Algerian artist Soolking.


Photo: Luc Bucaille

Interview: Soolking, the Algerian Star Fusing Raï and Hip-Hop

Algeria's Soolking is creating his own lane by adding a Mahgrebian touch to France's urban music scene.

Raï, a Maghrebian folk music form dating back to the 1920s, rose out of the Algerian city of Oran. A mix of pop and traditional Bedouin desert music, it's working class & notably male singers, referred to as Cheb, filled their lyrics with talk of social issues such as disease and colonialism. They did so purposely, as the Arab word 'raï' stands for 'opinion.' These musicians so effectively bridged the gap between traditional Islamic values and their strife that, by the 1980s, the genre became world renown.

Algerian Abderraouf Derradji better known as Soolking is a successor of such musicians as Cheb Khaled, Cheb Hasni, and Cheb Mami. Much like his predecessors, Soolking discusses the pains and joys of daily life. Last year, his Algerian fans were so enamored with his peaceful protest anthem, "Liberté," that they chanted it in the streets. An offshoot of what came before it, Soolking's modern day formula is a mix of a multitude of genres⁠—raï, pop, rap, R&B,, soul, and reggaeton.

Presently, Soolking's music has amassed over one billion streams. His first album, Fruit du Demon, is certified platinum.. The prolific writer is even said to have created over 70 songs for that debut. His latest double album, Vintage, was released back in March with chart-topping singles "Melegim" and "Mayline."

Soolking feat. Dadju - Meleğim [Clip Officiel] Prod by

The crooner's project is home to members of France's newest generation, notably Dadju, Jul, Gambi, Heuss Bastard, SCH, and 13 Block. Like him, these musicians rap and sing on tracks that are often characterized by hat-tips to the African countries they're from.

Things weren't always this grand. Derradji grew up in Algiers, his childhood marked by hanging with Parisien youth who listened to French rap from Booba, Rohff, Lino, to Kaaris, while also being surrounded by multiple Maghrebian music forms. This double culture of sorts made him who he is. In 2008, he moved to France on a three-month visa in an attempt to catch his big break. His short stint in the country would consist of sleeping on the street and on friends' couches. At 29, in January of 2018, Soolking would go from being unknown in France to 231 million views and counting on an episode of Skyrock's Planète Rap in which he sang an Algerian ode, "Guérilla." He would follow this up with his homage to Dalida, a multi-platinum Egyptian crossover singer with a career spanning three decades, remembered as France's answer to the Beatles. The trajectory of her career and her international acclaim would serve as a blueprint for Soolking.

It's morning when we speak and Soolking mentions, "I sleep, during the day, and am up all night. I haven't slept yet."

Soolking feat. Cheb Mami - Ça fait des années [Clip Officiel] Prod by Zak

This interview has been translated and edited for clarity.

Your latest album features singer-songwriter Cheb Mami. Talk to me about your relationship with raï and it's influence over the music you make.

I worked with Cheb Mami because he's one of the artists who was able to bring raï music to the global forefront. He is a raï musician but he globalized his music. He developed his own style and mixed it with other genres, for example, the song he did with Sting ("Desert Rose," 2000) which became a mega international hit. It was a touch of raï mixed with pop. This is why I did a song with him because my music has this sort of DNA.

I wouldn't say raï is the only music from Algeria that influences me. Growing up there, there were a multitude of styles I would hear on a regular basis such as Gnawa, desert music, and Chaabi, popular music. It would take a while to cite them all but you can hear them in the music I make.

What is the current state of Algerian or North African music? What Algerian or North African musicians should people be listening to right now?

It is doing very well. Where artists like Cheb Khaled exported raï beyond Algeria, there is a younger generation of artists holding their own. There's Moroccan pop singer Zouhair Bahaoui, myself, Moroccan Saad Lamjarred, and I could go on.

Soolking feat SCH - Maryline [Clip Officiel] Prod By

How do you feel about being considered an ambassador for Algeria?

I will accept being a music ambassador but wouldn't give myself this title beyond that. If anyone considers me this, though, it is a great honor.

What are the inspirations behind your latest album Vintage?

The album is full of ego trips and love songs. I also discuss life in the streets, as well as things that happen on a day-to-day basis. I make music based on feelings. When it's time for an album, I go back through everything I have made and regroup tracks into one body of work.

The title Vintage lends itself to the fact that you drew inspiration from the past. Is this true?

Exactly. On the album cover, you can see me in my room surrounded by posters of artists that have inspired me—Cheb Khaled, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, and Bob Marley. There's even Al Pacino and Bruce Lee, if you listen to urban French music, you often hear artists discuss these two and such things as mangas in their lyrics.

Soolking - Bébé allô [Official Music Video] Prod by

What's it mean to you to have become so successful overnight?

To some it may seem like I came up overnight but it's a common misconception. I have been working on my craft for more than ten years. It took lots of time to get where I am. My episode of Skyrock's Planète Rap was a turning point in what had already been a long journey.

Prior to becoming the musician you are today, you were an acrobat, dancer, and in theater. What role do all of these play in your current career?

Art forms are all one big family. The same rhythm I used while dancing can be found in my music today.

How would you describe your sound?

It's a mix or melange of a variety of music genres, while remaining urban.

What's next for you?

I intend to make more music videos for this album. We are going to push this album forward as best we can then move on to the next.

Soolking's 'Vintage' is available now.