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French Montana: Homecoming

photographer Michael Schmelling

French Montana returns to Morocco.

Outside Casablanca’s Mohammad V airport, there are dusty palm trees and low bushes prickly with violet flowers. Vapor from the nearby Atlantic Ocean spreads out in a haze across the sky, diffusing the morning sun to a glare. It’s Ramadan, and the city is asleep. French Montana, wearing sweatpants and slippers, a tattoo that reads “Pray For Me” on his neck, scuffs the parking lot pavement. “I was gonna come down and kiss the ground,” he says apologetically. “But it’s too dirty.” Instead, he climbs in the back of a black van, and heads for the city he used to call home.

Born Karim Kharbouch, French Montana spent his first 13 years on a sprawling family estate just outside Casablanca. He left with his mother, father Abdela and little brother Zack for the South Bronx when he was 13 and, until today, has never been back. The young Karim learned English in the streets and in the Bronx high schools—Lehman, then Roosevelt—that he attended before dropping out. His father lasted two years in New York before returning to Casablanca. His mother was on welfare. Whatever other money they had came from Karim, and he did what he could to provide, legally and illegally, risking not just jail but deportation. Today he’ll show you the twin scars on the back of his head where the bullet that nearly killed him entered and exited. “You do dirt to people and people try to do dirt to you,” he says philosophically, and that’s about as specific about that day as he’s willing to get.

Karim Kharbouch became French Montana sometime around 2002, when he and a friend noticed the growing market for street DVDs and began making their own. They knew plenty of former and current drug dealers and a handful of rappers, so they enlisted, he says, “whoever was legendary” to star in a series of DVDs they decided to call Cocaine City. French Montana made sure to get on camera too. “By the fourth volume, everybody knew who I was,” he says. That may or may not have been true then, but it’s pretty close to true now. Today, French Montana has a joint deal with Diddy’s Bad Boy Records and Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group and a debut album, tentatively titled Excuse My French, due out this fall.

There are artists who come along from time to time that seem to embody a moment, and in 2012, French Montana is one of them. He is a New York rapper with a vaguely Southern cadence, a man of a few simple words from a city that continues to idolize complexity, even as the genre as a whole has long since turned towards unhinged ad-libs and non-sequitur boasts. There is a kind of blunt efficiency to what he does: rap reduced to exclamation points and full-stop periods. He makes up for what he lacks in finesse with a keen sense of timing and purpose. His slurry, amiable voice is a rap radio constant—that’s his sleepy drawl on the hook of Rick Ross’s “Stay Schemin’,” on last year’s Lords of the Underground-checking “Shot Caller,” on the lilting, menacing Waka Flocka Flame collaboration “Choppa Choppa Down.” “Pop That,” Excuse My French’s antic strip club anthem featuring Drake, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross, recently landed in the Top 40. French’s 2012 has been charmed: his recent habit of wearing colorful Versace scarves as headgear led to an invitation from GQ to come style the magazine’s editors; “fanute”—an inadvertent slang term he slurred into existence on his “Stay Schemin’” verse—was subject to an exegesis in The New York Times Magazine. He’s in that fleeting zone where just by doing things they become news.

Coming into Casablanca, the road is fast and empty and lined on both sides by a pale, straw-colored landscape. We speed through gendarme checkpoints, uniformed guards waving us on. Ahead of us the city comes into focus, thousands of low, white buildings stretching flatly in the haze. French Montana looks out the window, taking it all in. He’s grinning.

What he mostly remembers about Morocco is leaving it. What-ever his father had in mind when he moved his family to New York didn’t work out. “He had a lick over there,” French says, meaning a plan, a hustle. “But that lick went wrong. He was trying bring us back [to Morocco] with him, but my mother wouldn’t let him. She was like, I’m not letting them go back over there, ain’t no opportunity over there. So he went back, and she stayed with us.” When he returned to Casablanca, Abdela left behind a newborn son, his third, and little else.

French has not told his father he’s coming to Morocco, though he plans to see him. He has, however, told most of his mother’s side of the family, and they are eager to reunite. Muhammad, French’s mother’s brother, arrives in the lobby of our hotel, the Royal Mansour Meridien—a quiet oasis of marble floors, gold trim and colonial splendor near the water—moments after we do. Muhammad is a tanned, fit 62-year-old, a cheerful, boisterous man with a pinky ring like a paperweight, olive-green dress pants and sandals. In the hotel lobby, he wraps his arm around his nephew, and for a moment French Montana—who generally maintains the friendly but distant vibe of a rapper whose daily life consists of one long performance—looks like a child. “We’re going to do a great tour of all the things he’s lost in the 16 years since he left Morocco,” his uncle says, winking. And with that we are off, piling into the backseat of his black Mercedes sedan and flying down La Corniche, the beachfront section of the city, Muhammad pointing out landmarks as we go.

French has brought his youngest brother, Ayoub, here to meet his father for the first time, and his manager, Gaby Acevedo, a charismatic giant of a man. They’re trailing in a second car behind us, so they can’t hear the increasingly fantastic and profane monologue Muhammad launches into as we drive, a torrent of words about Jimi Hendrix, money, family, alcohol and his fading but apparently still formidable sexual prowess. We pass the startlingly graceful 700-foot minaret of the Hassan II Mosque and the sprawling, leafy palace of the king of Saudi Arabia. “I remember coming down this hill!” French says excitedly, with a kind of relief on his face. “If it would have went any longer,” he says of his absence, “I wouldn’t have known how to act coming back.”

We detour away from the coast when we reach the city’s newly built Morocco Mall, the largest in Africa, which houses several football fields-worth of Bellagio-style fountains, high-end retail and a million-liter aquarium that people pay to climb into and, in full view of their fellow shoppers, swim with sharks. “We have too many rich people in Morocco,” says Muhammad, apologetically.

French is hoping to become one of them, he explains, as we continue south along the coast. He’s looking to buy property here, a move toward remedying his long absence. “Most of my family is here,” he says. “I feel like this is a place I will definitely be back and forth from.” Muhammad has brought us to the city’s border, where the buildings run out and the ground turns to weeds and rocky fields. He wants to show his nephew a development out here—private, and by the water. “All this land has been sold,” Muhammad says, gesturing at the empty landscape. I ask where all the money comes from. “God opened the sky,” Muhammad replies.

Soon we emerge onto a surreal expanse of newly built homes, pale mansions in the middle of nowhere. French looks out the window, apparently trying to picture himself in one of these desolate houses, in this place that was just rocks and rubble when he was here last.

In an alternate reality, Karim and Ayoub, along with their middle brother, Zack, would’ve grown up in Casablanca. Ayoub is certain that this would have been a catastrophe. This is his first trip outside of America, and he’s sure we’re in the third world—he keeps asking if Europe is also this bad. He’ll start high school in New Jersey in the fall. “After that,” he says, turning to his older brother, “you’re gonna pay for Harvard.”

What would have become of Karim Kharbouch if he’d never left Morocco? French Montana’s success is actually not atypical for a member of his mother’s family, though his path to it has been unusually difficult. “I thought you were a drug dealer,” one of his uncles says at one point. It’s a joke with a melancholy edge to it. Muhammad’s son, Sufjan, is a charming, shaggy teenager who has just returned from two weeks outside of Nice, in France, where Muhammad and his wife also have a home. He speaks English, French and Arabic, lives part-time in two countries, and is applying for an internship in supply-chain management in Spain. Later I’ll meet Miriam, daughter of French’s uncle Mustafa. She’s 24 and dauntingly pretty. On her wrist is a pink Rolex. She says she used to work with Megaupload—“We were making billions a month,” she says, indicating the size of the amount with her hands. Now she works selling advertising in online gaming. She describes herself as “an independent woman.” You get the sense Sufjan and Miriam are happy to see their cousin but don’t entirely know what to make of him.

The feeling is mutual. “I remember me as a kid, just being raised around people in a third world country and not having the oppor-tunity to become what I became today.” French says. “It’s so crazy how I ended up in the States and made it happen.” His whole life since leaving has been predicated on the belief that he escaped, but in Morocco, it’s clear that the reality is more complicated. In Casablanca, Karim Kharbouch might’ve become one of his cousins: a young, successful citizen of the world. Instead he went to America, was abandoned there by the man who was supposed to take care of him, and became French Montana. “Whatever he did has made me who I am,” he says about his father. For that he’s both grateful and more than a little sad.

At twilight that evening, after our tour, we drive to the house of Muhammad’s sister, A’isha, who bursts into tears of happiness when French and Ayoub appear. She yanks her older nephew’s shorts up from their fashionably low-slung position and tries on his sunglasses. The courtyard erupts into laughter. Inside, a feast is laid out on a table in the living room: triangles of shrimp fried in dough, Moroccan soup, tiny, crunchy white fish, soft-boiled eggs, brownies, pita, loaves of bread and shiny, slick, delicious pastries. The women serve tall glasses of blended fruit and strong tea. The sound of evening prayers comes drifting in through the window. “This is unconditional love,” French Montana says. The South Bronx could be another planet right now. He gestures around the room as if to say, See what we’ve all been missing?

French Montana is an invention, of course, born of necessity and ambition and perfected over the course of a decade. This is true for any artist, but it’s particularly complicated for him, a self-described “real life rapper” whose art is supposedly a slightly
edited version of his daily routine. “I wake up, I got two bad bitches next to me,” he says to me in the lobby of our hotel one day. “I’m going to tell you about it.” But tearfully reuniting with his aunts, or talking soberly with his extended family about the difficulties of his personal life—these things do not exactly fit the French Montana character, and it’s clear he’s struggling, over the course of our three days in Morocco, to figure out how to reconcile those realities. It’s sometimes hard to tell if he’s having trouble expressing his emotions or whether, as seems likely, he's simply hiding what he's feeling in front of a reported. When we part on the final day of our trip, the last words he says to me are “Make sure the people know French Montana is real.” It is as bizarre a summation of our time together as I can imagine.

Somewhere in Casablanca is his father, a man French has spoken to only once in the 14 years since he’s seen him last. But he doesn’t seem overly concerned with tracking him down: each morning we’re in Morocco, we make a plan to visit Abdela later in the day, and by each evening French has found a reason to put it off. On the afternoon of our second day in the city, we meet in the hotel lobby and talk for a while at a corner table. As a teenager, French tells me, he spent a lot of time angry wish his dad, but lately he’s been reconsidering. He has a three-year-old son of his own now, and he and the child’s mother don’t speak much. “Before I had a son, I used to look at my father’s example: he left me, he left my mother,” he says. “When I had a son, I got caught in the same situation that his mother don’t want me to see him. I started looking at my father in a different light. Like, damn—my father went through this.” We resent the holes the people we love leave in our lives. Then we fill them in, turn around, and create new ones.

As he speaks, other hotel guests stare, sometimes openly. After our conversation, we’re scheduled to go shoot the cover of this magazine, and he’s already dressed for it, in a vintage and fulsomely-patterned Versace garment of fine Egyptian cotton, white pants, white sneakers and sunglasses. The shoot takes place outside the Hassan II Mosque. Later, in the evening, we drive to the Moroccan Mall, where French Montana loiters for a while, hoping to be recognized. Hundreds of Moroccans and European tourists file by, unaware of the ascendant star in their midst. So we leave the mall, and begin to walk the cement boardwalk that runs along the Corniche. At night, the path is lively and full of Moroccans enjoying their reprieve from Ramadan’s fasting and prayer. There are tents on the beach full of people singing and dancing, posters advertising the immaculately bearded entertainers performing inside. To the extent French Montana is recognized in Casablanca, it happens here, on the grittier and less posh Corniche: teenagers chanting MON-TANA out car windows, shy hipsters coming up to pose for photos. This is what French is doing when he spots the camels, two shattered-looking beasts hunkering in the dark on the sand, a lure for passing tourists. “Yo!” he says. He’s already counting the money out in his hand.

Gaby, French’s manager, goes first, a terrified 300-pound man mounting a sickly camel. “It’s gonna go sideways!” he shouts, as the camel struggles to rise. Finally the animal gathers itself, standing up on its hind legs first, and then, shakily, on its front legs as well. Gaby, petrified, is frozen on the camel’s back. It trembles in place for a few gravity-defying moments before buckling back to its knees, Gaby tumbling gratefully out of the saddle. Then French, still in ersatz traditional Versace garb, his white pants glowing in the moonlight, mounts up. The camel’s minders grab the reigns and lead French off across the sand toward the water, disappearing as the animal walks away from the light. When he comes back out of the shadows he holds his arms out sideways, looking like royalty or an extra in Lawrence of Arabia, sunglasses still on in the midnight darkness, soaring to the end of his short ride.

On our last day in Casablanca, we gather outside Muhammad’s home. It’s a particularly gorgeous afternoon, sunny and cool. Muhammad emerges with one of his brothers, and Sufjan, Ayoub and French get in the backseat of his car. “We are going to visit their grandmother, my mother,” Muhammad explains. It is traditional to visit dead relatives during Ramadan. “So you will see the living”—Muhammad holds his hand out, about chest high, and then lowers it below his knees—“and the dead.”

The cemetery is nearby, just up the hill from some government housing. From the far end of the street you can see the Moroccan Mall and past it, the ocean. The family asks Gaby, our translator, the driver and me to wait outside, so we loiter on a far corner as French walks through the cemetery’s green gate. After a while, he and his brother and the rest of his family come back out, looking sober. French says he gave the attendant in the cemetery 300 dollars to look after his grandmother’s plot. It’s unclear if he’s buying good will or peace of mind. He says he cried at the grave. “You just get that feeling in your chest, you know?”

It’s evening on the last day of our trip and the visit to see French’s father can’t be put off any longer. French says he’s ready to go now. I ask if we shouldn’t call his father first, let him know that we’re on our way. But French says he just wants to do it, get it over with, surprise him. One of the uncles knows where his father lives; we’ll follow him there.

We get on to the motorway that circles Casablanca and drive for a while, exiting onto a busy road. It’s densely populated, more city-like than where we’ve been. This is Hay El Farah, a bustling, working class section of Casablanca. Ahead of us, French’s uncle pulls over in front of a nondescript apartment building, and our van pulls up beside him, everyone getting out into the evening sun. French Montana takes a deep breath, looking at his brother. “Give us a sec,” he says. He and Ayoub walk in the building’s entrance, and disappear up the stairs. The building is dirty white, five stories of blue shutters and laundry lines. On the ground floor are a convenience store and a mechanic’s shop; the street behind it has four lanes of traffic going each way, palm trees and bright flowers on the median. We wait a while and then French, his brother and his father come down.

Karim Kharbouch’s father turns out to be a handsome, leonine man, tall, grinning widely, curly hair coming out the back of a New York Yankees cap. He’s wearing a checkered shirt and track pants. He looks a little worn and a lot surprised. While he shakes hands with the rest of our party, French urgently pulls Gaby aside. He’s almost short of breath.

“Yo, get that whole stack,” he says. Gaby asks him if he’s sure and he says, “Yeah, come on man, yeah.” Gaby goes back into the van and closes the door halfway. He reaches into his pocket, extracts a handful of money, and begins laying out cash, one hundred after the next—ten thousand dollars, French Montana will later tell me, in rubber-banded bills.

French and his dad lean against a car and talk quietly. French asks him what he’s doing now—is he working? His father says he isn’t. He introduces French to the men hanging around the convenience store downstairs. “This is my son from America,”he says. They all gather around, leaning in to shake hands.

“He’s got so many pictures of me and Karim in there,” Ayoub says, appearing at my shoulder, looking shaken. He says the apartment upstairs had seen better days. There were only a few rooms, but it was eerie how much of the wall space was devoted to him and his brothers. Here was this man he’d never met but who knew him anyway. Neither Ayoub nor French have the vocabulary for the moment. In spite of their father, they’ve finally made it to the point where they can afford to return to Casablanca. But can they blame him for what they’ve had to endure, growing up without him? One hustle ends in fame and fortune. The other ends in a lonely apartment far from the water, your kids’ pictures gathering dust on the wall.

A few feet away from us, French Montana is whispering something to his father, gesturing toward the apartment. His father walks back toward us, excuses himself, heads inside. Gaby comes out of the van. He’s grinning. A rubber band dangles loosely from his wrist. He nods. And then French Montana goes back upstairs, to give his father the money.

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French Montana: Homecoming