Can This Pioneer of Moroccan Trap Break Out Globally? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Moroccan trap artist Issam Harris.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because this star is ready to break out globally.

By Tania Bhattacharya

When you turn on Moroccan trap star Issam Harris’ latest video, “Nike,” it’s best to throw all conventional expectations out the window. There’s no joyful rapping trumpeting the legendary sports brand, nor high fashion. Instead, Nike pays tribute to Moroccans’ obsession with branding everything they own — from tires to djellabas — that has nothing to do with the product itself or even knowledge of the brand. “Moroccans don’t have much money, but it’s in the culture to wear brands, not fashion,” says the Casablanca native.

“Nike” is also a peek into Harris’ vivid imagination — he wrote and composed the song as well as co-directed the video — where daily life in Morocco meets dystopian surrealism. Amid the smoke, faded reds and greens, and crumbling spaces, you’ll meet the everyday people closest to Harris, along with snakes, a goat, a burning mannequin and, of course, the rapper himself. The Daliesque work, Harris’ first indie video since signing a massive deal with Universal Music France last year, is markedly different from his earlier work, trending on YouTube at No. 2 in Morocco upon release. And the 27-year-old is just getting started.

“We’re hearing ‘Nike’ on the streets,” says Harris. “Moroccans are really tuned in!”

The North African country has been hitting all the right notes with its vibrant music scene and the homegrown artists driving it. Harris is one of Morocco’s numerous hip-hop artists, although his Universal deal is said to be the biggest any Arab artist has ever signed. Harris sees the deal — inked with Tarik Azzougarh, a Dutch-Moroccan rapper who goes by Cilvaringz and was an associate producer of legendary rap group Wu-Tang Clan — as a means to fulfill his vision, make music the way he wants and, most importantly, do it for his countrymen. Moroccans waited nearly a year for “Nike” to drop while Harris cycled through 20 versions of mixing and matching in studios in Paris and Los Angeles in addition to his home country. “I’m always bringing something [artistic] to Morocco that people haven’t seen before,” he says.

A familiar groove underlies all his music, from “Trap Beldi” and “Caviar” to “Makinch Zhar” and “Hasni.” He has also collaborated with fellow artists for songs like “Bavra” and “Casablanca.” But it is Harris’ signature blend of styles — auto-tuned vocals in the darija dialect, 808-generated drum beats and distinct native touches like rai music or beats and instruments — that have ensured his enduring popularity in the Maghreb.

I consider myself to be the voice of the people.

Issam Harris

For those with little to no knowledge of Arabic, especially its colloquial usage, Harris’ songs are impossible to understand. A persistent Google search of translated lyrics yields no results. Yet, as I listened to his tracks over several days, I found myself drawn in. And even though his popularity has exploded in recent months, Harris remains easy to interact with, exuding energy while talking about his work.

“I consider myself to be the voice of the people,” he says. “What you see is exactly what it looks like. The stories, all the elements [I use], they’re accurate.”

Harris has lived his entire life in Casablanca; before signing with Universal, he had never traveled abroad. He describes a simple and quiet childhood, but he also belongs to the Arab Spring generation, and the movement’s impact on him is clear in his struggle to articulate it. Perhaps this is why he takes issue with artists who grow up abroad and return to Morocco to make music. “It’s borrowed heritage,” he asserts. “Music should be authentic.”

Technology and the internet have been Harris’ close allies, allowing him to work out of his bedroom and shoot videos for no money and upload them to YouTube. “Trap Beldi,” for example, which has racked up more than 15 million views, brought him global attention and is now one of the top trap tracks to emerge from the Maghreb. Harris has always been artistically oriented — as a photographer and visual artist, he found “a void in artistic expression,” which led him to make music. He has his hands in every aspect of production.

Longtime collaborator and “Nike” video co-director Ham Robati believes Harris is different from his fellow artists because “he’s always working and always pushing boundaries.… We always encourage him to do something new.” Robati is part of a core group, including director of photography Essadik Asli, that the rapper works with.

At one time Harris was denied a visa to visit Paris, but the deal with Universal has ensured his freedom of movement. Still, he needs Casablanca, he says: “That’s what I’m representing.” His music and videos are about daily realities in the country, but they also strike a nostalgic note, particularly in his flirting with rai legend Cheb Hasni’s tunes. They are commentary on the past, on Harris’ childhood and that of millions of Moroccans who grow up listening to rai and Hasni.

But Harris’ fan base is spreading beyond his home country. “People outside Morocco love his music because it’s emotional, it comes straight from the heart,” says New York–based Imad Khallouki, Harris’ friend and manager. “Issam found his soul, and now he’s a fully developed artist. [Such artists] grow themselves as they find out more about themselves.” It remains to be seen how far Harris’ music will penetrate in the West, considering that hip-hop culture is a channel of resistance, dependent on lyrics and slang. And though Harris breaks in English and French, his primary language, Arabic — and more specifically darija — is not common outside the region.

Harris’ European tour and summer/fall schedule of performances have been derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but followers can still look forward to his debut album with Universal, Crystal. His distinctive stamp will remain intact, as will his commitment to entertaining Moroccans and promoting talented local musicians to an international audience. “All I have known from childhood to now is this [life],” says Harris. “It is who I am. I don’t know how to be any different.”

OZY’s 5 Questions With Issam Harris

  • What’s the last book you read? Frank Herbert’s Heretics of Dune.
  • What do you worry about? The final versions of a few songs of my upcoming album.
  • What’s one thing you can’t live without? Water.
  • Who’s your hero? Mimi, my 1-year-old cat.
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? Sharing my first studio album with the world.

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