Yousef Srour prefers thoughtful album artwork without emojis and uncensored album premieres preferably under two hours in run time.
Egypt has always been a culture shock to me. To a small 9-year-old wandering the streets, it seemed desolate. Cairo is one of the most heavily populated cities in the world, but I didn’t need statistics to back that fact up. I would look outside from my dad’s old apartment and see for myself. The air-conditioner would steadily hum in the back and cars would be honking as if their lives depended on it (honking is the Egyptian way of saying, “I’m on my last Marlboro cigarette, and if your car goes any slower, I might just ash it on you”).
The sidewalks are rubble, the sun is blistering, and the air is densely humid. It’s semi-dystopian. A place that has been overly-commercialized by Coca-Cola and Happy Vision billboards. Street vendors and ahawys (Egyptian coffee shops) flood the streets with men and women of all ages, smoking hookah, watching soccer games, and eating falafel and shawarma off of the spit. Islamic tradition is interwoven into the culture — not a spliff in sight, but the smell of sweat and cigarettes lingering in the air. Drinking is done behind closed doors; weed and hashish are spoken about in hushed tones, and five times a day, you’re bound to hear an imam recite the call to prayer from the nearest mosque (which surely isn’t too far away). With that being said, the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 changed everything.
The country overthrew its dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and sentenced him to life in prison by June 2012. Power shifted to Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and to Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in 2014. Conservative voters were appeased by the country’s new leadership, while revolutionaries were left yearning for something greater. Thousands of protestors went missing, thousands unlawfully detained, and no real political change ever transpired. You can’t even vocalize your distaste for the lack of democracy because censorship has become a standing pillar of the new government. My own dad got his Twitter account suspended for being too radical. Egyptians only talk about the new regime in the sanctity of their own homes — God forbid you’re in a taxi and talk shit about El-Sisi — been there, done that. In the same way that rural America craves “freedom,” the old generation of Egypt craves authoritarianism. Trump even called El-Sisi “his favorite dictator,” so I’m sure you can imagine how any moderately-educated Egyptian feels about him.
After the Egyptian Revolution, there was a thirst for something – anything to bring the country’s people together. Politics dismantled some families and friendships, as the Ikhwan reached for political power and reflected a small portion of the country’s desire for an Islamic state. Egypt needed something for the mainstream — something for shits and giggles that would let its people rebuild in peace. Mahraganat, or Egyptian electronic dance music, took that role. The trance-like electronic beats could make you club for hours on end, almost as if the song never even changed. But where there’s culture, there’s counterculture. Trap music in Egypt has been the counterculture; the music of the slums to spite new neighborhoods like “Beverly Hills” (the new district in Cairo, not the posh city in L.A.) and 6th of October.
The Egyptian trap scene feels like it emerged from thin air. When I went to Egypt in 2019, there were whispers of Marwan Moussa and Wegz but people spoke of them with restraint — almost as if they were in the process of applying pressure to a piece of charcoal, still unsure about whether or not it would amount to anything. The 20-somethings of Egypt were holding onto the underground as if it was the hashish that they would hide in their cramped apartments. At the time, hip-hop was slowly but surely interweaving itself into contemporary Middle Eastern culture. Mohamed Ramadan is now a celebrity in Egypt. The equivalent of a young Amr Diab, his most popular music videos on YouTube have amassed over 200 million views each, flipping mahraganat into catchy nightclub anthems for resorts to play on repeat in El Gouna and Hurghada.
But the culture is constantly shifting. The Egyptian government has banned mahraganat, and with that, they have banned artists like Mohamed Ramadan from their places in the Egyptian Union of Musicians as of 2020. As a result, trap music has had the opportunity to flourish in silence. Small shows are still happening all over Cairo and Alexandria, spilling into abandoned parking garages and makeshift stages in plazas. But as trap grows more popular in the country, so does the cult-following of these rappers. These are the five Egyptian rappers who need to be on your radar.
Abyusif makes music for the moshpits. His tone is heavier, his voice is deeper and more rigid, complete with a deadpan humor that resembles Vin Diesel in Fast and The Furious — especially because of his build and shaved head (Fun fact: this look is common in Egypt because all men with at least one brother must serve anywhere between 1-3 years in the military). The production is brooding and Abyusif compliments it with a slowed-down flow that’s both drowsy and drowned-out by Three 6 Mafia-style beats. Songs like “Tgely Sob7” and “7Rb” play out like horror movie scenes, where Abyusif traverses through haunted fairgrounds, with neon lights illuminating his surroundings as bells ring from the carnival games in Dream Park (or Five Nights at Freddy’s, if you’re not familiar).
Beginning his career in 2012, Abyusif has been a forerunner of Egyptian trap. His beats have always been manic and cacophonous, but recently in the past few years, Abyusif has incorporated more autotuned and sung-rap pieces into his discography with 7abek Bors and his Wa7ed Wa7ed EP. After all, he’s an OG and is credited for being a major influence within the emerging scene. He even elevated Abo El Anwar’s career with their frenzied, club-anthem, “Basha E3temed” back in 2019.
Abo El Anwar
An early favorite of mine, Abo El Anwar has the funniest pen of the bunch. He raps about the seemingly mundane and incorporates random asides into his songs, adding a twisted curvature to his flow. In true Egyptian fashion, Abo El Anwar stories are nonlinear – halfway through a song, he might start rapping about a girl that he once flirted with, messing with online haters, or the possibility of taking a cyanide pill had he been in the last World War. He murmurs about getting money with nonchalance, but when he starts rapping, his Arabic gets faster and he flips the language with the mastery of a metal bender. Each of his words bend and form a new link in the chain; his rhyme schemes switch from traditional couplets to rhyming nearly every single word together as if it was as simple as connecting the dots.
When “Scoo Scoo” made its way onto the Season 2 soundtrack of Ramy, the entire trap scene got the exposure it needed to garner a worldwide following. When you look at the video’s YouTube comments, almost every other comment says, “Ramy brought me.” His music is proof that Egyptian trap can be surprisingly accessible to American audiences, blending mahraganat with a drum kit that sounds like it came from Oakland, CA. He has the presence of a stand-up comedian and Lil Baba’s beats are perfect for any occasion – a dusty, underground venue for shows or a house party to blow your speakers out.
Wegz’s voice is the quiet whisper of death. He floats over the microphone when he sings; it sounds like how I imagine a field recording of “Liberty Leading the People” would animate itself. With synths arpeggiating, the Egyptian flag metaphorically waves in Wegz’s hands. He stands above the rubble, reaching falsettos as he fights to be the voice of the young people of Egypt. Just like the painting, Wegz is fatalistic. In songs like “دايره علي المصلحه,” Wegz is desolate and despairing as he longs for reciprocation, whether that be in the form of help in his day-to-day life or even a phone call from a lover. But that’s not to say that his music doesn’t become the anthem of revolution. There’s an aggression in him, so much so that PUBG MOBILE collaborated with him for the song “Hattack Battatack.” His voice is commandeering, articulating every single word to make sure that you’re still paying attention as he draws the blueprint for the future of Egypt.
His breakout hit from 2018, TNT, flipped Egypt on its head as he proclaimed his presence in Egyptian trap. He declares himself “the music of the Middle East,” he flaunts the women that have told him, “Wegz, you are something to die for,” proving that he’s “flipped Egypt on its head.” In the video, Wegz dances and celebrates along with his friends, yelling to the rooftops, “You’re not listening!” If you heard him, you would know that he’s claimed the crown of Egypt, ushering in an era of retribution for the people of his country.
Dubbed “Egypt’s Godfather of Trap” by VICE News in 2019, Marwan Pablo has become one of the biggest names in Egyptian hip-hop, and for good reason. While the majority of Egypt’s rappers come out of the highly-collaborative environment in Cairo, Pablo hails from the coastal city of Alexandria. The city itself is more laidback compared to Egypt (that’s what locals call Cairo) – think of Santa Barbara versus DTLA. Marwan Pablo’s music reflects this with its more experimental qualities, mixing cloud rap with trap on songs like “Free,” utilizing ethereal soundscapes and foreboding electronica to make some of the best-produced records to come out of modern Egypt. One-part Metro Boomin, another-part Daft Punk on the score of Tron: Legacy, Pablo’s beats pulsate with life.
He blends Arabic with English, rapping in cursive just like how the Arabic language is written. His lyrics are simple, but they carry a bite as if each one of his lines keeps him up, tossing and turning at night. On “El Hob Fein” from his latest EP, CTRL, he sounds detached, unsure how to feel about his life changing before his eyes. The project comes after a short-lived retirement.
From February 2020 to March 2021, Pablo stepped away from rap, allegedly to spend time repenting to God for his sins. Fans speculate that depression and burnout began to set in as his fanbase began to grow, and along with that, people’s expectations of him grew as well. In his VICE documentary, he explains how Egyptians just want music that can be played in Tuk Tuks and that being a rapper (or any artist, for that matter) in Egypt doesn’t bring in any money. It’s a gruelling process to find footing within Egypt’s pop culture without the approval of older generations, but Marwan Pablo doesn’t seem to care. He hasn’t missed since he’s been back, sounding laser-focused as he raps over his own dubstep-infused instrumentals.
If Travis Scott were to collaborate with any artist in Egypt, it would hands-down be Marwan Moussa. He has the biggest potential for a hit song, with a casual demeanor and languid beats. His music reminds me of sitting on the couch at a house party, hazily watching the strobe lights fade in and out as muffled music blasts from the speakers outside. Marwan raps with ease – a cool, calm and collected tone that nudges him into the “rap popstar” lifestyle. That being said, Marwan Moussa centers a fair amount of his taste around designer brands and sports cars, speaking about the life of luxury that exists within Egypt.
There’s no middle-class in the country, so you’re either wealthy or impoverished with little to no in-between. Rarely do we hear from the upper-class youth of Egypt. Marwan recounts stories of partying at the Sheraton, dripped down in Fendi and Valentino, and even interpolating Travis Scott’s verse from “The London” on his song “Sheraton.” He presents a side of Egyptian life that’s rarely captured – the people who have a little bit of cash and can afford to produce expensive music videos like “Sheraton” and “Tesla.” His use of sung-rap allows him to form pieces that can be played at clubs and parties, granting a level of accessibility that can hone in some of the Amr Diab fans who just aren’t ready for quote-unquote hip-hop yet.