In Defense of an Amazigh Identity: Singer, Poet and Politician Fatima Tabaamrant

Fatima Tabaamrant, born Fatima Chahou, is a Moroccan poet, singer, activist, and parliamentarian. A member of Morocco’s indigenous Aït Boubker tribe, Tabaamrant has dedicated her life to asserting her Amazigh identity through her music and her political engagements.

In Defense of an Amazigh Identity: Singer, Poet and Politician Fatima Tabaamrant

Fatima Tabaamrant, born Fatima Chahou, is a Moroccan poet, singer, activist, and parliamentarian. A member of Morocco’s indigenous Aït Boubker tribe, Tabaamrant has dedicated her life to asserting her Amazigh identity through her music and her political engagements.

Tabaamrant was born in 1962 in a small village near Ifrane in the Anti-Atlas regions of the Souss in mid-southern Morocco. She grew up among the Aït Baâmrane, a loosely confederated group of six Soussi tribes, including Tabaamrant’s native Aït Boubker. Her mother died when she was just three years old. Later, when her father remarried, Tabaamrant was sent to live with distant relatives. Tabaamrant was soon put to work in the fields despite her young age and was denied any formal education. This tragic turn of events would profoundly mark the young Tabaamrant, and much of her early poetry — which she began composing around the age of 13.  Many of her poems engage with themes related to the traumatic event of losing her mother.

As a teenager, Tabaamrant was forced into an arranged marriage. This ill-fated marriage ended in divorce. As a divorced woman — still barely over 20 — Tabaamrant enrolled in the musical conservatory in Agadir, where she studied for two years. Determined to make a career in music, Tabaamrant began performing as a dancer with Jamaâ el-Hamidi’s orchestra in 1983. She also performed briefly with Said Achtouk before recording her first album with Moulay Mohamed Belfqih in 1985. Tabaamrant’s work with Belfqih was largely in the style of tanddamt, a kind of vocal sparring between a male voice and a female one. She also worked with many well-known Amazigh singers from the Souss region, including Rquia Demssiria, Hajj Mohamed Demssiri, Haj Belaaid, and Ahmad Bizmawne.

While Tabaamrant’s early compositions dealt with themes of motherhood and the experience of being orphaned (an experience that was as personal for her as it was powerful for her audience), her work took a political turn in 1987 as she began to focus on the questions of women’s rights and specifically the Amazigh identity. As she affirmed in a 2010 interview for Albayane, “I banned love from my songs early on. I talk about education, women’s rights, childhood, nature. I sing about serious subjects because I believe that the message is more important than the music. My message is to raise awareness about our identity as Amazigh people and as women.” For Tabaamrant, culture has always been political.

However, Tabaamrant struggled mightily to make her voice heard. As she stated in her 2010 interview, “I had great difficulty making my songs known in Morocco. The media boycotted me. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I started to get some attention. Today, I’m a member of the IRCAM [the Royal Institute of the Amazigh Culture], which proves that the process of recognizing our culture has begun.”

In 1991, as Morocco was beginning to embrace its Amazigh origins, Tabaamrant struck out on her own and recruited the musicians for an orchestra under her direction. One of the only women to lead an orchestra of her own, Tabaamrant also stood out for her deep voice, which was a marked contrast to the shrill-voiced singing style that had long been dominant among the women singers of the Souss. Nearly 30 years later, Tabaamrant continues to lead and perform with this same group.

Around this time, Tabaamrant also began to advocate for greater access to Tamazight-language education for members of Morocco’s Amazigh communities. Without ever slowing the pace of her musical production — remarkably, she has written over 160 songs and sold some 100,000 albums in the first decade of the 21st century — Tabaamrant became a member of the Moroccan Parliament. In 2012, she became the first parliamentarian to pose a question in Parliament in Tamazight rather than in Arabic or French. Her audacious move ultimately led to the enshrining of Tamazight in the Moroccan constitution as an official language of Morocco alongside Arabic.

Reflecting upon her successful careers – both in music and politics – Tabaamrant has asserted that “the defense of an Amazigh identity is the essence of my artistic message.” Indeed, in addition to working to assure an officially recognized status for the Amazigh languages, she has also tirelessly defended the place of the Amazigh artist in contemporary Moroccan society, arguing against the marginalization and folklorization of a dynamic, modern culture.

By marrying her twin passions for music and political engagement, Tabaamrant has created a long and powerful legacy and developed a poetics of Moroccan Amazigh identity.