After last year’s X-Factor success, Egypt’s hip-hop darlings are lining up new releases and a music video
Written By Omneya Makhlouf
Photos courtesy of young Pharoz
A refreshing sight to see is a young Egyptian group’s musical aspirations going viral. The Young Pharoz have become one of Egypt’s most talented young music groups since its 2013 debut in the reality talent show X-Factor. Shahd El-Shaarawy, Mohamed “Mesho” Magdy, and Ayman Seleha wowed the audience with hip-hop montages merging Egyptian life, in Mesho and Ayman’s raps, with Western pop in Shahd’s solo vocals. Now on the verge of releasing their first music video, Young Pharoz is looking to become a household name in the region and beyond.
Although the three are long-time friends, academic obligations have kept them apart in recent years. Mesho jokes, “We always say ‘thanks to Skype’, which played a part in making us Young Pharoz.”
Mesho, 20, is majoring in Marketing at the American University in Cairo, while Shahd, 19, studies Applied Arts at the German University in Cairo. Ayman, 21, is half French and half Egyptian and comes and goes between Paris and Cairo. He only recently transferred universities from the Sorbonne in France to the Misr University for Science and Technology in Cairo where he studies Mass Communication. The X-Factor experience took the trio to Beirut for three months, with each member taking a semesters off from university to pursue their musical passions — a decision they say was well worth it.
“I really sacrificed my academics in the face of my music,” says Ayman, “But I think it was a good choice, because my academics can wait, but X-Factor can’t. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity where I can accomplish my dreams.”
Mesho says his routines and daily activities have changed so much that his life is now practically based on academics and music. “I was just a normal guy doing normal things,” he explains. “But after the 2011 revolution and the launch of my music career, I realized that life is so much more than we think it is, and that time is the only thing we can’t control, so we have to make the most of it.”
Shahd says she is able to balance her academic life with her music career despite having to skip a semester of university in pursuit of her singing dreams.
Young Pharoz first formed about some seven years ago when Mesho, who led a band in English, and Ayman, who led a band in Arabic, decided to leave their groups and start working together as a rap duo. They chose the name Young Pharoz to reflect the idea that although the Egyptian civilization is 7,000 years old, it is still young within every Egyptian, and that they are able to revive it through their interest in culture and Arab issues.
They stayed a rap duo for about three years until they discovered Shahd, who had been performing at the opera since she was nine. With Shahd on board, they decided to change the whole concept of the “rap group” into a whole hip-hop scene.
“We came up with this because we wanted to do something new. There is no singer or band in the world that is made with the same concept or vision as ours,” Mesho asserts, pointing to the group’s combination of Arabic-language rap, English- and Arabic-language singing, messages of Arab unity and lyrics addressing day-to-day political, economic, social and cultural issues.
In the beginning, the boys composed original lyrics and beats while Shahd sang the choruses. “Rap is about rhythm and poetry; if you don’t have the poetry, it means nothing,” explains Mesho, “We wanted to do everything ourselves. We didn’t want anyone to be able to say ‘I made them do this’ or ‘I taught them to do that,’ so we created the beats and the lyrics.”
As they were experimenting, the trio decided to remake a famous song by sampled the instrumental of “Mirror” by Lil’ Wayne and Bruno Mars. Shahd sang “Mirror’s” chorus, and Mesho and Ayman wrote their own rhythmic, unique, and personalized raps for the verses. This remix is what initially attracted X-Factor to them.
Each member of the group has his or her own ideology, personality, and interests, but they share the same passion to express what they’ve been through and how they see the world.
Shahd says, “What makes me choose a certain song is based on the message the song sends me. “I Need A Dr.” has a personal meaning to me so I was able to sing it well. Other songs are based on how I feel towards them and how I want to portray it to everyone around me.”
“We get to show people three different perspectives of the same issue, whether it’s in Ayman’s lyrics, my beats or in Shahd’s passion,” Mesho says. Even when they discuss political issues, and some conflict does arise between them, they manage to compromise and construct something with a uniform ideology for the Young Pharoz.
Young Pharoz does not see itself as a political group, but a hip-hop group that talks about everything from psychology to philosophy to poverty. “We always want to keep it real and talk about the truth, and we want to expose what’s going on. We want to talk about what other artists don’t talk about,” Mesho says. Even the love songs that Young Pharoz remake, such as “Love the Way You Lie” diverge from the originals and become songs with meaning and a message.
The group is keen on being “the voice of the public” and making sure that their message is heard around the Arab world. They want to ensure that the fame does not change what they’re all about, so they are constantly reminding themselves of the reasons they created this group in the first place. In Mesho’s words: They’re “from the streets, to the streets.”
Factoring In The X
“They contacted us,” Mesho says, explaining that most performers have to apply or go through X-Factor’s open call process. “We were the only act on X-Factor that was contacted to enter the program. Everyone else auditioned.”
X-Factor as a reality show was not as important to the trio as much as the exposure of their message it represented. Even if Young Pharoz had lost the first rounds, Mesho says, it would not have made a difference: “We do it for the love of music.”
Shahd adds, “The idea of X-Factor is to show people what you do — they either love it or they don’t. But there were no other bands that got to where we were.”
But, the process was hard. “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be good,” says Mesho, noting that the X-Factor imposed strict contractual obligations on the contestants. The mentors chose the songs that the group would remix and changed parts if they weren’t pleased with them, and the show owned all the rights to music produced during their time on set.
“It was not easy at all, and it was very stressful,” Shahd recalls. “But we didn’t show any of the stress because we knew how important it was to believe in ourselves.” It’s an outlook that fits well with her motto “Always smile, dare to dream.”
“Actually, working under pressure made the result of each song better than what we expected,” adds Ayman. For all the restrictions, though, Ayman says there was a red line the Young Pharoz wouldn’t cross: The group had made it very clear that their lyrics would remain untouched throughout the process, and they say the X-Factor honored that.
“They were trying to commercialize our music,” notes Mesho. “The music may be commercial, but our ideas and lyrics are not. We weren’t prepared to let anyone change our ideologies.”
For example, the Young Pharoz remake of “I Need A Dr.” by Dr. Dre and Eminem discusses how Arab culture has become a matter of “agreeing to disagree.” The song addresses eight historic Egyptians that had led Egypt to greatness once upon a time, and how we need these figures to return to our times and revive the Arabs.
“We weren’t prepared to turn this song into a commercial tool under any circumstances,” asserts Mesho.
Lebanese singer Carole Samaha became their mentor in the middle of the program and strongly supported their individuality. She added to their performances when it came to finishing touches, training on stage behavior, improving facial expressions and other aesthetic factors. She mainly concentrated on Shahd’s talents, explains Ayman, because of the singing and the stage movements.
Like any group, the Young Pharoz have had their moments of bickering, fighting and arguing are not unfamiliar to them. But, Ayman says, “Whenever we’d get into arguments, it would never be personal.”
Shahd, who says she mediates in instances where the two rappers cannot agree, adds, “Yes, any arguments were strictly professional and did not affect our long lasting friendships with one another.”
Ayman says that after X-Factor, he and Mesho realized that what make their music so powerful was the fact that they didn’t agree on everything: “We had different perspectives, and when we put these perspectives together, they made an amazing combination. That’s what made the outcome perfect.”
Each performer’s individual personality comes through onstage and in the music. “I’m very rebellious, Ayman is very realistic and logical, and Shahd is careful,” Mesho says. “These dynamics complete the group and have a lot to do with our ideologies. These characteristics show in each and every one of us, so although we share the same goal, we’re still able to stand out as individuals.”
Before going to Beirut, they sat down to articulate their goals to one another, align themselves to one common goal and never deviate from it.
“Our only fears about X-Factor were not that we would lose, but that we wouldn’t get the exposure that we were looking for,” says Mesho, “We were also worried that we’d become to commercialized. I was always unsure whether we should stay underground or become exposed and risk losing our identity. But thankfully, we were able to strike that balance.”
Young Pharoz reached the semi-finals, and their fourth-place finish landed them a contract with renowned producers Sony Music Middle East (SMME).
“The point of X-Factor wasn’t for us to win; it was for us to reach peoples’ hearts,” says Shahd, “Of course we were upset, but we were constantly reminding ourselves what our actual purpose was.”
Over the past few months, the group has been performing around Cairo, in El Sawy Culture Wheel, Mall of Arabia and Manor House, while taking the first steps toward an international career. They recently met with their sponsor Pepsi in London to officially launch Young Pharoz and have also recorded a soon-to-be-released new track. SMME representatives have also met with the dynamic trio to discuss recording two new original singles and creating an album that will give them regional and international exposure.
Currently in collaboration with three producers from around the Middle East, Young Pharoz are recording their latest original single, which hasn’t been released yet. They are also shooting a music video to be released in June. And while Mesho and Ayman continue to generate original beats and lyrics, Shahd is looking into including more Arabic choruses in the future, as she had wished to do so on X-Factor.
“Although things are moving slowly because of the political issues in Egypt, I have high hopes for us. We just started working on our new single a couple of months ago, so we’re waiting to finalize things,” says Mesho, “I’m looking forward to the next few months, and I’m hoping that Young Pharoz are going to be the next big thing. I want Young Pharoz to break the record of the ‘most attended concert’ in the history.” et