French Montana’s success is a hip-hop fairy-tale.
It is a story of a wide-eyed kid from a poor family in Morocco who immigrates to the US as a teenager to become one of the biggest names in the music industry.
With millions of albums sold and friends like P. Diddy and DJ Khaled on speed dial, French Montana returned to his home city last week for a concert attended by more than 50,000 people and members of the Moroccan royal family.
Meeting the press a few days later, the 33-year-old Montana – real name Karim Kharbouch – says he is still coming to terms with the enormity of the Mawazine Festival gig.
"It does feel like a success story, not just because of the royal family to be there, but to be back with my people. It's a special kind of feeling that I really can't describe," he says."I remembered being on stage and seeing all these young people dancing along and having fun and it makes me think about the time when I was that age and back here. It's a beautiful thing, man."
A memorable journey
Indeed, Montana’s trips to Morocco is always steeped with nostalgia. On a previous trip, he holidayed in the blue city of Chefchaouen, a city where his family formerly resided.
While a 2012 trip back to Rabat was an especially poignant affair as he reunited with his estranged father.
The rugged life-style of the past may be far from the finely manicured Los Angeles mansion where he now resides (snapped up for a cool 3.3 million dollars in 2016 from none other than fellow pop-star Selena Gomez), but Montana’s ties to his origins are strong.
In addition to personally funding a school in Rabat, Montana's latest video for the track Famous was also shot amidst the mystical splendour Chefchaouen.
Success from disappointment
That musical home-town salute was an apt way to conclude the promotion of last year's hit album Jungle Rules, as the seeds of the record were also laid in the continent.
After creating an undeniable industry buzz through no less than 13 mixtapes, Montana's work ethic was praised by hip-hop mogul P. Diddy who signed him up to his iconic label Bad Boy Records.
After the moderate success of his 2013 debut album Excuse My French, Montana was set to release his follow up album MC4 in December 2016 only for it to be heavily bootlegged after the US department Target mistakenly placed it on shelves two months before its official release.
Dejected by the result, Montana shrugged off the disappointment by heading back to the studio.
When he released the stand-alone single Unforgettable it was initially meant to act as a stop-gap measure.
However, the almost instant reaction it received from fans forced Montana to take it back to the studio for a further polish. He accompanied the track with a soulful and self-directed video shot in Uganda featuring the country’s celebrated children’s dance crew The Triplett Ghetto Kids.
With over 700 million views, Montana credits the song's success for inspiring him to record Jungle Rules, which remains his biggest success yet.
A dangerous game
But Montana’s road to hip-hop success was in no way smooth and involved its fair share of physical altercations and a near heart stopping stay at the hospital emergency room.
Montana experienced the latter when he miraculously survived a gunshot to the head after he was ambushed outside of a New York studio in 2003. The subsequent investigation resulted in an associate of Montana setting him up for the hit.
Montana states the cut throat industry of the present hip-hop scene, not to mention the jealousy that comes with celebrity status, serves as the daily reminder of that near death experience 15-years-ago.
He points to the recent killing of troubled rapper XXXTentacion as a case in point.
“When it comes to rap, I just feel like it is a dangerous game because you are dealing with a lot of people who just want to be in your place and they don’t know how to deal with that because that blessing is not meant for them,” he says.
“And sometimes it can go as far as someone taking your life and that happens to a lot of young and old artists and anyone who is in a successful place in hip-hop. So you always gotta pray to Allah and hope that you remain blessed.”
Life’s a blessing
Montana cites the wisdom learned from the struggles for keeping him steady on his feet.
“I won’t change anything that happened to me because it did make me the man that I am today,” he says.
“Whether it is being an immigrant or seeing my family struggle or going through certain things in my life. I just feel like I am blessed, man. I am just grateful.”
Check out Arts & Culture for all the latest news and interviews from The Mawazine Festival in Morocco. The festival continues until June 30