Popular Egyptian band Cairokee released their latest album, Noaata Beida (A Drop of White), on YouTube after announcing in a Facebook statement on July 2 that the Censorship Board had objected to several tracks.
I have been listening to Cairokee since before 2011, when their songs, like most underground music at the time, included calls to action, political commentary and challenged societal taboos and traditions. In original tracks like Akhnaton (Akhenaten) the band commented on the status quo, while also reviving older, critical songs, like Sheikh Imam’s Ala al-Mahata (At the Station).
Musicians who produce political music are in an unusual position, as they are often appraised based on their political messages before any musical criteria. This is particularly true in the case of banned or censored protest songs. But these musicians cannot rely solely on controversy, they must also create original music with fresh lyrics.
However, with the January 2011 revolution, the accompanying structural shifts in and changes to the opposition movement, underground music broke out from its traditional confines and Cairokee began releasing blatantly political songs with literal messages, like Matloob Zaeem (A Leader Is Wanted), Ethbat Makanak (Hold Your Position), Ehna al-Shaab (We Are the People) and Al-Sekka Shemal (Everything is Going Wrong). They were instant hits amid the revolution’s aftermath.
Now, following the loss of the post-January 25 mindset, Cairokee had released an album flavored with dissent and revolutionary sentiment. This is particularly pronounced in the tracks written by frontman Amir Eid. Some songs also touch on social issues and the human experience, such as Layla, Doaa Abdel Wahab’s optimistic track Edhak (Laugh) or Kont Faker (I Thought There Was Still Time), which addresses motherhood.
In Ghareeb, the album’s ninth track written by Hazem Wafy and featuring Wael al-Fashny, the band attempts to address Egyptians’ current condition. The lyrics are tired-sounding, and they present an overly idealistic portrait of the Egyptian people. “Am Ghareeb is my father and grandfather / He is the 90 million, whose hearts are filled with patience in all its shades/ In times of strife they stand up courageously / They never fear anyone, and when life deals them a tough hand / they face it like lions.” By trying to give the melody a shaabi sound, the song fails to make the most of Fashny’s vocal range, relying on his name and popularity after his well-received performance in the closing credits of Ramadan series Wahet al-Ghoroub (Sunset Oasis).
Also angling for a shaabi-pop sound, Al-Keif (The High) features famous shaabi singer Tarek al-Sheikh and is essentially a song about drug abuse. Like Cairokee’s earlier song Ghareeb Fe Belad Ghareeba (A Stranger in a Strange Country), which utilized shaabi star Abdel Basset Hamouda, it doesn’t introduce anything new or innovative to the genre.
Noaata Beida’s music has potential, but it functions largely as background for the singing, or more specifically for the words of Amir Eid, who persists in rebelling against the prevalent idea that singing should please the ear. The album is just lovely music with words imposed on it; each element seems to have been made independently from the other.
The title track, which features Abdelrahman Roshdy and has one and a half million views, evokes the sense of an inner struggle between two opposing internal voices, reminding me of Black Theama’s Ensan (A Human): “I’m not a knight in shining armor or a dreamed-up perfect hero.” But in Cairokee’s song the rhyme and meter overshadow the words’ meaning and the singer’s voice. I had to read the lyrics to grasp them: “There’s a distant voice inside that calls me / I can hear it / I recognize it /but I’m playing dumb / A drop of white within darkness / a human calling something inanimate.” Abdelrahman’s closing verse addresses time, featuring lyrics that seem unrelated to the rest of the track: “What is it with you time / you always ignore us/ I’m to blame for believing you / I blindly followed you until I outran you / and here I’m all alone facing the music with no way back.”
Hodna (Truce) also discusses a struggle on a larger scale, looking at Egyptian society and its traditions and customs. Al-Sekka Shemal Fi Shemal (Everything’s Going Really Wrong/Wrong way blues), a song about the political status quo and trying to stay inconspicuous by avoiding confrontation and expressing opinions, functions as a sequel to Cairokee’s 2014 track Al-Sekka Shemal (Everything is Going Wrong). It stands out on the album as an attempt to paint a scene which relates to the current climate and mood. The album ends with Akher Oghneya (The Last Song). With its speech-like rhythms and incorporation of cheering crowds, it preaches freedom and sounds more like a track from the 2011 revolution, despite being produced in 2016.
In general the songs about politics, opposition and revolution recall a pre-revolution state, with a broad feeling of dissent and vague demands. Even the songs about social taboos refer to a selection of pre-revolution issues. I expected that after so much time Cairokee would produce clearer songs which are more engaged with current problems and controversial political issues, such as the oppressive economic conditions and questions of sovereignty, as reflected in the case of the Tiran and Sanafir islands.
Although the album was blocked from full commercial release, and some have speculated that this was for political reasons, none of the songs take a specific political stance. The engagement with politics is soft and superficial. Even its calls for action and attempts at awareness raising do not broach issues of importance. It seems that the repeated mention of the word “freedom” was thought to be sufficient, but it comes across as a way of playing it safe, merely using it as a motto without expounding further on the concept. Discussing controversial issues such as freedom of religion or the right to sexuality would have been truly taboo-breaking.
The exception is Dinosaur. The song calls upon the Sphinx to witness how dire things have become; the most important lyrics, “aradeena” (our lands), “kofta” and “tahya Misr” (long live Egypt) are scrambled, perhaps due to safety concerns or to mock the Censorship Board for banning some songs when the entire album would eventually be uploaded to YouTube. But this brief verse remains the only real effort to engage with actual political problems: “They accuse us of their own sins after they’ve sold our lands / Oh and they claim that we have no allegiance / while the anchorman bleats and the same scene is repeated over and over again / Lo and behold! Kofta is now a cure / repeat after me three times, ‘long live Egypt’.”
More than six years after the failure of hope, so much bloodshed, widespread apathy and a loss of enthusiasm for the revolution, if you want to convince me you’re still fighting for something you must stand for real causes, not just present slogans, adages and broad statements which are open to interpretation. This approach is inadequate in the current climate. Cairokee also seems to misinterpret some ideas. It seems incongruous to advocate for gender equality by criticizing society’s double standards, as in Hodna (“She makes a mistake so she gets slaughtered / he makes a mistake and it’s just a bit of naughtiness”) while also including misogynistic statements in Akher Oghneya (“So you think I’m scared! Why don’t you just buzz off and go put on some lipstick”).
When I last spoke with a drug dealer, I noted that he had Al-Keif as a ringtone. This shows how popular that song is, but also proves that songs aimed at raising awareness often don’t have much effect on their listeners. Al-Keif’s shaabi sound feels over familiar and its lyrics naïve in the mode of the popular songs presented on Channel 3. Popularity does not necessarily indicate quality, or that the album is adding anything stylistically to the underground music scene, to Egyptian political music or to the genre of songs meant to appeal to young people. A Drop of White might have been important were it released before or during the revolution, but not now — not after all that has happened.
Translated by Sarah Fayed