Interview: Meet Issam, Morocco's New Trap Star

We talk to the rapper about pioneering a truly Moroccan trap sound and showing love to the overcrowded streets that made him.

Derb Sultan is one of the oldest and poorest neighborhoods in Casablanca, Morocco — a notorious district that would be described in the Franco-Arab world as 'populaires.' It's a place that is victim to industrialisation — overcrowded, and yet defined by there not being enough. A place where people survive despite the inequality, but most importantly where identity is forged.

A son of a carpenter, Issam was born in the heart of it all 28 years ago, into what he describes as a difficult childhood weighed down by sadness. His mother was diagnosed with bipolar the day he was placed into her arms. There is more than a trace of this hurt soaking into his trippy chords and woozy melodies. Here, Issam breaks through the heavy auto-tune to reveal a voice that isn't hiding, as he materialises with the serious poise of a man who has nothing to lose and all to give.

Issam's debut album Crystal follows his earlier releases, resplendent in Jodorowsky-like imagery and a zillion miles from the trap video tropes we are used to, his YouTube videos have garnered over 35 million views. It's these kinds of numbers, unheard of for a young North African artist, that led him to be courted by French labels. He eventually signed with the behemoth that is Universal/Def Jam.

Through this and a passionate fanbase, Issam quietly knows he's sitting on something special. His debut is the psychedelic world that his followers have been waiting for, an opportunity for an artist to sing in his own language and yet still make the big moves. More than just another trap record, it's an album that is heavy with hashish and the spray of the Atlantic when the breeze feels just right. Crystal is filled with mind-bending synths firing dazed synapses and songs, like motor-oil in pools of water, turning a myriad of colours and then simply vanishing. It's a record that soars with hope, that propels you to dance with your friends as much as it heeds a nameless warning. It's a love note to being alive. And you don't need to understand the words to feel that.

Issam finds himself here, certain and yet still bewildered. At times there is some of the anguish of a yearning tongue-twisting Marvin Gaye, his soul swirling as a spiraling counterpoint to his own lead vocal. Trapped and yet free, repping his hood whilst carried on vapours all the way to California.

Issam sits in his smoke-filled studio. He's thoughtful, as if he hasn't decided to switch the light on behind his eyes yet. It's too early for that maybe but he's still incredibly present. I tell him I love his record and then we begin.

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