Manal, Abir, Faouzia, Ilham, Yousra, Jaylann. The Moroccan music industry is booming as young, female artists raise their voices.
A blend of African, Andalusian, Amazigh, and Jewish influences, the music stemming from the new generation of female Moroccan singers are reflective of the depth and the diversity of their culture. Historically, women have always played an important role in Moroccan music. From the early 20th century, during the French occupation, through to contemporary Morocco, across all regions, women expressed themselves in music. There were Andalusian ensembles composed by female instrumentalists in the northern city of Tetuan, a traditional “girl band” that sang and performed showcasing the engagement of women in musical practice. In rural areas, you could find Sheikhats – female musical performers and dancers. They led groups of male musicians and sometimes sang to get political messages across. The 19th century singer Kharboucha was one of them, denouncing both the French colonial powers and the local governers. She became a symbol of resistance and a prominent figure in Aita music history. In the Rif mountains of northern Morocco, women’s voices are the symbol of power and control; in Gnawa and Aissawa trance, women are the men’s shadows that prepare trance ceremonies to the haunting sound of male instrumentalists. These ceremonies would not exist without them. Women’s imprint is rife throughout Moroccan music.
“What allowed us to claim a spot within our musical genre today is that we developed it with the goal of bringing together audiences that don’t mix much,” comments 29-year-old Moroccan musician Yousra Mansour. The singer, songwriter, and composer, who created the group Bab L’Bluz with composer Brice Bottin, plays traditional Afro-Moroccan rock, filled with desert blues melodies, as in her song “Ila Mata,” a thirst of freedom described by the band as “an unhurried gesture of respect and love to live all together in peace,” she says. “We wanted to make sure that our style of music touched fans of rock, blues, chaabi (popular), gnawa, or even hip hop or charki (North-Eastern) music. We are a generation that has been raised on music diversity, and this is a way to pay tribute to all the sounds that made us.”
Today’s young, female Moroccan singers are based around the world, and, pandemic-permitting, tour with the aim of spreading tolerance and love. “What I stand by is being passionate and driven by the music I make, being patient, and having the resilience to stand up after I fall,” shares singer-songwriter Abir. Based in New York City, the 26-year-old artist integrates her heritage and culture in her music. The process has been both challenging and fulfilling. “I found great joy in being able to craft a sound that I felt represented who I was. The right balance of research and gut feeling made it easier while working on my latest project, Heat, an EP I consider to be the culmination of many years of self-growth and discovery.”
Twenty-year-old Moroccan-Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Faouzia recently collaborated with John Legend on “Minefields,” a powerful hymn about “what we as humans are willing to do to reunite with a loved one.” The singer believes that the music industry is more fast-paced than it used to be. “Music is being released constantly and it’s a little harder to find a middle ground between bringing out music frequently but also spending enough time to work on it and perfect it. Although, it is nice to engage with fans with more regular music releases,” comments the rising pop star, who was born in Casablanca and who considers her culture integral to her identity. “My Moroccan heritage has definitely played a huge role in how my voice sounds. It’s heard in the vibrato and trills that I do,” nods the songwriter, who has always gravitated to dark, emotional, and powerful music.
Emotions also play a strong role in the music of 24-year-old Ilham, a sultry R&B singer and songwriter from New York who “takes feelings and puts them in songs,” she says. “My style is just me, and it’s cool when people recognize it because I truly didn’t even know it was a style, but just my mood,” she comments. The singer has been in tune with her culture since she was born, speaking Arabic at home, and with her mother cooking traditional Moroccan food and her father listening to the late Rai singer Cheb Hasni. “Everyone outside of my immediate family lives in Morocco, so I’ve visited them often and I talk to my cousins and aunts all the time. My culture is engraved in me.”
Manal Benchlikha, a 27-year-old urban pop singer, rapper, and songwriter known simply as Manal, is one of the most influential singers in Morocco, with a social media following count of two million. The pop star is revolutionizing the Moroccan music industry by combining an urban and contemporary sound, powerful songs, and striking visuals with the strength of tradition, as manifested in her recent single, “Niya.” Explaining why she chose to approach the subject of Sheikhat (“The wise one,” referring to Moroccan popular singers and dancers) in her latest music, she says, “Unfortunately in our culture, a Sheikhat is not a respected woman. She is merely a daydreaming and naive ‘niya;’ a person who is looking for love and wants to make a living out of her art and craft. I wanted to change people’s minds through this song and music video.”
While young, female Moroccan musical artists may be forthright, their paths are not easy. “It is challenging to be a woman in any industry today, but I feel blessed to see more women being put in places of power and calling the shots. I see women in decision-making chairs, behind the sound boards at the studios, and as executives at record labels. It is so inspiring,” says Abir, who tackles misconceptions about Arab women and social injustice in her music. But it’s still shaky ground, according to Mansour. “It is still difficult to be a woman in the Arab, Moroccan, and African music industry, because the position of women in these societies is still fragile, even if it is evolving,”she says. She feels that women, in addition to the same difficulties experienced by their male peers in this environment, have other limitations related to the heavy weight of patriarchy in the region. “Women are often seen as inferior to men, and are permanently judged and restricted in their freedom to use and control their bodies,” she states. It’s a situation that is changing, according to all the singers. Women are acquiring more freedoms and earning the respect they deserve; however, they acknowledge that there is still work to do to win their rightful places in society generally and in the music industry in particular. “I think one of the best ways for women to strengthen their position in society – to be seen as equals or even superior to men – is by transmitting a great message of rebellion through music,” considers Mansour.
Khaoula Moujahid, a 26-year-old R&B and pop songwriter from Rabat known as Jaylann, believes, “Nothing is easy but nothing is difficult. You have to show the world what you are capable of. Women have always been present in Moroccan music, they have always been strong and inspiring, not only in music. For me, it’s not about gender, it’s about personality. If you believe you can achieve something, do it.” Hers is a strong voice with potent messages of hope and love, and she covers diverse themes, ranging from motherhood to depression. Jaylann has managed to assert her style in the Moroccan scene, thanks to the power of the internet. It’s a challenging scene that’s not always easy to tackle but these rising female artists are here to prove everyone wrong. As Ilham states, “I know that I’m amazing, talented, and beautiful, and through my authenticity, people will gravitate towards me.”
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Originally published in the January 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia