This Female Moroccan Rapper Is Shaking Up the Arab World

Soultana, the first Arab woman rapper, couldn’t care less about any patriarch: She sings subversive texts about prostitution and encourages women’s independence

Soultana.
Selma Benmalek / Mela Festival Oslo

Prostitution is just one of the subversive subjects Soultana, a prominent Moroccan rapper and the first Arab woman in the field, sings about. Soultana, whose real name is Youssra Oakuf, gives no quarter to anyone. “I am saying to all women that they are free and can do whatever they want. That they aren’t subordinate to anyone,” she declares on stage.

At the age of 29, she has been active for more than a decade and has paved the way to hip-hop for other Arab women, among them Mai Mandour from Saudi Arabia, Malikah from Lebanon, British Palestinian Shadia Mansour, Mayam Mahmoud from Egypt and Amani Yahya from Yemen, as well as others from her own country.

The rap scene in Morocco is lively and vibrant. At first, in the 1980s, Moroccan rappers sang in English but in the 1990s artists revolutionized the field and started singing in the local Arabic dialect.

>> You need to get to know Moroccan hip-hop: it's original, independent and female

Soultana’s entry into this very masculine musical world, with all its professional and gender obstacles, was a pioneering act. In her performances she does not hesitate to express fierce criticism of her society and the patriarchy yet despite the difficulties, the opposition and the inherent danger she insists on working in her own society. On stage, she sometimes wears a baseball cap, as is typical of the genre, and sometimes she chooses to wear the traditional head covering – in itself a strong statement, signaling to religious women in the Arab world that it is possible to work, create and be expressive from this position, with all its limitations. There is no doubt that it takes a lot of guts to go on stage and perform subversive texts, dance and move, both before a traditional Arab audience as well as before a Western one.

Soultana is a powerful and confident artist, moving her body and hands in strong, sharp, assertive movements. She slices through the air with her body, all rage, seeming to want to rip the world into pieces. She presents harsh and complex messages center stage, her femininity present through her statements, not through her body. As she told the London-based pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi: “I am not into the minidress and makeup thing and I don’t care at all if I come across to listeners as ‘masculine.’ What’s important to me are the positions I represent.”

Unsurprisingly, she elicits harsh reactions in the media. The criticism she expresses, publicly and loudly, against the status of women in Arab society in Morocco creates tremendous opposition.

Soultana, who was born into a lower-middle class family and had no formal musical training, has related in interviews that she first became aware of hip-hop when she was studying English and draws the inspiration for her creative work mainly from the streets of Rabat. She started out with five other Moroccan women, when they were still teenagers: In 2005, they established the first women’s rap band in the Arab world (which bore the English name Tigresse Flow). The group made headlines in 2008 after it won a prize in the national music festival in Morocco, Mawazine. The prize was supposed to have been a hefty sum of money that would help them continue to create music but they did not receive any financial support because Morocco does not recognize rap as an art worthy of compensation and support.

The Culture Ministry's opposition apparently stemmed from the fact that rap throws into question the social and political order and is perceived as a threat to it. Recognizing it as a legitimate form of art would mean affording it a platform to and recognizing the legitimacy of its messages - and the current regime has no interest in that. Therefore, the young rappers were denied the prize money they had won; as one newspaper commented, “People thought the group of rebellious girls would go on stage, leave the stage and simply disappear.”

The Tigresse Flow group did not survive, not only due to economic difficulty but also because of professional and artistic differences among its members. Soultana, however, certainly did survive. In one interview she said: “It took me a long time to succeed and to say: Yes, I am a singer and an artist. I hope that the day I stop performing the way will already be paved for other women. I want them to be able to choose this profession.”

Her songs touch on a broad spectrum of social and political issues, and also issues taken from everyday life. Soultana claims rap as the voice of the people. She has often said: “My music isn’t about love, betrayal and heartbreak. It talks about my life and our hard life in Morocco.” Together with Anas Basbousi, in March 2014 she released a song entitled “Women’s Voice,” which dealt with the phenomenon of prostitution in Morocco and the lives of female prostitutes: “On your face she saw her lost life / You saw her as a cheap woman / In your face she saw what she could have been / You gave her a scornful look / She sells her body / Because there is a buyer – You!... / She could have been your mother, your sister / This is who she is but she could have been me and also you.”

Soultana also released her first album with Anas Bawss, in 2015, in collaboration with another male rapper, Abd El Moughit Oukaf (alias Mo Beazy) and with support from the organizers of the Mawazine festival. In an interview she explained: “I also talk to men, to young men. It’s intentional that I perform with male rappers, because that way I know that men will listen to me and to my messages.”

Soultana goes everywhere she is invited. She has performed in Egypt and in other Arab countries as well as in Germany and in the United States. In interviews, she talks about her art, about making music, about rapping in Arabic – and above all about her life as an Arab woman who raps. Together with Basbousi, she is working to establish an umbrella organization that will institutionalize Moroccan rap music. She is planning to set up recording studios, broadcast channels, production companies and a center for young people that will allow them to make music.

A second generation has already emerged under Soultana’s wing. Among the young women active on the rap scene in Morocco is Manal, 20, a native of Marrakesh, – who also declares on stage at the start of one of her best-known songs, “The Crown” that "I do what I feel like doing;” Ilham El Arbaoui (alias Ily), 18, who was named as the most important musical phenomenon in Morocco in 2018; Psycho Queen, 19, who within a short time has become one of the five most important female rappers in Morocco and Tendreness, a more veteran rapper whose real name is Hanan. They have been viewed millions of times on social media and their messages are heard by millions. And since they are all feminist panthers, they arouse a lot of anger.