the gates, people that had managed to get into the venue early – mostly young MCs and hip-hop heads – started to mingle with some of the performers.

“What’s going on? Are you guys going to perform?” came the question -in Arabic – from a young head with a Philadelphia Phillies straight brim on.

“Yo! Whatever happens…even if it has to be on the streets…we’ll perform for you,” Rush from Arabian Knightz yelled back – flashing a peace sign.

What happened next will go down as the essence of hip-hop cultural response to pressure. Impromptu freestyle rap cyphers began forming in little pockets around the soccer pitch as the lights from the stage shined down on the 80 or so people gathered there.

One MC after another started facing off. Locals flexed their lyrical games with veterans that had come to Cairo from around the region to perform – shit was serious. And in those cyphers, all bets were off – the playing field was leveled. One cypher in particular put Boikutt, Khotta Ba, and El Far3i together with a local MC Shamsedein.

El Far3i set down the gauntlet first with a devastating set of punch-lines and half-written flows from his up-coming album. Then Khotta Ba and Shamsedeine jumped in – Khotta Ba’s flow more measured and smooth Shamsedein’s like an Egyptian version of Supernatural – fast and furious incorporating everything he was seeing around him.

Boikutt came in and kind of slapped all the crowd-goers and the MC’s with this ill, developed delivery – clear and concise – about being in Egypt and being from Palestine. He talked about the brotherhood of the revolutionaries on the streets and with the MC’s, and then Khotta Ba and Shamsedein got into a rap head-cutting contest to the sheer admiration of each. When it ended the bond between the MC’s was like soul epoxy.

Limbo

Then the news came in. (Peep the end of the above audio to hear it literally.) Security was not letting the wounded of the revolution into the venue, with Gezira club security accusing the event organizers of using their hip-hop event  as a “cover to honor the victims and their families.”

The organizers talked to the director of the Gezira Sports Club whose position was that the wounded – many visibly scarred, some on crutches and others wearing eye patches – were “criminals who were at the event to cause trouble.”

Kalaji, who had spent time taking photographs of these wounded members of the revolution offered to ask them to leave. “I was close enough with these people that they wouldn’t be insulted,” Kalaji told WHHM.

The Gezira director refused saying that if they were told to leave then the press would accuse the club of refusing the victims entry. Then Kalaji told the director that they would stay with the victims during the performance with the private security hired, but she denied that request as well, saying they might have weapons and could hurt people.

The Interior Ministry of Egypt sent their final decree at around 8pm. Without new permitting, organizers were in danger of being hauled off to jail, and with more than 300 people having been refused entry at the gate, effectively 2 months of planning the biggest Arab hip-hop event to date was suddenly a “non-event!”

Epic Switch

One distinguishing element of hip-hop organizing is its ability to adapt. It’s a code of the streets that anything can happen at anytime – forced power outages, police crackdowns, squeamish venue owners – are all aspects of hip-hop event history that have often led to the most memorable performances.

With all of the hype from the controversy at the gate and the energy of the MC’s that had come from so many different places to perform for the people, frantic calls went out to resuscitate the Voice of the Streets. Would the MC’s take it to the streets? Would the Cairo Jazz Club – friendly to performers in the past – be the next venue?

As the MC’s all made their way to the crowd waiting outside, a local arts and culture center Darb 17 18 assumed responsibility for salvaging the event – and the word went out through facebook, twitter and mobile telephones.

Darb 17 18 was in an industrial part of Old Cairo, and was described in a local zine as “one of the main cultural venues of Cairo despite its not so central location.” After a herculean effort to get the sound ready and set up the space for an ad hoc concert, the MC’s and organizers wondered how many people would make their way across town to attend.

They did come, in droves, lining the street below the 2nd floor balcony of the space that served as the stage for the night.

MC Amin opened the show with his street anthems Rap 5aleni AbuquedaMadinat al Khataya (Sin City) and upcoming new release The Arabs are the Roots Part 3, showing why he is widely regarded as the future of Egyptian rap with his direct connections to the Egyptian street – his philosophical Egyptian turns of phrase punctuating condemnations of the government.

Deeb in Tahrir Square

Malikah then took the stage and joined Amin on an unnamed collaboration. Malikah continued -lyrical guns blazing – showing the audience that there was at least one female MC living in the Arab world that could hold it down in a sea of testosterone.

What came next was perhaps the most fun collaboration of the evening, Malikah was joined on the stage by Edd and MC Amin for the tentatively titled song Hip-Hop that melded into the refrain of the chorus the phrase “Cairo City,” which the crowd all chanted back in a rousing call-and-response.

“The energy was crazy out there, but I’m so tired,” Malikah told me after her performance. She’d told the story earlier at the youth center that two days prior to the event she was in Columbia for a hip-hop festival in Cali with the revolutionary female Columbian rapper Diana. She’d slept hardly at all and was suffering from a serious case of jet-lag.

“But nothing’s gonna stop me on a night like this!” she said, and the fans uniformly praised the press-dubbed “Queen of Arab hip-hop” who after 5 solid years in the game had carved near celebrity status – her raps an homage to her home city Beirut.

After the trio left the stage it was another Beirut-city MC that showed just how good the Lebanese hip-hop scene is. Edd, one of two veteran MC’s from Fareeq al Atrash (a word play on the famous Syrian-Egyptian T’arab singer, composer, actor Farid al Atrash) proceeded with three songs from the bands repertoire ending his set with a track from their new album Baladi.

Edd’s flow, a mixture of hard-hitting political intonations with a laid back but sharp delivery, earned him a sort of rappers fan-base among the MC’s themselves, and in a nod to the Egyptian revolution, a track that had burned up the internet airwaves with Arab hip-hop fans, Edd performed the self-produced track Alamna Marfou3 with Egyptian MC, Mohammed el Deeb aka Deeb, formerly of the Egyptian crew Asfalt. Deeb dropped the track at the height of the revolution at the same time as his EP Cairofornication.

“When the people in Egypt heard it, they got the sense that all Arabs were facing the same problems -unemployment, corruption, lack of social and cultural awareness -and were in a constant battle to remember a past before Mubarak” Deeb explained.

His song Masrah Deeb or “Deebs Stage” was a crowd favorite, not the least because of the production of the song that features a perfectly placed BB King sample. “It’s a song reflecting on my daily experiences; my personal relationship with music,” Deeb told me, adding, “now people are yearning for songs against oppression with meaning that will also reflect their daily lives.”

During one part of the song that night, Deeb intoned, “The microphone is my true friend that appreciates my honesty,” and in the hook of the song, what Deeb calls an affaya or punchline, he mentions to the crowd how he is trying to wake people up to the situation in Egypt – a track which he incidentally recorded in the weeks before the January 25 protest date.

After Deeb performed an a capella version of Um al Masri, the Jordanian contingent proved why they were on the bill with more veteran rappers. Khotta Ba and El Far3i cut through a gruff, hard-hitting set of political tracks from their up-coming solo albums that are sure to put Jordan on the map in the Arab hip-hop massive like never before.

In the most polished performance of the night, having just played in the Shatilla Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut a month earlier and having gone through a series of events with his experimental audio-visual group Tashweesh also in Beirut, was Boikutt representing Ramallah in the West Bank.

No doubt the liquid clarity of Boikutt’s mic control set the bar for the night as there was no one better than the slight-of-frame Palestinian rhyme-styler at getting his lyrical content through to the audience with a sound system that was pushed to its max the entire night. For many in the audience, it was their first time seeing Boikutt, whose rep as a co-founder of the now defunct Ramallah Underground preceded him.

Rounding out the night before the more unknown local MC’s capped off the event was the mega-crew and the local crowd favorites – Arabian Knightz. A crew that rolls around 15-deep at its periphery had all three of its core members on stage – Rush, E-Money and Sphinx, recently back from his stint with US Immigration Services in California justifying his life as a rapper in Egypt.

There songs Rebel with Palestinian singer and rapper Shadia Mansour and Not Your Prisonerwere the most listened to Egyptian hip-hop tracks of the revolution. Preparing for the release of their debut LP Unknighted State of Arabia, they performed to a thinned out crowd at around 2 in the am. But, it was a crowd that literally knew all the lyrics to their songs, and who definitely were not going to miss out after the Gezira Youth Center gig was shut down.

The three MC’s showed that they were still psyched to be performing despite constant sound struggles with their microphones, and no doubt, they left you wanting another follow-up concert that would better showcase their skills after a night that favored solo performances.

End Game

Finally, when the last speaker was carted out, people continued to mill about well after the performances ended, endorphin’s running high, wondering where to go for the after-party. Fans and MCs were lost in conversation in the chill-night air, sweating and amazed, as dozens of empty orange bean bags set out by the organizers hours earlier formed what looked like a huge art installation on a grassy knoll in the middle of the street below the stage.

One conversation with Jordan’s El Far3i summed up the evening. Speaking about his own amazement at the show, he recognized that as in any underground rap scene, since hip-hop time began, there were your abstract rappers, your grind-time rappers, your conscious rappers and your street rappers. Certainly, that was what such an historic event was able to convey – that there is an evolution of styles coming through in Arabic detailing the realities of rappers in their various locales.

As the Arab uprisings have shown in the last year, resistance has become a truism for the Arab youth. They have made up the overwhelming majority of the bodies in the crush against state authorities throughout the region. And while the Arab hip-hop heads can be seen as presaging the messaging of these revolutions and their calls to stand up against the machinations of state oppression, until this year, Arab hip-hop was mostly an insular clique whose music had little impact on the larger society.

Now it’s fair to say that if ever there was a sense of this elusive idea of an Arabic hip-hop movement that had often seemed more hypoth­esis than cultural fact, in Cairo on November 4 at the Voice of the Streets event – that hypothesis became tangible.

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