بطیر..بطیر، عنبھ فوق على المریخ
I am flying…flying…3enba is up there on Mars
أنا قلبي في السلام، ومخي في المریخ
My heart is in El-Salam, while my brain is in Mars
رقم واحد أنا دولة
I’m no. 1, I’m a state
These are some well-known lyrics by 3enba (ʿinabah; عنبه), one of the most successful second-generation mahraganat singers in Egypt. Despite living in El-Salam City, a low-income neighborhood in eastern Cairo, 3enba or 3ennab ʿnāb insists, in his songs and his social media posts, that he belongs equally to El-Salam City and planet Mars. This local-extraterrestrial persona is not a mere stylistic device; it points to the material conditions of mahraganat production and highlights new ways in which this genre’s artists and audiences think about and express themselves individually and collectively. Mahraganat’s media, technologies, and sonic and visual aesthetics tell the story of young men’s dreams and aspirations while posing challenges to the state’s symbolic power over art and culture.
A nonrevolutionary genre?
Mahraganat, a genre that literally means festivals, is a do-it-yourself electronic dance music that gained popularity toward the end of the 2000s. The music is loosely conceived as electro sha’bi; electro denotes the use of computer sound synthesis and autotune, while sha’bi means popular in a manner associated with lowbrow culture and low-income classes. At street weddings, young men from impoverished urban quarters in Cairo and Alexandria started to sample from a wide range of local and global genres using synthesizers and heavy percussion to produce a distinctive loud electronic dance music. Mahraganat is now the defining music of Cairo’s soundscape.
Some mahraganat artists attribute the genre’s growing popularity during the revolutionary years (2011–2013) to the state of lawlessness that dominated the country back then, allowing their music to circulate more widely. Scholars differ in their analyses of the relationship between mahraganat and the Egyptian Arab Spring. Tarek Benchouia proposes that intent listening to mahraganat can reveal the violent socioeconomic conditions within which the genre emerges and persists, also echoing the wider global phenomena of antiblackness. Ethnomusicologist Darci Sprengel conducted fieldwork during the revolutionary years and critically questions the category of “the political” in relation to the wider DIY music scene in Egypt, arguing that the categorization of mahraganat performances as social, nonrevolutionary activity lies behind its continuance under the current regime. While there is some truth to this argument, it greatly underestimates the magnitude of the state’s efforts to censor mahraganat music, which have intensified since 2015. Writing about the role of popular culture in the 2011 uprisings, political scientist Nicola Pratt argues that despite its seeming avoidance of politics, mahraganat music disrupts the dominant cultural hierarchies. his disruption and its focus on the daily lives of low-income Egyptians throws mahraganat back into the realm of the political, but not through the traditional resistance/domination binary. Anthropologist Ted Swedenburg notes mahraganat artists’ irreverent and cynical attitude toward nationalism and Tahrir’s chants and songs. Yet he also thought-provokingly classifies it as protest music. We have yet to contemplate the fact that despite its popularity and omnipresence at the time, mahraganat music was never part of the protest song repertoire in Tahrir Square and other revolutionary spaces. Nor did it appear in state propaganda music at the time.
If mahraganat artists are not chanting for bread, freedom, and social justice, what are they dreaming of?
A sound from the streets
One of the most illuminating findings in my preliminary research and virtual ethnographic work on mahraganat is that neighborhood social structures and practices and alternative infrastructure, media, and technologies are all central to its production, circulation, and promotion. For example, in a YouTube interview, 3enba recounts how he came to music making through a cousin, who introduced him to MixCraft, a recording software he was using to make music in the internet cafe they both frequented. 3enba then marshalled his audience through the whole process of DIY music making from writing lyrics to shooting video clips in the streets of El-Salam City on borrowed cameras and with amateur editors and directors who happened to be friends and neighbors. He relied on privately owned websites to disseminate his early songs; YouTube was a game changer that allowed artists to upload and test the popularity of their music firsthand.
This was a common trajectory for dozens of mahraganat singers. The genre’s early production and circulation relied heavily on synthesizers, small-media USB downloads, auto rickshaw (toktok) and microbus battery-powered speakers, digital platforms like SoundCloud and TikTok, and street weddings. Webs of communal and neighborhood relations facilitated artists’ access to cameras, technologies, and potential audiences among the quarters’ drivers and young people. It is not a wide stretch to consider mahraganat’s early production as a form of phatic labor, a concept Julia Elyachar coined to describe the gendered work practiced by low-income women in Cairo, through which they mobilized their social ties to negotiate economic and semiotic values and meanings. Through mahraganat, young male artists from Cairo’s poorer districts exploited their marginal means of transportation, their communal connections, and their cheap means of music making and sharing to create and circulate their songs within and beyond their locales.
For the first time poor young men—who seldom have access to music education—owned the means of music production on a massive scale and had access to distribution networks outside or at the margin of the state’s infrastructure. Armed with YouTube viewership, internet virality, and TikTok trends, mahraganat singers and artists were able to challenge the state’s ultimate authority over who can be considered an artist and what constitutes art. Dreams of fame, stardom, and upward social mobility were imaginable through routes that bypass the state as an infrastructure necessary for cultural production.
Shouting out identities
Mahraganat lyrics also perform this backgrounding of the state. Artists overlook or sideline “the national” as a constituent of their identities, instead foregrounding a neighborhood-based form of belonging. Mahraganat songs are self- and group narration, imaginaries that are audible in the lyrics and visible through its aesthetics.
The songs’ polyphonic and polythematic style reflects the themes of crime, fights, interneighborhood rivalries, youthfulness, poverty, social mobility, love, drugs, the evil eye, and friends’ betrayal. They boast about individual and group exploits. Each mahraganat singer repeats signature phrases and expressions in all his songs, usually related to who they are, where they are from, and what they do. All artists give shout-outs to their hometowns and to those who contributed to a song’s production. In singing about their lived experiences and in calling out places and individuals with which or whom they identify, mahraganat artists engage in the cultivation and negotiation of personal and collective subjectivities.
Artists often use phrases that describe their local quarters as states in their own right: “Imbaba Dawla” (Imbaba is a state), “El-Salam is a state,” “Ein Shams is a state,” “We are a state within a state.” Mahraganat singers employ “the state” in their lyrics not to invoke any national frame, but as a metaphorical device for authority. Thus an individual, a group, or a neighborhood could all be described as states in these songs merely to show strength and authority.
The focus on the neighborhood does not mechanically produce a locality. The deviation from “the national” in mahraganat music is more dialectical and takes disparate forms. Throughout the past decade, these artists and cultural producers have been discursively and semiotically involved in a process of articulating and negotiating complex multiscalar identities that continually loop in other scales. Most notable among these spatial scales are the North African, the global, the regional, and the African. More geographically inventive and temporally challenging scales include the subterranean and even the extraterrestrial.
Local mission to Mars
3enba’s musical repertoire, which exceeds 30 songs on YouTube spanning from mid-2018 to today, constitutes a deliberate cultivation of one of these complex multiscalar identities. The repetitive elements in his songs include calling his own name at the beginning and end of every song; paying tributes to his hometown El-Salam City, where he filmed most of his early songs; shout-outs to Cairo; and the phrasesʾidī gāmid (shoot hard) or ṣayād 3halāfīt (hunter of the losers).
Close listening to 3enba’s lyrics and attending to his futuristic aesthetics reveal how this 25-year-old artist belongs both to El-Salam City and Mars. In his 2018 duet “Kaʿbūl,” the Arabic name of the comic Cubitus, he opens his segment singing, “Hello everybody, 3enba is talking bi3ʾagnabī [in English/in a foreign language].” He then continues in Egyptian Arabic, “Māhu ʾaṣl 3kawkab kawkabī” (for the planet is my planet).
In mid-2020, 3enba released “Hunā 3qāhira” (This is Cairo), a sneak diss aimed at an Alexandria-based rapper. In this track, he glorifies Cairo, despises Alexandria, salutes his home neighborhood El-Salam, and declares his control over the whole planet. Mars is first invoked in a COVID-related song called “ṭayārāt” (which could read both planes and kites), which premiered on YouTube in mid-2020. The song refers to the flying of kites, a hobby many Cairines adopted during the lockdown. In the video, 3enba stands in front of Cairo’s iconic red brick buildings, describing himself as a person who belongs to El-Salam City and is flying over Mars. From this point on, his music emphasizes this local-Martian identity: “Only the strong live on Mars,” he says in one song; “I am 3ennab of Mars,” he sings in another.
Cairenes often express a sense of impossibility or impending doom regarding their city—a topic tackled futuristically in one of 3enab’s video clips. In his song “Madinet ElMosta2bal” (Future City), released in March 2021, he toys inventively with the configurations of time and space. Dressed in a button-down shirt, similar to the lobby boy’s garb in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and with a bright red line painted down his throat, 3enba walks toward the camera and away from a fantastical scene in which the pyramids appear in the background. “All that is coming is mine… I am coming to you from the future,” he sings. In the next couplet he expresses a sense of being trapped in a city that resembles Cairo: a city of “buildings and fences” where “the sound of the siren is chasing” its inhabitants “night and day.” While voicing grievances about living in Cairo is common, this fleeing to the future and establishing authority there makes this song stand out.
An all-out manifestation of the local-Martian identity occurs in “Dawla” (State). The video opens with an NBC news segment discussing NASA’s release of an audio recording of wind blowing on Mars. We then see a vintage bus with 3enba’s logo on it running over unpaved terrain that could easily be an extraterrestrial landscape or an unpaved road in a low-income neighborhood in Egypt. The song’s title refers to 3enba, who declares himself a state. Wearing an astronaut suit, he tells listeners and viewers how he planted a tree on Mars as his source of oxygen. People in the clip appear carrying different flags, some of them emblazoned with 3enba’s name and others announcing that losers may not enter—bravura and swagger mixing with the claim to personal power and autonomy over the self.
The artist complements this interweaving of various spatiotemporal scales in his lyrics and visuals through Instagram posts, stories, and reels that accentuate the homegrown Martian persona. When entrepreneur Elon Musk announced his plan to “colonize” Mars, 3enba shared the news on Instagram with the comment, “I did it first.” My ongoing ethnographic research will investigate the kind of practices, lived realities, and ambitions that stimulate and inspire this imaginary.
Daring to dream
The fact that mahraganat is akin to an informal economy is not lost on the state. For a long time, state-affiliated entities such as the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Culture, and the Musicians’ Syndicate and other foundations controlled what Egyptians watched and listened to. Even after the spread of satellite channels and streaming services, the Egyptian state continues to hold the power of censorship over national cultural production, particularly after the military restoration of power in 2013. The Musicians’ Syndicate attacks mahraganat music under the banners of defending Egyptian art, protecting public taste, and demanding rights to tax artists’ monetary gains. In this cultural war, artists are denied license to any public performance and their songs are banned from radio and television channels. Many singers affiliated with the syndicate and “serious” music critics and journalists often lament the situation in which uneducated, unrefined, urban superstars enjoy artistic and economic renown without the conventional credentials.
Ethnomusicologists and anthropologists of cultural production have shown how the nation-state has persistently occupied the imagination of cultural producers in Egypt. Ethnomusicologist Virginia Danielson analyzed how the voice of the famous Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum became equated with Egyptianness and Arabness during the 1950s and 60s. Lila Abu-Lughod identified Egyptian television as a salient institution in nationcraft. And Jessica Winegar’s examination of cultural politics in the Egyptian art world showed how elite artists and critics engaged nationalist themes in their works.
Even when it comes to the cultural production of the poor, we can see in the work of Walter Armbrust how the most famous sha’bi singer in the 1980s, Ahmed Adawiya, invoked localities in order to claim the low-income classes’ relevance to the modern nation. Listening to Adawiya’s songs again, especially “Bint-3Sultān,” it is easy to notice his emphasis on harmony among different provinces and locales. Mahraganat songs disrupt and transgress this notion of social harmony among geographically and socially disparate Egyptians: artists pronounce their local identities in part by expressing animosity toward other quarters and provinces.
In the massive popularity of Islamic cassette sermons among low-income Cairenes in the 1990s, Charles Hirschkind saw the formation of an Islamic counterpublic in the face of the Egyptian nationalist project. Mahraganat is the first form of popular cultural production as entertainment that explicitly challenges the state’s symbolic authority and implicitly undermines its nationalist enterprise.
The emerging imaginaries of mahraganat music in Egypt, deeply connected to social infrastructures and political economies among its low-income practitioners and listeners, pose important questions about ordinary Egyptians’ aspirations and the Egyptian state’s authority over arts and culture more generally. In his analysis of romantic nationalism in postcolonial India, Dipesh Chakrabarty emphasized that the category of “the imagination” is plural and heterogeneous and manifests itself differently in postcolonial contexts. In Egypt’s mahraganat, shifts in postrevolutionary imaginaries unfold in complicated ways, one of which blends the local with the extraterrestrial.
Amir Rizk is an Alexandria-based Egyptian visual artist. His work traverses public digital graphics, applied product visuals, pattern design, illustrations, and comics as well as symbolic spiritual painting. Through these disparate media, he explores the tensions and dialogues between ancient cultural and religious arts and the emerging short-lived visuals of our mobile-phone oriented life.