By Najah Mateen
CASABLANCA, Morocco – When Simo Sguiry was a child, he and his younger brother would listen to American artists from their father’s tape collection. “I grew up with Michael Jackson,” Simo says.
Since then, his musical tastes have changed a lot. A Casablanca native, Simo is now a DJ, and the Moroccan music industry knows him as DJ Sim H.
Like Simo, Moroccans have embraced hip-hop culture while managing to put their own cultural twist on something that was once uniquely American. This is evident in the current generation of Moroccan rappers, who rap in Arabic, Darija, and French. Moroccan rap is also a platform for sharing political messages.
Simo sits in one of the offices of L’Boultek, a space in Casablanca for aspiring hip-hop artists. Simo just finished teaching a spin class.
In addition to his sunglasses, he wears a light gray zip up hoodie, a blue LA cap, and a pair of red and white Jordan’s. Most of his features are obscured by his dark shades and darker beard. His eyes may be hidden but his passion for rap music is apparent in every word he utters.
Sitting in his chair, Simo exudes an air of mystery. It could be his sunglasses, or his laidback manner, or his humbleness. After all, he has DJed for famous Moroccan rappers, like Dizzy Dros.
Simo’s story of stumbling upon rap is simple. He would attend parties and functions, where he would hear songs that piqued his interest. He would ask for the name of the artist or the song and head to the internet for more.
He developed an interest in DJing and attempted to teach himself. But that wasn’t enough for Simo, who enrolled in the only DJ School in Casablanca, Funky Noise DJ School, and graduated in 2006. There his teacher was DJ Key, a pioneer in Moroccan hip-hop history.
DJ Key is the CEO of Funky Noise Entertainment and was a huge influence on Simo. His other influences were Grandmaster Flash, DJ Premier, and DJ Kid Capri. When it comes to hip-hop, he leans towards old school.
He likes 2Pac, Nas, Biggie Smalls, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube. But he also likes Kendrick Lamar and Tory Lanez.
Simo has nothing but contempt for pop. His feelings are based on the simple fact that “it’s not rap.” But Simo himself doesn’t rap. He’s good at DJing and talented when it comes to producing beats. “That’s enough for me,” Simo says.
Simo recognizes that music, especially rap, is a powerful tool when it comes to motivating and inspiring the youth.
“In rap you must have a message,” he says. “I agree with positive messages because it’s not good to influence people to kill or do something like that.”
Simo mentions the Moroccan rapper Muslim as an example of a rapper with a positive message. In one of his popular songs, “I’m a Muslim”, Muslim raps about embracing the religion of Islam and rejecting the mostly Western ideas of what Islam is.
Even Morocco has its share of rappers who rap about money and weapons. Simo breaks down Moroccan rappers into three categories: rappers with a message, rappers on an “ego trip,” and those who have transitioned to pop music.
The message in “conscious” Moroccan rap music can be social or political, but Moroccan rap is not unique when it comes to this. In the United States, rap has been known to have a more social or political agenda. But in a country like Morocco, music with a message, if it’s a political one, can be dangerous.
Moroccan rapper El Haqed, for example, was arrested numerous times for his rap lyrics that criticized the authorities, and was eventually forced into exile. Rappers are important to Moroccans, according to Simo.
“They are like journalists, you know? They tell us what’s going on,” he explains.
Moroccan rap and hip hop culture is heavily influenced by Western culture. This is apparent when it comes to the clothing both the artists and their fans wear.
“We like hats, we like Air Jordan’s, we like Air Forces,” Simo acknowledges.
However, being a DJ in Morocco or a rapper is not the same as in America. Neither DJs nor rappers make a lot of money. The music industry in Morocco hasn’t developed to a degree that allows for that, Simo explains. Moroccans don’t spend money on music, instead relying on YouTube, and other free streaming services. DJs rely on festivals and spinning at clubs for their income.
Yet despite the fact that there isn’t much money in DJing, people like Simo continue making it their career choice.
“We love music and we don’t have a choice,” is how Simo explains it.
“I can’t do another job,” he adds. He doesn’t want to be cooped up in an office somewhere in Casablanca, he says — he wants to be free.