‘I Protest through Songs and Poetry!’: Interview with Mohammed El Deeb
Born in Cairo in 1984, Deeb left Asfalt in 2007 to found Wighit Nazar [‘Point of View/Perspective’] together with Mohamed Yasser. This successful music project, which in the realm of Arab hip-hop took people by surprise with its positive, sarcastic wordplay, lasted until 2010. With its determinedly positive approach, the music project tried to provide a counterpoint to the general mood of society: under Mubarak, the people were governed by a regime of negativity. Political discussions conveyed a sense that there was no escape from the repression, which for many people was frustrating and contributed to a general mood and attitude of negativity. People’s faces were lined with sadness and disappointment.
In recent months Deeb has been focussing on his solo career. Cairofornia is his first solo album. In his texts, written in colloquial Arabic, the artist addresses social, personal and cultural concerns of everyday life in Egypt. Deeb is a nostalgic writer, inspired by the pulse of the city and of pop culture - and with an eye for the artistic diversity of Egypt prior to 1952. With regard to his texts, Deeb describes himself as his listeners’ ‘social conscience’, addicted to elements of pop culture, as is also apparent in his poems. For him, popular culture is part of his identity, and part of the Egyptian identity. The range of topics that interest him put their finger on the pulse of the city, inspired by the word on the street, and so it is also the people on the street who are his target audience: from the taxi driver to the newspaper seller and the man in the kiosk on the corner. Deeb describes struggles with corruption and depression, with social inequality, the oppression of women, and the fight against daily public harassment. Because until recently state controlled media and censorship still played a major part in public life and what could and couldn’t be said was subject to strict controls, people are now hungry for critical new arts and forms of expression.
At the festival the artist hopes to make his account of the revolution more accessible to a Western public and describe in the form of poetry how it was and is to live in Egypt’s pre- and post-Mubarak phases; what battles have still to be fought, and which have not yet been won. In this period of revolutions and protests in the Arab world, people’s identity and sense of belonging are being reunited and experienced as one - and this is being conveyed above all through the language of poetry. In this day and age, being a poet or MC, and as such the mouthpiece of the young generation in Egypt, and being able to speak of social consciousness and responsibility is a quite remarkable thing.
Arian Fariborz spoke to him about hip-hop music.
Arian Fariborz: Could you describe the beginning of your music project and the first steps you took with Asfalt, and later on with Wighit Nazar? What was the main concept or idea, to come up with this kind of music and the message you wanted to submit to the Egyptian public?
Mohammed El Deeb: It’s a funny story how I got into hip-hop. I always enjoyed writing poetry in school. While I was in secondary school we were asked to write a French rap song and submit it as an assignment for the French class. All my colleagues submitted on paper, I was the only one who recorded my rap on a cassette tape over a looped beat, as that was the time when I was really getting into hip-hop. When the teacher played my song in class, all my friends and colleagues enjoyed it and gave me props. I wrote my first rap song in French! I thought to myself, if I can write a rap song in French, which is not my main language, I can also do it in English.
I moved back to Egypt in 2005, coming from the Gulf where I spent most of my childhood years. I found myself speaking and thinking more in Arabic, discovering myself and my culture for the first time. In 2006 I joined Asfalt, which was one of the first Egyptian hip-hop crews to rap in colloquial Arabic. I later created Wighit Nazar [Point of View], a musical project that included Asfalt band member Mohamed Yasser and myself. We had a good chemistry going on and we managed to create a respected name in the underground scene. I left Wighit Nazar in mid-2010 to start my solo career due to creative differences. The main messages that can be felt in my songs cover identity issues, cultural awareness, sexual harassment, social and political oppression, and reminding my people of the good old days when Egypt was a cultural and arts hub in the Middle East.
Could you assess the cultural climate under the Mubarak regime? Had there been restrictions for independent artists like you and how did this eventually affect your music?
El Deeb: Hip-hop music is language that speaks on struggles and oppression. It is based on self-expression and projecting your point of view, regardless of whether people agree with you or not. This made it harder for me to write songs freely during the Mubarak regime; there was a high chance that you’d be locked up for speaking the truth. I had to censor a lot of my lyrics. I could never say the word ‘government’ or ‘president’. I would always refer to them as ‘the big guys’ or ‘the corrupt people’. I would use metaphors instead of direct name references. I remember doing a TV interview when I was with Asfalt and the TV presenter had to stop us because we chose to sing a song called ‘El Ebara Fel Abbara’, where we talked about the Salam ferry that sank in 2005 and the one thousand people who drowned. After investigations were made, we found out that the Salam ferry owners were corrupt and had a close relationship to Mubarak’s regime.
Once, you said that your music somehow reflects ‘the social conscience’ of your audience. What exactly do you mean by this?
El Deeb: When I write my music, I try to represent the average Egyptian on the streets. By average Egyptian I refer to everyone ranging from taxi drivers and street sellers to intellectuals. I’m inspired by the street pulse and I touch on everyday issues that people relate to, which is why I’m very keen on referencing a lot of pop culture in my songs.
How did you participate with your music project in the 25th January uprising in Egypt and what was the resonance like from the audience on Tahrir Square?
El Deeb: I physically participated in the January 25th uprising from day one and during the days of protest. I also had the privilege to perform my poetry and songs in Tahrir a couple of times, which is something I’m very proud of. I was extremely happy and honoured to see the protesters reacting to my music and telling me that this is the type of music that they want to hear in new Egypt. I believe that hip-hop is highly respected by society as they appreciate the honesty and subject matters addressed in the songs. People are tired and bored of shallow pop love songs that were on high rotation before the revolution, as they failed to represent the social and political reality.
My first video, ‘Masrah Deeb’ [‘Deeb Stage’], was shot very close to Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, two weeks before the revolution. I decided to release the video on February 2nd, while the revolution was still at its peak, to remind the people of the social issues and political oppression that we experienced during the Mubarak regime. I also wanted to increase the morale of the people during these tense times and give them hope that we will rise again once our revolution is complete.
What role could hip-hop music play as a mouthpiece for social and political protest in the Middle East, especially in Egypt?
El Deeb: Hip-hop is increasingly being acknowledged by Egyptians - that this type of music discusses people’s struggles and supports the idea of freedom of expression. It is not just a creation of the West; hip-hop demonstrates the power of poetry, which Arabs are very fond of. After the revolution, a lot of Egyptians became exposed to hip-hop as they saw artists perform on Tahrir stage and heard songs circulated on social media. I remember after one of my Tahrir performances, a guy from the crowd came up to me and told me that he stopped a bunch of Salafis [Islamists] that wanted to get me off stage because I was singing and they considered that inappropriate. He stopped the Salafis because the protesters wanted to hear my songs, referring to them as motivational and something that everyone relates to. I mean, you can protest using other means and languages, you can hold a sign, rally some chants; I protest through songs and poetry. By having the guy from the crowd stopping the Salafis, I achieved something; I made a statement that freedom of speech is something we will fight for post-January 25th.
Arian Fariborz works as a journalist. His book Rock the Kasbah – Popmusik und Moderne im Orient [Rock the Kasbah – Pop Music and the Modern Age in the Orient] was published by Palmyra Verlag in 2010.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
Published on April 4th, 2016