Photo: Nike - sweatshirt
A MEETING WITH RAP SENSATION MOHA LA SQUALE
By Alice Butterlin
All of a sudden it seems like everyone is talking about Moha la Squale, the sensational new rap star who has built a wider and more eclectic fanbase with each new track. Hard to believe that Moha only started rapping last July, and yet, his meteoric success came about in less than six months, all by word of mouth. The recipe is simple enough: a new freestyle video posted every Sunday on his Facebook page and reposted on YouTube. No EP, no album, just short videos of less than two minutes, made with whatever resources are at hand and set against the backdrop of La Banane in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, where he grew up, worked hard, and finally took off. With his magnetic charisma and face of an angel, Moha was first discovered by a director who cast him in a short film. Thus began an acting career that he plans on continuing today. Cutting against the grain of a generation of melancholic rappers, mumbling defeatist lyrics into their Supreme oiled beards, Moha hearkens back to the era of hardcore rap with his constant smile and killer flow. A sincere and determined artist, he casts aside today’s clichés by combing through rap history. And it works like a charm. We met up with the young prodigy, who splits his time between rap and the Cours Florent acting school, where he is in his second year, to try to shed some light on the mystery behind his swift rise and his unique background.
CRASH : Let’s talk about your background and what attracted you to music. You’ve had a dazzling success in less than five months. How did you do it?
Moha La Squale: It all started when I did my first short film, La Graine. Before that I was what you would call a delinquent. I did stupid things, I wanted money because I had so little. I was obsessed with money, clothes, everything that was out of reach for me. Eventually I went to prison twice, and after my release, I met a guy named Hannibal. That was in Rue Duris, in my neighborhood. Hannibal is the guy behind the 420 Workshop and who shot all my videos. He does a ton of music videos for rappers. He worked with MHD, for one example, and then… there was La Squale which was another success. (laughs) He’s someone who pours a lot into his work. But anyway I met him by chance and he liked my vibe. He must have seen something he liked in me. He was doing videos for the rapper Jo Le Pheno and sometimes I made appearances in them. I got in front of the camera, I threw up my fingers, I shouted. (laughs) I started talking with Hannibal because I wanted him to show me the videos he was doing. He mentioned me to Barney Friedman, who directed La Graine, since he went to school with him in Belgium. He had been looking for someone to play Karim in his short film for two whole years. As soon as he saw me, he liked my vibe. We did a casting and the video is still online for anyone curious to see it.
Does it bother you that your first casting is posted online?
No, not at all. I’m not trying to lie to people. It’s just me when I was a little younger and a little less comfortable with the camera. (laughs) That short film was a great experience. I almost felt like a star on a film shoot. I acted with my friend Tino. Before the shoot we went to Brussels every week for rehearsals. We lived together for twenty days during filming. He became a close friend, and he’s actually opening for me at La Maroquinerie, with Jo Le Pheno.
So you started rapping after that film shoot?
Not exactly. At the end of May I started writing short texts at home. I let a few friends hear it and they all told me it was the shit! They all encouraged me to release my songs. At the same time I was doing theater, I was starting to build a little career in film, I was going to castings. I was worried rap would make me look bad. Rap and film are two completely different worlds.
It’s true that most rappers who get into film, like Kaaris or Sadek, are typecast as thugs or criminals.
Yes, exactly. But I want to make a name for myself in film, in addition to rap. I was worried I’d only get parts that fit with my image as a rapper. But I’m lucky that my two activities have remained separate and distinct. There is Mohammed Bellahmed the actor, and Moha La Squale the rapper.
How did you get the idea to post a freestyle video every Sunday? It must take a ton of discipline.
At first I wanted to go shoot a video in Italy. I had mentioned it to my friends so they would come with me and help me with the project. But the day we were supposed to pay up and prepare for the trip, no one was down anymore. I was so pissed off. Hannibal was available for two days at that time before going to work on a video for MHD. I was still a nobody back then, I hadn’t released anything yet. For him it was his full-time job, he couldn’t take the risk of missing out on a gig. So he suggested that we shoot three freestyles in a row. I was really nervous at first, I didn’t want to just post anything off the cuff. But there was really no other solution. So I ended up saying yes and that’s when I filmed “Tout Seul,” “Bendero,” and “Fumier.” The next day I was super pumped to get them out! (laughs) It just happened to be a Sunday. I created my Facebook page at two in the morning, on July 23, I still remember that day. I had a little strategy all planned out in my head. Like I said, I didn’t want to ruin my chances in film. I posted one every Sunday, just because I couldn’t help myself, it was too much fun.
Did people react to your videos right away?
The first video I dropped was “Tout Seul.” It started out slow, but after the third day, I realized it was going viral. A week later I released “Bendero” and it got fifty thousand views, it was crazy. People were already waiting, it was a shock, I wasn’t expecting it at all. But it really made me feel good. Theater and film helped me open up to the world, to other people, to humanity. All I knew was my neighborhood, and I was frustrated by a lot of stuff. The world is so big, but I was so limited. But I found my light at the end of the tunnel at Cours Florent. That’s what really helped me reach the next level.
In an interview with Nova, you said you saw guys in your neighborhood take a defeatist attitude toward their lives. After going around in circles for so long, you end up forgetting about the opportunities that are out there. How did you manage to break out of this spiral?
I’ve had a taste for adventure ever since I was little. I never wanted to accept failure. You start to understand things when you turn eight or nine. Ever since then, I’ve always asked why things are the way they are. He has a snack, why don’t I? His mom and dad pick him up from school, why doesn’t anyone come pick me up? He has his mom and dad at home, why do I just have my mom? I still ask these kinds of questions today. Why not me? I put all that into my song “Why?”, along with these words: “My mom and me, in a villa by the sea.” (laughs)
Your mother seems to play an important role in your songs.
Yes, my mother is my biggest inspiration. She’s my role model. She’s a fighter. I didn’t realize that when I was little, but it’s clear to me now. She was all alone, and she fought. She kept us open to the world, as much as she could. It was hard for her, she’s from a poor background and suffers from blindness. She came such a long way… I’m not just saying this because she’s my mother, but everything she accomplished for us is amazing.
The other main theme in your songs is La Banane, your neighborhood. There’s something almost mystical in the way you set the scene. Is there a bit of a magic in your neighborhood?
(laughs) All sorts of stuff happens in La Banane. But actually there is no magic. It’s like a small town, we all know each other, like a big family. On one hand, yes, there is magic in the mix of ethnicities, in the diversity. Growing up I didn’t know what racism was. My mother never told me about racism. The magic is in our idea of family. Other than that, there’s no magic, just cops, death, and drugs. (laughs)
But you must talk about your neighborhood for a reason.
That’s true, it all starts there and it’s almost a faraway place. It’s inside Paris, but in a sense, it’s so far from Paris. We’re just fifteen minutes from Place de la Concorde, but there’s no sense of concord in our lives. (laughs)
Your tracks are like slices from your life. They’re very personal. When did you feel ready to share it and take a step back from your past?
I started to mature. When I first started writing, I had no idea it was going to get millions of views. I was writing what I needed to say in my notebook or on my phone, I was doing it for myself at first. It makes me feel good, it keeps me balanced. I had film but I was missing something. In film, I’m acting, but when I rap, it’s me. I might play a doctor, a formula 1 driver, or a politician, but under all that I’m still just Mohammed Bellahmed. I need to get things out of my system, like people do when they box.
I think people like the raw honesty you give off. Everything is very autotuned in rap today, with sad synth melodies. You came on the scene with a big smile and lyrics that pack a punch. Do you feel closer to hardcore rap?
I see what you mean. I kick it old school, I love true rap. I don’t like when rappers just say anything, it has to mean something, it has to hit you in some way. I’m from the streets, so obviously that’s going to come through in my music. I’m sure some people don’t like what I do and I don’t care, too bad for them. I’m raw, I say exactly what I think, I don’t lie.
Have you always listened to rap?
Yes, always. When I was little I listened without really paying attention, like background music. I really dug the tracks my brother played in our room. By thirteen or fourteen I started to pay more attention. I felt like I was an intellectual. The music I’d been listening to for years finally made sense. It talked about my life, too, which I didn’t realize when I was little. It spoke to me.
You start all your songs with a quote from Jacques Brel. What does he represent for you?
It’s like how a tattoo can remind you of a period in your life. A milestone. When I hear his voice it takes me back to a certain time in my life, when I was little and my dad was still at home. It reminds me of how he smelled. It’s a little wink to my dad. Brel is a master in the art of the punchline. Actually my tracks are just guest appearances on Jacques Brel songs. (laughs) I pass him the mic and let him do his thing. He’s the real star.
Since the start, you have had a diverse and multicultural fanbase, including housewives, kids from your neighborhood, and students at Sciences-Po.
That’s so cool. I get messages every day and I’m sorry I can’t respond to everyone. I get messages from moms, kids in school or foster care, guys in prison, even doctors and people from well-off backgrounds. It means a lot to me that so many people find strength listening to me every Sunday. It makes me happy to make other people happy. Sometimes I’ll be walking in the street feeling down, and I’ll run into people who are super happy to see me. Then I know that I have no reason to get down. Whenever I see them, they make me smile again.
Are you going to continue your film career alongside your music?
Yes, film is my life. I’m investing myself equally in both activities. I watch a lot of movies, read books, plays – things I never used to do. I never used to read. Now whenever I pick up a book, I can’t put it back down. The characters come to life in my mind, it’s all visual. I like drawings, too. All my album covers on Spotify are illustrations. Every song has its own drawing.
You just released the video for the first single from your album. Were you at all worried about how people might react to it?
It might seem a little bling-bling, but you just have to remember that it’s an image. It’s made like a short film where I’m playing a character, it’s not me. It’s true that I was a little worried before releasing it. I hadn’t posted anything new in a month, after dropping a new song every week since I started out. So this time I said: “This will make or break me.” I wanted people to like it.
Your first concert is coming up. How are you gearing up for it?
I was just rehearsing last week. And then I’m spending time in the studio to record my album, giving interviews, and shooting videos. I’m psyched for the concert. I can hardly believe it, it’s like a dream. On top of that, the concert is on my birthday.
Tickets sold out in no time.
In forty-seven seconds! It’s such a rush and I’m pumped to see my fans and share a moment with them. I can’t wait. Last year I spent my birthday together with my girlfriend, that was nice, too. Both of those stories are amazing. Everything changed this year, I’m going to discover something totally new.
Interview by Alice Butterlin.
Photos by Boris Camaca
Styling by Elena Mottola