Pass the Mic: On Yasmine El Rashidi’s “Laughter in the Dark” and Egyptian Festival Rap
By Peter HolslinNovember 19, 2023
Laughter in the Dark: Egypt to the Tune of Change by Yasmine El Rashidi
Mahraganat (which means “festivals” in Arabic) is made primarily by self-taught young men from lower-class backgrounds, whose songs are considered brash, even vulgar, because they rap and sing openly about their lives with seldom a trace of modesty. Egypt’s canonical singers and composers from the 20th century, particularly Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez, and Mohammed Abdel Wahab, possessed a virtuosic command of improvisational technique and classical repertoire. By comparison, mahraganat artists appeal first and foremost to friends from the block, weaving a unique lexicon of Arabic slang, boasts, insults, drug references, and sexual innuendo. The artists use Auto-Tune not only to add distortive, festive color to their rugged street anthems, but also for its manufacturer-intended purpose: to keep their voices in tune.
In a country that has struggled for years under economic hardship and authoritarian rule, there’s an obvious allure to mahraganat’s in-your-face approach. “These singers have commanded my attention, even envy at first, precisely for their lack of inhibition—for their fierce assertion of independent, nonconformist identities,” writes Egyptian journalist and author Yasmine El Rashidi in her fascinating and slightly frustrating new book, Laughter in the Dark: Egypt to the Tune of Change (Columbia Global Reports). In an essayistic 111 pages, Rashidi explores some of the ins and outs of Egypt’s rowdy rap scene, which has thrived in the face of intense public backlash and state crackdowns. Veering between wide-eyed optimism and crushing disenchantment, Rashidi reflects on the potential of music to shape society—but also the potential for music to lose its meaning under social and political pressures.
Rashidi grew up in Cairo, Egypt’s sprawling capital of 22 million people. She is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, and she has a gift for writing narratives that balance the personal with the political. In her previous book, 2016’s Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt (Tim Duggan Books), she tells the story of a young woman’s political evolution through three summers over three separate decades. Her spare writing and careful observations lend Chronicle of a Last Summer a quiet power.
Honestly, I wish she brought a little more of that intimate detail to her new book. In recent years, foreign music journalists have flocked to Egypt to learn more about mahraganat; I’m one of them. I read Laughter in the Dark with keen interest, but often found myself chafing at Rashidi’s framework. Looking at Egyptian rap almost exclusively through the lens of politics and class, she overlooks a lot of context that other, more musically minded writers (be they American, European, or from the broader Arab region) have found relevant in previous discussions about mahraganat. For example, she name-checks the government minister who helped bring cyber cafés widely to Egypt in the early 2000s, which in turn made music production software like Mixcraft and FruityLoops accessible to working-class kids. But she doesn’t have anything to say about Ahmed Adaweyah or other musical icons of the 1980s and ’90s, who pioneered the shaabi (meaning “popular,” “of the people,” or lower-class) songs that provided a creative foundation for this new sound. It’s true that the internet propelled mahraganat, but stylistically the music also fits into a rich shaabi tradition, with rhythms, sentiments, and distribution models that it both draws on and deviates from. In focusing on the political and social relevance of mahraganat, Rashidi at times loses sight of the music’s actual artistic merits—the stuff that makes it so vital and popular in the first place. By the end of the book, the sound of mahraganat itself practically gets drowned out.
Rashidi clearly isn’t a rap music insider; she tends to conflate mahraganat and Egyptian trap (two styles that frequently overlap but come from distinct musical contexts). She defines trap at one point as “synthesized, multilayered beats to the backdrop of lyrics,” a vague descriptor that could apply to any form of not only hip-hop but also contemporary pop. She isn’t claiming to be an insider, though, and she nevertheless offers some unique insights into the scene. In one chapter, she dissects the class-based critiques and diss-track dialectics that drive a beef between überpopular hitmaker Wegz and underground rap king Abyusif. At other points, she captures the esoteric delights of youth culture trends, such as the “elaborate and gravity-defying hairstyles” of young Egyptian men who adopt a look they call famous (even those who don’t speak English use the English word). Of course, there’s also the “deep-street new-generation slang” that shows up in songs and daily conversation: “Full sentences are few and far between. Everyone has a nickname, like sawareekh (rocket), gusbara (coriander), and Nigeria.”
While most Egyptian rap and mahraganat songs aren’t explicitly political, Rashidi argues that they become innately so by empowering a marginalized point of view. Some observers recognized this early on, when mahraganat first started booming out of working-class Cairo districts and suburbs like Imbaba and El-Salam City around the time of the 2011 revolution, which ousted longtime president Hosni Mubarak. “These kids know what it feels to burn a police vehicle and how to transport a wounded protester on a stolen bike,” the cartoonist and satirist Andeel once wrote in an essay for the news website Mada Masr. “These kids know there are people in the country who are much richer than them, who don’t like them and think they are disgusting. They respond with insanely annoying music.”
Writing a decade later, Rashidi echoes some of Andeel’s points, but approaches these young artists and their fans with a deeper level of sympathy. Even though many of today’s top rappers were too young to participate in the 2011 revolution, Rashidi argues that their music still carries a spark of that revolutionary spirit. Sixty percent of Egypt’s population (totaling 65 million people) is under the age of 29, she notes, giving Egyptian youth a powerful strength in numbers. In a rosy sentiment, Rashidi calls these youths (including mahraganat’s millions of listeners) “the future of the country—the ones who will essentially define what Egypt comes to be.” But her outlook darkens in the book’s final chapter, as she describes the economic hopelessness and political repression that has lately helped drive groups of frustrated young men into the streets, where they crank up the music, chuck bottles against walls, and partake in other acts of petty hooliganism. “I’m twenty-two, and there is no future, so let me do what I want today,” one man tells her. “I throw bottles because it feels good.”
What is to blame for these nihilistic scenes? Government authorities would of course point the finger at mahraganat. In the landmark 2022 book Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt (Stanford University Press), historian Andrew Simon writes that Egypt’s modern leaders have worked since the Nasser era of the 1960s to wield control over cultural output like radio broadcasts and music recordings as part of a broader mission to develop national values and make model citizens. In the ’70s, though, the Gulf oil boom and President Anwar Sadat’s embrace of American-style free-market economics helped bring about the proliferation of cheap, easy-to-duplicate cassette tapes, a trend that continued over the coming decades. The rise of the cassette tape created a paradigm shift in audio production and distribution, loosening the government’s grip on censorship and public expression. In response, cultural gatekeepers fought in vain to contain the chaos, in part by dishing out heightened rhetoric in media reports, newspaper cartoons, and op-eds about so-called “imposter artists” and “unqualified producers,” who filled Egypt with “vulgar” sounds that threatened the country’s moral fiber.
Now, under the leadership of current president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, an Egyptian military general who came to power in a 2013 coup, this fight against uncontrolled free expression has ramped up to new heights. Rashidi writes that the Mubarak-era “political red lines,” which once clearly delineated which topics and power brokers were above public scrutiny, have “morphed, expanding beyond political discourse to include anything from lurid lyrics in a song, to social media posts that are deemed ‘morally offensive.’” In a system resembling the Stasi secret police of East Germany, citizen do-gooders are encouraged to report on other citizens. This process has brought down artists, social media influencers, and activists, as well as prominent non-Egyptians—namely Houston rapper Travis Scott, who was forced to cancel a performance at the pyramids of Giza this summer over social media–fueled conspiracies that his live shows featured Satanic practices and other “peculiar rituals.” In a public statement, Egypt’s Musicians Syndicate—a powerful, state-backed organization that regulates artists and live performances in the country—awakened old fears about “contradicting our authentic societal values and traditions” to explain why it pulled Scott’s performance license.
Rashidi makes clear that she feels Egypt’s rap stars aren’t all saints. She is particularly unimpressed with Mohamed Ramadan, whose mind-numbing songs and glitzy videos are stripped of all meaning: “One of his latest songs is called ‘Dawsha,’ or ‘Noise,’ and the music video is simply that.” But she makes the wise argument that Egypt’s rap music is far from being a source of moral decay. For one, it has been an economic boon for many artists who have gotten rich off their music. More critically, it’s a source of energy and pride for artists and fans.
Writing about Marwan Pablo’s hypnotizing trap anthem “Sindbad,” she compares the MC to New York rap icon Jay-Z—“but in the case of Pablo and Egypt, Blackness was replaced by class.” The track made a monumental impact when it dropped in 2019. In a drastic shift away from the kooky beats and playful dance trends of a year or two earlier, it finds producer Molotof slowing things down with chest-caving bass and vaporous electronics, while Pablo adopts the laid-back rhyme schemes of Atlanta rappers Future and 21 Savage to weave a deceptively complex narrative of hustle and ambition. “Alhamdullilah” (thank God), he says at one point, stylishly tossing off an everyday religious invocation to punctuate a verse about money, alcohol, and avoiding arrest—a perfect slice of Arabic poetry, summing up a lifetime of contradictions in a few brief lines. “The government’s repressive security apparatus had always persecuted young, poor men, framing them, using them as scapegoats,” Rashidi writes. “Sindbad” shows Pablo “rising above the circumstances that plagued young men like himself, to buy himself freedom.”
In Media of the Masses, some of Simon’s scholarly analysis paints an almost farcical picture as he describes futile government efforts to stem the spread of pirated cassettes and independent labels. Sadly, in Laughter in the Dark, the artists don’t get the last laugh. In 2020, the Musicians Syndicate issued a blanket ban on mahraganat performances after Hassan Shakosh and Omar Kamal—relative newcomers on the scene—scandalized then–Musicians Syndicate head Hany Shaker when they performed their megahit “Bent El Giran” at a sold-out Valentine’s Day concert. The song features a provocative lyric about “drinking alcohol and smoking hashish” to cope with romantic rejection. According to Rashidi, the duo ignored Shaker’s request to change the line for the blockbuster show, which was held at the 75,000-capacity Cairo Stadium.
Since that infamous concert, multiple kinds of bans, fines, and other forms of state regulation have been levied against mahraganat MCs, producers, and other hip-hop artists. Rashidi chronicles the brutal crackdown in the final two chapters of Laughter in the Dark, describing how national stars have been knocked off their pedestals by the Musicians Syndicate. Some artists have been chased into exile because of their political lyrics, while others have abandoned mahraganat’s populist roots in favor of song lyrics and social media posts that glorify money and fame.
American hip-hop went through its own transition from boom bap and gangsta rap to the glossier “jiggy era” of the late 1990s. Even under less dire circumstances, many popular music styles evolve beyond their founding principles. But in the case of a young rapper named 3enaabb, Rashidi suggests through careful reporting that his transformation from a “thoughtful, reflective” neighborhood MC into a sharply dressed social media hypebeast came not just because of his growing success, but also as a result of state-backed efforts to control and co-opt him as he worked to gain the approval of the Syndicate.
Laughter in the Dark appears to be the first English-language, book-length take on mahraganat, and Rashidi’s thoughtful analysis and sharp insights make it a memorable one. But I hope it’s not the last, since there are many more stories to be told, and much more to be said about mahraganat, especially regarding the actual musical content that makes the music and the broader Egyptian rap scene so thrilling. There are a lot of ways you could tackle a topic as big as this one, but I would argue that this is a rare case in which an oral history would be both the most radical approach and the most appropriate format. Everyone from government censors to public intellectuals to white foreign journalists like me have taken up space speaking on mahraganat’s behalf. Now it’s time to hand the mic back to these MCs and beatmakers so that they can tell their own story, in their own words, with all the slang, nicknames, boasts, and vulgarities that entails.
Peter Holslin is a freelance journalist, music writer, and musician originally from San Diego, California.
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