ABDALLA F. HASSAN | The New York Times | May 17, 2012
The rap crew Revolution at a park concert in Alexandria, Egypt on April 6, 2012
PHOTO BY ABDALLA F. HASSAN
ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT — Amid the Egyptian uprising that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak, the world’s attention was glued to Cairo and the events unfurling in downtown Tahrir Square.
But if Tahrir was the heart of the uprising, the pacemaker has often been Alexandria, the Mediterranean city that is Egypt’s traditional doorway to the wider world.
Alexandria, with a rich and cosmopolitan past, these days is a focal point of revolutionary fervor, expressed in a vibrant underground art and rap music scene. Direct, unfiltered and delivering a brutally honest political and social message, Egyptian rap and hip-hop have their roots in Alexandria.
The message is written clearly in the name and the songs of the Alexandrian rap collective Revolution.
“So what do you want to hear?” the rapper Ahmed Mabrouk, also known as Rock, chanted into the microphone as Revolution took the stage at a free concert in Alexandria’s Antoniadis Park on April 6.
With the military police a conspicuous presence, there came a one-word answer: “Kazeboon,” the crowd roared back.
“What’s that? We can’t hear,” shouted Mr. Mabrouk, in classic warm-up style: “Kazeboon,” came a louder answer.
“Kazeboon,” or “Liars,” is Revolution’s signature rap, an unabashed tirade against the military rulers who have taken charge of Egypt since Mr. Mubarak’s downfall.
Revolution, in chorus, ripped into the song’s refrain:
“We say ‘No’ to a lying military / Whatever they say is nothing but lies / When we refuse, we’re killed or thrown in jail / Nothing’s changed. Stand up Egyptians.”
“Kazeboon” has become the anthem of the Military Liars campaign, a grass roots initiative that holds public screenings of videos showing army and police violence against protesters. Its goal is to keep the revolution burning, and spread it wide beyond Tahrir Square.
The music is shaping a new identify for Egyptian youth, of defiance and commitment to change.
“If 10 people listen to me and are persuaded by what I say, I’ll trade it for a thousand who listen and aren’t convinced,” said the rapper Mahmoud Ahmed, 23, a member of the crew under the stage name Rooney HoodStar.
Formed six years ago by a couple of law students, Mr. Mabrouk, or Rock, now 26, and Mohamed Temraz, or teMraz, 25, the crew chose Revolution as a name because that was what they wanted, even then.
A legal career, they decided, was not for them.
“Everyone becomes a template — a doctor, pharmacist or lawyer. You feel everyone is put in the wrong place,” said Mr. Temraz, who now works a day job as a realtor for a property developer to pay for his rapping habit.
Mr. Mabrouk is a graphic designer at a storefront advertising agency. Amr Aboul Saoud, 23, known to the rap world as C-Zar, works at the agency’s printing house next door.
Chance, or good timing, put them at the leading edge of the uprising when it started last year.
A month before the youth-led revolution broke into the open in Tahrir Square, the underground rap collective released “Revolution Time” on the Web site ReverbNation.com to drum up interest for an album they were compiling.
Five days before the mass protests started, Mr. Mabrouk uploaded his rap “Change Is Forbidden.” Calling on Egyptians to overcome their fears, the song’s bold hip-hop lyrics — soundtracks for the Arab revolution — were part of a social media push to get young people out on the streets.
“We aren’t like others who sang about revolution after the revolution,” Mr. Ahmed said.
If Revolution stands out as an incarnation of the rebellion, it is a long way from being the Alexandrian rap scene’s only contribution.
One of the roots of the uprising traces back to the murder of Khaled Said, 28, beaten to death by plain-clothes police in an Alexandrian cybercafe in June, 2010, days after posting an online video of narcotics officers sharing out confiscated drugs among themselves.
Officials said he had died as a result of asphyxiation after swallowing a bag of drugs: But photos surfaced on social media sites showing his bloodied and disfigured face, with broken teeth and a broken jaw, and his image became a symbol of national anger against police torture and brutality.
Mr. Said was a friend of another Alexandria hip-hop band, Y-crew, which went on to feature in the film “Microphone” by the independent director Ahmad Abdalla.
A memorial Facebook page created by Mr. Said’s friends was one of the sites that carried the call to rebellion that toppled Mr. Mubarak from power; and Mr. Abdalla’s film, spotlighting the Alexandria underground art scene and its real-life narratives, opened in theaters as the uprising started, helping to keep up the momentum.
Mr. Abdalla’s film is built around the narrative of a young man named Khaled, played by the actor and human rights activist Khaled Abol Naga, who returns to Alexandria after years in the United States.
His hopes of rekindling a romance with his former lover are dashed as she prepares to move abroad. And after his mother’s death, the relationship he has with his father becomes tense and distant.
In rediscovering his city, Khaled comes across an eclectic underground culture of graffiti artists, filmmakers, musicians, rappers and hip-hop artists — a generation refusing to conform, as previous generations have done, to avoid trouble with the authorities.
“They don’t think about marketing a product or signing a contract with a production company,” Mr. Abdalla said in an interview. “They do something for themselves so they can freely express whatever it is they want.”
And Mr. Abol Naga, the main actor, added, “There is an explosion of the underground arts, from underground to aboveground.”
“It is very clear that this is not only a political revolution, it is an artistic revolution on many levels,” he said.
Alexandria’s underground music scene finds its voice through the online station Radio Tram, which combines new sounds with talk shows discussing arts, politics and the upcoming presidential elections. The all-volunteer staff began broadcasting last July.
“I love Alexandria and its culture,” said Dina Assar, co-founder of the station. “I love art and media and I want to bring them out of Alexandria.”
Fifteen months after the fall of Mr. Mubarak, and just days away from the presidential elections, the struggle is far from over, Revolution’s rappers say.
“The military council is Mubarak wearing a different mask,” said Mr. Mabrouk, interviewed with his fellow crew members over a glass of tea at an alley cafe in downtown Alexandria’s Raml Station that has become an underground musicians’ hangout.
“It is the same politics,” Mr. Mabrouk said. The working assumption, he added, is that Mr. Mubarak’s generals would seek to cling on to political and economic control behind the scenes, as the real power behind an elected facade.
“Mubarak ruled over a cancerous regime,” Mr. Aboul Saoud said: “It is not like a serpent, where you cut off the head and it’s over.”
Still, that is also true now of the revolution, said Mr. Temraz: “If the revolution fails, another revolution will come.”
“The next generation wasn’t brought up to ‘walk against the wall’,” he added, using the figure of speech often offered as advice to avoid becoming a victim of the state security apparatus by staying away from politics and activism.
Political developments over the past year have brought their share of disillusion and skepticism, but the Revolution crew says it remains as determined as ever to fight for change.
“January 25 was the introduction to revolution. The real revolution is coming,” Mr. Mabrouk said.
“We celebrated more than we should have. Everything slipped out of our grasp. The mistake we made as young people is that we did not create a political structure that expresses us. But all is not lost.”
“The fear is definitely present. It has not changed too much from before the revolution,” said Reem el-Taib, Radio Tram’s content manager, who noted that, until the revolution, activists were routinely beaten, arrested, detained and even shot by the police and the military.
Still, “before the revolution we would not have had the chance to do radio, she said. “Now they are leaving us a little bit of room.”
On a Saturday evening, Revolution held a jam session: Mr. Temraz, fresh off work in a tan suit and yellow tie, gyrated to the beat, fingers snapping, arms swinging. He and Mr. Mabrouk, with a knit cap stretched over his shaved scalp, rapped a light-hearted song, “Pink,” picturing a future world so ideal as to be terminally dull: They are international stars, journalists are pursuing them, and Eminem is knocking on their door, pestering to work with them. As if.
It is a rare breakout from a darker vein. Mr. Aboul Saoud’s “Rise Up Revolution,” a response to the revolts in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, is a warning to the Arab world’s monarchs and presidents for life, who punish and kill and destroy in the name of protecting their citizens.
“To every oppressive ruler, stay in your place. The people’s anger is coming to take you out,” Mr. Aboul Saoud raps.
Revolution’s rappers are putting together a revolution-themed mix tape titled “11-12.” The cover track, “If the Sun Drowns,” combines rap lyrics with underground protest verses from a past generation — those of the iconoclast street poet Ahmed Fouad Negm.
Known as the Ambassador of the Poor, his bitter attacks on Egyptian and Arab leaders, sung and put to music by his blind oud-playing companion Sheikh Imam Eissa, cost him 18 years in prison.
The song is forlorn, but the message is not: It says that hope still lives despite a long road ahead.