Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A short documentary shows how warehouse dance parties, rooftop pop-and-lock sessions, and motorcycle stunts help young Egyptians reclaim neglected spaces.
Young Egyptian men furiously pop and lock atop a crumbling high rise. Down a desolate highway, one of them stands up on his speeding motorcycle. In abandoned warehouses, others bounce and rap, decked out in basketball jerseys and bling.
“Here, I escape my mind,” an unidentified narrator says over a dark beat. In Selim El Sadek’s new documentary, The Youth Culture of Cairo, “here” is at the margins of the Egyptian capital.
Cairo is a chaotic place—“out of control,” even. For years, the city’s bad urban practices have compounded with political instability to create conditions where most of its residents don’t have access to affordable housing, jobs, and transportation. It’s developed into a place where only the elite few can live comfortably.
But beneath this layer of political and urban dysfunction, and in response to it, a movement of young artists and musicians has been simmering. In his film, El Sadek presents a slice of that life through glimpses of Cairo’s underground rap and dance scene. “At a young age, we've experienced anger, victory, hope, defeat, and unimaginable grief,” the director writes on Nowness, the video platform where his film is showcased. “This rapidly changing mixture of feelings has caused confusion but helped mold our identities into what they are today.”
In Egypt, hip hop culture has emerged as a way to protest oppression and reclaim discarded urban spaces. It’s what the art form was born in The Bronx to do, and that’s why it has been such an influential force across the rapidly urbanizing world, from Shanghai to Sao Paulo.