x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Keeping the beat ... and the faith

In Casablanca a young man in American-style clothes and a stance full of attitude cuts an incongruous figure.

Mohamed El Malki, known as
Mohamed El Malki, known as "Masta Flow", belongs to hip-hop band Casa Crew.

On the streets of a middle-class neighbourhood in northwest Casablanca, the young man in baggy, American-style clothes with chains and rings and a stance full of attitude cuts an incongruous figure. He introduces himself as Masta Flow, 27, a member of the Casa Crew rap group, which has attracted a big following in Morocco as it plays before crowds of young fans and regularly appears on national television and radio. Masta - known to his friends as Simo - and the other three members of the group may give every impression of being urbane, hip young men straight from the streets of New York. But appearances can be deceptive. Masta Flow's real name is Mohammed al Malki. He, along with his fellow band members, is a devout Muslim who cites his three biggest passions as country, religion and music - a clash between his modern culture and the traditionalism of his home country. The band's songs represent a patriotic rebellion, raging against what the group call the "chaos" in Casablanca and beyond. Their latest song, written in Moroccan slang, will be part of their third album, to be released next year. As the rest of the lyrics are chorused, it becomes apparent that "chaos" is a synonym for social injustice, corruption, poverty, war, drug abuse and even moral degeneration. The song is posted on YouTube where it has been viewed nearly 20,000 times. "We are rapping about our lives and what we see every day," says Masta Flow, speaking from the band's studio on the seventh floor of a building in Quartier Gauthier, a middle-class neighbourhood in northwest Casablanca. Influenced by hip-hop, rap music and other expressions of western culture, a so-called Moroccan underground art scene started to emerge in the mid-1980s, mostly in the form of breakdancing, MC-ing and DJ-ing, and later developed during the 1990s into a vibrant community of rappers. Ten years ago, Masta Flow recorded his songs on audio cassettes and gave copies only to friends and other aspiring rappers. Now his group is one of the most prominent in Morocco. They have a Facebook page with more than 1,000 fans, their tracks are available on dozens of music websites and their fanbase stretches from the Moroccan diaspora in Europe to Algeria, Tunisia and Syria. "In general," says Masta Flow, wearing long camouflage shorts, a black T-shirt with a graffiti-style silver drawing, a silver watch and a chain, "we sing to people our same age, but also these people have little brothers who have parents who like to know what their children listen to. So, it's for the whole of the Moroccan people."

The group was founded in 2003 when the rapper ChahtMan decided to bring together the "best rappers" in Casablanca in one band. Since then, they have released two albums: Steps in 2005 and Fingerprint in 2007 as well as several singles. The process was never easy. They had to copy the CDs and label them using their personal computers for the first album. The next album was produced by a local record company. The group regularly tour Moroccan cities and often appear on national TV and radio stations. Masta Flow says adhering to Moroccan cultural and religious values is key, so the use of swear words or erotic themes is strenuously avoided. "We have young people listen to our music, so we have to be an example," he says. "That's why we don't use bad words. We also have my parents who listen to us. I won't use a bad word in front of my parents." When he talks about religion, family and society, the personality of an orthodox 27-year-old Moroccan surfaces. "As an artist it makes me remember that I'm Muslim, that I stay honest and not imitate what American or French rappers do," he says. "It makes me faithful to my Muslim and Moroccan identity." Nevertheless, the group is influenced deeply by the philosophy and music of rap groups such as Wu Tang Clan, Onex and Grave Diggers. The perpetual struggle to reconcile music and Islamic teachings - some advocate banishing musical instruments altogether - is peacefully solved for Masta Flow. He sees no contradiction between singing and observing religious obligations. "Some say it's haram, some say it depends on the music," he says, sitting next to three guitars, two keyboards, two desktop computers and a sound mixer. "If it's to influence people to be corrupt and meet girls, then that's haram, for me. It depends on how you use it. In the past even pictures were haram and now we have TV stations talking about Islam." His desire to harmonise life and religion crosses from music to relationships. "When I say I want to keep Islamic values, I am not saying I am perfect," he says. "I am young, not married and I used to have a girlfriend." But the key for him is that people should always ask for divine forgiveness even when they deliberately breach the teachings of their own religion. Only then, he says, can one be at peace with oneself. Rap music is widely accepted today among Moroccan youths, but older generations still struggle to absorb the "western export", says Dr Jamal Khalil, professor of sociology at Hassan II University in Casablanca. "I think society accepted the music with ease, but as for the way they dress it's going to be more difficult to accept," he said. At night, Masta Flow meets up with the rest of the crew at a billiard cafe in central Casablanca, teeming with young men and women. They go there for several hours almost everyday, where they drink tea and coffee and shoot pool. "At the beginning people viewed us badly as the naughty boys from the back streets, because of the haircuts and the clothes," says JOK, 26, whose Rastafarian locks separate him from the other closely-cropped members of the group. "Then after 2000 and with the presence of radio stations, they started to realise that rap has a message and that it's a good style." JOK, whose real name is Marwan Ahneed, is a full-time rapper, but he has also taken roles in five Moroccan films, including one about Satan worshippers. Next to him sit the two other members. ChahtMan, 31, whose real name is Younis Houdar, and Caprice, 27, whose real name is Amin Kamal. Only Masta Flow speaks English, while the rest listen to their American hip-hop heroes without understanding a word. "Young people, who are the majority, understand the rap culture," says ChahtMan, speaking in formal Arabic. "There are the older people who don't understand rap and hip- hop and say that it's foreign to our culture. We explain to them that rap is about reality, about peace and concerns of young people." He says that his parents never had a problem with his rapping since he started in 1996, but that neighbours used to criticise him for pursuing a job that has "no future". "Now I have a recording studio for Moroccan rappers and it's a good source of income," he says. Caprice also believes it is important to fight social misconceptions about hip-hop and rap culture. "For me music is like lawyers who defend those who live without peace," he says. "Mike is the only way that I have to deliver a message and defend a cause." Moroccan rappers were successful, indeed, in creating a distinctive identity for themselves whether by mixing western an eastern instruments or through their artistic expression of some of the main concerns of Moroccan society. "They belong to social classes that live on the periphery of the cities," Dr Khalil says. "They have their local problems, their neighbourhood problems, and they have a personal discourse. This is not imported."

mhabboush@thenational.ae