CAIRO – When the police showed up at his studio in Alexandria last month, Abdullah Sharif, a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood party, braced for the worst.
But they did not arrest him. Instead, moving methodically from room to room, the officers seized his equipment: headphones, a microphone stand, power cables, an amplifier – basically anything that could be used to make music.
“Here, you can sing with this,” one of the policemen said, laughing as he kicked a microphone across the floor.
Once the enthusiastic voice of the Arab Spring uprisings, rap music now heralds in the angry lyrics of embittered youth the resurgence of old regimes. For Sharif, rap is resistance to the country’s new military-installed government.
“Music is a threat to them,” said Sharif. “They have guns but they still fear us. Taking a microphone away won’t stop me being heard.”
Since the military’s ousting of Egypt’s firstly freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in July, his Muslim Brotherhood party has faced the fiercest crackdown in the group’s 80-year history.
With its television stations shuttered and many of its leaders jailed, the Brotherhood has lost the traditional means to spread its message, and the work has fallen to younger, more media-savvy members like Sharif.
Armed with YouTube accounts, Quranic verse, Malcolm X quotations, and rugged beats sampled from the Internet, young songwriters and rappers are trying to breathe new life into the beleaguered movement.
“Yes, Islamists listen to hip-hop. We also re-create it, it’s a powerful weapon,” Sharif said.
The bearded 35-year-old, in red sneakers, D.J. headphones and a tight-fitting Adidas T-shirt, cuts a sharp contrast with the clerics and farmers that constitute the Brotherhood’s usual support base.
His lyrics, poetic but punchy, cut into everything from American foreign policy, to power shortages and Egypt’s liberals, whom he accused of backing the military coup and dashing Egypt’s efforts at democracy.
“You say you are a liberal but you revile me, all you see is my beard. Expel this hate from your heart,” raps Sharif in one of his music videos.
“What hurts is not the bullets but your slander, I pray Allah will forgive you,” he sings in another track, “Islamic Tones,” directed at army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who orchestrated Morsi’s overthrow.
Sharif and other artists in the movement say they draw inspiration from famous Muslim rappers in the U.S., including Mos Def, K’Naan, and Lupe Fiasco. But there are big differences between this brand of hip-hop and the New York-born variety.
“Gunplay, half-naked women, drugs and bling-bling. That’s not how I understand hip-hop. My lyrics are based on the teachings and morals in the Quran,” said Mahmoud Abdudahab, aka M.C. Dahab, a 21-year-old rapper and translation major at the Cairo’s main Islamic university, Al-Azhar.
Although Abdudahab and Sharif have gained attention, at least among Cairo’s more pious youth, they have also drawn fire from liberal and Islamist detractors alike. They have been accused of demeaning Islam by some fundamentalists who believe that all music is forbidden – but Abdudahab has also taken flak from women, who rarely feature in his videos.
Some other Egyptian artists are critical, too. They question whether political Islam can be paired with the edgy genre and argue that it is unlikely to catch on.
“This is not hip-hop, it’s religious chanting,” said Ahmed Nagy, 27, who started rapping and writing poetry after a friend was shot by police during anti-government protests in 2011.
“Rapping about reading the Quran won’t stick when nobody has a job and the police are arresting everyone,” he said.
Hip-hop is not new to the Middle East. In a region where more than half the population is under 30, for many years it’s served as a medium to vent discontent with authoritarian regimes and oppressive cultural norms.
“In the Islamic world, hip-hop serves the same function that rap did when it emerged in the 1970s among young American blacks in the South Bronx,” said Peter Mandaville, director of Global Islamic studies at George Mason University.
“It comes from the underground, from people who have been locked out and dispossessed but who aspire to transcend that, to change victimization into a discourse of strength. It's a form that has a universal appeal.”
“Mr. President,” an incendiary track by 22-year-old Tunisian rapper, El General, excoriating the lack of freedom and anti-veiling laws, spread like wildfire on the Internet after its release in 2011. It quickly became the unofficial anthem of the Tunisian uprising that swept president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power.
In Egypt, where young revolutionaries are now bitterly divided over the country’s future, rap itself has become yet another battleground in the fight between Islamists and secularists.
“They’ve driven us underground,” said Sharif. He has started saving to replace his recording equipment. “But we’re still here and we’re still talking, they can’t stop us from talking.”