We talk to Egyptian rappers Asfalt about city life and the everyday issues shaping their new music
Asfalt: the hip-hop duo keeping the Cairo beat real
Artists who make the best hip-hop often have an ear for storytelling. Whether you’re listening to the legendary acts of the golden years of the late 1980s to early 1990s – including Public Enemy, with their social and political commentary, or NWA, with their gritty tales of the street – or the best of the current crop, such as Kendrick Lamar and J Cole, what binds them all is their ability to provide a vivid snapshot of their environment and the characters in it.
When it comes to the relatively nascent regional hip-hop scene, Egyptian duo Asfalt continue that strong and proud tradition. Since forming in 2005, the Cairo rappers – Ibrahim Farouk and Mohamed Gad – have built their fan base with a steady supply of singles and videos observing the state of Egyptian youth culture. “I have always believed that hip-hop has to have a message in each song,” Farouk says. “Sometimes you can write about other things that don’t matter, as long as it sounds good, but the stuff I appreciate, and that lasts, is the hip-hop that discusses issues and problems. It is a great way to let them out.”
Cairo day and night
And it is for this reason that the duo are a popular live act across the country and have amassed more than a million followers on their Facebook page. While their work is laced with the friendly bravado associated with the genre, the expressions in their latest singles Fi Baladna and Etrabina can only have come from intimate observations of the nuances of Egyptian city and family life.
Fi Baladna (In our Country), which also features Egyptian singer Rasha El Sharnouby, is essentially a character sketch of Cairo itself. Over vibrant Latin-jazz and flamenco beats, the song is split into two verses detailing the city’s vibe both in the morning and in the evening.
Farouk’s “AM” verse sets the scene in a catchy Arabic rap he says good morning “to those who are asleep and those who are awake and those eating sandwiches in their cars.”
He then continues to greet the children playing football in the streets, the carpenters and handymen, and residents of the Al Hussein district, before concluding with “good morning to all Egyptians.”
Gad, with his rough and raspier flow, takes over to paint a picture of the city at night, with its teeming crowds, some chilling on their balconies, traffic police maintaining order, those taking their children out and those awake planning their dreams.”
Supported by an evocative video, complete with brilliant aerial shots of the city, Fi Baladna is more like a short documentary than a radio-ready track. “The song was really about the small details. Cairo is such a cosmopolitan city and it contains everything from the expected to the unexpected,” Farouk says. “It is interesting, because with this song, we weren’t trying to tell a story, per se. We were just mentioning stuff and jumping from one thing to another – from the traffic, to food, to people standing in the street. There was no real story, just a collection of things that happen.
Parents don’t understand
A more concrete and connected discussion can be found in the witty yet powerful Etrabina (We Were Raised), featuring Egyptian artist Shoaib El Khatib. This time around the duo set their sights on parenthood and how traditional Egyptian families can prioritise discipline over insight.
The production on this track is more oriental, with a melancholy oud riff looped over a steady, summery beat. Farouk recalls exchanges with parents that will strike a chord with many: “You can’t go outside, go to your room. I live in a prison. Why aren’t you among the top of your class? Are you missing a hand or leg?”
Farouk chuckles at the suggestion that Etrabina is the Arabic equivalent of the classic hip-hop track Parents Just Don’t Understand by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. Unlike the pun-filled Grammy-winning 1988 track, he says Etrabina’s sentiments come from a painful place. “Particularly that first verse. Most of the things that I say there actually happened to me” he says. “But the song is ultimately about education. That includes how we raise our kids and how we treat them at home. Young people here in Egypt have responded to it because it has touched something in them. Particularly when I am discussing exams and tests.”
With history often proving that seismic political changes begin with small developments, Farouk says that Asfalt were well aware of the conditions that led up to the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Released two days before the first wave of mass protests on January 25, the moody Kateb Li Bokra Jawab (Writing Tomorrow a Letter) may have been a fans-only affair as it captures some of the disaffection that led to people taking to the streets.
“We’re talking about the suffering and what they are going through living in Egypt,” he says. “We were not necessarily talking about the revolution; we’re just talking about what people were experiencing. I knew that something needed to change, but I never expected a revolution.”