While the 2011 revolution cannot be solely credited for creating an alternative music scene in Egypt, the ensuing political turmoil did trigger an outpouring of creativity. Music festivals from SOS to the Cairo Jazz Festival, and smaller independent music labels such as 100Copies, had been sowing the seeds of an alternative home-grown alt-music scene since the late 1990s, but the protests that began on the streets on January 25 undoubtedly gave musicians a spur to self-expression.
Many have given up their instruments in the six years since the first protests, as the optimism of the younger generation fades, but those still producing and performing have found new ways to make music.
In spite of a failing economy, a crackdown on freedom of speech and very limited music venues, a few handfuls of budding “rock stars” have continued to rise over the past six years. In the case of Cairo, the notable talent includes a rising shaabi star in the form of Islam Chipsy, electronic composers like Zuli or Maurice Louca, rappers such as Abyusif, nascent poppers Sharmoofers, and Arabic alt-rockers that range in style from Maryam Saleh’s neo-folk to Aya Metwalli and PanStarrs.
Despite the economic challenges and an ever more limited access to music, these musicians have somehow managed to garner thousands of fans, to play gigs and to continue to progress their music, by and large through sheer talent, but also through their savvy use of social and multimedia.
Many have faded but whether it is a conscious effort in self-promotion, the sheer volume of music being released online or just the natural millennial impulse, a few local artists have managed to turn their natural talent into an ever-growing fan base, even if that audience is largely on the internet.
With the internet now permeating most homes in Egypt, music fans have never had more access to their favourite sounds. And while there has always been an emphasis on live shows and, later, music videos on the Egyptian music scene, the internet allows artists to fulfill this need too.
While the number of gigs played in the traditional sense can rise or fall, depending on the number of venues or festivals held within any given year, the digital sphere has helped many artists to connect with a music-hungry audience, despite often lacking a physical space in which to perform.
There are too many musicians active online to list here; however, it’s interesting to take a look at some who are leaders or innovators in their genre to better understand how these artists continue to connect with their audience against long odds.
In 2013, an anonymous band was born online called Sharmoofers. With nothing more than a cartoon logo and an air of mystery, Sharmoofers launched with a catchy, reggae-infused, Arabic pop-rock song and music video called Khamsa Santy. The track not only "broke the internet" with more than four million views, but it quickly received air-time on the radio even though the band had yet to perform live.
Their story inspired Egyptian writer, Ahmed Naji to write an article entitled, “How to become an independent musician”, in 2015, where he pointed to the teasing tactics used by Sharmoofers to develop an audience:
“They launched their songs online accompanied by a drawn icon. They never showed their faces. Then they wrote a note to inform their audience that they wouldn’t hold their first concert until they had 10,000 fans on their page.”
In just a few years, the duo behind Sharmoofers have rapidly achieved success as defined by well-paid gigs and videos that have millions of views online, with a purely pop sound. Although the music lacks depth and complexity, there is something to be said for new pop bands that break the mainstream mould of their ‘habibi’ predecessors, be it Amr Diab or Tamer Hosny. Sharmoofers prove that it’s possible to transcend underground beginnings and make it to the mainstream without completely selling out.
Digging deeper into the alternative music landscape in Egypt, the genres of rock, folktronica and the multitude of deviations that fit somewhere in between, offer sounds that are original, progressive and widely received in the digital sphere. Take for example singer/songerwriters such as Nadah El Shazly, with her self-contained sound that somehow feels both lyrically folk and futuristic musically.
Over the past few years, alt-rocker Aya Metwalli has garnered a respectable following online, with tens of thousands of followers on SoundCloud. Since 2011, Metwalli leads the list of artists who constantly produce and release new music on SoundCloud, never leaving her audience waiting for too long for new material.
Meanwhile, Youssef Abouzeid from Panstarrs has produced a prolific body of work with almost-endless streaming on his various SoundCloud accounts (Shlomo-Casio, Ritza, Panstarrs, El Manzouma). Employing similar tactics of connecting directly with her fans is singer/songwriter Maryam Saleh, with myriad folk, rap, electronic and trip-hop influences.
Since the release of Saleh's music video and track titled Esla7at (2010) produced by Zeid Hamdan, the multi-talented artist has acquired nearly a million followers on Facebook, with several of her songs garnering 10,000 to hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of concert tickets sold across the region.
Rap has become one of the biggest growing music genres in Egypt since 2000, with performers such as MC Amin, Arabian Knights, and more recently, Zap Tharwat and the MC-cum-producer, Abyusif.
The genre is staple listening among Egyptian youth, despite having been almost squashed by its younger, shaabi cousin known as mahraganat. Both genres are deeply rooted in lyrics that reflect a street, youth-driven vernacular loaded with social commentary about life on the margins.
When Abyusif hit the scene five years ago he brought lyrics that walk the line of being intellectual, yet accessible. Over a year ago, he invited his Facebook followers to post a photo of themselves decorated with his frown-faced logo on the image. Hundreds of young Egyptians have taken up the invitation, interacting directly with Abyusif’s social media feed, which ultimately leads them back to the tracks he posts.
Arguably one of the most successful musicians of his generation, keyboardist Islam Chipsy continues to defy convention with more than 60-bookings in Europe last year alone, and a distribution deal with Sony through the record label 100Copies.
Islam, who is highly visible and engaged with his audience via Facebook, might not appear to release as much new music as his contemporaries but he takes a two-pronged approach to his success.
One the one hand, Islam has pioneered a genre of music he calls “electro-shaabi”, an infectious sound pushed along by speedy, coiling melodies and polyrhythm; it is electronic dance music but with a shaabi edge, which travels well because it has no lyrics.
Back on home turf, Islam continues to produce downtempo, traditional shaabi songs with his peers Hakim and Mahmoud El Lacy, among others, making Islam both a prolific musician and one that is incredibly skilled at presenting groundbreaking, original music that can be recognised in continuing Egyptian musical genealogy.
The global recording industry is dying, and the internet killed it. With the exception of a few prepackaged pop stars such as Justiin Bieber or Taylor Swift, the global millennial youth don’t want to be told what music to like anymore. They want to discover it on their own terms.
With highly accessible distribution channels and streaming platforms such as SoundCloud, Spotify, Dandin, Pandora et al, it has become clear that the artists who push their music out more abundantly across these platforms stand to gain the most.
But there is one vital element that remains critical, regardless of multimedia advancements and unashamed self-promotion: a music that touches people. The artists who have achieved success on this list have all reached people and are just some of the artists performing in Egypt today who have something progressive and unique to offer.
Maha El Nabawi is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.