“Hand me the guitar, my brother.” I toss the instrument over to Abdelghafour and he begins to play an improvised melody. It’s upbeat, bouncy. Soon our friends who are with us join in, striking drums, chilling, and soaking in the good vibes and noises.
The above is one of the many nights that I spent with Abdelghafour Belkheir. I got to know him through another friend in the language program. We quickly hit it off through a shared love of music. I reached out to him through email and asked him about rap, his music, and the future that he sees for himself.
He’s an up-and-coming rapper from the city of Meknes, in central Morocco. The city pulses with music: its traditional issawa, mystical Sufi melodies and chants, still rings out during the nights of Ramadan, weddings, and other important times throughout the year. Gnawa, another traditional Moroccan form of music, fuses Arab, West African, and Andalusian rhythms. [Like Hoba Hoba Spirit].
For the youth, however, gnawa is not the first thing on their minds. Satellite television broadcasts of American music channels and then the friction-less freedom of the Internet exposed young Moroccans to American hip-hop and rap. The generation that grew in the 90's and the early 2000's emerged influenced by this genre.
First satellite television, then the internet, allowed friction-less and free exposure to new forms of music. For young Moroccans growing up in the 90's and early 2000's, that meant American hip-hop and rap influenced the generation of artists, including Abdelghafour, who emerged from that time. As a sample, compare the musicality of 2Pac’s 1996 “California Love” to Dizzy Dros – a Moroccan rapper who’s reached fame and stardom – in his song “Cazafonia.”
James: What exposed you to rap?
Abdelghafour: I first started getting into rap through MTV. I started watching music videos and seeing different rappers like Eminem (He was really popular at the time, haha) and Missy Elliot. I also started seeing people rapping on the streets in Meknes in Hamriya (the newer side of the city where younger people hang out) so I decided to try it on my own.
J: So, tell me about your favorite artists. What styles do you like?
AG: Right now Akua Naru is definitely my favorite rapper. She talks about social issues and I like how she raps on live music with bands. When I first started getting into rap, my favorite style was West Coast because of Dr. Dre’s beats. To be honest trap music is the only style I don’t like now.
J: When did you start rapping? Tell me about the challenges that you have faced.
AG: I started in 2006 when I was 14. During this time, there were still certain ideas about rap and its connotations — the idea that people who did rap or “dressed like rappers” were the opposite of the rest of the Moroccan society. And with that comes the challenges of my family and them accepting that this was something I loved. Since I was so young, I couldn’t afford the costs of recording in the studio so I spent a lot of time writing before I had the chance to record anything.
J: Describe the rap scene in Morocco. Who are the big names?
AG: For me, there are two types of rappers in Morocco — first there are the type that in their beginning, they try to address social and political issues in Morocco. Then, after they become famous, they change their subjects because the government starts funding their music meaning they can no longer discuss these topics. Second there are the types of rappers that don’t really address these issues at all — they just want to rap to seem cool and just rap about themselves and how cool they are. Right now the most well-known rappers are Don Bigg, Muslim, and Dizzy Dross.
J: Where do you see yourself taking your art / music?
AG: First of all I want to always make sure to keep my music art. I think some musicians change their style or art because of certain pressures (like becoming famous quickly) and it takes away from their art. When I first started rapping, I talked about politics and social issues in my lyrics. But for me, this doesn’t change the situation and it doesn’t provide solutions. So instead, i want my lyrics to focus on more spiritual subjects because I think that if I can positively affect individuals by changing the way they think, then I can help society from a different perspective.
J: Who are some new and young rappers, in Meknes and around Morocco, who will make an impact in the near future?
AG: From Meknes I can only think of L’bandy right now. From Casablanca there is Philo and Damost.
J: What themes are in your music?
AG: As I said above, I try to avoid talking about politics or other social issues in my music. I think too many people end up following mainstream ideas because they don’t want to think too much. Because of that, I want my music to be something that wakes people up and makes them start thinking outside the box.