‘Hip hop is a genre that deals with struggle and oppression,’ says Mohamed El Deeb. ‘It is based on the expression of your own beliefs and perspectives, regardless of the fact that other people may or may not agree with you. This made it difficult for me to write songs under the Mubarak regime(Egyptian president Hosni, who had run the country since 1981 - ed). It was very easy to be arrested for having said the truth. I had to censor a lot of my lyrics and had to avoid words like ‘government’ or ‘president’. Instead I referred to them as ‘big pieces’ or ‘the corrupted’.’ Deeb, as he is known on stage, was among the first to get out onto Tahrir square encouraging and supporting the protests with his music.
French and Arabic
In spite of the risks involved Deeb has always continued to express his thoughts. ‘My songs are about problems of identity, cultural awareness, sexual harassment and social and political oppression. They remind my people of the glorious days in which Egypt was the cradle of culture and arts in the whole of the Middle East.’ How did his interest in this kind of music come about? ‘When I was at school I liked writing poetry. Once my French teacher asked us to write a rap song in French. All my class mates wrote a song but I was the only one who recorded a song on an audio cassette and brought it to class. That was the first time I made something hip hop. I wrote my first rap song in French! I told myself that if I can do it in French, which is not my first language, I can also do it in English.’
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In 2005 he returned to Europe after a childhood mainly spent in the Gulf and he began to dedicate himself to music, first in the group Asfalt and then in the duo Wighit Nazar (meaning 'Point of view'). He sang in Arabic because at that time ‘I talked and thought mainly in Arabic, as I was discovering myself and my culture for the first time.’ His solo career eventually got going in 2010.
Poetry and revolution
Deeb has chosen to make a type of music which is notoriously western and which was barely known in the Arab world before the beginning of the protests. While many young people sang along to his songs on Tahrir square, others learned them there for the very first time. His songs, in particular Masrah Deeb, quickly became a strong symbol of the revolution. ‘Egyptians are becoming more and more aware that hip hop is a genre which deals with the people’s struggle and that supports the idea of freedom of expression,’ comments Deeb. ‘It isn’t just a western creation; hip hop demonstrates the power of poetry, and Arabs love poetry very much. After the revolution many Egyptians got into hip hop because they saw the artists perform in Tahrir Square and they listened to the songs circulated on social media.’
'Hip hop isn't just a western creation'
Deeb goes on to describe one important moment for him during the protests. ‘I remember that after one of my performances on Tahrir Square a boy who was in the crowd came and told me that he had stopped a group of Salafi(followers of the islamic movement 'Salafiyyah' - ed) that wanted to get me off the stage because I was singing and they believed that it was out of place. Yet the people protesting wanted to listen to my songs because it encouraged them to continue and it made them feel united. What I want to say is that you can protest using other means and other languages, you can hold signs and harmonise choirs, but I protest through my songs and poetry. The moment the guy in the crowd stopped the Salafi I accomplished something: the concrete demonstration that liberty and the possibility of expression give us the strength to continue fighting.’
‘I would like to send out the message that Egypt is doing well and Egypt has returned to normality,' explains Deeb. 'The only uncertainty are the future elections. That is the only thing that worries us. New parties are forming. A lot of Egyptians do not trust the large number of islamic parties that are being founded and that did not exist before the revolution. I believe in a civil society, one not founded on religion. The same goes for many liberals and many moderate thinkers. There are other parties as well as the islamic ones, liberal parties for instance. That is why I think that no one party that will monopolise the political scene. Even if the islamic parties gain power, I believe they will follow Turkey’s example. This is what I want the west to know. We are not going to become another South Arabia or Iran. Egypt has a history of moderation – and there are also both christians and muslims living here. I’m very optimistic.’
Image: (cc) deeb/ Facebook group