“It wasn’t just the music that they had control over. As well as the kind of songs, they wanted to control what I do, what I say and even the way I talk," she says
Moroccan rapper Manal's long road to finding the right path in a tough world
When it comes to the promising Arab rapper Manal, it was a case of mothers knowing best (stay with us, we will explain).
The 24-year-old Moroccan – full name Manal Benchlikha – has built a steady reputation for herself in her homeland, courtesy of a string of radio favourites, including Denia (2015) and Koulchi Ban (2017) with collaborator DJ Van. The resulting attention caught the ears of record labels, and Manal was the talk of the local music industry.
But, as Manal recalls, all that attention came at an expense. In addition to uncomfortable meetings with leery executives and talent scouts, she was offered contracts with unfavourable terms.
“It wasn’t just the music that they had control over,” she says. “As well as the kind of songs, they wanted to control what I do, what I say and even the way I talk.”
A star at what cost?
Torn over the idea of achieving her dream of being a fully signed artist, but at the price of her creative freedom, she consulted fellow Moroccan artist Cilvaringz (real name Tarik Azzougarh), a hip-hop producer closely affiliated with the US rap super-group Wu-Tang Clan. Cilvaringz told her he was scandalised at what was on offer, and described the proposals as a “form of slavery” before advising her to reject them immediately.
Dejected and slightly humiliated, Manal took some time off to figure out her next move. Meanwhile, what she didn’t know at the time was that Cilvaringz had told his mother about the encounter with Manal – a discussion that provided an unexpected career break.
“For some reason she was a very big fan of mine and she knew my songs,” Manal says with a quiet laugh. “She then almost demanded that Cilvaringz manage me and that’s what happened.”
A new and determined sound
The new partnership resulted in a complete career rejuvenation for Manal; that new-found confidence also had her rapping for the first time in the single Taj, the first of two tracks released this year. Over staccato beats laced with oriental riffs, Manal takes aim at her critics and the misogynistic behaviour she faced in the Moroccan music industry.
“The rapping was a big change for me, and it did surprise a lot of people,” she says. “But I just felt mad and angry at some of these things that I have seen and I realised that the only way to let them out was through rapping.”
Her instincts proved right, with Manal’s flow equally dexterous and gruff. She explains that the Moroccan accent can complement hip-hop beats if the lyrics are well thought through. “It can be a challenge if it’s not correctly done,” she says. “The thing with the Moroccan accent is that it can sound round, and some words may sound weird.
“So you have to write the rhymes in a way to make sure they fit. If you get that right, then it just sounds amazing.”
UAE fans had a chance to witness that brand of hip-hop last month when Manal appeared as part of the regional indie-music showcase dxbeats at Dubai Opera alongside Lebanon’s Yasmine Hamdan and Iraqi-Canadian rapper Narcy.
It was also an appropriate occasion to perform her latest single Nah, in which she jettisons the rap for a more sultry R&B croon. With more than 1,000 in the audience, dxbeats remains Manal’s biggest international show and career landmark yet. “It was really a great feeling. I was nervous and freaking out but the crowd were really amazing,” she says.
“I was a bit concerned because no one knew me, but the support I received from the audience was really beautiful.”
Talented Moroccan artists need support
Now signed to major Dubai record label Sony Music Middle East, Manal hopes her career can help to illustrate the depth of talent in the Moroccan youth scene.
“There are so many great producers, singers and rappers out there, but there is sadly no real music” she says.
“There are festivals there that invite us, but they focus on the international acts and they never take the local artists seriously. They underpay them and don’t respect their rights,” she adds of the Moroccan scene. “This is a shame because given the opportunity they can really do some great things.”