Review | Cairo Pop: Youth Music in Contemporary Egypt

Cairo Pop: Youth Music in Contemporary Egypt. By Daniel J. Gilman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. [256 pp. ISBN 978-0-8166-8928-6. Paperback $25.00, cloth $75.00].


Reviewed by Darci Sprengel  / University of California, Los Angeles


In Cairo Pop: Youth Music in Contemporary Egypt, anthropologist Daniel J. Gilman offers one of the first full-length academic ethnographies to focus on post-1970s popular music reception in Egypt. He argues that in contrast to the previous generation’s preference for metaphorical and indirect emotional evocation exemplified in the music of Egypt’s Golden Age (1950s to 1970s), Cairo’s youth today have cultivated an aesthetic preference for direct emotional evocation in popular song lyrics.

In the introduction, Gilman claims that Cairo Pop is interested in the intersection of music and emotion as it pertains to contemporary politics in Egypt. He argues that music moves listeners, inspiring them towards certain behaviors, which is also a common goal of political rhetoric (2). Gilman’s approach focuses on music consumption through visual analysis of music videos, lyrical analysis, and interviews with Cairene youth. The author divides the contemporary music scene in Cairo into three primary categories: musīqa al-ṭarab, shaʿbi, and al-musīqa al-shababiyya. Categorizing music in Egypt is particularly difficult because each of these categories is contested and not clearly delineated. Although the author justifies at some length his decision to call the dominant urban music style prior to the 1980s “musīqa al-ṭarab,” a term he coins, he spends significantly less time justifying and exploring the complexity of the term “al-musīqa al-shababiyya” (youth music), the primary music of study in this book. He argues that the music of his study is simply known in Cairo as al-musīqa al-shababiyya. My own fieldwork in Egypt suggests that al-musiqa al-shababiyya is a term more often used by academics than Egyptian youth, so clarification of the author’s choice of nomenclature would have been welcome because the limits and origins of the genre remain unclear.

In the first chapter, Gilman provides an account of contemporary Arab pop music in historical perspective. He compares contemporary Arab pop with what he has termed musiqa al-ṭarab and its positioning in relation to political and economic changes since the 1950s. He claims that although the music of Umm Kulthūm was important for past generations, Egypt’s current generation of youth find her music emotionally inaccessible.

In the second chapter, the author explores what he calls “Egyptianness” through the lens of “race and sex” as it relates to al-musiqa al-shababiyya. He argues that race, as a visual indicator and aesthetic index, is important in the context of al-musiqa al-shababiyya because female shababiyya stars (and to some extent male stars) today are valued more for their looks than for their musical skills. He explores Egyptian views on skin color and examines Lebanese pop singers as a racialized and sexualized Other for Egyptian audiences. He examines the music videos and public images of stars such as Shirin, Ruby, Nancy ʿAjram, and Haifa Wehbe.

A study of attitudes towards race provides a potentially new lens through which to examine how young Egyptians experience and interpret music since, to my knowledge, no other scholars of music have explored race in Egypt in such a way. With no scholarly precedents for such a discussion, Gilman does not do enough to show how and why the concept of race is the most suitable for his discussion. It is unclear how his use of race animates and/or complicates more locally-influential concepts including bint/ibn al-balad (no direct equivalent in English, but literally translated as daughter/son of the country), ginsiyya (nationality), asmar (dark skin), and aṣl (authenticity). Introducing the concept invites more discussion because, as he admits, race is not something that Egyptians regularly discuss or regard as important (77), and anthropologists of the Middle East have traditionally favored discussing skin color using more locally-influential concepts. For instance, in her discussion of Egyptian proclivities toward light skin, anthropologist Farha Ghannam distinguishes between colorism and race, arguing that unlike race, colorism is “arrayed along a continuum that crosscuts racial categories.” She concludes that “race in Egypt is not the same structuring historical force that we see in other countries, especially the United States” (Ghannam 2013, 32). She thus demonstrates that race is a less useful category of analysis and justifies her preference for analyzing the intersection between gender and class to understand how desires towards certain bodies are cultivated. Beyond citing a study by Bruce Baum (2006) on constructions of “Caucasian” in the United States and stating that there is “an inescapable element of translation in my interpretation of my interlocutors’ comments on the subject,” Gilman does little to convince the reader how and why race is a more useful category of analysis in this particular Egyptian context (115).

The author’s ethnography in this chapter reveals different standards of appreciation for male and female performers that illuminate a great deal about the intersectional nature of contemporary “Egyptianness.” For example, with regard to al-musīqa al-shababiyya vocal style, what he calls a “Sprechgesang” style served to intensify female seductive persona while compensating for what he argues was female singers’ “diaphragmatic weakness.” For men, however, Gilman identified that this same style served as a tool for emotional expression (122). He further notes that female singers most praised for their vocal ability were more skillful in the techniques of musīqa al-ṭarab, and were thus viewed as more Egyptian. Female performers more skilled in the musical aesthetics and vocal techniques unique to al-musīqa al-shababiyya, however, were viewed as less Egyptian. In contrast, men more fluent in recent al-musīqa al-shababiyya techniques were viewed as more Egyptian. Additionally, male singers who used sex appeal in the form of sexy female dancers in their music videos were viewed as “clowns,” whereas the author argued that sexiness in the form of “skimpy outfits” and suggestive dancing were fundamental to female singers’ success in the industry. These differences are only casually mentioned in the last few paragraphs of the chapter, and the author does not theorize or call attention to them. This treatment is problematic insofar as Gilman introduces the chapter as one concerned with how “race and sex” are tied up in notions of Egyptian nationalism. This chapter would be stronger with an intersectional analysis of such differences to show how nationalism and notions of “Egyptianness” are fundamentally racialized and gendered concepts.

In the third chapter, Gilman explores ideas surrounding the music of Nubian-Egyptian singer Muhammad Munīr and independent band Wust al-Balad with regards to taxonomy of genre. He argues that both Munīr and Wust al-Balad represent transitional figures in the contemporary youth music scene. The author explores these transitional figures in relation to genre to demonstrate how youth today employ a different set of aesthetic criteria to evaluate the authenticity and aesthetic value of a shababiyya song. He argues that for youth, the perceived authenticity of a shababiyya song lies in: 1) its perceived indigeneity, 2) innate musical talent of the artist, which is tied to Egyptian ethnic and racial affiliation, and 3) the perceived sincerity of the emotions expressed in the song and through the singer. Gilman further argues that these criteria are important for reasons beyond merely evaluating artistic taste. His collaborators invest considerable energy in distinguishing “good” music from “bad” as part of being morally and aesthetically discriminating persons. Thus, he argues, notions of authenticity in Egypt are closely bound to national belonging and notions of Egyptianness. His young collaborators invest in discourses of authenticity as a larger project of cultural and political subjectivity that contrasted starkly with the nationalism espoused by both the state and the previous generation. This chapter presents a more complete discussion of the complexities and tensions regarding the author’s demarcation of al-musīqa al-shababiyya as a genre.

In the final chapter, the author gives an account of some of the more recent developments in Egyptian popular music during and after the 2011 uprisings. He discusses the lyrics and music videos from Cairokee’s famous “Ṣout al-Ḥurriya” (The Voice of Freedom) and their subsequent song “al-Midān” (The Square). Unlike the songs analyzed in previous chapters, these revolutionary songs, Gilman argues, complicate the dominance of youth’s aesthetic preference for direct emotional evocation. To prove this point further, he then moves to discuss what he calls “martyr pop,” a subgenre of popular music dedicated to memorializing those killed in the recent uprisings and in the instability that followed. He argues that in these revolutionary songs, prominent artists often opt to sidestep personal politics and offer instead more ambiguous messages that allow more room for listeners’ and viewers’ own interpretations; however, this less direct style is often taken as less sincere by his Cairene collaborators.

Overall, Cairo Pop makes some crucial contributions to scholarly thinking on music in the Middle East. The vast majority of seminal studies on music in the region have focused on Arab art music, religion and trance, or, to a lesser extent, working-class popular music.[1] With the exception of Michael Frishkopf’s edited volume Music and Media in the Arab World (2010) and some essays in Burkhalter, Dickinson, and Harbert’s recent The Arab Avant-Garde: Music, Politics, Modernity (2013), few studies take as its focus the tastes of contemporary Arab youth or the vast social, economic, and political changes that have occurred in the region in the last forty years.[2] The lack of regard for youth music is a glaring omission especially given that youth make up the majority of the region’s population.

Furthermore, linking music and politics through affect is a much needed intervention in the field of ethnomusicology and in social theory. Unlike other approaches, a focus on affect does not rely necessarily or primarily on an analysis of discourse; thus, it opens new possibilities for exploring the role of music in solidifying and transforming relations of power. Many dominant social theories dealing with nationalism and politics rely heavily on the presence and analysis of discourse while ignoring or downplaying affect (and what is often oversimplified as emotion) as internal, personal, and separate from and subordinate to reason/cognition.[3] Cairo Pop breaks with traditional approaches by offering a view of emotion as a serious political and social force. Gilman produces his argument through the workings of several major theoretical concepts, including affect, performativity, postcolonial modernity, and sincerity; however, without defining these concepts nor situating them within existing scholarly literature, the nuances of how they operate specifically in the Egyptian context but in connection with broader phenomena remains for other scholars to develop.

Perhaps inadvertently, Cairo Pop highlights the salience of “decline” as a public feeling affecting not only Egypt’s current generation of youth but also many scholars of the region. In the introduction, Gilman recognizes that much contemporary scholarship on music of the Middle East adheres to a “decline-theory” of Arab culture.[4] In contrast to the majority of contemporary scholarship, Gilman aims to “explain consumption of this commercial pop music in and of itself,” and he argues that he does not believe that the music produced today is inherently inferior to that which came before (19-21).

It is curious, however, that Gilman also overtly expresses contempt for his object of study. In the introduction, he states “And, lest I be mistaken for a fatuous cheerleader for ‘the music of the people,’ I will make clear that, in my professional and personal judgment, much of this music is terrible” (20). His distaste for al-musīqa al-shababiyya sometimes dulls Cairo Pop’s analytical acuity. For example, the author at times appears to make his own value judgments regarding what he considers to be “good” or “authentically” Egyptian music. In his discussion of contemporary Arab pop musicians’ use of Auto-Tune, for instance, he argues first that ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Ḥafez’s vocal style opened the doors for singers with “poor voices to pursue musical careers” (69). He then posits that these new singers with “bad voices” compensate through technological mediation. The use of Auto-Tune, he argues, “scandalizes anyone with a personal investment in authenticity as a desirable quality in popular music” (69). It is often unclear whether such opinions as to what constitutes “good,” “bad,” or “authentic” music are Gilman’s own or the general attitude of his Egyptian collaborators toward al-musīqa al-shababiyya.

Such points would have been clearer had Gilman done more to analyze consistently al-musīqa al-shababiyya through a different set of aesthetic criteria from the music of the Golden Age. Missing in Cairo Pop is an emphasis on why so many Egyptian youth still love and appreciate al-musīqa al-shababiyya despite its widespread and easy criticism. Instead, much of its analysis seems to uphold the Golden Age superstars as the epitome of “good” Egyptian music to which all subsequent musicians, starting with ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Ḥafez, slid downward in a sort of artistic decline. The analysis consistently returns to the music of the early- and mid-20th century as a “center” or neutral-base to which the music that came after must be compared. Cairo Pop would have been more convincing through a stronger focus on how and why aesthetic criteria and preferences have changed since the 1950s-1970s, especially with regard to social, political, and economic changes, and its argument made clearer through a more consistent evaluation of al-musīqa al-shababiyya on its own terms. Thus, for this reader at least, Cairo Pop is not fully successful in challenging or offering an alternative to the “decline narrative.” As the first book-length study to focus directly on contemporary Egyptian popular music, Gilman’s account offers a new focus even as it leaves ample room for further research.



[1] For examples of Arab art music see Danielson 1998, Davis 2004, Lohman 2010, Racy 2003, and Shannon 2006. For examples of studies focusing on religion or trance see Kapchan 2007 and Nelson 2001. For studies focusing on working-class popular music see Armbrust 1996 and Van Nieuwkerk 1995.

[2] See also Burkhalter 2013.

[3] For example, both a public sphere perspective (see Calhoun 1992, Habermas 1991, and Warner 2002) and Anderson’s 1995 (1983) imagined communities are founded upon rational critical debate through the circulation of (literary) texts.

[4] With regard to al-musīqa al-shababiyya as evidence of “decline,” see for example Frishkopf 2010, LeVine 2008, Marcus 2007, and Shannon 2006.


Works Cited

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Nieuwkerk, Karin van. 1995. “A Trade Like Any Other”: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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