African migrants in Morocco find common language in music

Courtesy of Reuben Yemoh Odoi Musician and activist Reuben Yemoh Odoi performs with the band The Minority Globe at 3ZEM, a concert the band organized in Rabat, Morocco. Born in Ghana, Odoi migrated to Morocco a decade and half ago and now makes music about migration.

When sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco don’t feel welcome, or don’t speak the language, they turn to a language everyone speaks – music – to build bridges and find common ground. 

Marrakech, Morocco

Until 2004 Reuben Yemoh Odoi was living a content life in Dakar: socializing with the president’s children, working and winning fights at a local boxing gym, and making music about the aftermath of wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. 

But it was not enough. 

A Ghanaian-born artist from a family of creatives, he had always wanted to do more with his music. Opportunities to express himself and find success were in short supply in Senegal, where he had moved seven years earlier. In Dakar, he had met many people who had fled conflicts in their countries to settle there, and he was inspired by their struggle.

“I had been hearing of migrants traveling through the desert to North Africa. I decided to experience it for myself,” says Mr. Odoi. “I was trying to find truth in my music and art by becoming an undocumented migrant.” 

In July 2004, he began a dangerous year-and-a-half-long journey through the Sahara desert, passing through Bamako, Niamey, Agadez, and Tamanrasset before reaching Casablanca. Midway through his journey, he was left to die by migrant smugglers.

“Being afraid of dying was what made me keep moving forward,” he says. 

Another force that propelled him were the “desert blues,” a strings-heavy style of music, including Mauritanian Hassānīya and Moroccan Gnawa traditions, which he heard in buses and shops throughout his journey.  

That music stuck with him and a decade and a half after his arduous journey, Mr. Odoi has made a name for himself in Casablanca by fusing Mauritanian, Moroccan, Ghanaian, and contemporary hiplife and Afrobeat music into an instrument-forward style of music.

In his music, lyrics are spoken, not sung, which has the effect of listening to a story. In one song, “Stranger,” he talks about a migrant’s struggle to become documented. Over a strumming guitar and the light beat of drums, Mr. Odoi asks, “Tell me stranger why you are still here when they refuse to register your rights? Where are you going to run when they come for you?” 

A paradoxical relationship

His is a rare success story in the Maghreb. More than 30,000 sub-Saharan African migrants now live in Morocco, according to Human Rights Watch. But the Moroccan example is a paradoxical one, simultaneously embracing and repelling African migrants. Politically, Morocco has pivoted toward sub-Saharan Africa: In 2017, it rejoined the African Union after a 33-year absence, and its investment in the rest of the continent has increased an average of 13% annually since 2004, a sharp turn from a posture that once focused on Europe. 

But the state has come under fire for its racist treatment of sub-Saharan African migrants, detailed in multiple reports by nongovernmental organizations that describe violence, exploitation, and abuse. 

“Africa is in fashion, though Africans are not, and we had rather see them there than here,” says Moroccan scholar and critic Omar Berrada.

For many migrants, the arts have emerged as a way of finding common ground with Moroccans. The country has become a destination for pan-African artistic initiatives, including museums and exhibitions. Music festivals are also increasingly opened to talent from sub-Saharan Africa. Migrants have embraced the trend, using the arts as a means of survival and to integrate into a society that sees them as “the other.”  

“Culture is a good avenue to give migrants opportunities,” says Cécile Michiardi, a program manager with the Global Diversity Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving livelihood opportunities for migrants. “Migrants are currently facing a lot of racism. We need to show Moroccans there is a lot they share with cultures from sub-Saharan countries.” 

In music, ‘a common language’ 

Mr. Odoi has seen this firsthand: the arts were his entry into Moroccan society. Three weeks after arriving in Casablanca, he got his big break: playing a migrant on a popular TV series. Soon after, he joined a band of Moroccans as lead singer. In 2009, he started his own band, The Minority Globe, with other migrants, writing protest songs about the state of migration in Morocco. The band has since become a pioneering example of migrants succeeding in Morocco. It offers performance opportunities to migrants and inspires them to go into music, visual arts, and theater. 

“When it comes to arts, the music, it breaks all the walls, it is a common language,” says Mr. Odoi. 

Today you can see, and hear, the imprint of migrants across parts of Morocco. Walking through Jemaa El-Fnaa, a historic square in Marrakech, one can hear the traditional Moroccan spiritual Gnawa music snaking out of the shops, but the taxis that bring you there play music from across West Africa. The maze of stalls sells everything from dates and crispy rounds of ma’qooda and chebakia, deep-fried street cart snacks, to kilim rugs and traditional arts and crafts, many of which are made by migrants. 

“Migrants have influenced the Moroccan art scene a lot – in photography, music, plastic arts …” says Mr. Odoi. “Today, when I take taxis I hear Nigerian, Ghanaian, Afrobeat, hiplife music. This is new in the country.” 

Arts, NGOs, partner to help

In addition to using his music to raise awareness of migrant issues, Mr. Odoi works with Doctors Without Borders to develop cultural integration programs and connect undocumented migrants with social and medical aid. A portion of the returns from his music helps fund health, sanitation, and education campaigns for migrants. 

Museums and cultural institutions have also become more open to pan-African initiatives, inadvertently raising the profile of migrant communities. The Museum of Contemporary African Art Al Maaden and the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, both in Marrakech, showcase visual art from across the continent.

In Rabat, the African Cultural Center offers a platform to showcase African traditions and cultures. The exterior of the center, a repurposed house, is dotted with sinuous sculptures by Jackie Zappa, an artist who migrated from the Ivory Coast. The center hosts performances in dance, sculpture, plastic arts, theater, and visual art with the goal of helping Moroccans learn about their neighbors and understand and appreciate different cultures.  

For his part, Mr. Odoi is optimistic that the arts can connect communities. His band, The Minority Globe, is leading a cultural and educational workshop with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help nongovernmental organizations working with migrants to improve their services. 

“There are many similarities between North Africans and the rest of the continent, the way we dress, there is a trace of history,” says Mr. Odoi. “We have been divided by borders. In music there are no borders.”