Egyptian Institutions Ban Mahraganat Genre of Music and Threaten Legal Action Against Artists and Listeners
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(New York, NY) — The state-supported ban on mahraganat, an Egyptian electronic folk music genre, is an absurd and egregious violation of artistic freedom of expression that seeks to repress an entire generation of musicians and their fans, PEN America said in a statement today.
Mahraganat has long faced opposition, both from the Egyptian government and music establishment, but the efforts to ban it occurred in the wake of a concert on February 14 at Cairo Stadium during which the mahraganat artists Hassan Shakoosh and Omar Kamal performed the popular song “Bent El-Giran.” Authorities were reportedly upset by lyrics they deemed vulgar and offensive, such as, “I drink alcohol and smoke hashish.” Two days later, the head of the Musicians Syndicate, singer Hany Shaker, announced in a press release that mahraganat singers would be denied licenses to perform in Egypt and declared that “legal measures will be taken against anyone who violates this decision.” The following day, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Education Mohamed Attia followed suit, banning mahraganat in Egyptian schools.
“New genres of music so often emerge as the voice of those who feel they have been neglected or left behind, and whose voices might otherwise not be heard at all,” said Julie Trébault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “For that reason, it is no surprise they are seen as a threat by authorities. But to place actual bans on music is the work of only the most repressive governments. The Egyptian authorities have to know that if they attempt to silence the voice of an entire generation and culture, they will fail in the long term; but in the short term, they should also know they are engaged in arbitrary censorship at indefensible odds with international law. Art, culture, and music cannot be criminalized. Mahraganat has a place in Egyptian life, in negotiating and amplifying the realities of disenfranchised people, and giving voice to those who have felt historically ignored. The state has no place in determining the merits of music, or any other form of art. Free expression belongs to the public.”
Mahraganat (festivals) is a dance music that combines sounds from traditional music known as shaabi, with electronic, hip-hop, and trance influences. Originating among low-income communities in Cairo and other cities, the genre is wildly popular with Egyptian youth. Because mahraganat has been generally excluded from the traditional music industry, it has acquired an audience primarily on the street and on platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud—Shakoosh’s “Bent El-Giran” skyrocketed to the top of the latter’s global charts in the first week of its release—and has become a staple music at weddings. In spite of this, the genre’s underground nature and sometimes bold lyrics have earned the government’s wrath.
Freedom of expression in Egypt has deteriorated dramatically over the past seven years under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rule. PEN America has advocated for numerous Egyptian creative artists, including singer and songwriter Galal El-Behairy and photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid (Shawkan), as well as writers Ibrahim al-Husseini and Ahmed Naji, the 2016 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honoree. While Shawkan, al-Husseini, and Naji have been released, El-Behairy and dozens of other artists and writers are currently imprisoned in Egypt. PEN America also leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.
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