Bika, though, cannot perform in his own country.
Egypt’s authorities have banned his shows and outlawed his music — and those of every musician who performs the vibrant blend of folk and electronic dance music known as mahraganat, which translates as “festivals” in Arabic. Since February, clubs, hotels, music venues and even Nile cruise boats have been ordered not to book mahraganat musicians, unless they want to face stiff fines and be taken to court.
“I had a big concert and 45,000 fans showed up. The authorities got scared,” said Bika, a tall, stocky 31-year-old who favors skinny jeans, pricey sneakers and who wore two gold rings on his left hand.
In a nation that prides itself on producing some of the most famous Arabic singers, mostly notably the sultry songstress Umm Kulthum, authorities claim mahraganat music is contributing to Egypt’s “moral decline.” The lyrics, they say, promote drugs, violence and promiscuity. Last month, the spokesman for Egypt’s parliament declared that the nation was in a war over its cultural identity.
“Egypt used to export art to the Arab world, but now someone takes off his clothes onstage and sings about being the best,” Salah Hasaballah, the spokesman, told a prominent television host on his show. “If we fear a virus called corona … then this virus, that is falsely classified as art, is even more dangerous to Egypt than corona.”
The ban is the latest chapter in an ongoing battle for the cultural soul of Egypt and the image it presents to the world. It is also an indicator of how censorship and assaults on the freedom of speech and expression are reaching new heights under President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.
Belly dancers and actresses have been sued for immoral behavior or for wearing gauze dresses. Poets and writers have been sentenced to prison over Facebook posts deemed blasphemous. Soap operas have been ordered to omit scenes considered immoral or political and to depict police and other security figures in a positive manner.
Under Sissi’s government, legal protections for artistic expression are routinely overlooked.
“It worries any repressive regime that such singers are becoming more famous as time goes by,” said Mahmoud Othman, who runs Freedom of Thought and Expression, a Cairo-based law firm that works on free speech issues. “Because it means that at some point they might express themselves politically.”
Bika grew up in the Al-Dekeela neighborhood, a bustling warren of darkly lit alleyways and crumbling buildings in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria. He never went to school, and swiftly learned how to find work on the streets. He has been a butcher, a taxi driver and a fruit seller. But his true passion was singing.
In 2010, he became enchanted by a new form of music rising out of the slums. It was first concocted by disc jockeys at weddings who began mixing folk music, known as shaabi, with electronic dance tunes fused with reggae, rap and hip-hop.
“We are telling what’s going on in the streets, the reality of our lives,” said Bika. “These are simple songs that are made cheaply but they express our own feelings, of people suffering everyday life in Egypt.”
Today, he drives an orange Audi. During the interview, eight people walked up and asked to take a selfie with him.
Mahraganat music, fast and loud, soared in popularity following Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring revolts, which toppled the country’s longtime autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, who died last month. The music provided an outlet for poor Egyptians frustrated by political turmoil, growing repression, a declining economy, high unemployment and other woes. In home studios, often based in slums, the music was made inexpensively on computers.
Some segments of society considered it vulgar. On many radio stations, mahraganat was denied airtime. Instead, its popularity grew through word of mouth, weddings and, eventually, online.
It was the lyrics that made mahraganat ultimately go viral on sites like YouTube. The songs detailed the everyday pressures faced by impoverished Egyptians. One track speaks of how people were desperate for money to buy credit for their cellphones. Another is about a man who went abroad to earn enough money to marry his true love. But when he returned, she had married someone else.
Few, if any, mahraganat musicians write explicitly anti-government songs, but the themes of economic and social problems do not reflect positively on the regime.
The recent ban was triggered last month by a Valentine’s Day concert. A popular mahraganat duo — Hassan Shakosh and Omar Kamal — were performing their catchy song “Bent El Geran,” or “The neighbor’s girl” in Arabic, whose lyrics include the line, “If you break up with me … I drink alcohol and smoke hashish.”
That prompted the nation’s musicians syndicate, which is aligned with the government, to outlaw mahraganat music. The group’s head, Hany Shaker, publicly declared that such lyrics were “promiscuous and immoral” and therefore prohibited. He blamed mahraganat singers for the “moral decline” of the country’s arts and music scene.
Mansour Hendy, an official at the syndicate, said it had sent requests to YouTube and SoundCloud to pull down mahraganat videos, adding that “all the concerned authorities support the decision.”
“We are trying to preserve the traditions and values of a whole nation,” said Hendy. “We are not fighting against art. We are fighting against this decadence.”
The ban has evoked mixed reactions. On a recent day, a group of artists and singers were chatting at the musicians syndicate in downtown Cairo. On the walls were black and white photos of Egypt’s most well-known artists from the 1950s and 1960s, including Umm Kulthum. Soon, the conversation turned to mahraganat music.
“Mahraganat can never be compared to classical,” said one musician. “Music is meant to soothe your soul. This music makes your teeth crack.”
“Bika is a pillar of Egyptian music,” another artist interjected with a laugh, eliciting grimaces and scorn around the room.
Two days later, the debate was repeated inside a cafe in Al-Dekeela, where young men sipped coffee and smoked hookahs.
Mohammad Ibrahim, a 23-year-old fan of Bika’s, jumped to his defense. “Everyone my age likes these songs,” he said. “They speak about our neighborhood, our people. This is our culture. It represents us. They speak about the young people who cannot find jobs, about our living standards. The lyrics are true. I myself cannot find a job.”
Mahraganat singers say they are being targeted because they have become too popular and wealthy.
“A lot of other superstars don’t want their lights to get dimmed by us,” said Bika. “They see our numbers on You Tube and they are scared.”
As of last week, Bika’s video and songs were still available on YouTube and SoundCloud. And up until last month, he was still able to perform at weddings. But then, the syndicate filed a complaint against him for singing at a friend’s wedding in Alexandria. “I sang one song for the bride because I know her father, and they filed a report against me,” said Bika.
For now, he’s thinking about his concerts next month in New Jersey and Florida, his first trip to America. “I am praying I get my U.S. visa. I have a lot of fans there,” Bika said.
“But I will perform in Egypt again one day,” he added with a smile.
Heba Farouk Mahfouz contributed to this report.