The Gritty Rise Of Issam

By Nasri Atallah
27 August 2019
Issam, Musician
The 26-year-old Moroccan musician, Issam, pivoted from SoundCloud to YouTube, en route to one of the largest international record deals ever signed by an Arab. His only problem? He thinks he’s running out of time

I’m on WhatsApp with Issam trying to set a date for our call. He hasn’t answered and I’m getting nervous. I’m unsure what language to reach out in, so I’ve texted him in French, he’s responded in English saying he’s been shooting a video for two days and he’s back now. I find myself admiring his ability to switch off completely for two days. Do many 26-year-olds leave their phones to one side for two days? It’s a kind of focus I feel most of us can only muster for a day or two around New Year’s when we’ve latched onto some short-lived, and ultimately doomed, resolutions.

Issam’s rise to the rarified areas of the music industry has been rapid and impressive. He has recently signed with Universal Music France – the biggest deal any Arab hip hop artist has ever secured, no less. And this has happened on the back of a handful of YouTube videos. He has no EP out, and his first album will be released in January 2020. Even his discovery of the trap music genre was chance: he stumbled onto Young Thug, a central figure of the Atlanta trap scene, on a SoundCloud playlist. Now he’s on the French off-shoot of the record label founded by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, the men who popularised hip hop and led it onto the path of global domination.

I can feel my nerves. We’re about to Skype and I’m hiding the laundry I’ve just folded just out of frame. My domesticity is about to grate up against a man who seems to exude creativity with his every movement. His music videos – many of which he directs himself – have reached millions around the world. (The running viewcount of his YouTube channel, at time of writing? A little over 22 million.) The videos are packed with a visual style that’s dripping in Moroccan nostalgia and melancholy, while also being exuberant and operating at the cutting edge of a certain kind of street aesthetic. As I set up my laptop, I suddenly have this image of Issam being the result of a wild collaboration between Hassan Hajjaj and Gosha Rubchinskiy. Issam himself is wiry and still. His face the kind of young that seems to know something you, 10 years his senior, don’t. His cheeks cave-in slightly under his patchy beard and he’s attractive in a slightly menacing way, all narrow eyes and brooding intensity. Everything about him, his sound, his style, seems designed to translate well for Instagram.

As the call starts, we decide to speak in French, a kind of postcolonial lingua franca that gets around my inability to understand North African derja. It’s fitting that we chat from a distance. In many ways, Issam’s career has only been made possible by technology. First on SoundCloud where he discovered genres, then YouTube where everyone discovered him. He lives in the borderless world of millennial creativity online – that place where you forget that borders exist, until you come up against one.

Last year he was denied a French visa to play at L’Institut du Monde Arabe. “You know I’m 25, and single and Moroccan. That’s why they rejected my visa. I went through a period where I was very sad, I’ll be honest.” He pauses. “Music doesn’t have borders, but artists have borders.” If anything, it seems to have reinforced his belief in the internet being the best way to share his music and his creative vision. All the things that make Issam excited and visionary are the things that seem to terrify European governments. They think men like Issam want to come and never leave. But Issam is happy in Derb Sultan, his neighbourhood in Casablanca. It’s where he’s lived all his life and where he has no intention of leaving. He seems anxious about even going to a new studio. “I record at home. I got used to my space. I’ve tried other studios but it never works. If there’s someone there who isn’t feeling my flow, it throws me off.” Will that change when a major label gets involved in his life, I wonder? “They’ve given me a lot of trust. They told me I can do what I want musically. Even visually. The label believes in me. They’ve just given me the means to try new things.”

And he seems keen to take them up on that immense amount of trust. As we talk about a couple of his past songs, he tells me his upcoming album will feature reggae and electronic music. He doesn’t consider himself a rapper. “I don’t fit into one musical genre called rap. When I’m in front of a mic, I can create whatever I want. Music doesn’t have limits. In my head I don’t say, ‘I’m making rap.’ I just want to feel good making what I’m making.”

In the age of ‘personal brands’, ‘thought leadership’ and carefully-defined ‘verticals’, it’s refreshing to hear someone so freewheeling about their creative process. I can’t help but wonder if, in the highly regimented world of big label music industry release cycles and press drives, this will work. But there’s such confidence in the way he says this, a matter-of-factness, that makes me believe he could persuade even the stuffiest French record exec.

I promptly put my foot in my mouth and say something about the streetwear aesthetic in his music videos. “I think streetwear is done, finished. Designers creating avant-garde clothing are more interesting. The future is Arab. In both fashion and music. People internationally are looking for inspiration here. They want to collaborate with us.” He certainly thrives in his environment. It’s one of the reasons he wants to double down on staying where he is. “The street I live in, the room I live in, my home. That’s what inspires me. I don’t feel like changing space. This is where I grew up, I have memories here. I’m inspired.” His attachment to his neighbourhood, his city, his country and his region is heart-warming. In the era where nonstop travel is glorified, and adopting a globalised persona fetishised, Issam chooses his roots. I ask him to explain the attachment to Algerian raï legend Cheb Hasni, who he has sampled and written a song about. “It’s about memories. Very happy family memories. Every time I hear Cheb Hasni, Cheb Khaled or Cheb Mami, there’s memories that emerge. So I’ve tried to build on their legacy and build a mix of trap and raï. Traï.”

While we talk, he keeps turning the phone towards his friend, Hamza, who has been working with him on the video he’s shooting now. He shows me Hamza three times. It’s a highly unusual mark of humility in the middle of an interview for a GQ cover story. But he insists, over and over, on showing the people around him who make his work possible. At one point, in a lull in the conversation, I go for a question I’ve always hated. The kind of question you get asked in an interview for a job you don’t want. “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I ask him. “I want to have inspired the next generation. I want to open the gate for Arabs. To make it easier for them. I feel that I’m building now for the next generation.”

That’s a pretty big responsibility he’s placing on himself. Most 26-year-old musicians in the US or UK might say they want to build a studio, be on their third album or buy their parents a house. “Well in the US they’ve always had the means to make what they want. So they’re not thinking ahead to the next generation. They’re thinking individually. If I buy a new car, I don’t care about that. There’s no love there.”

You can understand where the desire to build comes from. Everything he has achieved has been without infrastructure. He says he has no manager, no mentor. He does everything alone. “I get some advice from people around me, but nothing formal”. Cilvaringz, a Dutch-Moroccan record producer and long-time associate of the Wu-Tang Clan negotiated his deal with Universal France. But you get the feeling that, whatever industry mechanisms pop up around him, Issam remains a purist. “My work speaks for me. Not people. Not even me. I’m not the one getting a label deal. It’s the music getting a label deal.

“I really never dreamed I’d get a record deal. I live day by day. I never really planned for my future. I like my music, I make it with the people in my environment.” Issam’s uninhibited creative process comes up again: “I sometimes make songs in English. In French. Even Spanish. I don’t know a single word in Spanish,” he smirks. “I was in my room, I put on a beat, it made me think I should sing it in Spanish. So I wrote a text in Arabic, and translated it and tried to articulate properly.” We both laugh.

He certainly doesn’t seem to enjoy making things easy for himself. It reminds me of that story about the White Stripes’ Jack White, where he sets up his instruments in a way that is intentionally wrong, putting the organ, the amp, the guitar just a bit too far from each other, forcing him to stay creatively alert. Issam is doing the same thing musically, with languages and genres. On “Makinsh Zhar”, he talks about the difficulty of life. The title means, “There’s no luck.” “People work all their life, they believe things will get better, but sometimes you just don’t have any luck.” He says it’s also a nod to Moroccan artists who work hard but can’t catch a break because there are no labels looking for them in the country. “I hope my deal motivates other artists in the country. That it helps them take their music seriously, to take the time to make it more professional.”

Contrary to pop culture truisms, life for a 26-year-old diving into the global music industry head-first is…surprisingly low-key. “I live with my parents. It’s a calm life, we laugh a lot. I go out with my mates. Like anyone, really. Me and Hamza walk around, because we don’t have a car yet. Casa is big and walking around we see all its buildings and neighbourhoods, it inspires us.” I ask if his parents are supportive. After all, a career in music isn’t what most Arab parents are hoping their children will gravitate towards. It’s like that joke: you either become a doctor, a lawyer or a disappointment. “They’re very happy, actually. They’re very proud. I was making music without money, without a job, and my parents supported me even in tough times. They were always there for me. They believed in me from the beginning.”

He’s on his third cigarette now, fourth maybe. The cafe around him seems busy and when he turns the phone around to Hamza, I try to figure out if it’s a hipster joint or just a neighbourhood joint. I think it’s the latter. “The people who live in Derb Sultan live a simple life. I like simplicity and a simple life. I don’t care about cars, luxury. Bling bling. I don’t see myself in that environment.”

Legendary Moroccan contemporary artist and photographer Hassan Hajjaj comes up in the conversation. I tell Issam that I met Hajjaj on the 214 bus in London’s Kentish Town once and that he was the simplest, nicest person ever. Frankly, Issam’s energy resembles Hajjaj’s. “I’m proud of him and he’s proud of me. We’ve met many times. He’s one of the greats in Morocco.”

Go against your better instincts and scroll through the YouTube comments of Issam’s videos. Time and time again, there’s a comparison that pokes its head out: “the Moroccan Young Thug”. “It doesn’t bother me. I think he’s been an inspiration to so many people. I respect him for what he did for the American scene.” When it comes to his own listening tastes, Issam is eclectic. “At home I listen to everything. Electronic music. Rap. Recently I’ve been on a binge of Brazilian classics, then stuff in Portuguese. I’ve been listening to [Angola’s] Bangão. I just get on YouTube and go from video to video.

“American music isn’t innovating. There’s no shock anymore. Nothing new. It’s time for the Arabs to dominate. I really believe that. I want us to unite and help each other out. We can show to the world what we have. It’s our moment. It’s our turn.” He revels in the fact that he’s found fans around the world who don’t understand what he’s saying. “I love that I’m creating emotions in people through melody and my sound, even if they don’t understand a thing. It’s like how I feel when I’m listening to Brazilian music. Even electronic music without lyrics, how much emotion it can transmit is something impressive.”

I came into the conversation thinking that Issam is a guy that keeps his cards close to his chest – particularly when it comes to personal things. And the conversation has confirmed it. He ignores some questions, like when I ask him if he’s seeing anyone. So I ask him a question most of us can’t ignore: I ask him what scares him the most. “The time that’s left for me. I don’t want to waste any time. If I don’t go home tonight and make music that can reach millions, I’ve wasted my time. That’s what scares me.” I’m slightly amazed. People 10 or 20 years older than him feel they’ve got plenty of time left. I tell him he has the kind of maturity that someone in mid-life might gain looking back. He smiles again. “Well, if I didn’t have this urgency, if I’d been wasting my time, you wouldn’t be profiling me for GQ.” I nod. We’ve been talking for about an hour, now, and the cafe around him is getting noisier. I can see that he’s decided it’s time to give me a nice conclusion to our chat. He glances over at Hamza again, asks him how to say something in French. He smiles and says, “When you have dreams, you have to complete your dreams.”

Creative direction and styling: Artsi Mous