‘Hip-hop didn’t just come out of nowhere,” explains young teacher Anas to his even younger class in Casablanca Beats. He speaks of the “poverty, racism and humiliation” experienced by hip-hop’s African-American founders, and how the genre became a vehicle for self-empowerment and social change. “It’s rap that speaks of our lives, of our problems, things people aren’t supposed to know.”
The Moroccan teenagers listening to Anas can relate to this. Hip-hop is now a commercial industry in the US, but around the world rap has become the lingua franca for disempowered and disaffected youth, and the soundtrack to revolution. Nowhere more so than north Africa. During the Arab spring in the 2010s, protesters in Tunisia and Egypt chanted the lyrics of Tunisian rapper El Général’s anti-corruption anthem Rais Lebled: “Misery is everywhere and the people haven’t found a place to sleep / I am speaking in name of the people who are suffering and crushed beneath the feet.” In Algeria, too, the recent Hirak movement has been backed by anti-government rap tunes such as Raja Meziane’s Allo le Système!. Even in relatively stable Morocco, there are still plenty of problems for young people to talk about, and plenty of people who don’t want them to talk, or sing, let alone dance.
If it weren’t for this political bite, Casablanca Beats might be just another tale of an inspirational tutor and teens finding their voices, in the tradition of, say, Fame or Dead Poets Society. But Nabil Ayouch’s film, which played in the main competition at Cannes last year, gives us both the fantasy and the reality, and puts them side by side. The movie is mostly semi-documentary and semi-improvised. Anas’s hip-hop school actually exists, in the poor neighbourhood of Sidi Moumen (one student calls it Casablanca’s answer to the Bronx). The class were all non-professionals. Over the course of the film, we follow their evolution as performers, listen in on their heated discussions and get a taste of their difficult home lives.
But there are also moments when Casablanca Beats tips into musical fantasy. Characters get solo moments to express themselves in verse or in dance, almost like mini music videos: dancer Zineb performs alone on the rooftops, for example, hanging herself from clothes lines like a puppet. Duo Ismail and Mehdi’s dream of performing to adoring crowds is made real. In one scene, the whole class confronts some religious conservatives in a street dance-off, like something out of West Side Story.
“The idea was to do this film with absolute beginners, and to observe them growing and spreading their wings,” says Ayouch. This is a story close to the 53-year-old film-maker’s own life. Les Étoiles, the cultural centre in Sidi Moumen where the film is set, was founded by Ayouch himself. He shot his breakthrough 2000 feature Ali Zaoua, a tale of street children cast with non-professionals, in the area. After that, Ayouch had a desire to do something lasting for the local youth, so he formed a foundation and opened the cultural centre there in 2014. The foundation now operates five centres across Morocco.
Casablanca Beats’ tough but charismatic class teacher, Anas Basbousi, is also the genuine article: a pioneer in Moroccan hip-hop who raps under the stage name Bawss. “I began my career in 2003,” he says. “At that time there were no studios or concert venues that accepted or welcomed hip-hop, so we just performed in the streets.” A decade later, hip-hop had taken hold across the region, “so that gave me the idea of creating a hip-hip school, a place where people could learn and feel at home”. Everything fell into place when he met Ayouch and established the “Positive School of Hip Hop” at Les Étoiles.
“I started thinking, this is a story that the world has to know,” the film-maker says. “What happens here in this neighbourhood, the conditions in which they live, the obstacles that they have to face, even more the girls than the boys, and all the topics that are haunting them, like society, politics, religion. But also the positive energy, because that’s something that gave me a lot of hope.”
For women, especially, hip-hop has been an outlet. In Casablanca Beats, their lyrics target misogyny and gender inequality at every level. When hijab-wearing Meriem is taken out of the class by her elder brother, she responds in angry verse: “For you, women are slaves / It makes me sick / For you, being a man means dominating us / Look at our mother in chains / Never had a voice and never complained.”
And then there’s the dancing. “Words is one thing but dance is another,” says Ayouch. Conservatives are routinely angered by men and women intermixing in dance, and female dancers, especially, using their bodies to express themselves. “Yes, I’ve experienced this,” says student Zineb Boujemaa, the star dancer of the piece. Older Moroccans, her parents included, still associate dancing with nightclubs and loose morals. “Today, it’s become easier. Before, it was super-hard for Moroccan women to dance, but I’ve still had some bad experiences.”
Inevitably, as Casablanca Beats’ storyline reflects, the Positive School has become a target for religious conservatives and traditionally-minded local people. “Sometimes they have come inside the centre to intimidate us. There were some tough moments,” says Ayouch. Basbousi agrees: “In the beginning, every week there was someone who would either try to stop a show or withdraw their child. We decided to show it in the film because that was our reality.” Basbousi invited families in to see what they were doing and build trust, he says, and the problem has subsided. Then again, Ayouch’s controversial 2015 film Much Loved, which broached the subject of prostitution in Morocco and was banned as a result, sparked riots around the centre for weeks, he says.
Sidi Moumen was home to the suicide bombers who attacked central Casablanca in 2003, killing 33 civilians, and to those who struck in 2007. (Ayouch’s 2012 feature Horses of God gave a fictionalised account of the perpetrators.) Those most likely to become radicalised often come from the poorest areas. Hip-hop can provide an alternative outlet for their rage, Ayouch suggests. “There are lots of youngsters that I see singing, dancing and so on in the neighbourhood, and very often, I am wondering what kind of young people they would be today without this way of expression. Because I see where they live, I see the people that they can meet. And I see how they became very, very different from what they could have been if they had stayed in the street, or in the mosque.”
Casablanca Beats captures hip-hop’s potential for transformation – personal and social – almost in real time, and the process has continued. Many of the featured students are now themselves working with the Positive School and launching careers of their own. Rap duo Ismail and Mehdi are semi-pro, recording and shooting promos. Boujemaa, who had no prior experience, is building a career as a dancer and performing internationally. Basbousi is expanding the Positive School across other centres in Morocco as well as acting professionally. As we speak he is midway through shooting a show for Arab streaming network Shahid.
Ayouch, meanwhile, continues to be busy propping up much of Moroccan film culture. As with Basbousi’s experience in hip-hop, there was little film culture to speak of in Morocco when he came here in the 1990s, having been born and raised in France. “We needed to build a house,” he says. “And I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to bring my stones.” In addition to his own film and television work, he runs a busy production company – often working with his wife, Maryam Touzani, who is also a film-maker and actor – and he started a short film competition to support young film-makers. All this as well as running the Ali Zaoua Foundation, which runs Les Étoiles and the other cultural centres.
“I don’t sleep much,” he says, laughing. “Since I was very young, the heroes of my childhood were teachers. My mother was a professor and a Spanish teacher. I grew up observing them. And you can see in many of my movies how the figure of the transmitter, the teacher, like Anas, is important. For me the question of transmission is crucial.”
• Casablanca Beats is in cinemas from 29 April