DUBAI: At long last, the world has finally lent its ears to Morocco. After decades as an underground scene, the country’s hip-hop community is currently thriving, with star rapper Tagne — along with his contemporary and collaborator ElGrandeToto — dominating both the regional charts and finding a footing across Europe, earning a dedicated following in France, the Netherlands, and Germany.
For Tagne, who released his debut album “LMAKTOUB” in June (he classifies 2020’s “Moroccan Dream” as a mixtape), the rise of Moroccan rap is not a matter of luck, it’s the culmination of his shared vision for what it could become once it consciously emerged from the shadows.
“Previously, Moroccan rappers didn’t really take risks. They didn’t understand how to move forward,” Tagne tells Arab News. “But now, it’s truly changed, and rappers here have gotten truly inventive with their flow, melodies, and production.
“Before, Moroccan music was very insular, and not a lot of them would collaborate with international artists. Now, it’s transformed, and international artists and labels are chasing us to do features. It’s the start of something huge.”
It’s fitting that Tagne, who was just chosen to be the first artist from the MENA region to participate in the global Spotify Singles program, has emerged as a leader for the now-internationally minded Moroccan rap scene. After all, he’s the product of two vastly different cultures, with a Cameroonian father and Moroccan mother, both of whom had a strong influence on his upbringing and subsequent musical output.
“This mix taught me at a young age not to be closed off to the cultures and religions of others, to be open-minded and not to judge people's mentalities,” he says. “Everyone comes from a different background. My paternal family is quite different from my maternal family, but I adapt to both, just as I've listened to both musically. I've been exposed to all the well-known classic Arabic songs since my childhood, as well as African music, which has also influenced me. So, for me, it's a rich blend.”
Born in Casablanca in 1997, Tagne first developed his ever-expanding musical palate at home, with favorites such as Moroccan singer Latifa Raafat and Congolese legend Koffi Olomide. His emerging eclectic taste then led him to look outward to see what his hometown had to offer.
“Casablanca is a huge city; it teaches you to be resourceful from a young age, not to let yourself be walked over, to challenge the unknown. I believe it's thanks to this city that I took my first steps in this field,” Tagne says.
At 13, he snuck onto a local bus — without enough money for the fare — trying to reach the city’s Yasmina Park, where he could show off the freestyle skills he’d been developing in his bedroom. It was there that he found the support he craved, pushing him to improve and giving him an outlet for the mental anguish he hadn’t yet learned how to deal with.
“I experienced a challenging adolescence, facing issues both at school and on the streets. Family life was no easy task and, socially, things became increasingly difficult. Rap provided me with a means to express myself and voice what was in my heart in my own way. Writing lyrics unconsciously turned into a form of therapy for me, and gradually my passion for making music paved the path to my career,” says Tagne.
Though he quickly earned respect in the local community, the rapper did not immediately pursue a solo career. First, he founded the group XACTO with fellow rhymesmith Madd before joining the popular collective known as Wa Drari Squad. While the latter group brought him fame and national attention, plugging him into the upper echelon of the country’s evolving scene, it eventually became clear that the experience was holding him back, forcing him to make the difficult choice to break out on his own.
“We had a great time with Wa Drari Squad, sharing good and tough moments. This experience brought me to the real music industry for the first time, and helped me understand its workings. I even discovered my musical abilities beyond rapping, realizing I could sing. But I felt the urge to assume control of myself. At a certain point, I realized that I needed to forge my own musical freedom,” Tagne explains.
The move was thrilling, but also terrifying — a fear he quickly learned was justified. While initially hopeful about all the possibilities that breaking out on his own opened up for him, there was a stark reality before him: He was broke, no longer had a crew to support him, and, in many ways, he was starting from scratch. He realized he would not only have to forge new connections, he would have to mature as a person.
“I honestly was very stressed back then — not to mention dirt poor,” Tagne says with a laugh. “I’ve really grown from who I was in that moment, and the process of making my music has changed drastically. In a lot of ways, it’s become easier. It’s still a lot of work, but the actual flow now comes so much more naturally.”
He kept telling himself that better things were written in the stars for him. It’s what pushed him to become the man he is today — and inspired the name of his new album.
“‘L’Mektoub’ is an Arabic saying, something that we all say, basically meaning ‘God has written this for you.’ I was really going through a tough time three years ago, but I was always focused in following my path. God paves my road, so I just keep driving. If it works, it works. But if it doesn’t work, I’ll try again, and I’ll try even harder,” says Tagne.
After “Moroccan Dream” — released at the height of his struggles — lifted his spirits as well as his profile on the world stage, his intentions with “LMAKTOUB” were to crystalize all that he believed Moroccan hip-hop could be. To complete the project, he successfully recruited collaborators not only from his own country, such as ElGrandeToto, but those from the countries in which his music had begun to catch on, including popular French artists Kaaris, Niro, and NEJ.
“On my own, I've learned the value of discipline and self-motivation during challenging times. This experience has helped me shape my own way of doing things and put together my own structure. I've even taken the step of setting up my own company. But, all along, I've never overlooked the strength of being part of a team. I've always grasped how crucial a team can be in reaching our goals. That's why I've got my own crew around me, kind of like how it was when I was part of a group,” says Tagne.
“The underlying goal hasn't changed: to tap into diverse viewpoints. Just like in group dynamics, these outside opinions bring me a broader understanding, fresh ideas, and a valuable sense of perspective. Next, I want to collaborate with Egyptian rappers, Nigerian rappers, and German rappers — Albanians too. I’ve been focused on making the best stuff from Morocco with Moroccan artists, but I want to take another step forward in becoming more international and amplifying the conversation across the world,” he continues. “For me, and for Morocco, this is only the beginning.”