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Rhita Nattah… Soulful Melodies From Africa’s Spirited Songbird | The Guardian Nigeria News – Nigeria and World News

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 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. And, somehow, exploring her story provided a salve to my situation. 

Born and bred in Morocco, but developed as a pan-Africanist to the core, Rhita 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/misogynist realities.

Dubbed Inner Warrior, the recently released 7-tracker EP shuffles themes of perseverance, sincerity to one’s calling, love, women’s rights, 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 artiste 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, with a neat smile forming across her lips. 

We are seated across a virtual call, on a warm Wednesday afternoon, as she unpack 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 his/her inner warriors. 

You’ve been 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. All of the songs I composed and performed are even on Netflix shows, but I don’t get my royalties. That’s how it started.

In 2017, I was with the Swiss Band, but 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. And we started learning and producing things, but we decided to release the first single in 2019, and it was never 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 artiste. However, in Morocco, art has been neglected for so many years; there is no industry. Even big artistes, 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 too many. I don’t sing in Arabic. I don’t sing in French. I refused to work on projects that are very commercial and don’t go with my principles. So, people thought I was crazy. ‘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? 
I sing on Moroccan beats, but the lyrics are in English, because I grew up listening to English music. In Morocco, there was no music industry; we didn’t have music idols. Growing up, I didn’t have someone to aspire to become or an icon I could relate to. There were very old music groups in Moroccan music, but they never ended well. They stopped working together, because there was no royalties to gain, but they did an amazing job.

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. And then I was listening to a lot of Jazz singers. So, the only people I felt that I could relate to 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.

So, it was the language of your childhood? 
Yeah, it’s the language that I felt connected to from the music. For example, I feel connected to Amy Winehouse when she sings in English and I listen to her. So, automatically, when I want to write, sometimes I think in English, even though no one speaks English in my family.

My studies were in French. I studied French Didactics. So, normally, if I work with my Master’s degree, I was supposed to be a French teacher or someone working in the Ministry of Education to write like the pedagogy of teaching.

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. Apart from my dad, I grew up with my grandparents and mum. 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 worth. Like I don’t want to buy clothes. I don’t want to be fancy. 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 had a job 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 resign my contract. One day, I called and I said I was sorry. That’s when I went to work with the Swiss Band. The thought of working full time 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 dad and my family were hurt. My mum was very hurt to be honest, because she put in so much effort into my education. She was very sad at first but then 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, or very crazy. 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 it, fuck that financial worth! Don’t just imagine everything and go for the music.’ 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 my 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 wear shorts, everyone is going to be mad. They’ll tell my mum and grandparents that I am now someone bad, because of the way I dress and everything. 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, like she’s here you know.

Also, in Inner Warrior, I talked a lot about politics; about the rights of people, about justice, about laws. I always fight now for music recording and performance 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, you shut the fuck up, Rhita you don’t have to talk a lot about these things’, but I don’t care. I’m like that.

So, Inner Warrior is just about me and about the fact that I want everyone to listen to their inner warriors, because we have it, but we just don’t listen to it. People ignore it. They have something inside of them. And this is reality; this is the truth. The inner warrior is the truth.

You connect very strongly with other African artistes. Why? 
You know, in 2017, when I came back from working with the Swiss Band and everything, I started discovering Afrobeat before it was very prominent in the world. It was in 2017 that there were songs like Fake Love with Duncan Mighty and Wizkid. And Ycee’s Say bye bye. I am a person who searches for good music a lot. I really discovered a lot of artistes, before they got famous.

For example, I knew Oxlade before he blew up, because I had his songs on SoundCloud. He had only 2000 likes or something like that. I used to do a lot of cover renditions and interpretations with my guitar. I don’t know if you saw them; I did Fake Love, I did Tekno’s Pana, I did for Kizz Daniel’s songs too.

Where are these videos now? 
They are on YouTube. I did Wizkid’s Soso. At the time, the manager of Wizkid asked me to do it. He wanted me to do the cover to the song. In 2019, I did Oxlade’s Wait for You, which was released before Oxlade was famous. So, people from 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 guitar and I. I played the guitar, so I did like so many interpretations at the time. People saw them and were thinking that I had something related to Nigerian people. They thought I’m Nigerian or something, 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. So, 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. For example, someone taught me how to sing ‘Folake give me love oh.’ I was always giving attention to a lot of these things, and 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 knew Tems in 2019, and we had conversations together. She loved my voice and I loved hers. She was following me, but then un-followed me when she got famous. I don’t understand why people do that, but it is okay, I still have those conversations. It is the same thing that happened with Oxlade; he was begging me to do covers to his songs, and once he got famous, he un-followed me. It’s getting weird lately, but I stay true to my beliefs and I don’t care about these people.

But with the female artistes right now, I love Bloody Civilian; she’s good. We talked lately. She followed me, and I didn’t know about her at first. Then I listened to her music and I loved it so much that I told her. She told me she had my song 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.

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 don’t know, 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 Kizz Daniel and he said we should do a song together and I said yeah, but he never said anything after that. I love the songs of Kizz Daniel, especially Woju. I did it too as a cover when I used to do covers, but now, I stopped when I started doing my own songs. I really love these songs.

And then I would love to do a song with Bloody Civilian. I would love to do a song with, you know GeePee? He only released one song and then he disappeared, but now I think he’s going to release a new song.

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 don’t try to blend our music with anything. We just feel something and make it. He plays instrumentals, 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. We just make the music and everything. Like we don’t listen to something and say okay we are going to do it like this. We just walk 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; 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 now, I love the videos that I make for the EP, but without my face. They are 3D animated videos, which reflects the elements that are on my EP.

I am working with a 3D person who even proposed to work with me for free, just because he is a fan of my music. I would like to have more videos, because people like faces and I don’t know why. They listen with their eyes. So, I have to be more in video clips and everything. And for my own music, I just want to keep feeling and sharing what I feel in the world.

Finally, if you are going to describe yourself in a 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.

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