Egypt's Tumultuous Times Reflected In Its Art Scene

Egypt's post-revolution art scene is documenting the country's emotional roller coaster of a transition through music and graffiti art. Since the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, small indie bands have popped up to sing or rap about the political situation in Egypt. The graffiti that lines Cairo's streets is also evolving with the transition.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Egyptians have been riding an emotional roller coaster in the 18 months since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. There have been power struggles, the first truly free elections in more than 60 years, a sharp economic downturn and promises of reform that have yet to materialize. NPR's Leila Fadel reports that the country's post-revolutionary art scene reflects all of those peaks and valleys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: He calls himself Alaa Fifty. Two years ago, the 23-year-old from a working class district of Cairo probably would have been turned away at the door of this smoky nightclub where activists, filmmakers, foreigners and hipsters mingle. Now he's the Saturday night attraction at After Eight with a new type of music that is sweeping the Cairo scene - electro shaabi. Shaabi means popular and is a reference to street music. Alaa Fifty raps about drug addiction, abuse by security forces and other things to an audience of the elite in the dialect of the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Sharbi DJs like Amr Haha and Achmed (unintelligible), along with what they call mike men, like Alaa Fifty, once only found an audience at street weddings and festivals. But since the uprising last year, the mix of techno, hip-hop and Egyptian street music is bounding across socio-economic classes.

We sing about things you can't imagine, Alaa says, as his group sets up equipment for tonight's performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: There's a kind of youthful arrogance about these 20-something performers. They even have groupies on the side of the small wooden platform where they rap.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Observers here say the popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak prompted a musical revolution. In the past, Egyptian songs were mostly escapist with lyrics about love and heartbreak, distant from the realities of life where almost half the population lives under the poverty line. Now, there are new breakout stars whose lyrics are bold and reflective of social issues. Electro-shaabi is not the only new genre that's on the scene. Other musicians tracking the ups and downs of this transition with their lyrics are also growing in popularity. Many, like Ramy Essam, are garnering an international audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Ramy Essam is the singer of Egypt's revolution. He's most famous for this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: During Egypt's revolt, he put the chants of Tahrir Square into a song he wrote in two minutes. (foreign language spoken) - leave, he's saying, echoing the protestor's demands for Mubarak to go.

RAMY ESSAM: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: The young singer says, when he first started, he sang about what all singers did - love. Now his music has purpose.

ESSAM: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Whenever I feel the people want to say something, he says, I become the mirror that reflects their will. But Essam does more than sing. He was beaten and detained during one protest last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: His latest song questions President Mohamed Morsi's vows to alleviate the nauseating traffic and clean up the garbage strewn streets during his first 100 days in office. He also mocks Morsi's Islamist background.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: 100 days, they fooled us, the lyrics go. The people are frustrated, waiting for this government of the beardo-crats.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: It's not only music that is focusing on social injustice and political struggle. Visual art, too, is bolder than it ever was. Mohamed Fahmy is an artist who goes by the name Ganzeer, and is now showing his work in Belgium, Switzerland and soon, in one of Cairo's oldest and most established galleries. His fame took off with graffiti portraits of the revolution's martyrs that he painted on walls across the capitol. Most are gone now - painted over by the authorities.

GANZEER: It's apparent that the regime or the government or whatever, is very quickly trying to erase this memory of there having been dead people, people who were killed during this revolution.

FADEL: Ganzeer was a well-known artist before the uprising but now, he says, the audience for his type of work has grown.

GANZEER: I guess there's like somehow more reception. The audience for that work is just more hungry for socially relevant work, more so than before maybe.

FADEL: Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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