Ever since the release of 2018’s ‘Trap Beldi’, Moroccan rapper, ISSAM (Issam Harris), has become a pioneer of something only he could see and translate; as if he has finally been able to find the correct term for something people had been trying to define for quite a while. His national football team jersey with bleached jeans, Raï-inspired melodies on trap beats and image composition inspired by vintage family photos have become representatives of a trend that is now becoming a hot new currency in art and creative circles, as well as signature emblems of his work and style.
This renaissance of North African Arabian aesthetics as seen in urban centres in the modern day — contrasting with the desert paradise representation typical of the region — is now manifesting in many of the Arab world’s indie scenes, especially in rap/hip-hop; a new frontier only recently being rediscovered. At face value, it amounts to a subtle change or addition to creative processes, but in historical context, it’s very likely that ISSAM has stumbled upon the next big development in Middle Eastern hip-hop.
Whereas the most common tropes in rap are either bragging or danger, ISSAM delivers an honest and vulnerable take on the statement of ‘depicting everyday reality’; melancholy, nostalgia and sometimes even helplessness of those who feel somehow left behind.
For most of rap/hip-hop’s history, English speaking acts (mostly Americans) have been leading the international scene. It was (and remains, for the most part) their domain: they are the ideal of which all other local scenes are a mere replica. English-speaking rap was virtually universal, catering to a giant market in an anglophone world.
Whereas the playlists of most rap fans in the world consisted mainly of American artists, the local scenes were considered just that: a local scene, of a niche if not lesser quality, with the exception of some scenes having a regional outreach (French rap in North Africa, as well as some Spanish and Italian acts). The recent era, however, has been marked by a decentralisation of production and distribution, and the global reach of international (non-English speaking) acts.
In this regard, some Middle Eastern hip-hop scenes are interesting for a key reason: they never had a tradition of record-selling artists or professional infrastructure prior to the digital age. Bypassing the boombox era, straight to digital, these scenes are already giving birth to some rising names, despite being in their relative infancy.
It was only recently, however, that artists began to reach global markets (these scenes being comprised mostly of independent artists). ISSAM, for instance, recently signed a record deal with Universal France, considered the biggest signed by an Arab hip-hop artist. Contrasting with other local rap acts such as Lmoutchou, Shayfeen and Dizzy Dros—the first Moroccan rap generation to generate major local fame, almost competing with international acts over the attention of local audiences—ISSAM is expected to be the first Moroccan rapper to break globally; and all this over a handful of YouTube videos. His first album is yet to even be released.
There are many well-produced music videos coming out of the local scene, but very few have thought of it as an extension of the main element: the music. In part due to ISSAM’s background as a fashion photographer; his videos are inseparable.
The current state of hip-hop is now far more diverse internationally than it was a few years ago, no longer entirely dependent on the hegemony of English-speaking acts. Hip-hop has now almost embedded itself into local arts and culture in much of the world, to a point where there no longer seems to be anything ‘foreign’ about it.
As new artists keep emerging and experimenting (a historical process to say the least), the way we think about hip-hop is bound to change, and is now considered a global non-cultural phenomenon. Perhaps in the future, we will be looking at hip-hop arts (specifically rap) in the same way we look at tragedy, drama, or even the novel; a separate art form, with each local scene manifesting its own original sensitivities and local touch.
Despite regional hip-hop scenes being nascent, the early steps of this integration have manifested since its inception. Unlike other genres that diluted or shifted native language, rap was almost immediately written and performed in the local dialect, and has been for the entirety of its timeline. Because of that, local acts quickly gained the attention of local audiences and media, who saw something incredibly familiar in these artists.
However, these scenes are still discovering their range, and only recently making major breakthroughs. The significance of ISSAM’s work is how he is taking, and even highlighting for other artists, the next step in this development, in a way that has become synonymous with his visual and musical style (originality is a key word here). The development of indie contemporary art scenes anywhere seems to follow a certain pattern, as the success of each of these scenes is entirely dependent on its local reputation.
Reclaiming the aesthetic quality of that same environment as the new cool: old tenant buildings, pot plants on rooftops, Peugeot 103, Morocco’s national football team jersey over bleached jeans, satellite dishes clustered across rooftops, and 90s tracksuits.
There’s this elusive idea that a local product(ion) will almost always, if done well, have more impact than an international/foreign one, largely due to identity and cultural subtleties. The accurate depiction or representation of a certain experience is what makes a great work of art. These independent scenes continue to be more impactful, locally, as they lean more and more into local cultural and aesthetic elements, case in point, the renaissance of the Arabian aesthetic in local contemporary arts; a trend of which ISSAM is now becoming the poster child.
The entire aesthetic message present in ISSAM’s work can be summarised in a recurrent symbol; the Algerian Raï legend, Cheb Hasni, who is reclaimed in ISSAM’s work as a symbol of what a North African artist can be. Hasni is a towering figure in most of North Africa, emblematic of the late 80s and early 90s. A spokesperson of a generation of North Africans who saw the opening of local markets to foreign products and ideas, the influence of the latter and the changes caused by the development of the tech industry. When I asked him about his fascination with Hasni, ISSAM says his music evokes childhood memories. “His music is more intuitive than conceptual. It was more subdued, better listened to attentively, than danced or vibed to. Everything from the instrumental to his voice and the effects used let you in into his inner reality and feelings."
Hasni was probably the last of such regional/local acts to gain major local fame amongst people of different backgrounds and musical tastes. ISSAM reclaims him as a novelty, a piece of history representative of an idea that defines him as an artist. “His touch is similar to the artistic direction I chose; a mix between this Hasni effect and a more universal sound, rendering a feel that I find quite distinct and recognisable, even to audiences that are more used to European and American rap,” ISSAM continued,
Perhaps the most used word to describe ISSAM’s work, when compared to other Moroccan rappers, is that it’s ‘original’, used in this context in its most literal sense. A lot of this has to do with the standard apologetic clichéd statement of rappers justifying their work, which is that rap is music used to draw attention to the everyday reality of marginalised communities—generally used by mainstream media catering to a predominantly middle-aged and conservative audience, like in most countries of the Arab world.
The artistic direction I chose is a mix between this Hasni effect and a more universal sound, rendering a feel that I find quite distinct and recognisable, even to audiences that are more used to European and American rap.
This motif was in fact the original mission statement of hip-hop and became sort-of second nature, rarely mentioned explicitly, as the art developed aesthetically. Artworks in general are not straight forward, and more aesthetic than didactic. ISSAM’s take on this statement is purely aesthetic.
He takes inspiration from what surrounds him; the famous Derb Sultan in Casablanca is often mentioned in his songs. “Most of the time, we overlook many of the things around us that we take for granted, which could really inspire us if seen under a different lens.” said ISSAM. “I think this differentiates fads from art works that survive the test of time and somehow an artist’s career.”
Whereas the most common tropes in rap are either bragging or danger, ISSAM delivers an honest and vulnerable take on the statement of ‘depicting everyday reality’; melancholy, nostalgia and sometimes even helplessness of those who feel somehow left behind from the great development of the modern world. His songs resonate with many over the more sombre and oft-overlooked aspects of the Moroccan experience, all the while reclaiming the aesthetic quality of that same environment as the new cool; old tenant buildings, pot plants on rooftops, Peugeot 103, Morocco’s national football team jersey over bleached jeans, satellite dishes clustered across rooftops, and 90s tracksuits. This is an aesthetic statement that defies the consumerist culture prevalent in much of hip-hop.
Unlike other genres that diluted or shifted native language, Arabic rap was almost immediately written and performed in the local dialect, and has been for the entirety of its timeline.
This contrast is expressed in many of his songs, perhaps most notably in his latest releasee, the aptly-named ‘NIKE’. Consumerist brand obsession is a familiar phenomenon in much of the world, with particular manifestations in each culture. In Morocco, and perhaps most of the Arab world (and the third world more broadly), there is a loose belief, one with historical significance, that a foreign product is inherently superior compared to local ones.
The argument, however, extends beyond trade, redefining the relation between consumer and product, be it clothing, food, ideas, or even art. It extends to the belief that the local is of lesser quality, and simply a rustic and unpolished version of the clean, minimalistic, and immaculate design of the modern age.
ISSAM’s play with the visual aesthetic is a timely development of Moroccan culture, but not just a replica of something done abroad that somehow signifies modern. The joy of watching and listening to ISSAM’s work is seeing the urban/visual aesthetic you’re most familiar with depicted in an appealing and contemporary way, conforming to today’s standards in a very Cézanne-like and non-touristy way.
Even musically, his greatest tracks are often a whole new genre based on vintage North African sounds in the same way the sounds of blues, jazz and funk constituted the basis of early rap tracks in the US. In this sense, his work is probably the most beautiful (contemporary) homage to Moroccan culture.
At face value, it's a subtle change, but in historical context, it’s very likely that ISSAM has stumbled upon the next big development in Middle Eastern hip-hop.
This is an element that has been neglected for quite some time, and until recently considered the very definition of lowbrow. Recently, the work of artists like Hassan Hajjaj, Rebel Spirit, Lalla Essaidi, and even Issam, has changed that. This aesthetic has now become the new hot currency sought by big productions, curators and art galleries appealing to the more highbrow tastes. Surprisingly, this aesthetic of old packages for old brands, pattern and strip-based colourful designs are what comes up when we think of a purely Moroccan visual aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic that doesn’t necessarily re-affirm the cliché of camel rides in the desert and busy souk alleys; something reminiscent of the 80s and 90s aesthetic, hence the nostalgia.
“For the moment, there isn’t much competition on this side,” ISSAM explains. “Exceptions like Hassan Hajjaj and others are constantly developing their craft and generating interest in their work, and consequently the culture and the aesthetic abroad. This I believe is more common in contemporary photography, but not really in music. Moroccan rap, and music in general, didn’t make much effort to further explore what is locally and culturally ours. We’re still inspired by the international music, art and fashion scene. It is no surprise then that our cultural aesthetic hasn’t develop much in the arts.”
It’s these types of artistic choices, ones that disregard the current trends and tap into something almost unseen, that have made ISSAM so powerfully relevant in such a short time. Despite having released only a handful of videos, people understand what he refers to, and it resonates. These breaks from the norms of old media not only create a new outlet, but make the next big jump.
For this reason, the lack or avoidance of any mediating authority by these artists (record label, radio stations, TV, distributors) may seem like a blessing in disguise. On the downside, however, these same artists would find no existing platform to produce and distribute their work, often having to build from scratch, and handle multiple aspects of their projects—from writing, production and mastering, to promotion, management, social media and so on.
His greatest tracks are often a whole new genre based on vintage North African sounds in the same way the sounds of blues, jazz, and funk constituted the basis of early rap tracks in the US.
“In Morocco, it’s much more lucrative to invest in, say, housing or manufacturing. We rarely invest in things like cultural projects or scientific research,” says Ham Robati, creative director in ISSAM’s team. “Artists alone are not enough to sustain the scene, let alone the whole artistic industry. The same goes for media, specifically outlets focused on arts and culture, platforms, collaboration spaces, venues, agencies and everything in between.” Though in many cases this is symptomatic of a badly-structured or nascent ‘market’, the technological advancement of the last decade has greatly changed creative and artistic processes in general, as well the way people consume media content and art.
In a way, ISSAM realised that, for an idea as broad as the modern representation of Moroccan culture, it’s way more subtle to be conveyed only musically. This aesthetic he is going for is quite distinct from the standard regional one. The aesthetic of hip-hop videos is generally predictable, though each period has its trends and innovations, both artistic and technical (consider the camera shake or Fake Robot camera movement in Humble and Sicko Mode, the glitch transition effect in many of ASAP Rocky’s videos, and the Cyberpunk neon colour palette in New Freezer, LSD and other videos).
Granted, there are many well-produced music videos coming out of the local scene, but very few have thought of it as an extension of the main element: the music. In part, this is due ISSAM’s background as a fashion photographer; his videos are inseparable parts of the songs, doing more than just accompanying the music. They are just as integral to his ‘body of work’. At its greatest moments, ISSAM’s work is more than just an aesthetic statement, rather a redefinition of artists like him, relying mostly on the internet and digital media to build their platform.
His work is probably the most beautiful (contemporary) homage to Moroccan culture.
The trend of self-directed videos is only a recent development. In most cases, an artist would direct their own videos out of necessity, depending on the degree of their contribution to the process; or if they have a specific idea in mind, in accordance with the song, which is becoming more and more popular nowadays. This new element or form that ISSAM is constantly shaping his vision and work into could very well become a speciality in the near future, and a new model of digital media and art. That’s not to say that the music would be obsolete; the music video itself only makes sense because of the music. “Sometimes I like to focus on very distinct visual elements and separate the processes,” explained ISSAM. “However, in many tracks, I like to see how much inspiration I can extract from both musical and visual elements inspired from the local culture.” This new vision would explain the cohesion (not to mistaken for harmony or suitedness) between the songs and the videos, as both are critical to the idea he’s trying to convey. ISSAM’s method, in this context, is a development in the sense that it was the most accurate way, as far as we know, to point to something unseen as vividly as possible.
Truly innovative acts like ISSAM are appearing in many parts of the Arab world. These scenes are now coming into an interesting period; the transition into or development of a professional platform. This is what local scenes needed to be able to compete with international markets, itself a hidden motif in ISSAM’s work and what he seems to be fighting for.
For someone yet to release an album, ISSAM is doing great. His much anticipated first, Crystal, will be decisive in the continuation of his career. His vision is unique and accurate, the same reason his entire body of work has caught on: it was a novelty. Still though, a single innovation is not enough on a longer term. Should he make the right moves and expand his vision, he may very well be the most relevant artist of the new scene, as it takes a professional direction in the coming years, laying the foundation of an industry.
With the rise of labels and collectives like Adghal Records, Chbk Music and NAAR, of which ISSAM is a member, this new mindset will enable these scenes to break globally. In regards to the Moroccan scene, and the Middle Eastern one as well, ISSAM exemplifies many of the changes and development they need, both professionally and artistically.