Rapper Issam Harris wants to showcase Moroccan youth culture to the world with debut album 'Crystal'

The musician has been developing his unique sound for the best part of four years with increasing success

If you are an up-and-coming hip-hop artist, getting the attention of Travis Scott should be a cause for celebration.

Unless, that is, you felt the superstar took too keen an interest in your work.

It was a dilemma Moroccan rapper Issam Harris, 27, experienced when listening to Scott's single Franchise.

Released in September 2020, the lurching rhythms and dark synths are more than similar to Harris’s Babylon, which he claims was recorded months prior to Franchise. Harris went as far uploading a post of a live performance of Babylon stating it was taken from a concert in October, 2019.

While the idea that the Los Angeles star had the promising Moroccan on his radar seems unlikely, linking the two is Harris's claim that both Franchise and Babylon shared members of the production crew.

Harris caused a regional stir when he went on his Instagram Live recently and displayed snippets of both songs, the production dates and personnel involved.

Neither Scott nor his management responded to the allegations.

Seemingly making his point, Harris now intends to move on.

"I would say that Travis probably heard the beat and obviously liked it and wanted to use it, but he wasn't told by certain people that it was already mine," he tells The National.

“But it was a good lesson for me in not trusting people and only believing in myself and my team.”

Mixing the traditional and modern

Fans of both artists can make up their minds when Harris drops Babylon as part of his debut album Crystal on Friday.

However, the song will only serve as a footnote and won’t be released as a single.

That honour goes Wra Tabiya, a brooding number underscoring Harris's quest to blend traditional Moroccan music with the electro-driven hip-hop sounds of trap.

The former is represented in the percussive nature of Moroccan dialect Darija and the elastic vocal melodies owing to Rai music; while the stuttering hi-hats, stabbing synth lines and auto-tuned vocals are squarely owed to trap.

It’s an ebullient sound Harris has been developing for the best part of four years with increasing success.

The bopping 2018 breakout single Trap Beldi amassed more than 18 million YouTube hits, while the witty and evocative videos for Hasni and Nike showcase the former photographer's visual flair.

Now signed to major label Universal Music France, Harris aims to take his insights on Moroccan youth culture and quirks abroad.

“This is really what the album is for me, in that I can only rap about what I know and what I lived,” he says.

“I am trying to keep it as authentic as I can and while I know not many people will understand the words, they will at least feel it.”

The colourful visuals also help.

The gothic music video for Wra Tabiya, loosely translated to Behind Nature, looks at some of the spiritual ideas coursing through everyday Moroccan life. Set in a typical apartment, scenes showcase families living amid supernatural creatures.

“This is something that is part of our culture in Morocco, in that our understanding of angels and demons are not what others are used to,” he says.

"We have our own vision of what that is and Wra Tabiya is about how every family has their own ghosts. Some of them are here to teach us and others to hurt us."

Insights into Moroccan youth culture

Wra Tabiya remains the only taste we've had so far from the album Crystal but there are other examples of Harris's approach.

2017's Hasni has him paying homage to the murdered Algerian Rai singer Cheb Hasni with a retro-styled video and lyrics proclaiming him a symbol of North African youth.

In Caviar, released the following year, he laments the trials of immigration and the resulting squandered dreams.

“On the road of my dreams, the policeman has arrested me,” he raps. “Your fangs have sunk into my heart.”

The video, shot in Casablanca tenements, a barbershop and a football pitch, carries extra poignancy as it was produced after Harris’s travel visa to France was denied.

An exciting music scene

While some of the physical barriers remain, music and technology not only brought the wider world within reach, but also Moroccan creatives at home.

Harris paints a picture of a rapidly coalescing independent music community where collaborations and partnerships are becoming the norm.

He points to his own team as an example, with his manager Daox a respected electronic music producer and DJ.

"It is an exciting time because the big labels and streaming services are coming here and this shows that they are interested in the content we are creating," he says.

"I am also seeing a lot of Moroccan hip-hop artists working together and collaborating with others from Egypt and Tunisia.

“This is positive as it gives more value to the music here.”

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Read more:

How Moroccan women are breaking into a music industry dominated by men: 'Rap is my defence mechanism'

Arabic trap music is taking over the Middle East, so could this give us the region’s first hip-hop star?

The 11 best Arab independent musicians you should be listening to right now

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