Rapping about social troubles – an interview with Sadat El3almy

In an evening lecture (Amsterdam, May 21st) organized by the North Africa and Middle East department of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the serious title, “Youth Unemployment, Counter-Culture and Instability”, we (Charlie Crooijmans and me) were surprised to see the name of the young Egyptian rapper Sadat among the speaker guests (young political activists and a professor economist). The young street rapper – a star in the new wave of Egyptian popular music called “mahragan” (rap on electronic music with heavy use of Auto-Tune ) – doesn’t speak English. Unfortunately did not get a chance to speak out in such a foreign and formal setting. However, in a 5 minutes rap at the end of the evening, he kind of wrapped it all up.

by Hatim Suleiman

We had a (very) quick chat with him that evening …

So, how did you start?

“I’m 27 years old and I started 10 years ago as a dancer and DJ at street weddings in our neighborhood El-salam (Madinet el-Salam or Salam City, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo). I loved to listen to rap music, for example 2Pak, and also to Bob Marley. I don’t know any English but my friends used to tell me what the songs are about. I found that these songs talk about social things and what goes in the streets, that they have a meaning. I then got to know Alaa 50 Cent and Amr Haha (Amr 7a7a) and we got into this music. I also worked with Figo in the beginning.

Before the revolution (January 2011) we rapped about what is going on in the streets and our social relations, for example friends who turn out to be dishonest, etc, this kind of stuff. Not directly about politics… it’s politics, but not that direct talking about the president or government, but about our social troubles.

After the revolution we had more freedom to say what we want, so rapped directly about in politics. My lyrics now have both styles of commentary. Some people like the commentary but not the music, some however like the music not so much the words and some like both!”

Are you responsible for the music accompaniment or the rap lyrics only?

“No, Amr Haha makes the music. I do the rap and how it is going to be sung. We work together, we are like a band now. He is the music player, producer and sound engineer. Most of these songs are produced in living rooms! Amr Haha comes from the Ain Shams neighborhood, but believe me, the first mahragan (song) came out from our neighborhood El-Salam! We didn’t care to mention our names in the songs, we thought it would only stay in our neighborhood. We were then surprised to hear these songs spread and get performed in street weddings in other faraway neighborhoods, so this meant popular success! It is about time now this music (mahragan) gets internationally categorized.”

Oh it will! but Charlie has a question: how do you relate to the so called “youth of the revolution” who are quite visible and active in the Egyptian political scene since the revolution? A couple of them are guests this evening.

“I have a voice. And many youth listen to my rap and this gives them a voice as well .”

Have the media opened up to you after the revolution, I hear some of the mahragan artists are regularly featured in private TV channels.

“Some, but not to all and not for everything. We are too direct for official media… What we talk about in our songs and how we say it is not always welcomed. Strange thing that many of these people listen to American hip hop which has much more direct and vulgar lyrics. Once a journalist with a son who listens to this American music had a real problem with one Egyptian word we use, “ahha”! (equivalent in English to “shit/damn” considered too vulgar for songs in Egypt, HS)

I think this has to do with a social complex we have…

(Interrupts) “Yes, but some are against all that is new and about to make big success. A known Egyptian musician Mr. Helmy Bakr took it out hard on us.  (This composer is known for attacking new waves in Egyptian music, HS). It’s like he attacks any new thing that becomes successful, he criticizes music that is not played by real instrumentalists, while we only do electronic music!!!”

Charlie asks what do you think about the discussion of this evening and the the Islamist parties currently ruling in Egypt?

“First of all the discussion of this evening was from way too “high”. I don’t care about which party is ruling, most of them are running after power and it has nothing to do with Islam. The people revolted and removed the president, and it happened that the Islamists got the cake. In the streets however people suffer and expect real solutions. The people… the people from down below… when they stand they can do anything… they can remove someone from power… not these political movements or activists who were always there. The Egyptian people can remove the Muslim Brotherhood out of the way if they want. However, they want to go on with their life, but if they stand… they’ll do it. The revolution removed a president which was not the big deal… the big deal is justice and that things become better.”

Back to the music, you guys have no CD’s nor much media publicity … how do you guys make a living, parties and weddings?

“Yes, parties and weddings. We upload all our new songs on YouTube.”

We hope you’ll tour and we’ll see you again here in a festival!

“Yes, I would love that. I have performed in Beirut, Paris and Marseilles. Hopefully might come here in Holland in September.”

Sadat let me listen to one of his new songs along with Alaa Fifity and Amr 7a7a on his mobile, now to be seen on YouTube.

The YouTube channel of Sadat El3almy – El-Alaamy means the international or The Global .