Pin It

Casablanca Beats: a Moroccan teen drama about the power of hip-hop

Nabil Ayouch’s new film follows a group of Casablanca teenagers as they discover dance, rhymes, and the power of self-expression

Before auditioning for Casablanca Beats, Zineb Boujemaa had only ever danced in her bedroom. “I saw the advert on Facebook,” the 20-year-old actor recalls over Zoom from Marrakech. “When I got there, it was all professional dancers. When they asked us to list our type of dancing, I was like, ‘What should I write?’ I got so stressed!” Boujemaa then performed for five minutes to her favourite James Blake song. “Two weeks later, I was told that out of 500 people, I was the one chosen.”

“What grabbed me immediately with this audition was her eyes,” chips in Nabil Ayouch, 53, the director and co-writer of Casablanca Beats. “Her dance was beautiful but the way she looked at the camera was amazing.”

“People used to tell me I’m like a witch,” Boujemaa says, giggling. “Because my eyes say a lot.”

Boujemaa, like most of the Casablanca Beats cast, is a first-time actor whose youthful energy is as pulsating as the accompanying soundtrack. After competing for the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes, the Moroccan coming-of-age drama is heading to cinemas with speaker systems near you, which is an ideal setting for a movie that celebrates the power of hip-hop.

Anas Basboussi, a real Moroccan rapper, plays a teacher, Anas, who arrives in Sidi Moumen to share his wisdom about the artform. In the classroom, Anas praises hip-hop’s impact on Barack Obama’s ascension into the White House and the Arab Spring movement in Tunisia. In response, the teens, including Boujemaa, write and perform slam verses, craft their own dance moves, and ultimately discover the power of self-expression and rhyming at the same time.

If it seems like an excellent idea waiting to be implemented, well it already has: Ayouch established a youth centre in Sidi Moumen in 2014, which is where Basboussi turned up to teach what he called the Positive School of Hip-Hop. “I observed Anas and his teaching methods for a year,” Ayouch explains. “One afternoon, I asked the students where their words came from, and they opened their heart about why they wrote those lyrics.

“It gave me a strong feeling this would be my next film, and it would not be sad. It would be a positive representation of their energy, and why they’re fighting against stereotypes, against society, against the reasons why they were here in this centre, and why for them it was a question of life or death.”

In 2012, Ayouch competed for the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes with Horses of God, a drama dealing with the 2003 Casablanca bombings. In Casablanca Beats, Zineb (the characters are named after the actors) and her classmates still face prejudice for living in Sidi Moumen, the suburbs that the terrorists came from, as well as patriarchal, racial, and societal pressures. It’s thus extra empowering that, through hip-hop, the kids get a literal microphone for their thoughts. A sample lyric from Amina, a Muslim girl: “They curse my ‘cause I sing with my veil / Do I have to undress to tell my tale?”

Through Boujemaa spits her own verses in the classroom, the character prefaces it by insisting she’s a dancer, not a rapper. Today, Boujemaa insists that’s still the case, except acting is also part of her identity. In fact, she grew up wanting to be Angelina Jolie, particularly as Lara Croft. “When I was younger, I would play Tomb Raider on my PlayStation and imagine myself doing all that action with the gun,” she admits, miming the pose.

In terms of dancing, Boujemaa, who posts videos on her Instagram, cites two influences: Moroccan culture (“it’s a mountain of things”) and a second choice no one on the Zoom call expects. “Insects,” she exclaims. “They inspire me, how they move, how they live, and how they’re small creatures.” Any insects in particular? “All of them.”

While Ayouch lives in Casablanca now, he grew up in Paris and had, in his words, a “lonely childhood” that was rescued by a youth centre near his home. Now older, he observes the similar impact rap music has upon Gen Z. “Hip-hop’s the major way of expression for youngsters today, especially in the Arab world where I live,” Ayouch says. “Hip-hop can play a role in the social and political evolution of this region of the world.

“You saw it during the Arab Spring, and in Algeria three years ago with the Hirak movement. You see youngsters appropriating the words of famous rappers and songs, and using them for political claims. It’s so easy to record a song and do a video clip today. You can revindicate who you are through hip-hop.”

With Ayouch discovering, writing, and editing the film during the shoot, Casablanca Beats was several years in the making. According to Boujemaa, the actors were learning on the job, but by the end were pros. I ask how she changed during the shoot. “I’m so proud of the Zineb who I became today,” she says. “I learned how to control my emotions – how to be sincere, and how to let it go.” She then adds, shyly, “The question makes me feel very vulnerable!”

With regards to the response in Morocco, Ayouch is emphatic. “I saw youngsters coming from the suburbs who never used to go to the cinema because it’s too far and expensive,” he beams. “They were singing, dancing, crying sometimes. They told me, for the very first time, they were represented onscreen.”

After all, Casablanca Beats directly addresses what it means to live in Sidi Moumen. Ayouch informs me that until a few years ago, there wasn’t even a tramline between the centre of Casablanca and Sidi Moumen – the area was being actively ignored. “After the 2003 attacks, there were other attacks in 2007 and 2009, and all the time the terrorists were coming from Sidi Moumen,” the director explains. “I wanted to show that with places like that, yes, there were some bad things that happened, and are probably still happening.

“But also, if you give those youngsters a place where they can tell you who they are, and where they can build their own stories and express themselves, there could also be some beautiful things emerging from there."

Casablanca Beats is released in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on April 29