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DYSTINCT Is Taking Moroccan Culture Global, One Hit at a Time

The first time that DYSTINCT ever attended a soccer match was in Qatar to watch his beloved Morocco beat Spain in the Round of 16 at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It just so happened that his track “Ghazali” — a fun love song with Belgian artist Bryan MG, featuring a strumming guitar infused with a fresh spin on Moroccan chaabi music — served as the victory song for Morocco each time they won.

“I stayed and I saw everything with my own eyes there,” a jovial DYSTINCT recalls over Zoom from his hotel room in Côte d’Ivoire after a show there. “They even played my song in the stadium, bro. I think this is one of the biggest things I ever did in my life.”

“Ghazali” had already achieved song-of-the-summer status for many audiences in 2022, but it caught a new, meaningful life during and after the World Cup. Before that? It almost never saw the light of day.

“I didn’t want to release that song,” the 25-year-old artist shares with a smile. “But my manager, Anouar, he told me, ‘You’re sleeping. Believe me, this song is big.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m going to listen to you, but I’m not going to spend on it because I don’t believe in it.’”

The song has since amassed more than 57 million streams on Spotify, close to 2 million streams on the regional music platform Anghami, and its music video now has over 91 million views on YouTube.

DYSTINCT has cemented himself as one of the premier artists from the region of Southwest Asia and North Africa and its diaspora communities, pushing Moroccan music far beyond the country’s borders. He is consistently among the most-streamed artists from the region each year on music platforms like Spotify and Anghami, racking up numbers in part because of his melodic voice and fusion of global genres with chaabi music.

Today, he’s part of the emerging wave of Arab artists helping to push forward the renewed international attention on Moroccan music and Arabic music more broadly. Artists such as the Palestinian-Chilean singer Elyanna and the Egyptian rapper Wegz are performing at major events like Coachella and the World Cup, exposing their language and culture to concertgoers who may have never previously heard songs performed in Arabic. On TikTok, too, artists like Palestinian-American Lana Lubany are scoring hits. (Lana’s song “THE SNAKE,” her first performed in both English and Arabic, is a brooding alt-pop track that has been used in more than 1200 videos on the platform.)

“What makes DYSTINCT so popular right now is his exceptional ability to blend Moroccan instruments in a way that resonates simultaneously with regional and global audiences,” says Mehdi Zim, Maghreb Music Editor at Spotify, which recently launched ABATERAX, an initiative to help cultivate a new generation of Moroccan rappers. “He is dedicated to celebrating the rich palate of the region and packaging it in a way that appeals to a global audience.”

DYSTINCT, born Iliass Mansouri, grew up in Antwerp, Belgium, with three younger brothers and both of his parents, who later separated when he was still young. He is a polyglot who speaks French, Dutch, English, Spanish, and darija (the Arabic dialect spoken in Morocco), often mixing languages together in his lyrics.

The artist knew from a young age he wanted to be a singer, and credits his parents for exposing him to a wide range of global music at an early age. His mother showed DYSTINCT his first musical love, Michael Jackson, along with traditional chaabi. His father was a singer like his son is now, performing with a group in darija at parties and events during the weekend.

Young Iliass stayed home with a nanny until he protested one day that he wanted to see his father perform. He was friends with the son of another singer in his father’s group, and together they formed their own mini “band,” with DYSTINCT as the lead vocalist and his friend playing darbuka, a drum that has been used in Southwest Asian and North African music for centuries.

Yet despite his early passion for music, DYSTINCT never shared his desire to be a singer with anyone.

“It was not cool,” he says. “And I was always a shy guy.”

That included keeping this secret from his parents, who wanted him instead to become an engineer or a doctor. Both have since become ardent supporters of his music career.

As he got older and became a teenager, his desire turned into action after he saved up money from his job to buy his first microphone and his first laptop to teach himself beat production.

DYSTINCT sang covers of American R&B artists like Eric Bellinger, even uploading them to YouTube under an alias because he wasn’t ready to be discovered. A friend later encouraged him to share his covers publicly, and finally DYSTINCT agreed, uploading a cover of Trey Songz’s “Foreign” under his own name for everyone to hear.

“When I went to school, I was like, ‘Oh, people are going to laugh at me,’” DYSTINCT recalls. “But people liked it. And for me, it was a moment like, OK, finally I can do my thing.”

DYSTINCT’s first public performance came at age 16 in Brussels, with his mother in attendance, complete with his own choreography and backup dancers. (“If I think about it now, I cringe so hard,” he says.)

He released his first two singles within 10 days of each other in 2017, the tropical and vibey “Panamera” and the Afropop-inspired “No Ring Ring” — both in Dutch. They garnered some attention in the vibrant Dutch music scene while remaining relatively underground.

But his goal always remained to share Moroccan culture and darija with a wider audience. In subsequent releases, DYSTINCT would blend in a handful of words and phrases in darija.

With “Ya La Laa”, his first solo song completely in darija, with production heavily influenced by Moroccan melodies and Arab instruments, DYSTINCT shot toward a different level of fame among his own people.

It was a daring feat for an artist who did not grow up in Morocco. For third-culture communities growing up in the diaspora, tension and insecurity about identity and language are common. There is a brooding feeling that a person cannot be fully one identity or the other identity, with both of their feet constantly navigating different worlds, stigmas, and judgments.

DYSTINCT acutely understands what it means for him, born into the Moroccan diaspora in Belgium, to perform in darija and to have listeners compare his command of the language with other artists born and raised in Morocco. He sees his ability to write and speak darija at a native level, along with his genuine love for his culture, as a big reason for the respect he has garnered from listeners and fellow Moroccan artists.

“When I go to Morocco and people tell me, ‘Hey, you’re from Europe, you have Moroccan culture,’ I say, ‘No, bro, I’m Moroccan. I don’t have Moroccan culture. I am Moroccan.’”

DYSTINCT says he does not feel a responsibility to carry Morocco on his shoulders, because “it’s just natural.” In his mind, he and other Moroccans in other professions, like athletes and journalists, are all naturally trying to spread the culture and the language to the masses.

His debut album, Mon Voyage, released in 2021, sees DYSTINCT not only performing more in darija but collaborating with fellow Moroccan diaspora artists like rapper 3robi and singer Tawsen. His most recent album, LAYALI, is an ode to Morocco, led by the wildly successful lead single “Tek Tek” with iconic French rapper MHD. Released in the summer of 2023, the song now has more than 56 million streams on Spotify, and the accompanying music video has over 55 million views on YouTube.

Together with producers and longtime collaborators UNLEADED and YAM, DYSTINCT seamlessly fuses elements of Afropop, R&B, and Moroccan chaabi together, creating music that remains authentic in its roots and exposes listeners to traditional Moroccan rhythms in a way that feels familiar.

“What I’m trying to do is make the region and the Morocco thing global,” DYSTINCT says. “So we said, ‘Let’s take some things and mix it with the things their ears are already familiar with.’ Because I also like Afro music. The only thing I do is just give it some DYSTINCT sauce.”

As he gears up for an international tour, DYSTINCT feels confident and excited by the prospect of his music spreading to audiences in North America. His tour, which begins this month in Europe, includes stops in New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and other cities later this year.

“The sky is the limit for DYSTINCT,” Zim proclaims. “His musical journey has been nothing short of fascinating, and he can go anywhere from here.” 

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One thing remains clear for the 25-year-old: Spreading Moroccan culture will always be a motivator throughout his career and his life.

“What I’m trying to do is to make darija worldwide and something people are going to listen to even if they don’t understand it,” DYSTINCT says proudly. “And not only the music, but the whole culture around it.”

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