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Rhita Nattah… Soulful Melodies From Africa’s Spirited Songbird

By Chinonso Ihekire
18 March 2023   |   4:17 am
The beautiful thing about writing on art is that, in some ways, it embodies life and might just mirror your own realities. I stumbled upon the Moroccan chanteuse Rhita Nattaha, in the middle of a creative block.

The beautiful thing about writing about art is that, in some ways, it embodies life and it might just mirror your own realities. I stumbled upon the Moroccan chanteuse Rhita Nattah, exploring her story provided a salve to my situation.
Born and bred in Morocco, but developed as a pan-Africanist to the core, Rhita Nattah is among the list of non-indigenes you might say are even more Nigerian than most Nigerians. Her music is a comfort pill, drawn from personal experiences of her own struggles against society and its capitalist realities. Dubbed Inner Warrior, the recently-released 7-tracker EP shuffles themes of perseverance, sincerity to one’s calling, love, social justice, mental wellness, among others, to create a didactic and inspiring masterpiece. And with her lithe vocalisation, traditional percussion and fusion-instrumentation, she stands out as a songbird with enough wing-power to be on everyone’s radar.

Interestingly, Nattah, who has spent all her life in Morocco, grew her popularity across West Africa, in 2018, when she started posting cover renditions of popular Afrobeats’ songs. Her renditions of Wizkid’s Ojuelegba, the Duncan Mighty-assisted Fake Love, and YCee’s Say Bye Bye went viral on Instagram at the time, causing people to be stunned at her correct Nigerian pronunciations and her vocal magic, including Wizkid who reposted her Fake Love cover on his Instagram page. She became very noteworthy among the blossoming Afrobeats space at the time, connecting with singers like Oxlade, Tems, among others, before they rose to fame. In 2021, she became the first Moroccan singer to grace the cover of Spotify’s EQUAL artist playlist, which launched to help promote more African women in music.

Perhaps, the most shocking thing about Rhita Nattah is the fact that the trained educationist, who studied all her life in French, learned how to speak English from translating music lyrics and now completely sings all her music in English. “It is the language I felt connected to, because of the music I loved,” she said, a neat smile forming across her lips.

We are seated across a virtual call, on a warm Wednesday afternoon, as she unbelts the inspirations behind Inner Warrior, talking about the journey from discovering the music of Amy Winehouse and other American greats; to releasing her first single, Not The Same, in 2019; producing her discography with her husband; turning down a well-paying job to pursue her dreams; as well as her pan-Africanism and why she feels more Africans should create together. In this special edition of Guardian Music, we take a light trip to Morocco where we get into the world of Rhita Nattah and learn why everyone should strive to discover their inner warriors.

So you’ve surfaced on the African music scene for a while now. Your latest project, Inner Warrior, is also making the rounds. What is the story behind your music?
Officially, it all started in 2017. I had my masters degree, in 2016, but I decided to only make music. I didn’t want to work with my Master degree. I started learning stuff, and just trying to find my music style, since 2017. I also worked with a Swiss Band. They saw my covers when I was still studying in the university. My covers were on Instagram so they contacted me. They came to Morocco, I made a lot of songs in the album but then, at the time, Morocco had no industry. Till date, it still doesn’t. I didn’t know about music royalties. So with this group, I didn’t get my music royalties. One of the songs I composed, wrote and performed ( SAVE ME) is on a Netflix show, but I don’t get my royalties. When I came back from Switzerland, I started my solo career and that’s how I met the producer I’m working with now who is also my husband, Samir El Boussadi. We started learning and producing things for two years, and we decided to release the first single, in 2019, “Not The Same”.

It sounds like a really unique experience.
I really gave up on everything to focus on music, even though everyone thought I was crazy. I know some countries in Africa give value to music, to the art and to the artist. However, in Morocco, art has been neglected for so many years. There is no industry. Even big artists, actors and actresses in Morocco don’t get their royalties. So there is nothing. There is no industry. And then lately, with social media, people started being more confident and just decided to make music. But in 2016-2017, the decision that I made was way weird to many. I don’t sing in Arabic or Darija, I don’t sing in French ( the popular languages in Morocco) . I refused to work on projects that are very commercial and don’t go with my principles. So people thought I was crazy, they were telling me things like ‘What do you think you are doing? Are you in America? This is not the American dream. You have a masters degree, you studied and you don’t want to work!’ They kept hounding me. You know, even my family they’ve always said that you can’t make a living from art. But I was stubborn and I did what I loved and that’s what I am still doing.

You are in a country where language and culture is a big deal, yet you decided to sing in English. How did you do that?
The lyrics are in English, but the beats are all inspired by Traditional Moroccan music, also sometimes I write some words in Darija ( Moroccan Dialect ) when I feel like it. In Morocco, there was no music industry; Growing up, I didn’t have someone to aspire to become or an icon I could relate to. So when YouTube became popular and everything, I started listening to Amy Winehouse and I started feeling something from her music, from her voice, from her realness. I was also listening to a lot of Jazz singers. So the only people I felt that I could relate to when I was a teenager when it comes to the music and lyrics were people who sang in English. Also, I didn’t study English. I learnt it from translating music lyrics. I learnt it from translating Amy Winehouse, Diana Washington, Reggie singer, Queen Omega, and many others. I also learned English from watching movies.

It was the language of your childhood.
It’s the language that I felt connected to. For example I feel connected to Amy Winehouse when she sings in English. Sometimes I think in English, My studies were in French. I studied French Didactics. So, normally, if I worked with my Master’s degree, I was supposed to be a French teacher or someone working in the Education ministry.

So you studied to work in education, but you found yourself dumping everything for music. How were you able to cope financially?
To be honest, I was never attracted to the material world, even as a child. I grew up in a very normal family. I grew up with my grandparents and mom. We were normal. I had food and stuff, except that I never had, for example, a room to myself to live in. I never had my own place. And I never was very attached to the material world. You know, it’s not something that I am interested in. So, the material part was never a problem to me. I still have hard times, but I feel it’s not what matters. What matters to me is to do what I love and that’s music. I could have worked with my master’s degree. I was going to work in a Catholic school. They kind of proposed to me a very good monthly salary. It was around $800 monthly, but I refused to make music. I just managed to do what I love , because I really love it.

You really couldn’t juggle both the music and work?
Exactly. I had to give all my energy and time to music, I was about to work as a teacher in 2017 but I called and said I was sorry. Can’t do it. That’s when I went to work with the Swiss Band. The thought of working full time in something not related to music made me very sad because I felt like I was not going to follow my calling or dreams. I was very sad, and I was crying. My mum and my family were hurt. My mum was very hurt to be honest, because she put in so much effort into my education. I tried to convince her slowly. I made her realise that I was not going to be happy even if I had a monthly salary, because I feel that my heart and soul had so much to share with the world through music. So, now she just accepts it and prays for me.

What is the story behind the EP Inner Warrior?
Inner Warrior is about the person who is inside of you who helps you when you are about to make a hard decision in your life or to do something very hard. The person inside of you just supports you and tells you to go for it. This is the inner warrior and this is like the story of my life. The Inner Warrior, I have it in me. It’s the one who said ‘Rhita, fuck that money, go for what your heart wants, fuck that financial worth! So this is the Inner Warrior I am talking about. I have always had to turn to it within me, even when I was younger. For example, we grew up in the Islamic space and we had Islam as a religion. My principles and actions, especially my fashion, were against the expectations of people, including my family. And I have always had this person inside of me who was sure that I wasn’t doing any harm to anyone and I am just being myself. I was always defending myself in front of my uncles and aunties. In Morocco, when I used to wear shorts for example, everyone in my family was mad. They’ll tell my mum and grandparents that I am now someone bad, because of the way I dress. And I always defended myself, like ‘Oh my God, this is not your problem. I am standing, I have succeeded. You don’t need to interrupt my life like that. You don’t give me anything.’ I was always defending myself, and this is the story of the EP. The Inner Warrior, in general, is someone inside of me. Another Rhita who is always fighting for Rhita.

Also, in Inner Warrior, I talked a lot about politics. About the rights of people. About justice, about laws. I always fight now for royalties in Morocco. I always use my voice and the little platform I have to fight for what matters. And I am always fighting, I don’t give a fuck about anything else, because I am not afraid. I just fight and say what I have to say even though in Morocco you don’t have freedom of speech a lot. So it’s like everyone around me is saying ‘Rhita shut the fuck up, Rhita you don’t have to talk a lot about these things’, but I don’t give a fuck. I’m like that. So Inner Warrior is just about me and about the fact that I want everyone to listen to the inner warrior inside of them, because they have it, they just don’t listen to it. People ignore it. Inner Warrior is the truth.

You connect very strongly with other African artists. Why?
I started discovering Afrobeat before it was very prominent in the world, I really got attracted to the toplines they use, In 2017 I sang songs like Fake Love with Duncan Mighty and Wizkid, Ycee’s Say bye bye and others, I am a person who searches for new music a lot. I really discovered a lot of artists, before they got famous. For example, I discovered Oxlade on SoundCloud a long time ago and told the African producers I knew like Kiddominant and Legendury beatz about him.

Where are these videos now?
They are on YouTube. People in Africa knew me from these interpretations, before I released my first project, Not The Same. So, I think that’s why I got famous in Africa. Also, Wizkid in 2018 reposted my cover to Fake Love. I was just singing in a room with no mic, just me and guitar, they were seen by people and people were thinking that I had something related to Nigerian people. They thought I’m Nigerian, but we are all Africans. I used to sing in Yoruba too. When I want to sing a song, I like to give it justice. I don’t interpret it the same way as it is, but when it comes to the words, I really search a lot, or ask my Nigerian friends for the words. I really want to pronounce them well. I was always giving attention to these things, that’s why people thought I was from Nigeria.

Have you connected with other contemporary female African musicians?
I know some singers, but still we didn’t decide to make music together. I love Bloody Civilian, I listened to her music and I loved it so much that I told her. She told me she had my song Effects of Thoughts in a playlist for a long time, and it made me so happy. I love when I love a person’s music and they love my music as well.

So, are you going to collaborate with more Africans?
I collaborated with one of the voices that I love from Nigeria which is Terry Apala. We did a song together called Aare. I am open to working with other Africans, and if they send me an idea and I love it, I’ll do it.

Any names that come to mind?
For musicians, I really love Kiss Daniel, he said we should do a song together and I said yeah, Bloody Civilian too, I would love to do a song with JP.

So your husband still produces music for you right?
Yeah, we compose and produce together.

So how intentional do you guys try to localise your music in melodies?
We just feel something and make it. He plays instruments, like the bass guitar and piano, and his background is in Rock metal. We have some things in common and we both enjoy Afrobeats and alternative sounds. Like when we are making music, we want to keep the melodies Moroccan. Like we don’t listen to something and say okay we are going to do it like this. We just work with our feelings all the time.

What is the vision for your music?
The vision of my music is to stay true to myself and not do anything against my beliefs. And to talk about subjects that matter. Talk about my people, the suffering they go through and everything in general that hurts me about the world. I would love to start working on music videos, I am absolutely independent. I don’t have the freedom to work on my visuals the way I want and to meet the right people for my videos, but it’s something that I want to do in the future. For the EP, there are 3D visualisation videos, which reflects the elements that are on project. I am working with a 3D artist who proposed to work with me for free, just because he loves my music, I felt so lucky . His name is Husam Minawi.

Finally, if you are going to describe yourself in one word, what will it be?

Quite a choice.
Yes. I love kindness. The first thing that attracts me in people’s personalities is kindness. The second is their music taste. hahaha