Afrikayna Brings Morocco Home to its Roots

Using music and art, one association in Casablanca is trying to bridge the divide between Morocco and its African neighbors.
Afrikayna Brings Morocco Home to its Roots
All photos taken by Sebastian Bouknight for Inside Arabia

Morocco should be a plural word. Perched upon the northwesternmost node of the African continent, the kingdom has never been able to fully define itself. Is it African? Arab, Amazigh, Andalusian, Mediterranean? Can it be all of these at once? And can art be the force that brings it all together?

The prevailing popular Moroccan attitude minimizes Morocco’s African identity. Many Moroccans talk about Africa as something “over there” and Africans as “others.”

Since 2013, Afrikayna, an intercultural association based in Casablanca, has been trying to redefine Moroccan identity and sense of belonging. Its name, Afrikayna, is an Arabic portmanteau that says it all: “Africa is here.”

“It’s always a question of love,” Afrikayna founder and Casablanca native Ghita Khaldi told Inside Arabia. Moroccans’ psychological and cultural disconnection from the continent they belong to makes things worse for everyone, she asserts. Building a continental community will lift everybody up. Khaldi wants Africans—particularly Moroccans—to understand that their cultural roots are more intertwined than they may seem.

A Deep Divide

Moroccan society is a blend of Arab, Amazigh (indigenous North African), and sub-Saharan African cultures, with links to Europe. The late King Hassan II famously described Morocco as a tree whose roots plunge into African soil but whose leaves breathe European air.

But while Morocco might be in Africa, for many Moroccans it is not of Africa. Many feel more a part of the Arab World, the Middle East, Europe, or a disconnected North Africa.

These feelings make sense: Arabic culture and language have dominated the land for over a millennium. The kingdom has long had ties to nearby Europe, especially its former colonizers, France, and Spain. Some Moroccans hold dear their ancestral links to the Iberian Peninsula, which North African Arab-Amazigh dynasties ruled for centuries. Meanwhile, the vast Sahara is seen as a barrier that isolates North African culture.

French colonial strategy put another psychological wedge between Morocco and its Africanness. After independence, state-led Arabization hammered it in, pushing many who identified as Amazigh — African — to reject their roots.

Somewhere from around half to a large majority of Morocco’s population is Amazigh, depending on whom you ask. Many Moroccans who identify as Arab may actually have no significant genetic difference from those who identify as Amazigh.

Morocco withdrew from the African Union in 1984, after the Union recognized the independence of the disputed, Moroccan-claimed Western Sahara. After that, local media portrayed “Africa” as inferior, by reducing it to a place of “war, persecution, and conflict,” while portraying Europe with more nuance and attention, Rachid Moumen, a Moroccan master’s student, told Inside Arabia.

Racism, and specifically anti-blackness, is, of course, a factor. Skin tone divides people in Morocco, as it does everywhere else. For many Moroccans, being “African” means being black, even though many Moroccans have dark skin.

Art is the Bridge

For Khaldi, art is the appropriate medium for the task of connecting the continent. Afrikayna works to “foster artistic exchanges between Moroccan artists and professionals and the rest of the continent.” On the list of questions behind the project (Why are we cut off from the rest of Africa? What can one organization do about it?), one stood out to Khaldi: How can disconnected people connect if they cannot actually meet?

Afrikayna puts mobility at the heart of its work. Since 2016, its Africa Art Lines (AAL) program has funded over 95 projects that bring artists, researchers, and associations face to face, often buying prohibitively expensive plane tickets to or from Morocco. “It costs less to go to Europe or to the U.S. than to travel within Africa,” Khaldi lamented. She wants anyone with passion and skill—whether in music, theater, dance, or circus—to be able to create across borders.

The Mbokka Project

In 2018, Afrikayna conceived its own project: the Mbokka Project. Khaldi explained it to Inside Arabia in a bustling international exposition hall at the Visa for Music (VFM) festival in Rabat, Morocco. Outside, Mbokka was sound checking for its concert later that night.

Afrikayna Brings Morocco Home to its Roots
Mbokka’s Mourad Belouadi, Brahim Wone, and Kya Loum

Mbokka is a “mobility experiment,” bringing together artists who otherwise may never have met to see what they might create. “It worked,” Khaldi said, smiling.

Khaldi picked two Moroccan musicians—Mourad Belouadi on guembri and Adil Hanine on drums—and Arnaud N’Gaza, a bassist from the Ivory Coast living in Morocco. The Kôrè Center in Segou, Mali, chose Malians Kalifa Dembele on balafon and Mariam Kone on guitar. Jean-Pierre Senghor, a Senegalese producer, brought Senegalese singer Kya Loum and guitarist Brahim Wone on board.

The seven musicians met in May 2018 at Boultek, the hip arts space in Casablanca that houses Afrikayna, and began composing, with Aziz Sahmaoui as the artistic director. All of them sing, and they arrange together. Mbokka’s name itself evokes two communal images: it translates to “kinship” in Senegalese Wolof and “village” in Congolese Lingala.

Afrikayna Brings Morocco Home to its Roots
Mbokka’s Kya Loum

“Music has no borders, so it was easy,” Senghor told Inside Arabia. “After one week, people from Mali, Morocco, Senegal, and Ivory Coast can make a show together.” Soon after, Mbokka recorded an EP in Senghor’s Dakar music studio and at Boultek.

Borders

The band’s ability to travel is key. All its members have visited each other’s home countries to perform. All have had the chance to be a host, guest, teacher, and student, allowing them to develop a voice that speaks for them all.

But moving across borders does not always make neighbors closer. Over 50,000 sub-Saharan Africans have immigrated to Morocco in recent years. Locals have responded with both hospitality and hostility. A 2008 study found that 40 percent of Moroccans surveyed “did not relate to sub-Saharan peoples as their neighbors,” and 70 percent would refuse to share a home with them.

“This is the way our Africa is now, this ripped and poor continent,” lamented Hanine, who also plays in the now famed Gnawa rock band Hoba Hoba Spirit. “The truth is that we are more Africans than Arabs,” he said. Exhibiting Morocco’s old musical traditions as proof, he declared that “you don’t find Middle Eastern genetics” in shaabi, ahwach, and Gnawa. Styles like melhoun and tarab Andaloussi were born “after the Islamization of the Berber [Amazigh] tribes.”

An “African Orientation”

But Morocco’s chilly relations with the continent are thawing. Upon the kingdom’s insistence, the African Union readmitted Morocco in 2017. After, King Mohammed VI told fellow heads of state: “Africa is my home, and I am coming home.”

The country has increased its investment and trade in Africa in recent years, citing a “common future.” It calls its new “African orientation” a “logical” response to today’s global economy, in which Morocco’s economic presence in African markets is more viable than in the EU. In the social arena, Morocco strongly supports anti-terrorism efforts in the Sahel and trains West African imams in moderate doctrine.

However, it seems that Morocco’s new “orientation” is essentially transactional, geared towards achieving political and economic goals rather than building social unity. At the same time that Moroccan universities host many West African students, the state is allegedly using other sub-Saharan migrants as leverage against the EU, a claim it denies.

For all of Rabat’s outreach, there are few cultural bridges other than Afrikayna. Another bridge is MACAAL in Marrakech, the only Moroccan museum devoted entirely to contemporary African art, which shows works from across the continent side by side with those from Morocco.  

But things are changing outside Morocco’s official policies. “I think a lot of Moroccan people woke up,” Hanine said. Youssef, a recent Moroccan graduate, told Inside Arabia that he had not identified as African until he went to study in Europe. There, he learned that his European classmates saw him as African before they saw him as Moroccan. Moumen added that Morocco’s sense of superiority over ‘Africa’ mirrored Europe’s treatment of Morocco. Perhaps Moroccans needed a more global perspective, he suggested.

Learning Kinship

Afrikayna’s deliberate collection of traditional African instruments helps do that work. “Our heritage has a risk of disappearing if we don’t give it the attention that it needs,” Khaldi said. Together, the instruments make the intertwined histories of the “north bank of the Sahara” and its “southern neighbors” tangible. The Moroccan guembri of Gnawa fame, for instance, is an enlarged cousin of the ngoni, an instrument played in Mali.

Afrikayna Brings Morocco Home to its Roots
Afrikayna’s instruments include the Malian ngoni and kora and Moroccan ribab.

Facing history can sometimes be uncomfortable. Gnawa music and the guembri are products of the same centuries-long slave trade that resulted in some Moroccans having West African ancestry.

For young Moroccans, loving gnawa often comes hand in hand with embracing their African heritage—and neighbors. The once-disdained music now enjoys an unprecedented level of popularity, said Khaldi, thanks to its fervent defenders.

Afrikayna Brings Morocco Home to its Roots
Mbokka’s Mourad Belouadi

Playing guembri, Mourad Belouadi brings Gnawa into Mbokka’s music. Across the stage, Kalifa Dembele plays the Malian balafon. Brought together, they show their forgotten kinship. Mbokka’s song “Aada” neatly weaves balafon into the folds of a Gnawa song until eventually a Moroccan shaabi rhythm emerges.

The Right Conditions to Create

Mbokka is also a practical case study in pan-African music making. “It’s more than a business, but it’s also a business,” Khaldi said. Such a project has to survive “without outside support.” Afrikayna can be the matchmaker and incubator, but not a patron. More than anything, artists need “the right conditions to create.”

Afrikayna Brings Morocco Home to its Roots
Mbokka’s Khalifa Dembele

Investment in Mbokka has paid off: the band is now getting booked for festivals and concerts on its own. Khaldi hopes to repeat its success with other artists. But to succeed, artists need a sustainable, integrated music market, by Africans, for Africans. African artists—certainly Moroccans—tend to look “to big markets in the north and the U.S.,” instead of developing Africa’s, Khaldi said.

According to her, African governments must recognize that art is “not only entertainment; it’s something we can’t live without.” At least one government already does, in some ways. Afrikayna’s primary funder is OCP, Morocco’s powerful, state-owned phosphate mining company and a major funder of civil society.

New Languages

Watching the band perform at VFM, it was hard to believe these musicians were strangers just six months earlier. Their chemistry was natural, their sound richly-textured, and their musical idioms evenly balanced. Some song arrangements were understandably a bit cautious. Creating a new common language takes time.

Mbokka’s sound is a musical pidgin, a simple blend of languages that emerges when cultures meet. When identities mingle and this form of communication becomes the next generation’s native language, it turns into a creole—a stable, coherent, and powerful language. You can write histories, poetry, and charters in a creole.

If Afrikayna has its way, Morocco will join its neighbors in composing Africa’s future: inclusive, unique, and rich.