Arabian Knightz is an Egyptian hip-hop group formed in 2005, when founding members Karim Adel (Rush) and Hesham Abed (Sphinx) met outside a hip-hop party in Cairo. The group’s founders established Arab League Records in 2006, the first international Arab hip hop record label, which united Arab artists from around the middle east – with the goals of both uniting the region through hip-hop and using the music as a bridge to the rest of the world.
We had a chat with Karim and Hesham via email about their music, performing during the Tahrir Square revolts and their upcoming visit to India.
Tell us about yourselves- when was Arabian Knightz formed?
Karim: Arabian Knightz was formed in 2000. We had been in separate groups before – I was in a crew I started in 2001 called MadSkillz Empire, Sphinx had a duo group called Meya Meya. We met at a club and ended up free styling with each other. E Money and MC Amin joined us later.
Sphinx: In the beginning we saw a very large void in the variety of content and types of music that was being put out. What we called “Habibi Music” was the only thing around, like every song had to be a love song. All 3 of us were recording already before we met and we shared the same goal of changing the sound in Egypt.
Karim: We wanted to avoid the watering down of Egyptian hip-hop, to resist the stereotypes associated with hip-hop that don’t represent Egypt or its people’s concerns. Hip-hop, when commercialized, can be turned into a tool for distracting people, like the late 90’s in the US, when corporate TV channels and radios started dictating the rap scene. We don’t want Arabic Hip Hop to go the same route.
How would you describe your music? Do you have an intended audience in mind?
Karim: We make music to try and represent our thoughts and ourselves. We feel Arabs and Muslims in general are often misunderstood by the western media and are also often misrepresented by ignorant people who seem to speak for us and don’t know anything about Islam or about our identity. The western media chases behind these people and focuses on them only because they seem to want everything related to us to be negative.
As the revolts of 2011 took place, we started focusing more on Egypt because the miseducation and media lies increased to a whole other level. The political environments during the revolts and after have split everyone into so many rivaling sides, with each side using the media to gain support. Rumors and religion were used to fool people. We used music to keep people away from this selfish war- music reaches the masses a lot better and faster than political and religious speeches.
A lot of your songs arose during/were used during the Tahrir square protests- how did/does the political/social/economic climate in Egypt influence your music?
Sphinx: We have always rapped about change, speaking of a revolution, hoping that someone would listen. And when it actually happened, I guess our music just made a little more sense to the people.
Tell us a little about the music industry in Egypt- in India, its divided between the ‘commercial’, the ‘regional’ and the ‘independent’- the latter being youth driven, using do it yourself approaches, mixing sounds. Is there a similar divide in Egypt? Are performance opportunities freely available?
Sphinx: It’s the exact same way. We of course took the independent route because we don’t want to be categorized or forced to create something we don’t like or believe in. This unfortunately means that local performances are very few and far in between. Concert promoters are still stuck in an old rut and afraid to try something new.
Can you tell us a little more about the role social media’s played in spreading music/the arts considering the censorship of mainstream media in Egypt?
Karim: Without social media there wouldn’t be any independent music in Egypt or for that matter, the rest of the world. We lack the support of mainstream media or record labels. Social media empowered and freed artists from the directives and control of corporates and media companies who don’t care about the message so long as they’re making money. The whole boom of sexual focus and objectifying women comes from that industry. On social media we don’t have to fulfill anyone’s hidden agendas, we’re allowed to express ourselves freely.
What is the current cultural environment in Egypt? Are there more young artists/groups like Arabian Knights forming in the wake of the Tahrir Square?
Sphinx: Yes, there are quite a few groups that have formed, playing different genres of music, which is great. But as usual, it’s the ones with the more commercial sound that have conformed and are riding the wave of revolution that get more attention. You know the ones that sell their revolutionary songs about change while selling a soft drink of corporate imperialism. So we still have a revolution to fight for change in the art/music industry.
What role do you see yourselves as musicians/your music playing in the ongoing struggle for democracy and human rights in Egypt?
Sphinx: Well our music gets the attention that we need, we have a platform that we can use to speak to the people and try to keep them “awake”. We will always speak our minds and just hope that people will listen and work with us as a society to further a positive change in the country and region.
Karim: Our music will continue to pull people away from the propaganda and the foolery of the politicians and their agendas and keep them focused on their freedoms and what serves them and no one else.
Can you share one or two memorable performance experiences with us?
Sphinx: About one year after January 25 we were a part of a regional festival put together by our brothers from Jordan and ourselves. There was a part of the show where we would show our respects to the people that lost their lives since Jan 25 due to the corrupt government. But when the authorities got word that we would do this, they stormed in the event and shut everything down. Not knowing what to do, a few calls were made to see if we could find another location really fast. And stars were aligned or something because we found a place just a few metro stops away. So we grabbed the turntables, the laptop, a few speakers and just went to the other venue. And surprisingly the fans followed us all the way and the show went on. That was a great moment.
Karim: When I performed our revolt anthem “Prisoner” in Tahreer and people who were in front of the stage knew the song and sang it word for word to the point I didn’t have to do the chorus chant on the mic at all- I had to work so hard on not tearing up on stage it was so emotional and empowering the chorus chants “I WANT MY NATION FREE FROM ALL EVIL I WANT MY LAND FREE FROM ALL OPPRESSION I WANT MY LAND FREE FROM OCCUPATION….” To hear that being chanted to your music in Tahreer….EPIC…
What are you looking forward to most, while visiting India?
Sphinx: The thing we most look forward to is getting the chance to meet Indian artists and mixing our sounds with the sounds of India and making a connection between the cultures. And of course meeting all the new people and learning more about Indian culture. We really can’t wait, it’s always been a place we have wanted to go to and we are very grateful for the interest that has developed for our work.
Karim: I loved my first visit during the Think festival though it was very short and I hope I can stay in India and do as many shows for as long as possible. I’m bringing my camera with me and we will try to shoot a few videos while we are there. I want to see all the temples and I hope I can meet some Bollywood stars though I know I will be very star struck