“Morocco’s rap scene is clearly a product of globalization and the internet.” This is a declaration you might expect in a story about Moroccan hip-hop, but sometimes such journalistic oversimplification can cause more harm than good – not to mention perpetuate false impressions or simply be inaccurate.
Let me explain: In the 1999 New York Times article “I Hate World Music,” David Byrne, former leader of the band Talking Heads, argues that the “White Man” has put 99 percent of the world’s music – basically “anything that isn’t in English or that doesn’t fit into the Anglo-Western pop universe,” as he put it, into a ghetto called “world music.” By this, the White Man is essentially continuing the colonialist tradition of putting himself and the Western world in the center and measuring everyone and everything in relation to the physical or cultural distance from them.
To continue treating Moroccan hip-hop, Lebanese indie rock, the blues of the Tuareg people from the Sahara or a techno DJ from Ramallah solely as products of globalization just because they are aware of the Western world is essentially being guilty of the same thing. Today it’s truly hard to recall where and when everything started. The Moroccan rap tradition, for example, has existed for decades, and not just in its current form of hip-hop, or more accurately, trap – a style of rap characterized by mumbling that got its start in Atlanta, Georgia. It has deep roots from almost 50 years ago, when bands like Nass El Ghiwane and Jil Jilala sprung up in Morocco and became very popular in the country.
Director Martin Scorsese once referred to Nass El Ghiwane as “the Rolling Stones of Morocco,” although one can assume that in the 1970s a lot of bands whose members played guitar and grew their hair out were immediately compared to the Stones. By the way, did you know that Mick Jagger is the white Bo Diddley? That doesn’t sound right, does it? (Although I would suggest comparing him to Tina Turner, since Jagger didn’t play guitar and it’s well-known that he imitated Turner with his onstage body language.)
In any case, in my opinion the “Rolling Stones of Morocco” were more reminiscent of the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron – Afro-American artists identified with the Black Panther movement and the human rights struggle in the 1960s – for a few reasons. First, all these artists used spoken word in their music. These Moroccan bands got their inspiration from Sufi poetry. Second, the content was full of political and protest messages. The members of Nass El Ghiwane, for example, met in the Moroccan avant-garde theater scene, where staged works included social content and criticism of the regime. On top of that they were political activists themselves. And third, they were returning to an ancient musical tradition by using classic African rhythms and instruments.
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Moreover, anyone who knows a thing or two about hip-hop knows that the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron were among the many founding influences of the genre in the United States and globally. Not only have their music and lyrics been sampled in dozens of other works over the years, but they are also representatives of the early configuration of rap – spoken word – speaking or reading poetry over music. Just as these two heralded the rap and hip-hop era in the United States, Nass El Ghiwane is similarly seminal in Morocco.
And if we’re talking original sources, the Israeli group Shlomo Bar and Habreira Hativit were also greatly influenced by Nass El Ghiwane, who inserted the Gnawa rhythms of North Africa and the tradition of Sufi poetry into the framework created by the Last Poets. In other words, these are influences on influences on influences. One can adopt styles from other distant places, but how do you make them your own?
Don’t mess with Don Bigg
“I don’t see any value in doing another song like Travis Scott or Young Thug. I get inspiration from those artists, but I’m more interested in bringing elements from my Moroccan culture,” says Issam, 25, an up-and-coming rapper coming out of Casablanca. He has already earned some admiration from reviewers in magazines like Vice and Fader, which have credibility in the genre. And indeed, he has managed to create original Moroccan trap in which the listener feels Travis Scott’s presence, but the melodic line and most of the samples are North African. That’s what happens in “Hasni,” which is dedicated to the late Algerian singer Cheb Hasni, or in “Caviar,” which features a sample from one of his songs.
Issam’s singing, or more accurately, his rapping, refers to popular ballads from the 1980s and 90s. He raps about love and disappointment on the backdrop of foreignness, exile and the difficulties of urban life, about the individual versus the community and about tradition – all these appear in his music and make it into something unique that has never been heard before: original Moroccan trap.
Not everyone, it seems, is pleased with how trap has taken off in Morocco. Older rappers have expressed dissatisfaction with the new style. In general, members of the old guard are scornful of trap and aren’t prepared to treat those who create it as proper rappers. One of the most vocal opponents of trap in the United States is Snoop Dogg; in Morocco, there’s Don Bigg.
Last December the Moroccan hip-hop scene was raging from a particularly rude exchange on the social networks between Don Bigg, one of the country’s most seasoned rappers, and almost all the other rappers in Morocco. After several quiet years, Don Bigg released a single entitled “170 KG,” a reference to the rapper’s weight. In it he lashes out, in rather colorful language, at numerous younger artists, including Dizzy DROS, 7Liwa, Lbenj, Ily, Toto, Mr. Crazy and Comy, all of whom get sharply “dissed.” It’s no coincidence that the names mentioned are currently the hottest artists in Morocco and across the Arab world.
In music it’s a pretty common for the older generation to make fun of the younger one, but in hip-hop it’s an integral part of the genre. Expressing an impolite opinion of a colleague is considered perfectly acceptable material for a song, or even a few songs – the minute someone disses another rapper, he can expect a counterattack. That’s how we ended up with “57kg,” 7Liwa’s response to Don Bigg.
7Liwa is a fascinating character on the Casablanca trap scene. As the song title indicates, he’s a thin guy full of charisma and Autotune, whose style can be described as something between cough syrup and Pop Rocks. It’s as wacky as it sounds.
One of the claims he makes in “57kg” is that the success of older rappers like Don Bigg is connected to funding from the people – that is, taxes, or the support of the establishment – while he represents a younger generation that is doing everything on its own without anyone’s help.
The presence of Morocco’s monarchy is visible in the content of the country’s music, and being embraced by the establishment has various connotations. The government still has the power to determine who will and who won’t be heard.
One would expect rap artists in their twenties who are well-versed in hip-hop culture to be more scathing, direct or even subversive than they actually are in Morocco.
Incidentally, one of the reasons for the sudden breakthrough of so many younger artists was the death of King Hassan II in 1999. The current ruler, King Mohammed VI, is considered relatively liberal compared to his father.
On the other hand, there is a correlation between what’s happening in Morocco and what’s happening with rap around the world. The era of political awareness and protest has passed – or at least occupies a smaller niche –making room for other styles like trap, which generally deals with drugs, violence and fashion labels. The only difference is that in Morocco, it’s still forbidden to sing about hashish, at least straightforwardly. But someone familiar with the nuances of Moroccan society who is able to put his Western viewpoint aside for a moment can identify a lot of subversive statements, even without the telltale women’s rear ends and clouds of marijuana.
Like distant cousins
Speaking of rear ends, the representation of women in American hip-hop ranges from a caricature of the stripper (Lil’ Kim, Cardi B) to a woman who has shed almost all her feminine traits (Missy Elliott) – and this is in the supposedly democratic, enlightened world. Femininity in American hip-hop is limited to these two images without almost any other option: either you’re a bad bitch or you’re a bad bitch. Unfortunately, there’s only one Beyonce.
But in female Moroccan hip-hop, the supposed conflict between the status of women in a traditional society and the modern genre has created a new and refreshing character. A Moroccan female hip-hop artist needn’t strip or dress like a man. She possesses traditional elements but has already gone through the process of becoming a hybrid creature who isn’t short on troubles but still has a voice – especially now, after the wave of women’s protests that swept through Morocco almost two years ago. And these women don’t just have a voice. They also have a respectable presence on the Moroccan hip-hop scene. Among all the rappers dissed in Don Bigg’s song, there is one woman – Ily.
She didn’t earn this dubious honor because of her music, but because she was involved in a romantic triangle with some of the other rappers mentioned in it. How typical for a female rapper to be noted for something personal rather than for her work. Ily, which is a shortened version of Ilham Bnt Stati’s first name, is one of the women who has shaped the female voice in Moroccan rap and pop. Male pop stars like Zouhair Bahaoui, Aymane Serhani, Saad Lamjarred and Douzi sing about relationships and betrayals; male rap stars have put aside the protest tradition of Nass El Ghiwane. Meanwhile, these women are unabashedly critical of the patriarchy in Moroccan society.
There are currently quite a number of female rappers in Morocco. The best-known are Ily, Manal and Krtas’Nssa. This generation of women rappers got its start in 2008 with Tigress Flow, an all-female group that had hits like “Maghribiya” (“Moroccan Girl”). Moroccan hip-hop has made huge strides in the last couple of years. It’s the most popular genre among young Moroccans. Local artists like Dizzy DROS and Lbenj are at the top of the charts in many Arab countries and are also becoming known in Europe thanks to the Moroccan diaspora there.
Long before the age of globalization, music was an international language with the power to bring people closer and shatter misguided stereotypes. The hip-hop and pop music of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and the rest of the Arab world affords an opportunity to discover a lot about the young people in these countries. Though it shouldn’t be surprising, one finds that our similarities far outnumber our differences.
When I listen to and look at these young people in Morocco, I am reminded that not so many decades ago, my grandparents and theirs shared the same national identity. And this automatically makes me feel as if they could have been my cousins from Kiryat Malakhi or Migdal Ha’emek. Through them I can also see the chasms that Jewish migration from the country opened up between us. While these young Moroccan musicians are talking about the conflicts between tradition and progress, communalism and individualism – and doing so impressively both musically and visually (as in Issam’s video for “Caviar”) – we in Israel are focused on less universal issues. Here it’s more about background and class differences, as we see with artists like Shefita and Dudu Faruk, whose popular songs parody traditional Arab culture.
To bring our tradition – and I don’t mean just religious tradition – to the front of the stage here, either with love or as an object of criticism, we still need to bridge the gaps of the social and cultural hierarchy between what’s taken seriously – art with European sensibilities, for instance – and what is always presented with mockery, like the culture of Arabs, or Jews of Arab descent. The Moroccan hip-hop scene is a splendid example of what we could be if we shed our imagined self-importance as the embodiment of the West in the Middle East.