The Wild, Wonderful Odyssey of French Montana

By Adam Baidawi
04 November 2018
Tank, $45, Calvin Klein. Jeans, $150, Dsquared2

Tank, $45, Calvin Klein. Jeans, $150, Dsquared2

Dubai, Beirut, Casablanca – our November cover shoot had a whirlwind of an itinerary. But it’s got nothing on the journey of its star, Karim Kharbouch. From leaving Casablanca for the Bronx and losing close friends, to getting a new passport and a swag of platinum hip-hop hits, French Montana never let go of his roots.

It’s after midnight on a late-summer Thursday in a palatial Dubai hotel suite, and Karim Kharbouch is tweaking the 11th or 12th look of his fitting.

In an adjacent room, sprawled across luxe couches with just the right amount of sink, Kharbouch’s entourage are grazing on a bounty of room service. On one end of a couch, his manager Sal glides across multiple smartphones with ease, taking calls on speaker, checking Instagram with emphatic swipes, and running a trained eye over video cuts.

Surrounded by a perimeter of mighty clothing racks, Kharbouch puts a Valentino sneaker on his right foot. He inspects the Balenciaga on the other, weighing up which pops better on his black-on-black outfit. Every surface of the room is draped with bags, shoes and sunglasses. Suddenly, he has an impulse.

“Y’all see this?” he says, flipping his phone to the room.

French Montana for GQ Middle East

Sweater, $150, Wood Wood at Bloomingdales Dubai. Jeans, $1290, Ami Paris at Harvey Nichols Dubai. Sliders, $650, Fendi

A group of people huddle around Kharbouch, craning over to see him play a video of Rashida Tlaib, an American politician. “That’s the first Muslim woman to ever be elected to Congress,” he says. “A Palestinian Muslim woman.”

As the video plays, Kharbouch doesn’t say anything. Instead, he does that thing people do when they show you a video they like, glancing up from the phone every few seconds to gauge a response.

French Montana for GQ Middle East

Gilet, $1090, Rick Owens at Matches Fashion. Tank, $45, Calvin Klein. Jeans, $150, Dsquared2. Trainers, price on request, Valentino 

Two months earlier, when GQ first FaceTimed with Kharbouch, two questions were put to him. One: Wanna do something crazy in the Middle East? Two: Are you sure?

To make a shoot like this work – to coordinate some 15 people over seven days in three cities across the greater Middle East – you’ve got to mean it. To hit up Dubai, Beirut and Casablanca for full-day shoots, without having your heart in it? It’s too long, too costly, too draining, too testing. But even over FaceTime, moments after he’d woken up the day after shooting his “No Stylist” music video with Drake, Kharbouch never hesitated. He was all in.

French Montana for GQ Middle East

Polo-shirt, $50, Trainers, $50, Zara. Jeans, $150, Dsquared2 

Let’s lay it all on the table: Karim Kharbouch lives his life in something of a beautiful, permanent tension. There is the OTT rapper lifestyle that stuffs his Instagram stories, the one replete with Kardashian cameos, six-figure basketball bets and all-Gucci-everything on private jets. (A few years ago, he introduced the world to his pet monkey Julius Caesar via a series of social media posts that included Julius’s first ride on a G5.)

This is the Kharbouch most people know – this is the French Montana most people know. It’s the kind of gaudy Rick-Ross-esque hip-hop avatar that’s as easy to sway to on a Friday night as it is to dismiss with a sneer.

French Montana for GQ Middle East

Jacket, $2930, sweater, $540, trousers, $2230, Givenchy at Harvey Nichols Dubai. Trainers, price on request, Valentino 

But then there’s something else. Something less broadcasted and ostentatious. There’s grit and grind, the kind of energy that propelled a 13-year-old Kharbouch from Morocco into a new life in the United States; the kind of energy that helped him overcome obstacles – like being shot in the back of the head – to eventually inhabit his world-famous, Grammy-nominated alter-ego of French Montana.

The question became, which Kharbouch would arrive in the Middle East for this GQ shoot? The answer, of course, was both. This is the French Montana experience: it’s the ridiculous and the sublime, the fantastical and the real.

French Montana for GQ Middle East

Jacket, $7080, Fendi. Jeans, $1290, Ami Paris at Bloomingdales Dubai. Sliders, $650, Fendi 

    Kharbouch likes a YouTube deep-dive as much as the next multimillionaire rapper. One night last year, he was bouncing around videos of Cheb Hasni, the late Algerian singer. Then YouTube did what it does best and spat out an on-point suggestion. It was the Triplets Ghetto Kids – a collective of nine Ugandan children who’d banded together in extreme poverty to release a series of dance videos.

Few knew it at the time, but Kharbouch was in a period of aimless wandering, of pondering whether there was more to be made, more joy to be had, or whether he should take a car that had significant momentum and shift it into neutral.

His life had taken a series of blows. Two years earlier, his long-time friend and collaborator, Chinx, was murdered in a drive-by shooting in New York. A few years before that another friend, Max B, was given a 75-year sentence after being found guilty on a series of charges.

French Montana for GQ Middle East

Zip-sweater, $350, trackpants, $330, Kenzo. T-shirt, $20, Belly. Trainers, price on request, Valentino

“It was the darkest place in my life,” says Kharbouch. “I felt like I was lucky, but I also felt like I was in a deep, black hole. I lost my brothers. I felt left out. I was asking God, ‘Why are you taking everything away from me?’ I thought, ‘Maybe it’s a message. Maybe.’”

With the loss of Chinx and Max B, Kharbouch had lost things both real and intangible. His work had lost something crucial too: motivation.

Watching that YouTube video set off a series of events that began with Kharbouch filming the music video for “Unforgettable” in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and eventually led to a prolonged charitable mission.

French Montana for GQ Middle East

Coat, $1070, Theory at Bloomingdales Dubai. Tank, $45, Calvin Klein. Trackpants, $540, Off-White at Harvey Nichols Dubai. Sliders, $700, Fendi 

“I went to this place that everybody told me not to go to. A place that I had to take 12 shots to get to,” he says. “But when I went to this place, it became my first real vacation – because I saw how happy people are with nothing.”

While in Uganda, he visited a maternity and children’s health clinic that had just two beds and a lone ambulance, yet served a community of nearly 60,000.

“I was more hurt than anything. Nearly 1000 women die around the world, every day, because they don’t have access to the right healthcare,” he says.

In the 18 months since its release, the video for “Unforgettable” has clocked over three-quarters of a billion views – the song’s dancehall beat, stupidly catchy hook and one-of-a-kind music video created a perfect viral storm.

In the meantime, Kharbouch and a group of friends – Diddy and The Weeknd included – have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to bolster the hospital’s facilities, expanding it to serve 300,000 people in 56 villages.

“It’s not fair. Healthcare shouldn’t be a privilege, it should be a right,” says Kharbouch.

French Montana for GQ Middle East

Sweater, $1000, Prada at Moda Operandi. Trousers, $1020, Gucci at Matches Fashion. Trainers, $310, Kenzo

It doesn’t feel like a fluke that the biggest song of Kharbouch’s career to date would come from a period that was more testing than any other.

“Uganda healed me. There was no other medicine that could have fixed me. I was broken, inside and out,” he says. “I’m sure you’ve watched The Last King of Scotland – when you watch things like that, you only see the negative parts of being somewhere. Or it’s like Blood Diamond – they’ll show you the rebels, they’ll show you the corruption, but they won’t show you how those people are happier than us, with nothing.”

French Montana for GQ Middle East

Sunglasses, $580, Fendi. Turtleneck, $300, Ami Paris at Bloomingdales Dubai 

His connection to Uganda has been anything but a flash-in-the-pan PR stunt – it’s something he reinforces, over and over.

“They send me a picture of every baby that’s born there. And every time they send me a picture, it puts a smile on my face.”

Karbouch says that when he saw those kids on YouTube, he saw himself. He grew up on the other end of the continent, a Moroccan Muslim boy who was born in Rabat but raised in Casablanca. He spent late nights listening to not only Cheb Hasni and Umm Kulthum, but a bunch of Western artists, too.

French Montana for GQ Middle East

Coat, $7790, Prada. Polo, $20, Uniqlo

“It shows how powerful music is – it’s the only language that people speak worldwide. I didn’t know English until I was 14, 15. In Morocco, I was just singing; I didn’t even know what the words were. Whether it was Tupac, Wu-Tang, Bob Marley – whatever it was, it had a certain feeling that made me connect to it.”

Kharbouch arrived in New York aged 13 speaking only the Arabic and French he was raised with. The taunting was brutal – Kharbouch was given the nickname ‘Bonjour’ for a while, before deciding to lean into the teasing and dubbing himself ‘French’. Montana followed shortly thereafter – an ode to Scarface and the man he calls “the ultimate hustler”. (Spend a day with Kharbouch, and you’ll realise that he drops a film reference, at minimum, once an hour.)

“I got the privilege to be part of both worlds, even though I was born in Morocco,” says Kharbouch in a Beirut café one afternoon. “I gained my conscience and my hustle when I touched down in the States. I probably got the best of both worlds, if you were to ask me. I got to where I needed to be and then came right back.”

Midway through the week-long shoot, Beirut has come as a temperate relief. The day in Dubai was as striking as it was testing. (If there were any doubts about Kharbouch’s commitment, those sweated away as he shot fall/winter looks in the desert.)

“But man, Dubai – we had one of the best sunsets,” says Kharbouch. “We caught the final moment at the right time. That was God time.”
Lebanon, then, was downtime. A chance to eat well, to hit the streets and the scene. It was also a chance for Kharbouch to get a zero-apologies mani-pedi, moments before shooting in a café.

“It’s beautiful here. They have that culture. Every time I come here, I’ve got to eat some hummus, some kofta – it gives me the same feeling, the same energy as Morocco. It makes me feel back home.”

Happily, we indulge the gastronomic urge, adding some kibbeh nayeh to the mix.

As the shoot creeps back to life, Kharbouch throws on a little Cheb Khaled to dull the food coma and bring back the mood.

Kharbouch’s own music occupies a crucial, if undervalued, corner of the hip-hop world. While Kendrick Lamar leans hard into avant-garde LPs, The Weeknd melds pop and soul, and Kanye – who wants to now be known as Ye – pivots from masterpieces like The Life of Pablo to visits at the White House, Kharbouch’s niche is something more direct: it’s the club banger, or it’s nothing.

But for all the criticism that someone like Kharbouch might cop, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that this guy attracts features. Like, a lot. He’s collaborated with a motley crew of artists both emerging and towering, and at a remarkable rate. There’s been tracks with Drake, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Diplo, Kanye West, and swerves into true mainstream-dom with Adam Levine, Miley Cyrus and ex-One Directioner Liam Payne.

Kharbouch’s worst enemies will say that he’s a hanger-on – someone who thrives off the limelight of others. But his biggest defenders, rightly, will say that he’s the kind of artist who’s both respected enough to attract the features, and talented enough to let them make their best work.

It feels like the ceiling of Kharbouch’s career will be decided by whether or not he can take the most important step in rap: becoming the most vital voice on a track – someone more important than a Billboard Top 10 hook, than an A-list verse, than a perfect sample. Those are the questions that remain for the Moroccan kid who listened to Wu-Tang at night – that’s the last stretch before the summit.

“I’m just happy that I was on both sides of the fence,” he says. “The side where I was dreaming, and the side where the dream came true.”

     ***

He’s like the mayor of Casablanca, you know?” says Salah, a young Moroccan producer.

For Kharbouch, Casablanca is home court advantage, and then some.

“Doing something this special, in the place where I was born, it’s like a Gladiator story. It’s about going somewhere and making something happen. It’s about being self-made, being someone who always believed in hard work, and definitely being somebody that believes that there’s a higher power – there’s faith out there, there’s hope.”

On the streets of the Casablanca medina, outside cafés and barbershops and lining the rustic walls, rows of wide-eyed teens – in Nike and Reebok, Brazilian soccer shirts and Adidas slides –gather and peek between the cracks to see Montana. They have smartphones at the ready, front-facing cameras primed.

“When I go outside and see those kids, I just picture myself doing that when I was young, too. I’m a fan first. I’m a dreamer.”

Fruit vendors and elderly women, bratty school kids and their bewildered parents all gaze as Kharbouch poses in a barbershop, and sips tea in a crowded café. Some want selfies. Some want jobs. Some have inevitably seen his Instagram stories bearing his favourite Casablanca activity: handing out $100 bills to young children.

At one point, Kharbouch reaches into his bag and pulls out a plain white t-shirt. In bold red letters, it reads, “IMMIGRANT”. It’s ostensibly an apparel shout-out for an upcoming album by his friend Belly – another American rapper with Middle Eastern roots. But the wider message is bigger than an LP.

“Immigration means everything to me,” he says. “It means hope, it means faith, it means a voice for the people that come from different places and build a country – that someone can come from nothing and be something.”

French Montana for GQ Middle East

Jacket, $680, Ami Paris at Bloomingdales Dubai. Tank, $45, Calvin Klein. Jeans, $1290, Ami Paris at Harvey Nichols Dubai. Trainers, $310, Kenzo 

A few months ago, after waiting some 22 years, Kharbouch finally received his US citizenship. He used the occasion to raise awareness of America’s increasingly combative attitudes towards undocumented immigrants.

“Countries are built on immigrants,” he says plainly.

As the sun dips and the sting of heat leaves the streets, Kharbouch marches up the winding staircase of a house on the edge of the medina. He traverses a ledge on the rooftop, hiking himself up. He wraps himself in a Moroccan flag and looks across the town, all smattered in pink and gold.

“You see the Mosque? I used to hang there when I was a kid. I know the rocks under it. That place was like our playground. I used to go there to get away from everything.”

Kharbouch says he still fasts every Ramadan and prays every night.

“My karma is beautiful. I tell people, I’m like a mirror – whatever face you want me to give you, is the face you better give me.”

Put aside the flair and the brags, and it’s clear that Kharbouch has proven his hall-of-fame-level resilience – he’s survived violence laid against him, mourned friends lost, and provided for his family growing up in the Bronx.

Sure, he’s lived through character arcs on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Yes, he’s the guy who raps about Cîroc and PJs, Louis Vuitton and Saint Laurent. But his greatest flashes of success have come when he’s melded the extravagant with the heartfelt. If he can fuse the yin and yang of French Montana – the flexing and heart – there can only be more peaks to come.

“I hope this will be another chapter for every young kid from Morocco and the Middle East, to look at me and take me as an example. They can say, ‘I can go out there and make something happen, against all odds, all hurdles, all the obstacles in the way,’” he says, wrapping the flag a little more snug.

With the last shot in the last location finally snapped, Kharbouch takes a deep, exhausted breath, and looks across the medina.

“It’s almost like you went on a mission and you came back like, ‘Here I am.' It’s like a movie: through all the smoke, you’re walking out, and you say, ‘I’m still here.’”

PHOTOGRAPHY: Sebastian Kim
STYLING: Jim Moore