The soundscape transports you. The sharp electronic snare beats and deep bass rumble, with samples and autotuned lyrics in street slang, taking you to Cairo at night, floating down the Nile on a party boat with dangling neon lights and a tinny speaker. It’s loud.
This genre of underground Egyptian rap is called mahraganat, and it elevates the soundtrack of the new Marvel series Moon Knight.
Egyptian director Mohamed Diab has brought the controversial sound to the show, which stars Oscar Isaac as, among other roles, an antihero who struggles with mental health issues. (He is also the living avatar of an ancient Egyptian god.)
Even though the Disney+ show was shot elsewhere and its topic was fantastical, the filmmaker behind Cairo 678 wanted to show the reality of his country. “One challenge that was very important for me was how to portray Egypt,” said Diab, “because we’re always seen in a way that is very orientalist, always seen in a way that is very stereotypical.”
In the third episode, a breezy Egyptian pop song wafts down the Nile and then cuts to a blaring mahraganat track, which starts a group of boaters dancing. The song is by Hassan Shakosh, who is censored in Egypt.
Shakosh precipitated a country-wide assault on the music. Two days after he performed raunchy songs at a Valentine’s Day show at Cairo Stadium in 2020, the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate, the body that licenses all musicians in the country, banned mahraganat performances. Yet through online streaming and digital distribution, Shakosh has become a superstar.
For the musicians in Egypt taking rap in new directions, Moon Knight is a mainstream breakthrough, a chance for international audiences to understand a little more about the country. The underground genre has become a battleground in a country headed by an autocratic president who has repressed all discursive politics. The regime has targeted young creatives and TikTok influencers, so the spotlight on mahraganat matters.
Mahraganat “reveals a struggle over what Egyptian culture is, and who has the right to shape it,” Andrew Simon, a historian at Dartmouth, told me. Its appearance in Moon Knight “is all much to the dismay of Egyptian authorities at a point in time when they’re actively trying to silence the genre.”
The underground rap subgenre’s journey from Egypt’s urban corners into the Marvel Cinematic Universe begins in the early 2000s. At weddings in the back alleys of Egypt’s working-class landscape, emcees and deejays pioneered mahraganat, which means “festivals” in Arabic.
Weddings in city quarters are indeed street festivals. Raucous block parties take over whole backstreets, and everyone in the neighborhood is welcome. Traditionally, an ensemble would play music called shaabi (or “popular,” as in, “of the people”), which blends folkloric sounds, spiritual tunes associated with Sufism, and Egyptian pop traditions — and a lot of drumming and heavy dancing. But a full band can be expensive, so deejays and emcees started tooling around with MP3s and cheap software, passing around files in internet cafes. They brought an electronica sentiment to traditional shaabi sounds, soon adding layers of raps and chants on top.
Those emcees hyping up the wedding crowds, and collecting some money for the newlyweds, forged a new genre. Then they started circulating it on mixtapes.
“All these nerds behind their computers doing these strange loops” created a new musical vocabulary, Mahmoud Refat, founder of the 100Copies label in Cairo, told me. “They used samples of these guys talking about the struggle, weddings, drugs, you know, like the tough life.”
The song that blares on Moon Knight’s Nile boat is “Salka,” which translates roughly as “unobstructed.” The scene gestures toward mahraganat’s roots in the city’s alleys. “I haven’t heard that song since our wedding,” says the former mercenary Marc Spector (Isaac) to his archaeologist compatriot (May Calamawy).
The lyrics are about a Ferrari speeding through the usually standstill traffic of Cairo’s megalopolis: “Strong, nobody but us / Strong, strong / Sweet, nobody but us / Sweet, sweet / Foot the gas on the highest gear / I’m the teacher and everybody’s at their desk / Unobstructed.” (The song appeared in an Egyptian advertisement for an app called Hala, which is like Uber but for motorcycles.)
Tarek Benchouia, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University who studies mahraganat, describes it as a complex, ever-changing form that has integrated aspects of rap and hip-hop, Jamaican dancehall, and local traditions. “It’s a very similar story to the story of hip-hop,” he told me. “Because that’s where hip-hop comes from, in the Bronx in the ’70s. It’s a deejaying culture that’s playing block parties. So it’s interesting how they have similar genealogies but they sound very different.”
During Egypt’s 2011 people-power revolution that ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, mahraganat became a sonic companion to the uprising — music that captured the angst and anger at the crippling economic circumstances that fomented the youth movement. Many in the international media mistakenly described it as music of the revolution because mahraganat’s popularity accelerated so rapidly after 2011. “[T]he insurrection had made many people more willing to listen to what was novel, full of youthful energy, and ‘street,’” anthropologist Ted Swedenburg notes.
Benchouia says the music’s undertones are of a piece with the revolution. “It’s nuanced in its critique of what it means to be poor and, usually, male in urban Egypt. A lot of the anger and frustration that boils over in the revolution is also being explained in mahraganat,” he told me.
But irreverence and self-effacement are key. “There’s a little bit of poking fun at the revolution at the same time,” said Benchouia, and some mahraganat songs played off of popular chants from the Tahrir Square protests. There’s a line in “Salka” that goes, “We made the music / we’re not copying it [from the West] / We don’t make it better than it is / Or make a big deal of it.” The anti-establishment rhythms of mahraganat spread on the sound systems of toktoks, microbuses, and eventually taxis, in urban centers and on the margins of Egyptian official culture.
In 2013, the military overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected leader. Former Gen. Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi now runs the country more brutally than Mubarak ever did. Amid a clampdown on political expression, mahraganat music has become even more popular. Hit songs are being DIY-recorded in rappers’ wardrobes and bedrooms. Tens of millions of plays on YouTube and Spotify hold out a challenge to the regime’s traditional, nationalistic music tastes.
Mahraganat’s founding artists have established themselves in and out of Egypt. In 2018, two key figures, Sadat and Alaa 50 Cent, collaborated with Cypress Hill in a song that blended the California group’s connection to weed culture with the Egyptian rappers’ passion for hashish.
Much of mahraganat music is not overtly political in the sense of it being about rising up against the regime or protesting policies, but it is deeply political in the grievances expressed about the economic and social conditions that hamper Egypt’s working classes. The lyrics are also introspective — verging from macho to campy — about masculinity and authenticity.
The gritty brand of rap captures the fraught politics of disenchantment, youth culture, and dissatisfaction with the lack of opportunity that sets the backdrop to the Marvel series. In Moon Knight’s Cairo scenes, the street sellers seem to be just getting by and youngsters appear to be out of work.
The credits of Moon Knight’s second episode feature the song “The Kings,” by Ahmed Saad along with two mahgaranat singers, 3enba and Yang Zuksh. It’s more of a rap hybrid, which is the direction the genre is headed. The chorus sums up the gangland vibes that are performatively flexed by the underground singers and shouting out their neighborhood, surrounded by their crew: “Bro / Papa / Here comes the gang / We live / Simply / You can make it if you want to / I don’t need anyone / I take care of myself.”
In the next episode, Oscar Isaac wakes up in Cairo.
The brash sensibility of mahraganat has long challenged the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate. The gatekeeping professional organization holds the power to grant the licenses needed for musicians to perform at concerts, nightclubs, and even restaurants in the country. The syndicate is backed by the Sisi government and, some say, has become a proxy for the culture war against Egypt’s young rappers.
In February 2020, the syndicate announced that licenses to perform would no longer be given to mahraganat artists, effectively banning it from live shows. “This type of music is based on promiscuous and immoral lyrics, which is completely prohibited, and as such, the door is closed on it. We want real art,” singer Hany Shaker, the syndicate’s head, said. A parliamentary spokesperson called mahraganat more dangerous than Covid-19.
“Most of the songs that Diab used in this show are from singers banned from singing in Egypt,” novelist and critic Ahmed Naji told me. “It created a lot of controversy and created a huge buzz.”
At least 19 musicians were denied licenses in 2021, including Shakosh. Saad, whose hit song “Kings” is in Moon Knight, was fined for defying the ban. In March, two other singers were convicted of “violating family values.”
But mahraganat artists work around the rules and post straight to Spotify or YouTube, onto algorithms that put them alongside Kendrick Lamar and Lil Wayne, or hold shows in Egypt’s unofficial venues. They play gigs around the Middle East, and are developing partnerships with American and European artists. “We are having investors coming directly to us. We are having Hollywood coming directly to us. We have Sony Music,” Rafat told me. “But it doesn’t link to the Egyptian scene. It doesn’t link to the Egyptian music economy.”
For Simon, author of a book on Egyptian sonic cultures called Media of the Masses, the fault lines are not just about free expression but about class. The censorship of mahraganat is about who in Egypt — with hierarchies enforced by the regime — is allowed to create art. “These ‘vulgar’ songs, what’s really the underlying thing is the fact that working-class Egyptians are creating Egyptian culture,” he told me. “Whereas from the perspective of local authorities, they’re supposed to be cultural consumers, not cultural producers.”
Censorship of art is a flashpoint in Egypt that Diab himself has grappled with as the space for expression in Egypt has contracted since the 2013 military takeover. Diab’s most recent film Clash is the claustrophobic story of conflicting political activists, Muslim Brotherhood protesters who demonstrated against Sisi, and secular critics, journalists, and others caught in the wrong place. They’re all locked together in the back of a large police van, as Cairo convulses with political carnage during the coup. The regime saw his depiction of the complexity of Egyptian politics as criticism. When it premiered in 2016, it was only in Egyptian theaters for a truncated run.
The mahraganat tracks in Moon Knight have brought to life scenes of contemporary Egypt at a particularly difficult time for Egyptians. The Sisi government has jailed tens of thousands of political prisoners. One of the most prominent voices of the 2011 revolution, activist and blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah, is seven weeks into a hunger strike, in protest of the sordid conditions in his prison cell.
The series Moon Knight is violent in the way superhero comics are — superficially and sensationally. In Diab’s attempt to bring audiences into the real Egypt, however, he has also shined a light on the actual violence of everyday life in Egypt today, where producing underground rap can lead to fines or jail time, where free expression is all but outlawed.