Ma3azef is Pushing Arab Artists to Look Beyond Their Identity

The zine dropping controversial mix-tapes and hard hitting critiques

byAmina Kaabi

Arab rap music  is set to be the next big thing, but is anyone actually criticising it? Picking it apart and questioning if any of these artists are actually good, beyond the fact that they’re Arab? This is where Ma3azef comes in.

Founded by published author and acclaimed DJ Ma’n Abutaleb—who serves as the magazine’s editor in chief—Ma3azef is the publication that’s written exclusively in Arabic and is “not here to promote music”, Abutaleb stresses.

It’s where you’ll find thought-provoking reviews of Haifa Wehbi’s new album and in-depth interviews with artists like Mahraganat singer Alaa Fifty. But the most fascinating thing about Ma3azef  is their collection of dossiers dissecting the use of auto tune in North African Rai, or the bizarre phenomenon that is Jihadi music (yes ISIS songs exist and Ma3azef even dropped a mixtape).

If that doesn’t already pique your interest, the ethos that guides Ma3azef as a publication just might—and we caught up with Abutaleb to break it all down. 

How did Ma3azef come about?

No one was talking about Arabic music in Arabic. Most coverage on Arabic music were more news pieces, or moralistic takedowns of new music that was found immoral and lowbrow. It was very much either reportage material, condemnation, or complete and utter praise—there was no in between.

Why was there so much condemnation?

There is a huge generational divide between legacy media institutions in the Arab world and the kids making music today. They don’t share cultural references, they almost don’t even speak the same language, and their aesthetics are completely different. Writers for Al Ahram or Al Akhbar couldn’t relate to this music, and condemnation was the easiest way to deal with it. Or they would find the most politically committed artist and praise them. In English, at the same time, publications like The Guardian are not interested in the artistic value of the work either. They’re interested in narratives of victimhood, or this idea of ‘the courageous artist’. The artistic merit of the work always gets lost.

The same can be said for a lot of artists in the Middle East, outside of the music world.

We thought this was important to tackle in music, because it’s not just in music. We were hoping people would get the hint when it comes to other mediums. In literature for example, it’s almost accepted that the quality of the writing is not important. What matters for an Arab writer today is political positions. Western interest in Arab culture coupled with this nonchalant attitude of Arab press means nobody cares about the quality of the art that we make. So the easiest route for an Arab artist is just to follow these lines. They’ll think “I’m not going to write a song because this is what I feel like I want to say, I’m going to write a song about whatever is going to work for this European fund”. That skews and takes away the sincerity of the entire cultural production process.

How do you overcome this?

There’s a huge gap in dealing with art based on its artistic merit, and there is a huge gap in creating good content in Arabic. So, we came up with this combination where we talk about music intelligently, meaning we critique or praise it on its artistic merit, and we pay attention to the writing. We find that this works really well.

I always found it problematic that Arab publications often cover topics about Arabs rather than for Arabs, so one of the first things I noticed when scrolling through Ma3azef is that you’ve written about Offset’s new album for example, which tells me as a reader that you care about the wide scope of my interests. Is that intentional?

It’s totally intentional. The whole idea is that we claim the right to be able to review musicians in the Arab world. But we also feel comfortable enough to review other works, like rock albums from Europe and the US, or Offset’s new album. We’re constantly reviewed by the West, and that process has never been reversed. We wanted to actually create our own critical discourse that’s not influenced by the West or traditional Arab media.

It seems like irony is a required element when it comes to discussions about Arab pop stars today. It’s almost like people prefer to view them as phenomena rather than serious artists.

It’s almost a double take. [They] need to be ironic in order to be able to justify your enjoyment of this music. They’re apologetic about enjoying this music, which is really sad actually. It shows you how big the gap is in the creation of Arab culture and its consumption. In their heyday, I feel that someone like Amr Diab was taken seriously as an artist. But this whole ironic take on Arab pop stars is classist. It’s usually the upper middle class, who have studied English, and are more exposed to world culture who feel like they always have to qualify their interest in this music.

Share this article