DUBAI: In 2023, the Moroccan rapper ElGrandeToto (real name Taha Fahssi) may have cemented himself as the most popular musical figure in the Arab world. On the world’s largest streaming service Spotify, the iconoclastic superstar is averaging a staggering 2.5 million monthly listeners — more than Nancy Ajram, Amr Diab or Mohamed Ramadan — a surefire sign that the region’s cultural scene is truly embracing Arabic hip-hop. But the genre’s defining artist — along with Egyptian rapper Wegz — is already aiming even higher. With his first North American tour just weeks away, and a new album coming soon, the 27-year-old star is ready to bring a style he helped innovate to the world stage.
“I’ll be honest with you, growing up, I never thought any of this was possible,” Fahssi tells Arab News. “I never thought I would be able to make a living at this level, let alone perform on stage at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. But once I started to put my all into this, it all started to feel inevitable.
“It’s also not lost on me that this is happening at a time when the entire world is resonating with the joy and the pain of our region. People are rallying behind Palestine at a moment of deep injustice, just as they rallied behind Morocco at the World Cup last year when they defied all expectations,” he continues. “It feels like God is watching all of us, and there’s nothing we can do more than share our stories and raise our flags as high as they’ll go.”
There was one moment in the life of Fahssi — born in Casablanca in 1996 — that changed everything. Ironically, it was also the moment he lost everything. It was 2016, and the then-20-year-old had not yet decided what to do with his life, often fleetingly inspired by different interests that he’d never followed through. He’d long been drawn to music and dance, and had flirted with the idea of becoming a rapper, but even privately it seemed like nothing but another one of his temporary dreams.
“Around that time, I’d started telling myself that I was finally going to get a proper job — a normal job in a call center or something. I was sure I was just going to stick with society’s plan, the normal path for an ordinary life. And then a funny thing happened. My house burned down,” says Fahssi.
In the weeks before the fire, hip-hop had dominated his focus. He’d been practicing his rhymes, and in the days leading up to the fated event he had bought a number of items for a potential studio at his house so he could start recording what he’d sketched out (“I was only missing a pair of headphones,” he says). With the set up nearly finished, he went home to find that no home remained.
“I realized, standing there, how quickly everything can disappear. At the end of the day, there’s so much you can’t control — but there’s still a lot you can. So I told myself I’m going to live this life exactly as I want it and, at that moment, I wanted to do rap music. When God wants me back, I’ll go, but until then I’m going to give this my soul. As long as I’m alive, I’m going to do this my own way,” says Fahssi.
“Thank God I listened to myself for the first time in my life. And good thing it was also the first time I had a good idea, you know?” he continues with a laugh.
His family was not as receptive as he’d hoped, though. They wanted him to go back to school, to continue on with the ordinary life that he’d been touting just days before, unaware that he was newly determined to accomplish much more than any of them could have imagined. He made a deal with them: “Give me one year, and If I mess it up, I’m going to do whatever you want me to do,” he recalls. He knew already that day would never come.
“A part of me knew what I was going to say in my rhymes since I was in fourth grade, but I had a lot of work to do. After the incident, I prepared myself deeply for six months, practicing and working at it tirelessly. And then the very day that I told myself I was ready, I went straight into the booth to record, and dropped my first single directly after,” Fahssi says. “And you know what? It put me straight on the map. Straight. Within nine months of starting, I had my first hit. Everything came together super-quick.”
If there’s one thing that the rapper attributes his near-instant success to, it’s honesty. His music resonates, he believes, because he channels both his culture and himself as authentically as possible. Outside of music, he often bites his tongue and shies away from conflict, but when he’s rapping as ElGrandeToto, he lets his innermost thoughts out in a way that connects with audiences across the region, and now the world.
“My art represents not only myself, but all the people like me,” he says. “In some ways that’s a mindset, in other ways that’s a shared journey. But it’s also about being able to reveal the things that are hard to say. Sometimes you’re just not doing well, and I’ll communicate that rather than try to cater to something contrived.
“I suppose the difference between me as a rapper and me as a person (is that) in my music, I don’t have any filters, or any boundaries. I’ll say what I truly think rather than be polite as I would as myself. I’m a caring person, but I’m a freaking stupid artist, you know? I’m a crazy artist,” he continues. “But it works.”
As proud as he is of his own success, what excites him most is the voices that are rising in the scene around him. A movement cannot be made of just one or two, after all. He’s bowled over by the voices he hears coming out across the region, from rapper Afroto in Egypt — who he believes marks the true future of that scene — to A.L.A. and Samara in Tunisia, and rising rapper Haleem from Sudan.
“I never thought I’d hear something this good coming out of Sudan, but, with all the crises and difficulties, these amazing talents still find a way to emerge. And there are so many others. I’m hearing their songs played in clubs all over Europe, and it makes me so happy. Even if we’re all different nationalities, we’re still the same squad, and have the same goals,” he says. “It makes me so proud, and makes me work even harder. We’re all about to take this to another level.”