The Power of Words

Mohamed Aly Talibab performing live. (Still from Youtube, Ahmed Mekawy photography)

Mohamed Aly Talibab performing live. (Still from Youtube, Ahmed Mekawy photography)

Mohamed Aly Talibab—he predominantly uses the name “Aly” in honor of his late father—is commonly described as a twenty-two-year-old musician and rapper. Yet “rapper” isn’t entirely the right word to describe him. Talibab is a spoken word artist and a poet—and one with a raw and tangible passion.

Born in the United Arab Emirates, Talibab moved to Egypt with his family when he was eleven. His father, who remains Talibab’s greatest role model, was severely ill at the time. He eventually died after a long battle with Hepatitis C—a pivotal moment in the life of the young artist. After his father’s death, his mother became the sole breadwinner in the family, and Talibab started to become aware of the social and economic divisions around him. His mother worked night and day to provide him with the best education, so he was able to attend an expensive school and mix with children from the upper classes. But he never felt at home. Having grown up in the UAE, and being less well-off than his classmates, Talibab had to fight to find his own identity and to make his own way. The outlet for all this soul-searching turned out to be music.

Already a well-known rapper in smaller circles by the time he left school, Talibab decided at first to forgo a music career and to pursue an engineering degree at Cairo University. Out of loyalty to his mother, he wanted to make sure he would make money so he could pay her back for his education. A music career was just too unstable.

But music never really left his mind, and Talibab was getting constant inspiration for his lyrics. “I get inspired by many different things. Everything you see around you is a work of art in some sense. The houses and how people manage to get along with their lives in busy Cairo can only fuel your imagination, while authority is only trying to kill it,” he tells The Majalla.

“The sounds come from many different places. If you set your mind to it and really clear your head from a lot of the shit we grow up with, you’d be really amazed at all the things you can pick up,” he adds.

Talibab continued to write songs, his passion fueled by the events and social developments he saw around him. By January 2011, just like thousands of other young Egyptians, Talibab found himself in the middle of a revolution. Already very politically and socially engaged, his music was greatly influenced by the quest for change among the Egyptian youth.

Verbalizing this quest, Talibab put the questions, the anger, the hopes and dreams and also the disillusionment of Egyptian youth to a beat, using his music as a vehicle for social protest. “Baby steps can change the world. I believe in this very much. It’s just an angry kid screaming on a microphone, they say. But you can never know what propagates where, and does who-knows-what to a very closed conservative environment,” he says. “You have the Internet now. Art, music and philosophy have always been shaping the social matrix. Many of the dos and don’ts that the community believes in come from philosophers and artists who have interacted over years to create these dos and don’ts. Politically, music becomes the fuel that keeps the spirits pumping, but it can easily die out.”

Now that the Egyptian revolution is well and truly over however, just like many young Egyptians, Talibab is showing signs of weariness. He seems disillusioned by the powers of the revolution and his lyrics are showing a degree of bitterness, exemplified in his latest track, Ey Baad Al-Boas Da? (What next after this misery?).

Ey Baad Al-Boas Da? comes from a very personal place, a very personal experience, so every time I play it I can feel the words as if it was the first time I’m listening to it,” he says. “This is probably one of the very few songs [in which] I’ve opened myself [up].This song came from a very dark moment in my life, a moment when I felt very lonely and my vision was blurring.”

Talibab is not particularly positive about the future of Egypt: “Countries and borders . . . no one believes in that anymore. At least, no wealthy people who control this world believe in it anymore. It’s all about the big network of interests. They [don’t] care where you’re from as long as you’re cheap labor. So no, whatever it is I’m doing isn’t about Egypt, it’s about the whole world. It sucks that we constructed languages and it became a barrier, but maybe one day we’ll be able to break that.”

Today, Talibab uses the stage and the spotlight as a platform for his views. However, his songs are not necessarily a direct call to action. Rather, he says, he wants everyone to take from them what suits them. “I just write stuff,” he says. “I try very hard to stay real with myself writing it and not be influenced by voices that push you to write stuff that suits them. It would make no sense to keep pushing that you’re independent, but [to still be] dependent on the people listening to your work. To me, my music is what I breathe on. I don’t care much about [how people listening to it] take it. Someone could listen to it and draw something [from it], while someone else could just throw it away. But it would stay real to me. It would [remain] that at precisely this moment I felt that.”

In keeping his music true to himself, Talibab’s success isn’t showing any signs of stopping. Already working on a new, trippy electric sound, his next appearance with his band, El Manzouma, will be in Alexandria on June 21.

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