Morocco: ElGrandeToto, 7liwa, Naar… Rap in Darija goes international

By Jeanne Le Bihan
Posted on Wednesday, 7 December 2022 11:00

Moroccan rapper Small X was part of the group Shayfeen with Shobee from 2006 to 2021, before moving on to a solo career. ©Small X Facebook profile

A new wave of Moroccan rappers are gaining international influence with their creative, inclusive lyrics that are crossing borders and breaking through the language barrier.

Bon shit, Karan w barida, Guala, big thune Darija Darija”: the refrain of the song ‘Salina (It’s the street)’ oscillates between Latin American slang, French, English and Darija, the Moroccan dialect. “Karan w barida” refers to two culinary specialities from Oujda, while “guala” means money, slang used by American rappers Pop Smoke and Post Malone.

Released in May, the single brings together the most popular artists from the Moroccan rap scene around ElGrandeToto and has been a great success – the video, shot in Casablanca, has generated five million views on YouTube.

 

Accompanied by a nascent music industry, Moroccan rap is finding a growing international fan base and artists are becoming more professional. In this effervescent milieu, lyrics have always been written in Darija, as opposed to European colonial languages or classical Arabic, which is reserved for the administration and the media.

Although Darija is not an official language of the kingdom, it is the dialect of everyday speech and creativity, as shown by the very specific rhythm of the rap tracks, mixed with a vocabulary borrowed from globalisation and the influences of international hip-hop. The term itself refers to a heterogeneous language that includes several dialects depending on the region. Although the rappers are primarily addressing a Moroccan audience, their creativity has granted them international appeal despite the language barrier.

Energy that surpasses meaning

“I used to think that rock bands could be exported to the international scene because it was more about the energy they transmitted to the public, but that rap would have a hard time because it’s more about understanding the message,” says Yassin Tabouktirt, deputy director of the Moroccan label New District, which was co-founded by director Nabil Ayouch in 2020, with Amine Benjelloun and Anas Basbousi (the artist Bawss). “This new generation is proving us wrong, with international collaborations.” At the forefront is ElGrandeToto’s album Caméléon, released in 2021, to which Moroccan artists such as SmallX, French artists, such as Hamza and Damso, and Dutch artists ,such as 3robi, contributed.

Behind this exponential influence – four of the 10 most listened-to artists in the Arab world on Spotify in 2021 are Moroccan rappers. The meaning of the lyrics takes a back seat to the tracks’ rhythm and musicality. This is demonstrated by the “reaction rap” videos, where Internet users give their impressions when listening to the tracks: “We have English, Americans or Egyptians who listen to rap in Darija even though they don’t understand it,” says Tabouktirt. “What attracts them is the clip, the energy and the richness of the language, the fact that it is constantly changing and absorbing everything without having any linguistic rules!”

In 2019, the Naar collective, which describes itself as “post cultural” – aiming to abolish cultural borders so that equal opportunities and cultures emerge – attested to the rise of the  Moroccan rap scene with the album Safar. 11 Moroccan artists – Madd, SmallX, Shobee, Tagne, Issam and others – along with 19 international artists participated in Safar, which was followed by a 2019 European tour.

The success of the track ‘Money Call’, in which the two brothers Shobee and Madd team up with Laylow – whose name had not yet attained its current renown – confirms this. “No, no time for feelings,” Madd says in the first verse. “Baby 3ayni ghir fel millions (Baby, my eyes are on the millions).” In the end, in the song that alternates equally between the three rappers, the two Moroccans’ Darija takes up more space than the Toulousain rapper’s French.

“I realised after the release of the album that the tracks with the biggest ‘feats’ were not the ones that worked best,” says Mohamed Sqalli, artistic director and co-founder of Naar. “When we made ‘Money Call’, Laylow barely had 10,000 followers. Being a niche artist, his audience was curious by nature, so they really [liked] the track, and that scene.” While collaborations with very popular artists like Lomepal work, they haven’t seen the success of ‘Money Call’.

Following this logic of multilingual creation, Naar has organised a week-long residency for the artists to meet and agree on the themes. “This is the principle of trap, which is based on musicality and the topline,” says Sqalli. The topline refers to the melody sung with meaningless lyrics that serves as the basis for the project. “All artists have the same line of work and what matters is that the song is stylish, even if you can get messages across behind it.”

Three years after the release of Safar, rapper ElGrandeToto has taken over the burgeoning international rap scene. The number-one artist in the MENA region (which includes North Africa and the Middle East) in 2021 with more than 50 million streams, according to his Spotify ranking, the rapper has appropriated a more Western rap culture, notably using vocabulary from the Parisian scene. The chorus of the track ‘Salade Coco’, written in French between two verses in Darija, is a good example.

Lyrics demanding change

It was in Casablanca that a rap and hip hop scene emerged in the 1990s, particularly around the Sidi Belyout cultural complex near the port. Initially a scene of protest, it developed under the impetus of artists, such as the group H-Kayne and Don Bigg, and the creation of festivals, such as L’Boulevard – which organised its 20th edition in September 2022 in a chaotic atmosphere – or Mawazine, in Rabat.

Since the 20 February 2011 Movement, the lyrics have been less directly confrontational with the state – due to several arrests of artists who criticised the monarchy, such as Mouad BelgHouat alias El Haqed in 2012 and Mounir Gnawi in 2019. Social demands are nevertheless very present, tackling themes, such as poverty, misogyny or inequality.

Lghorba f 3ayni, ma tsolwnich 3lach tla3t dasser,” says the rapper 7liwa in a track in collaboration with French-Moroccan Lartiste, in 2016. “I have immigration in my sights, don’t ask me why I became arrogant”. He goes on to rap about some Moroccans’ desire to leave: “Drari hna 3aycha à l’aise talbin inchalah ghir mchiw lbled klrona”, that is, “The mates are at ease, they wanna leave for the Scandinavian countries” – literally, the “land of crowns”.

The fight against inequality and for inclusiveness are promoted by new labels, such as New District, with an editorial line explaining that it is focused on the rights of women and sexual minorities. Their lyrics demand action and are intended first for the Moroccan public before taking on any international ambitions.

Like 7liwa – whose pseudonym refers to gentleness, in contrast to his lyrics – these rappers are seeking, above all, to connect with Moroccans. The artist, followed by 1.3 million people on Instagram, signed with the Sony Music Middle East label in 2019 and is preparing to release a new album.

On social media platforms, his communication is mainly in Darija, with the Latin alphabet, although he sometimes uses French and English. “It’s very important to create [music] within your own culture, in Darija, so that access to the creation is first and foremost for people from the same country,” says Naar’s Sqalli. “After that, it is authentic culture that can be successfully exported instead of a poor substitute.”

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