The DJ crunches his knuckles together and takes a deep breath, readying himself for some turntable dexterity. Adjusting his cap, he launches himself at the decks, sending a blast of hip-hop crashing from the speakers tilting out of an open window and echoing around the decaying housing estate below.
It was with this seminal scene from 1995 French film La Haine that non-English- language rap stood up to be counted. It showed that hip-hop, an American phenomenon, could be translated into a different language, coloured by another culture and imbued with local grit. And the success of the music in France, now the world’s second largest consumer, has spawned global scenes from Tokyo to Toronto, Johannesburg to Jakarta.
In Morocco, the subtle nuance between tradition and modernity, youthful exuberance and respect for elders, means the North African country’s flourishing rap scene not only makes for a fascinating exploration of a society in flux, but also represents an exciting hotspot where this evolving musical hybrid is taking shape.
Hip-hop culture in Morocco took root in the mid-90s, influenced by North Africans in France who were achieving mainstream success as rappers. But while Europe-based artists were often motivated by social inequality and institutionalised racism, in Morocco the reasons for the genre’s rocketing popularity were different.
In a country where half of the population is under 20, rap provides young Moroccans with a music they can claim as their own. “Before rap established itself in Morocco, we listened to the same music as our parents,” explains Hatim of Meknès rap group H-Kayne, “the great Moroccan classics and those from the Arab world, where ‘love’ dominated three-quarters of the repertoire. Now, with rap, we sing as we speak – it’s as simple as that.”
It’s a language that directly engages youngsters, tackling issues from juvenile delinquency, women’s rights and illiteracy, to tolerance, optimism and Morocco’s rich cultural heritage. Rap has consistently preached a moderate line, with songs springing up to condemn the 2003 bombings in Casablanca and, more recently, vocalising support for women and children in Gaza. Artists almost uniquely rap in Darija, the local Arabic dialect, allowing them to reach the widest possible audience and counter the continued influence of French in the country’s urban centres. “Darija is the language for every day,” stresses Hatim.
There’s no doubt Moroccan rap has been influenced by America, but there’s one big difference, says Mouhssine Tizaf, leader of Marrakech crew Fnaïre. “The musical reference points for Moroccan hip-hop remain American,” he says, “like Eminem, Dr Dre and Tupac. But local rappers don’t identify much with their lifestyle.” In a country that still has a strong conservative streak, tales of drugs and violence don’t wash well. And while rap in Morocco – like the US – is an almost uniquely urban phenomenon, it hasn’t been marginalised to the “projects” like the States. “Unlike other countries,” continues Mouhssine, “this music genre comes from the heart of the city – the old medinas – and not the estates.”
Despite an outward appearance of copycatting America, seen in the baggy jeans, baseball caps and football shirts commonly worn, Morocco’s rappers are keen to show that their music has strong local roots. Many of the rap tunes blasting out of the radio mix the ubiquitous hip-hop beat with strong Arabic rhythms, often featuring collaborations with traditional singers. Fnaïre, for example, refer to their music as taklidi (traditional) rap and on 2007 album Yed El Henna, they teamed up with spiritual poet Abdelsselam Damoussi.
It hasn’t always been easy. Turning the tide of public opinion and winning over the media has taken time and it’s only since the new millennium that hip-hop has really exploded in popularity.
Much of the credit for Morocco’s nascent alternative scene can be traced to one pioneering festival: Boulevard in Casablanca. Founded in 1999, the first edition welcomed 12 groups and around 200 non-professionals. Fast-forward to last year and, despite previous run-ins with the authorities and one rock band being labelled “blasphemous”, 160,000 boisterous youngsters came to watch their favourite heavy metal, hip-hop and fusion stars. Boulevard has certainly helped kick-start many a rapper’s career, thanks to its tremplin (literally “springboard”) amateur stage, which provides artists with a first experience of playing in front of a crowd. “Boulevard isn’t only a festival. It’s a movement,” says Hatim.
The talent pools are deep. Alongside Fnaïre and H-Kayne, the roster of respected rappers includes Fez City Clan, fronted by child rapper MC Anou; the crunk and gangsta-inspired Casa Crew; part-time law student and full time megastar Bigg; and K-Libre, first-prize winner at the Boulevard’s tremplin stage in 2005. All have sculpted rap into something that is part imported, part domestic, 100% made in Morocco – and overwhelmingly positive. “We defend our Moroccan identity,” affirms Mouhssine, “we inform, we raise awareness and we even provide some solutions.”