Lena Naassana
Last updated: 2 April, 2014

What cool and revolutionary band CairoKee has in common with Egypt’s street children

CairoKee was one of the iconic acts of the January revolution. Today, things have changed and the band enjoys a following of screaming young fans. But what happened to political dissent through the arts - does it still exist in Egypt?

The circular pattern of revolt, transition, and re-formation of the state that has repeated itself again and again in Egypt over the past three years has led to a prevailing cynicism toward political change.  But one of the greatest encouragements, which the few optimists among us hold on to, is the tremendous impact that the revolution has had on the arts, moving them from galleries, cinemas and concert halls into the most democratic of all spaces, the street.

Although some of the biggest bands were founded before the revolution, they owe much of their success to the events of the Arab Spring, when their songs of freedom, justice and solidarity found sudden and explosive success among hundreds of thousands of Egyptians.

This applies especially to CairoKee, whose name signifies that they are singing along to the revolution. And on many occasions they have literally done so. The video to their most popular song, Sout el Horreya (The Sound of Freedom), was filmed in Tahrir Square and has since become an iconic representation of the solidarity of the original January revolution.

Songs of freedom, justice and solidarity found sudden and explosive successSherif Galal, a young guitarist, composer and music producer, was able to explain the phenomenon of their success quite simply, “Amir, the CairoKee frontman, knew exactly what to write when. He sang exactly what the people were thinking and feeling. Music is not just about expressing yourself, but also expressing what’s important to your audience.”

Sherif is among the many musicians thrilled by the impact of the revolution on the local music scene. Prior to this, the indie music scene had existed only underground, limited by the oppressive censorship of the Mubarak regime, and overshadowed by the relentless output of the mind-numbing pop industry. “We never had a live music culture here in Egypt,” said Sherif, “It was during the revolution that music became public, came out into the streets, and that’s what has allowed this culture to flourish.”

And it continues to flourish, with new bands surfacing, and many choosing to abandon stable, respectable careers and instead plunge into the restless and exciting world of indie music – quite shocking in a society as conservative as ours. These musicians fuse jazz and blues with authentic local sounds (the tablah, the harmonica and the accordion), creating something entirely fresh. What was once an underground scene is now a very public affair.

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But newfound popularity can pose questions for a band. Judging by the hoards of screaming young girls hogging the front row at every CairoKee concert, they’ve secured their place as teenage heartthrobs – potentially undermining their original image of an ‘underground’ political band. Nonetheless, Sherif argues the content has retained its edge. CairoKee are often accused of having become mainstream. They did change their sound slightly — but in terms of the actual content it’s still very much them.”

And it is of course this content that has become so appealing to their fans. It was almost as though the discovery of a political voice had unveiled a deep and hungry desire for self-expression in the people of Egypt—a hunger, which has only grown since. To celebrate the successes of the revolution, and rage at the consistent oppression of the state, people have not only taken to the streets, but also expressed themselves on paper, on the stage, or on screen.

Several documentary films have been made in recent years depicting the events and repercussions of the January uprising, among them Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated The Square. More specifically concerned with the arts scene is Noise of Cairo. Although it is produced and directed by non-Egyptians, the film follows the lives of twelve key figures in Cairo’s thriving post-revolutionary cultural scene. One of these is a young man known as Keiser, an anonymous street artist who spray-paints the walls of the city with his colourful and provocative art. Comparable to Western street artists such as Banksy, Keiser’s graffiti expresses a clear disdain for authority, and seeks to stimulate thought in the millions of citizens who encounter his art each and every day.

Several documentary films have been made in recent yearsThe street, then, seems to have become an artistic space of its own—just as it once became a space for the expression of the people’s dissatisfaction with the state. Many already established artists continue to take to the streets, not in protest, but in an effort to make the arts accessible to the underprivileged communities of the city. In a country where approximately 26 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, these efforts ensure that the arts scene doesn’t remain exclusive to the privileged and educated minority.

One such project is the Al Darb Al Ahmar Arts School which trains children of the impoverished local neighbourhood in the circus arts, giving them the opportunity to later pursue a career in the performing arts—an opportunity they would otherwise have absolutely no access to. Ahmed Ashrafi, a young stage performer and film actor, participated in a parallel workshop at the school, throughout which he was able to observe some of the lessons and speak with the teachers and children about what they were doing. “The children were incredible. Even in their free time they would be jumping around, leaping on each other’s shoulders, doing flips. And what is shocking is that these are the same kids who you see begging or selling tissues in the streets.”

Street-children performing circus arts seem a long way away from CairoKee, but perhaps they aren’t really. Perhaps everything comes together in the streets of the city, now that they’ve been established as a space for political dissent, artistic collaboration and self-expression. No doubt, then, the streets, and art, have become an essential dimension of the Egyptian revolution.

A longer version of this article appeared in The Isis.