Wandering through the souks of the Marrakesh medina, Josh Asen was surprised to hear the hip-hop sounds of Puff Daddy and Eminem over the strains of traditional religious music.
In Morocco on a 2004 Fulbright fellowship to research hip-hop, Asen, then 24, impulsively abandoned the idea of writing a paper — too dry– and decided to make a film instead.
And that's how this self-described Brooklyn Jew who grew up listening to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald came to help found Morocco's first-ever hip-hop festival and, with friend Jennifer Needleman, to make the documentary "I Love Hip-Hop in Morocco."
Though he had worked for a year as an international promotions coordinator for Roc-A-Fella records, Asen was surprised at hip-hop's popularity in Morocco. The country isn't included in international marketing or promotions because of piracy problems there.
Asen asked local rap artists what they needed most in order to promote their music. Concerts, they told him.
So Asen appealed to the U.S. Embassy and Coca-Cola to sponsor a festival, a three-city tour featuring local artists in Casablanca, Marrakesh and Meknes.
"Hip-hop is part of the democratic process. It is the empowerment and the birth of the voice of the oppressed, of the underclass," he said. "This is young people seizing a voice for themselves, in a way they haven't done since the '70s."
The Moroccan artists put their own twist on the music, with the musicians rapping in such languages as Arabic, French, Moroccan Arabic and English. Complete with DJs, breakdancers, and graffiti artists, they've created an underground, indigenous hip-hop movement that has been developing for nearly a decade.
Funding was up in the air and, right to the first night of the festival, the musicians weren't sure they'd go on. The U.S. embassy's then-cultural attaché in Casablanca, Terry White, got the word that the funds had been approved.
"Our goal was to reach out to a segment of Morocco's youth that we otherwise had trouble reaching, as we really didn't have much they were interested in, and show them another side of America than they were generally seeing on the tube," said White, in an e-mail interview from his current posting in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
A triumphant Asen filmed on stage, before 30,000 fans. Hundreds of thousands of other Moroccans also watched the show on TV.
"There were quite a few spontaneous appearances of American flags in the crowds," said White. "And they were right side up and not on fire!"
We Are the World?
Moroccans enjoyed the film, and the government seemed to tacitly support it, too, according to Daoud Casewit, executive secretary of the Moroccan-American Commission for the Educational and Cultural Exchange, which funded Asen's Fulbright.
"They look for ways to reduce extremism and promote diversity," he said. "This is one of them."
The film should likewise give Americans a more nuanced understanding of the Muslim world, said Casewit.
Asen agreed: "You see an Arab kid, a Muslim kid from Morocco on the screen wearing Sean John, or a Yankees cap, rapping or dancing, and you say to yourself, 'Well, wow, that's the same thing we do — that looks a lot like us.' "
Hip-hop has certainly succeeded in transcending physical borders, but the themes of American and Moroccan hip-hop are decidedly different.
Achraf Aarab, a member of Fnaire, Morocco's "traditional rap" group that blends American hip-hop and traditional Moroccan music, complains in the film that American hip-hop lyrics are full of fast women, cars and jewelry.
The only problem in Morocco is that there is no money, he said, and admitted, laughing, "If we had money, we would talk about girls, and everything would be fine."
Political, religious and social issues are usually addressed discreetly. DJ Key, founder of Morocco's original hip-hop association, explains in the film that certain practices integral to hip-hop are forbidden to practicing Muslims, especially mixing of the sexes.
But he can't explain how he reconciles his religious beliefs with his love of hip-hop. "It's very difficult," he said.
This is a powerful scene in the film, which doesn't otherwise focus on Islam and politics. "We tried not to have a message, not force any kind of conclusion as to what this all means," said Asen, who's now back in Brooklyn working as an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher.
"This is a part of the world that is largely misunderstood, vilified and demonized in a lot of ways. [The film] might make people feel a little less estranged from the Muslim world, to see that it's not just all terrorists and fundamentalists. Some kids are just doing hip-hop."