Nahlah Ayed: Rappin' about a revolution in Egypt

The three members of Egypt's Arabian Knightz rap group say their music began as a revolt against treacly love songs. But as Nahlah Ayed reports, their hip-hop songs have now become anthems for the anti-Islamist revolution as well.

Arabian Knightz say their music not just hip hop, but a movement

The Arabian Knightz, from left, Karim Eissa, Hisham Abed, Ehab Abdel. The sound of revolution? (Nahlah Ayed / CBC)

What does it take to build an effective opposition in a country that has undergone a revolution?

Since the removal of longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak and the election last year of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, Egyptians have been in the chaotic throes of finding out.

For months now, outrage has been growing over a lack of progress under the current government, rising police brutality and a tanking economy.

Along the way, alongside the almost daily protests, coupled with the actions of political parties, human rights organizations, online activists and even street fighters, an anti-government, anti-Islamist movement is beginning to take shape.

But one group of youth can lay claim to crafting a unique, post-revolution sound that speaks emphatically for the outraged and disappointed.

Members of the rap group Arabian Knightz say what they produce is "not just hip hop, it's a movement."

The group — one of the most popular hip-hop acts in the Middle East — already has solid revolutionary credentials.

But two years after the uprising, and just back from a tour in Denmark, Arabian Knightz is now defining what "post-revolution" sounds like.

An angry beat

One of their latest tracks, Ehna al hokooma, or, "We are the government" is a musical "coup" that tackles Egypt's dire security situation head on.

"A hero was killed at the hands of dogs/the government now has fangs/the second uprising is at the door," chants 32-year-old KarimEissa, aka Rush, in Arabic, before holding up an imaginary machine gun and unleashing a pretend barrage followed by the chorus:

"Starting today, there is no government. Starting today, we are the government."

The other members spit out their own solos.

Hisham Abed, aka Sphinx, opens the piece in flawless American West Coast English. EhabAdel, known as E Money, later follows with a pulse-raising Arabic stream that includes a line about refusing to accept "half our freedom."

Even without the punchy lyrics, the beat alone reflects the mood among many of Egypt's revolutionaries, even now, more than two years after it all started.

"It's an angry beat," Eissa says in an interview at a Cairo studio.

Abed agreed. "It just smacks you in the face. It makes me want to go and do something, you know?"

No more love songs

The group came into being after Abed, born and raised in Los Angeles, decided to move back to Egypt in 2005. The self-described hip-hop head hooked up first with Eissa, then Adel, and through them discovered there was such a thing as Arabic rap.

Together, they were among the very few engaged in an early revolt — against modern Egyptian music.

"Everything was habibi. Habibi means [my] love," says Abed. "So we tried to change that to more serious topics."

Islamist protestors from the 'Ahrar movement' shout slogans against the police and Muslim Brotherhood last week in Cairo over the detention of fellow demonstrators. (Amr Dalsh / Reuters)

For years, they wrote songs — almost always mixing English and Arabic — with the entire region in mind, addressing far-flung conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian Territories.

They were well on their way to becoming one of the biggest hip-hop acts in the Middle East, but only hit their stride in Egypt in the lead-up to the events of early 2011.

"We started looking at the people and what they're living and what they're going through," said Adel.

"Back then it was so hard for someone to say something. They were so scared. So we tried to reflect that in the songs, and talk with people about what they have been through, and some of the solutions."

'Bodies in the trash'

When the uprising finally happened, the Knightz ended up recording and releasing over the internet what many here say was Egypt's first revolutionary anthem. (It was called Rebel, and featured a sample from American artist Lauryn Hill.)

They also participated in many of the protests during and since the fall of the Mubarak regime.

Today, they too are living the deep disappointment in the results so far.

Despite its occasional tours abroad, the group has had less success in organizing live shows in Egypt recently due to the growing instability.

The rappers had to cancel three shows in the past year when violent events precluded a performance.

The group also says they have been censored in post-revolution Egypt — their first album had to be released outside the country.

One of their recent songs, Makshoufeen ("Exposed") is all about the Muslim Brotherhood and its history. Scattered within the lines in many tracks are memories of police brutality at recent violent clashes.

Egypt's revolution actually began on National Police Day in 2011 with a protest against human rights violations by police.

And despite all the recent criticism of police tactics, neither the police service nor the interior ministry has been reformed — a great source of anger among today's revolutionaries and their supporters.

"We saw bodies in the trash," says Eissa, referring to protests he participated in early last year. "This is something that's not going to be erased from anybody's memory."

"That's why we're going to keep on doing more songs, because until things change, there will be resistance out here. There will be resistance here," he said, pointing at the three of them, standing in front of the microphone.