Music

French Montana On What It Means to Be African and American

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On a balmy afternoon in June, French Montana quietly walked into Bedford Hall in Brooklyn, diamond chains swinging breezily as he sat down and ordered nothing. It was the twentieth day of Ramadan and the Bronx-based rapper — the words “Pray For Me” etched on the side of his neck — was fasting. “I’m on Ramadan, so I don’t like talking to people,” he says, laughing. “I can’t eat, can’t drink, can’t think no negative thoughts. God cleans your body so you can come closer to him. That’s why Ramadan is important. It’s a blessing. I just wake up and work.”

That work has seemingly been paying off, with Montana’s latest album, Jungle Rules, debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, his highest spot ever. Its lead single, “Unforgettable,” featuring Swae Lee, has gone quadruple platinum worldwide. In a hip-hop career spanning nearly fifteen years, it’s his biggest record to date, but as he basks in his success, Montana faces lingering questions about his cultural and ethnic identity.

Born Karim Kharbouch in Rabat, Morocco, the 32-year-old rapper grew up on his family’s estate outside Casablanca. “I read two surahs of the Koran every night before I go to sleep,” he says. “I’ve been doing it since I was nine years old.” When he was thirteen, his family left Morocco for the East Tremont section of the Bronx. Montana’s father only lasted for two years in America before heading back to Africa, but his mom was determined to make a go of it. Life in the Bronx’s spurned sectors was “still better than back home in Morocco,” Montana offers.

“My mother was like, ‘I don’t care what I gotta do; I’m not taking my kids back. There’s nothing for them out there,’” he says. “She ain’t know no English. She got on welfare and she was working. When my father went back, I had to be the man of the house. I was nineteen, twenty. Which is a beautiful thing; it showed me how to be a man. I couldn’t go to college because I didn’t have the right paperwork; I burned my student visa. So now I can’t work, I can’t go to school, my mother’s slaving herself. One day, I walked in on her working in a chicken place — real chickens jumping all over — I went to the back and she’s sitting there crying, praying. I said, ‘This is it.’ … That’s when I hit the streets.”

Montana dropped out of high school and started hustling, selling drugs, and providing for his mother and siblings. “If I would’ve gotten caught one time, I would’ve got deported. I feel like God was looking over me and helped me get across.” Today, Montana’s mother lives in his New Jersey mansion. “She ain’t work in like ten years,” he says.

A billboard for “Unforgettable” hovers over the spot in the Bronx where Montana was shot in the head. “From the Bronx, not too many of us make it,” he says with his eyes low and steady. “Now, at Ramadan, I wake up and try to stay in a positive spirit. I can’t eat, can’t drink, can’t think no negative thoughts. God cleans your body so you can come closer to him. That’s why the 27th of Ramadan is very important. It’s a blessing. I just wake up and work.”

French Montana began burnishing his legend in the early 2000s with a string of Cocaine City DVD compilations that showcased upcoming talent and chronicled rap beefs and underground music. Those DVDs soon gave way to mixtapes — more than twenty of them — on which Montana presented a mix of Southern inflections, simple lyrics, and an affinity for melody over bars. By 2013, the quintessential New Yorker was ready to take his act from the streets to the mainstream with the release of his debut album, Excuse My French. Though his southern inflections, simple lyrics, and affinity for melody over bars seem iconoclastic to the intricate lyricism of East Coast rap, French Montana is quintessentially New York. He functions unaffected by reviews, sustained by a fan base rooted in his DVD days, and expanded by reality TV.

With his Versace scarf headwraps, famous friends like Drake and Diddy, and Kardashian-adjacent celebrity (he dated Khloe), Montana has carved out an unexpected perch in the rap firmament, thanks in no small part to his ability to churn out street anthems like the 2011 “Shot Caller,” club bangers like the 2012 “Pop That,” and chart-topping hits like 2016’s “All The Way Up” and this year’s “Unforgettable.” It’s this last track that has the rapper — who has been relishing no longer maintaining a relationship fixed in the public eye — rethinking his place in the world.

Shot in Kampala, Uganda, the “Unforgettable” music video features the Triplets Ghetto Kids, a group of nine young dancers Montana discovered while surfing video clips on YouTube.

“Why wouldn’t I go back to my homeland and show the people this is what ya should be paying attention to?” he says of the motivation for the video. “That’s what I did with the kids. When I met them, they were dancing in the mud and puddles of water for money. Now I’m flying them out to come perform with me at BET.”

Montana and singer The Weeknd each donated $100,000 to the Mama Hope nonprofit organization, launching his “Unforgettable Dance Challenge.” What started as just a video shoot grew into a meeting with the Ugandan ambassador Adonia Ayebare at the United Nations Mission; a partnership with Mama Hope and Global Citizen to build and expand the country’s Suubi “Hope” Maternity Center; and a global healthcare campaign.

“I drove three hours to this hospital and found out there was only two rooms for three hundred thousand people, with one ambulance,” he recalls, calm remnants of concern in his tone. “For every kid born there, it’s more times they might likely die than a kid born here [in the United States]. Around the world, close to a thousand women die every day from pregnancy. It hit me hard. So, I did this charity thing. It went from two rooms, now we’re about to build about fifty rooms. I’m not taking money from other organizations and I’m not doing it for tax returns. I went in my pocket. I did this out of the kindness of my heart, man.”

The trip clearly left a lasting impression. He talks about how in Uganda, “they have this scent that I smelled on everybody. It wasn’t a bad scent, and it wasn’t a good scent. Like a book has a certain smell, old money has its own smell, they have a scent—a natural scent. So, I’m talking about it—my driver turned around, he was like, ‘You know none of us got light here, right? That scent you smell is wood fire.’ All of them stand around wood fires every night. And some of them only have an outfit or two, so it gets stuck on their clothes. That’s why all of them smell like that.

“Out here [in the United States], everybody that I know has everything they need, and more, and are sad. Life is precious and people that have less than you appreciate it more than you. This is my first vacation where when I left, my soul relaxed. Uganda taught me if you’re not rich in heart, you’ll never be rich in life. It humbled me. Uganda changed my life. As you grow, you enter new chapters. You challenge yourself. I would’ve never went to Uganda if I didn’t want to evolve.”

Montana is the biggest star in hip-hop to come out of Morocco. And while he mentions growing up listening to Arab composer Chalf Hassan, his musical forebears are Bronx-based MCs like Big Pun, Fat Joe, KRS-One, Slick Rick, and the Cold Crush Brothers. But in hip-hop today, Africa is in, and French Montana knows it.

“I always thought the best talent is over there; I just don’t think they get enough light on it,” he says. “The traditions are so beautiful. Coming here, not knowing English, going through all them hurdles and obstacles in life, and just taking all that and transforming it, to being the biggest superstar to come out of Africa in this time and day.”

Evolution is a tricky thing, though. In April, Montana came under fire for insulting a Black woman on Twitter, calling her a “hoe” with “nappy ass poetic justice braids.” He later issued an apology on Twitter, writing, “My son is black, and I was born in africa… I ain’t no punching bag, and I don’t discriminate… My mother is african queen and I was married to a beautiful black queen. All I did was defend myself if I affended anybody I apologize.”

But his use of the word “nappy” when addressing the woman online, paired with his use of the N-word in his music, spawned sentiments of anti-Blackness and appropriation. His apology praising his Black son, African mother, and Black ex-wife didn’t quell questions of his identity, with many wondering: Is French Montana Black?

I prepare to pose the question no one seemed to ever want to ask him, as the nimbus of cool that perpetually surrounds Montana remained intact.

“People don’t really get the differences between nationality, ethnicity, and race,” I say. “We know you’re Moroccan, but people have this concern: Are you Black? Are you Arab? How do you define yourself?”

“I’m just a citizen of the world,” he says.

“That’s a very diplomatic way to say it,” I respond.

He lifts his chin and laughs softly. “I was born in North Africa. I moved here at thirteen. It’s like I’m all over. That’s why I say I’m a citizen of the world.”

His skin warm beige, hair smooth and dark, beard thick and textured, Montana would often be mistaken for Dominican while growing up in the Bronx. “They’d talk to me in Spanish all day,” he says.

His native languages are Arabic and French. After immigrating to the U.S., and later dropping out of high school, he learned English on the streets of the South Bronx.  

“People feel like you shouldn’t be saying the N-word if you’re not Black,” I continue. “But then people might be saying you are part [Black]. You said in an interview that you would never take from someone’s culture without giving back. There has to be this reciprocity type of thing.”

“‘Nigga’ stands for ‘Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished,’” he says, citing the acronym legitimized by rapper Tupac Shakur.

“‘Nigger’ and ‘nigga’ is two different things,” he continues. “That’s how we talk. When we got the chance to learn, it wasn’t knowing what the word was. It was slang for us. ‘Yo, what’s up, my nigga!’ When we say it, it’s like saying ‘My brother.’ It was like the same way you change the negativity in your life and make it positive. People always focus on the negative stuff. I feel like they should focus more on what we’re doing to help.”

Montana says he spent $100,000 to get visas for the Triplets Ghetto Kids to come to America. Today, his Instagram story showed them relaxing poolside at one of his mansions before flying back to Uganda.

“I saw myself in them. I know what that feeling is: You’re in the middle of Africa not knowing if you’re gonna make it or not. If you was to tell me I was gonna be sitting here back then … Not in my wildest dreams.”

How do you want to be remembered?

“As a legend. As somebody that touched lives. As somebody that you met that you’ll never forget. As somebody that—it’s gonna be a dark day if I pass away. I just want people to celebrate me.”

“Okay. I think that’s it for today,” I say.

“My African queen,” he smiles. “My nigga.”

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