CAIRO — When Egyptian rapper Aly Soliman announced on Facebook that his song “Ana Msh Bakhaf” (“I’m Not Afraid”) was cited in the unofficial early line-up for the prestigious Grammy Awards, many fans thought this may spur a wider interest in rap, a genre not widely listened to in the Middle East’s most populous nation.
They were wrong. Despite the rapper sharing the good news on social media several times, the song's clip on YouTube has only received just over 236,000 views so far. “I am still optimistic that this will help spur interest in rap in Egypt and also in Egyptian rap abroad,” Soliman told Al-Monitor. The official nominees for the 2020 Grammy Awards will be announced in early December.
But Soliman acknowledges that rap music is not a popular choice for Egyptians. “[I] and the present generation of rappers are trying to establish a public base, but this needs time. We should not expect to reach a million viewers overnight,” he said, admitting that the current number was “auspicious and encouraging” rather than “frustrating or shocking.”
Rap started in Egypt in the mid-1990s, with Omar Elmissiry, aka Boflot. Elmissiry founded "Y Crew" with Yassin Zahran, whose short stature earned him the nickname “9 millimeters,” and Ahmed Shahin, known as "The Genius.”
“Elmissiry was a rap pioneer both in Egypt and the Arab world,” Shahin told Al-Monitor, adding that after more than two decades one would expect rap to reach a broader fan base.
“But the conditions in Egypt are somewhat special,” he said. “The Egyptian public is very conservative and prefers traditional music. They do not easily accept Western models such as rap.”
In fact, jazz, rock and metal music have not found a broad audience in Egypt either. The only exception has been soft pop, which since the mid-1950s is usually mixed with oriental melodies by famous composers such as Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Kamal Al-Taweel and Mounir Mourad.
Shahin noted that many of the production companies do not want to finance rap music and rappers, as this genre mainly reaches listeners via the internet, not via music cassettes or CDs, and it wasn't until 2011 that the internet became more accessible in Egypt. “These conditions — lack of internet access and the reluctance of producers to work with rappers — have limited the ability of rappers to reach a large audience,” he added.
"The growth in internet users and social media sites — especially those specializing in music such as SoundCloud — since 2011 has helped bring rap to the listeners,” he said, citing Masar Ejbari, Mahmoud El-Esseily and Ahmed Mekky and the group Cairokee as rappers known to the public.
Esseily, who released a pop-meets-rap tune called “Ibn Mısr” (“Son of Egypt") with singers Medhat Saleh and Mostafa Hagag, has received more than 11 million views on YouTube since its launch on May 6, 2019. Mekky’s 2018 release “Aqla Men Al-Yaquot” ("More Precious than Rubies”) has had close to 25 million views, and Cairokee’s "Awlad El-Batta El-Sawda" ("The Ugly Ducklings") achieved great success with views ranging between 1.4 million and 10.5 million for the eight songs on the album.
Omar Hafeez, producer at 1 SHOT Production House, believes that the success of some exceptional rappers such as Esseily and Mekky is due to their understanding of the nature of the Egyptian music scene. “Esseily — despite being an excellent rapper — also introduces traditional themes and melodies that make his works appealing to a broader audience,” he told Al-Monitor. “This makes both the audience and the producers more receptive to the rap songs by Esseily than those by others.”
He said that Mekky initially was known as an actor who introduced rap songs in the soundtracks of his films such as "H Dabour" and "Teer Enta" ("You Fly") and his TV series "Al Kabeer" ("The Bigger, The Biggest").
Salah El-Sharnouby, a composer and critic, told Al-Monitor that successful rap songs, such as those of Mekky, Esseily and Cairokee, also touch upon issues relevant to Egyptians. Mekky’s "More Precious than Rubies" discusses the relationship between parents and their sons, and Cairokee’s "Al-Keif" ("The Mood") addresses the risks of drug use. "Mekky’s choice of wordings is more subtle than others,” he added.
Sharnouby noted that the other rappers, who copycatted American rap, hardly achieve the same success. It is the music, as well as the lyrics and the issues they discuss, that engages the audience, he said.
“We started attracting more people when we began to adapt traditional or popular songs to rap,” said Timraz, a member of Revolution Records, a rap band. The group released a rap version of Mohamed Mounir’s 2015 song "Atooh Fel Shawaree" ("Lost in the Streets"), originally produced in 2005. But it may be overly optimistic to call it a success just yet — released April 29, 2019, it has received just over 1,600 hits so far.