How Egypt's mahraganat music marvels in Disney's Moon Knight
In film and television, deploying the right song or melody often can help elicit a particular emotion for the audience, or set the scene for what’s to come. So to hear Arabic music so thoughtfully used in mainstream Western television production is a rarity.
"For fans of Arabic music and those of us who actively listen to it, our ears perk up with excitement each time we recognise a song or an artist in television and film. It does not happen often"
Too often in Western film production, the tropes of Arabic music are lazily used when a character travels to a country in the Middle East or North Africa, complete with the sepia-toned desert scene.
Or worse, we hear Arabic music any time a film or show presents the “terrorist” character, an ever-too-present stereotype that harmfully projects a completely false and horrific image of Arabs.
Only recently, with Hulu’s Ramy and the newest season of Top Boy on Netflix, have audiences outside of Arabic speakers been exposed to artists who perform in Arabic.
For fans of Arabic music and those of us who actively listen to it, our ears perk up with excitement each time we recognise a song or an artist in television and film. It does not happen often.
So when viewers of Moon Knight on Disney+ heard Warda, an iconic Algerian-Lebanese singer, as superheroes like Black Panther and Iron Man burst onto the screen, we were so overcome with excitement and pride that we could not accurately describe how we felt.
The series, which stars Oscar Isaac, May Calamawy, and Ethan Hawke, draws much of its identity in Egypt and Egyptian culture, as it was in the original Moon Knight comics.
"Mohamed Diab has made it his mission from the beginning to hire Egyptians, including Moon Knight’s composer Hesham Nazih, and create an authentically Egyptian series for Marvel"
Thankfully, Marvel bucked a typical Hollywood trend and hired an Egyptian filmmaker, Mohamed Diab, to helm the series and its team of creatives.
Diab has made it his mission from the beginning to hire Egyptians, including Moon Knight’s composer Hesham Nazih, and create an authentically Egyptian series for Marvel.
Even with May Calamawy, born to an Egyptian father and Palestinian mother and raised in Bahrain, we’re seeing an Egyptian female lead outside of the stereotypical Hollywood tropes of Arabs and Arab women in particular.
The tactful use of Arabic music, particularly Egyptian artists, has been a consistent theme throughout the series.
The music is integrated seamlessly in each episode, not meant to be a big deal or a plot point but rather just inherent in the fabric of Moon Knight.
Right from the beginning of the first episode, fans are hit with DJ Kaboo’s Arab Trap: Made in Egypt, which remixes Khosara by Abdel Halim Hafez, another classic Arabic song that fans of hip-hop will recognise as the sample in Jay-Z’s Big Pimpin’.
"The music is integrated seamlessly in each episode, not meant to be a big deal or a plot point but rather just inherent in the fabric of Moon Knight"
Fans of the show have so far had the pleasure of hearing classic artists like Nagat Al Saghira and Sabah, as well as newer artists like Hassan Shakosh and Ahmed Saad. The deliberate inclusion of the latter two artists, in particular, should be celebrated because of the type of music they perform: mahraganat.
Inherently Egyptian through and through, mahraganat was born in Alexandria about a decade ago and very quickly spread to Cairo and elsewhere in the country – it is truly a genre of the people, unlike anything else heard in Arabic music.
Mahraganat artists, many of whom were marginalised and grew up in poverty, typically use very colloquial, blunt and explicit lyrics (often vulgar and, unfortunately, misogynistic); low-tech and edgy production for songs’ beats; and fun and infectious melodies appealing to listeners.
This genre, similar to hip-hop, has roots in protest, shattering class barriers, and inauthenticity. It continues to be a genre that defiantly challenges the innocence of Arab pop music and, more importantly, societal structures and systems in Egypt.
In fact, the massive popularity of mahraganat music, both within and outside of Egypt, continues to worry both the Egyptian government and the “elite class” who say that these artists go against what Egyptian art should be.
The Egyptian Musicians’ Syndicate, led by pop artist Hany Shaker, issued a complete ban on the mahraganat in February 2020, ordering venues not to play the genre or book, mahraganat artists. And just this year, the Syndicate banned 19 mahraganat artists from ever performing in Egypt (many continue to perform outside of the country, most recently Hassan Shakosh in New York City).
Neither of these moves has stunted the growth of and demand for the genre of music across the region and especially among the Egyptian diaspora.
So when Diab decides to include El Melouk by Ahmed Saad, 3enba, and Double Zuksh, along with Salka by Hassan Shakosh and rapper Wegz, in a big Disney and Marvel production, it is a huge deal that cannot be stressed enough.
It is a way of saying that these artists, who are banned from performing in their own country, and this genre of music are inherently part of the fabric of Egypt and Egyptian culture.
Moon Knight’s deliberate inclusion of mahraganat, the very Egyptian music that the Syndicate seeks to suppress, is a big statement.
"What we cannot deny is the artistry and creativity of a whole genre that has contributed greatly not only to Egyptian music and Arabic music more broadly but to protest and being a loud voice of the people"
The beauty of music is its subjectivity. Listeners can choose artists and genres that speak most to them. Not everyone has to be a fan of mahraganat music, and that is okay.
What we cannot deny is the artistry and creativity of a whole genre that has contributed greatly not only to Egyptian music and Arabic music more broadly but to protest and being a loud voice of the people.
Mahraganat unabashedly does not seek to be or want to be similar to Arab pop and classic Arab music. That’s the point.
As Moon Knight continues, remember that the song selection is calculated and serves a purpose that goes beyond providing a fun tune for audiences’ ears.
The music remains a driving force in the series and for Egyptian culture and music.
Danny Hajjar is a media relations professional based in Washington, DC. An avid music lover, he is passionate about hip hop artists in the Middle East and North Africa and the growth of their music beyond the region. He curates music and stories in his weekly newsletter Sa’alouni El Nas.
Follow him on Twitter: @DanielGHajjar