Sphinx (right) with the rest of the Arabian Knightz crew. (Photo courtesy Arabian Knightz)
The Egyptian revolution is easily one of the most significant uprisings in decades. Millions of workers, students and unemployed took to the streets demanding that the US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak step down; it’s a struggle that continues even now, several months after Mubarak was overthrown.
Like any true revolution, the massive demonstrations and strikes sent a shock wave through the nation’s culture. Left-wing reporters and bloggers gained global attention, revolutionary poems were written and performed often on the fly in Tahrir Square, and countless songs dedicated to the uprising rocketed around the Internet.
Two of these songs, “Rebel,” and “Not Your Prisoner,” came courtesy of the trio Arabian Knightz, widely regarded as the first hip-hop group in Egypt. Both quickly became anthems of the revolution. After being vaulted to a national and international profile, Arabian Knightz are preparing their first international tour, and are releasing their new album Uknighted States of Arabia on 25 January — the one-year anniversary of the protests that sparked the revolution.
One of their members, Hesham Alofoq (aka “Sphinx”) spoke to The Electronic Intifada about the history of hip-hop in Egypt and the Middle East, the future of the Egyptian uprising, and the role that music plays in the revolt.
Alexander Billet: There may be a good amount of our audience who don’t know of Arabian Knightz. Can you tell us how the group came together?
HA: Well, I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but my family’s from Egypt. I went out to Cairo about six years ago for vacation, and when I was out there I met up with Karim and E-Money. I was always an MC, and they said “we do Arabic rap,” and I thought “yeah, right; there’s no such thing as Arabic rap.” So Karim spit a few bars for me and I liked it, and then E-Money came through, and he started rapping and I was like “that’s it, I’m sold! Let’s do something!” We put up a song on MySpace, and we got 30-40,000 views in the first week or something like that! So we thought maybe this can do something; without any promotion, with just word of mouth, our stuff was getting out there and we were getting really good responses. From there, we just said, let’s keep going and see what we can do with this. That was the summer of ‘05.
AB: Hip-hop in the Arab world — in particular Egypt — has a history that people in the West just don’t know about. Could you tell me what you know about the scene out there?
HA: Well, I’ve heard that people were rapping back in the early ’90s and late ’80s, a couple of tapes could get passed around, but there was no real “scene” at that point. Another group came out, maybe in the early 2000s, and they dropped a couple albums. And I don’t want to give names, but they weren’t really hip-hop. They were rapping in the songs, but it wasn’t really rap — it’s hard to explain, you’d have to hear it. People weren’t really feeling it.
So, when we came in, we wanted to take it to the next level. We did the first actual Arabic hip-hop show in Egypt. We rocked the house and people started feeling it, and people started actually believing that rap could happen in Egypt. I didn’t see the scene really start to spread until after we started playing shows and dropping our videos.
AB: Was there a conscious decision for you guys to write political lyrics or did that come more organically?
HA: Well, whenever I was writing in my art or in my poetry, there would always be some political element to it. And whenever I’m talking with somebody, politics always comes up. It’s something that’s always been really dear to us, because seeing everything that’s been going on in the Middle East for so long, you want to speak some truth on it. Maybe you want to debate about it a little bit and let people know what’s going on out there, but politics is always on all of our minds.
AB: Is that one of the things that initially attracted you to hip-hop?
HA: Aw, yeah man. I mean, I was in college when I started getting into Immortal Technique and some of the really dope underground hip-hop — you know, besides all of the old school stuff that paved the way for it like Public Enemy and whatnot. Before I went out to Cairo I was always thinking about American politics. Especially after 11 September 2001, I would do open mics and spoken word, whatever I could do to shed some light on the situation with Islam and Arabic culture.
AB: Do you notice a difference now in the way hip-hop is received in Egypt since the revolution?
HA: Oh yeah! Everybody’s rapping now! Literally! I mean people used to tell us, you’ll never be able to do anything with rap in Egypt, nobody understands hip-hop. Now, just about every university or high school kid, even elementary school kid, is spitting verses in Egypt! You can go on YouTube or on their Facebook accounts and see that they’re spitting their rap, they’re doing something. It’s amazing because I saw it happen from while I was there!
AB: I read an interview with Arabian Knightz from well before Mubarak fell in which you said that “we’re as political as possible without going to prison.” So how did Arabian Knightz survive before the revolution kicked off?
HA: Well you know that song “Not Your Prisoner” is a four-year-old song. We didn’t actually write it during the revolution. Before the revolution it was crazy because the government hated that song! After we recorded it, there would be cops outside our shows saying you can’t perform that song. They warned us, you have to give us your lyrics, you have to let us know everything you’re going to say from the stage, and if you say anything political you’re going to go to jail. So we’d have to give the cops our lyrics before every show we did, and I would take “Not Your Prisoner” and all of our songs and completely change the words. I would just make it as poppy and rainbow-bright as possible and tell the cops, yeah, that’s what we’re rapping about: money and rainbows and stars in the sky and all that bullshit.
Sometimes they’d just leave and sometimes they’d stay and listen, but I guess because we rap too fast or something like that they didn’t catch on most of the time. But still I’d get phone calls about our songs late at night. People would call and say things like, I know what you’re doing, or, if you don’t stop making these songs you’re going to be thrown behind the sun. We’d get email threats and all sorts of crazy shit too.
AB: So it’s pretty fair to say that Mubarak’s regime was pretty repressive toward the hip-hop scene.
HA: Not just hip-hop man, all art. He came out and said, let the artists be artists. You talk about art. Leave the politics to the politicians and just go paint” So it was any kind of art. There are a lot of poets in Egypt that really dig against the government. There are some of them that are still in jail until recently because of their poetry. So it was all forms of art: artists who would paint pictures about Egyptian politics, cartoonists who would go to jail, bloggers that would go to jail, everything. Anyone that went into the realm of politics it was open season on.
AB: Is that why you think “Not Your Prisoner” took on a whole new life after the revolution?
HA: Yeah, because it was always banned! But after the revolution took off we just chose to put it on the Internet. It was released maybe the 1st or 2nd of February, so it was maybe a week before Mubarak stepped down. Everyone knew he was good as gone, though, so we just said, okay, now’s our chance, and just took it.
AB: There are also apparently a lot of folks in Egypt who would go after you for being too “westernized.” How do you respond to that?
HA: You know, we’ve always been about Arab unity and Arab culture or Islamic culture. And yet, because we’re wearing “hip-hop clothing” and because the music we perform is “western music” they say that kind of shit. But what they forget is that there were people in Saudi Arabia fourteen hundred years ago beating on drums and battling each other with poetry even before Islam. That’s hip-hop. Yes, it developed in America before it became hip-hop itself, but it’s international.
I think hip-hop is ultimately music for the oppressed, a place where the voiceless can have a voice. You know, when you watch TV you see Arabs you see a lot of them wearing Dolce and Gabbana or whatever Paris Hilton’s wearing. How is that any less western? All cultures have already started to merge together by now; there’s no single culture anymore in any one place. And I think that’s how it should be, you know? There should be a give-and-take and we should be using culture to learn from each other. That’s what Islam teaches us in the first place.
AB: Is that one of the reasons you guys rap in Arabic as well as English? To reach across cultures?
S: Well yeah; you know, it’s a message, and we want everyone to understand it. We want the Arabs to understand that the west isn’t all that bad — the governments are fucked up, but the people in general are good. And vice versa when we talk to English-speaking people; we want to talk about Islam and Arabic culture and show people that terrorism is not synonymous with either of those to things.
AB: So tell me about the song “Rebel.” This is another one of the songs that Arabian Knightz have become really well-known for outside Egypt. Its lyrics pull heavily on the themes of protest, Arab unity, the corruption in Mubarak’s regime, and really everything that you said could get you arrested. The rumor is that it was written and recorded the night before Egypt’s first big “Day of Rage” just as the revolution was beginning to gain steam.
HA: Not really. I got the beat from a German producer named Iron Curtain eight months before the revolution. And the song was basically the same: I just wanted people to rebel, for there to actually be an Arab revolution with the oppressed Palestinians and Iraqis and Egyptians. And then, the day before they shut the Internet off in Egypt, I said, Rush [another member of Arabian Knightz], throw a verse on there! We’re gonna release it today! I had it ready and wasn’t sure if it would just be a throw-away, but I didn’t mix it or anything. Before that I didn’t even know if I was going to use that beat, but I just sent it to Rush and he put a verse on it and uploaded it to YouTube. Two minutes after it uploaded, the Internet was shut off in Egypt for a week!
AB: Did you have any idea how much attention the song was going to get?
HA: Nah! Like I said, we just wanted to get our voice out there. Maybe someone will hear it, maybe they won’t, but we just wanted it out there. We didn’t expect everyone to be screaming it in Tahrir Square. I mean they were singing the part from Lauryn Hill out there in the street while they were protesting. It was amazing to see and hear that.
AB: You left the country not long before Mubarak fell, though. What made you want to leave?
HA: The reason I had to leave Egypt was because I live in a neighborhood in Cairo that’s surrounded by all the jails. So when the interior minister released all the prisoners and told them to go crush the protests, they had to pass right by my house to get further into the center of Cairo. They’re passing right by my neighborhood and these motherfuckers were given AK-47s, tech nines, any kind of automatic weapon. They were on trucks and motorcycles just shooting at random.
All the ex-military people in our neighborhood still had their guns, though, so they just started shooting back. I was literally watching the Wild West off of my balcony — and I’m on the first floor. I have a little daughter, and so when I saw that they were doing evacuations I just decided we’d evacuate. So I’ve been out here in LA ever since, but I’ll be back there in Egypt soon.
AB: That’s another thing that the US media didn’t really talk about — how all the neighborhoods organized to defend themselves when the government fought back.
HA: Oh yeah. At that point we would just go downstairs with sticks or knives or whatever weapon we had — because not everybody had guns. There were people already out there and we couldn’t just leave them by themselves. You know, seven or eight people with guns going up against all these motherfuckers? So we just set up roadblocks and hid behind them and when they’d come by we’d do everything we could to stop them. It was nuts, though man, I can still see it so freshly right now. And I’m from LA.
AB: That leads me into my next topic. Mubarak’s gone, but the protests haven’t stopped. According to the western media it’s chaos, but in reality it’s just that the revolution is continuing.
HA: You’ve got to keep reminding the government that the people are still here. It’s completely obvious that the so-called Salafists that Mubarak warned us about are just out there because of him. Some people say that the fundamentalists or Salafists are going to take over and we’ll be just like Iran. But no, the people don’t want to live in Iran; they’re going to vote for who they want to vote for.
AB: What do you think needs to happen for the people’s side to win?
HA: Well, I already know that there’s no such thing as a perfect government — absolute power corrupts absolutely. But we’ve got to be organized. We’ve got to start somewhere. There are still people in Egypt who are going hungry and we need a way to get those people food. We need to fix everything that needs fixing in Egypt — period.
AB: Are you encouraged by the strikes that are continuing since Mubarak left power?
HA: Oh yeah. Because so many people are saying, well, Mubarak’s out so let’s just get back to normal life. No. Normal life has to start once the things we’ve requested have been implemented. You know, people died in this revolution, we can’t just forget about that.
AB: That brings me back to the music. I hear a lot of different themes that keep coming back in your music — Arab unity, radical and responsive democracy, redistribution of wealth, an end to US meddling in Egypt. Do you think these can ultimately be won? And what do you think the role of music is in fighting for these things?
HA: Well, everyone listens to music first of all. It’s a voice for us. It’s a way to reflect what’s happening in the streets back to the masses. You know, for us as Arabian Knightz, we have a lot to say and we want to put it out there. And luckily, a lot of people are agreeing with us nowadays. I think our music has helped encourage people to keep going — I mean, people were out in Tahrir Square singing our songs.
We used to get made fun of because our songs are so political. People used to say to us, you guys really think a revolution is going to happen in the Middle East? You guys are crazy. But we believed in it, we kept talking about it. And now, well, it’s funny how turned out.
AB: Tell me if you’ve heard of this: Al Jazeera recently reported on a program being initiated by the US State Department to recruit hip-hop acts as “cultural diplomats” to the Arab world. In the article, certain officials are quoted as saying this is a direct attempt to gain greater support for American policy.
HA: Whether the US is using hip hop as a tool for “diplomacy” or not doesn’t change the fact that hip-hop was already growing in the region. They might have just realized that and tried to infiltrate it for their own gains as they always do, but hip hop in Arabia is still pure and for the people by the people. So on the contrary, we’re using hip hop to re-educate the youth as a push to get them to question their surroundings, and a realization that they do have a voice.
AB: It’s interesting to me that Arab hip-hop has been around for so long but it’s taken a revolution for it to start getting more attention in the West.
HA: Well, if you look at even the most oppressed countries like Palestine — Palestinian hip-hop has been around since the early ’90s. You know, we work with the group DAM and they’ve been doing their thing for a while. And they’re out partners; they’re part of Arab League Records like we are, which also has artists from all around the Middle East as well as Arab rappers in the West holding it down.
So all this reflects that hip-hop in the Arab world has been around for a long time, it’s just now that the revolutions have taken place and people are fighting back, now it’s getting attention. It was already progressing and getting bigger and better regionally, but the fact that it’s getting the attention it is now — I’ll definitely blame that on the revolution.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and socialist based in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a columnist for SOCIARTS and has appeared in Z Magazine, SocialistWorker.org, New Politics and TheNation.com. He can be contacted at rebelfrequencies AT gmail DOT com.
Arabian Knightz’ website is http://www.myspace.com/arabianknightz.