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DUBAI: The first track from Soolking’s latest album, “Sans Visa”, is called “Kurt Kobain”. It’s a nod to his roots as a fan of Nirvana and other grunge bands who started his musical career as a drummer in a rock band in his native Algeria.
This is just one example of the wide range of music that Soolking (real name Abderraouf Derradji) likes to listen to and is influenced by, although this influence is not always clear in his own material.
“I listen to a lot of different music, so my influences came from all over the place,” Derradji told Arab News. “Traditional music from Algeria, like raï, American rap, French rap, reggae music, pop music like Michael Jackson, jazz… I don’t just listen to hip-hop or anything .
“My own music is Soolking’s music,” he continues. “I don’t want to give him a label, you know? My music is my music.
However you want to describe this music (media articles usually refer to rap, R&B, reggae and raï as the most obvious touchstones), it’s clear that it connects with the people. Since 2018, Soolking has accumulated 8 billion streams across various platforms. The music video for the album’s third track, “Suavamente”, released in February, has over 143 million views on YouTube. He’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world whose primary language isn’t English – which doesn’t mean he doesn’t appeal to English-speaking audiences. he performed several times in North America, notably at the famous Apollo Theater in New York in May. In France, he is well known enough that when I ask him where he lives in Paris at the beginning of our interview, the answer is brief: “I can’t tell you.
It was a remarkable journey for Derradji, who was born and raised in Algiers. While he is quick to point out that growing up in the Algerian capital was “a real enrichment and a life experience for me”, he is also candid about the fact that it was difficult, as a young man, to see in it a real future for himself.
“I think maybe 90% of boys my age were in the same situation,” he says. “All of them were looking to go get a better chance somewhere in Europe or the United States. That’s the reality. I was looking for the same thing.
His wanderlust had only been heightened by the international tours he had done with the professional dance company he had joined as a teenager. “I had this experience of seeing how people lived in the rest of the world – in Europe and in the United States. So when I came back to Algeria, I just didn’t want to accept the situation I was living in. That’s why I decided to leave,” he says. “Maybe if you haven’t seen (other places), it’s just a dream that makes you go. But when you see, and you come back, it’s like, ‘I have to go.’
Creative physical expression of some kind has always been a part of Derradji’s life, he says. Martial arts and acrobatics as a child, then break dancing, then professional dancing of all kinds (he is still continuing his dance training now).
Derradji’s father was a drummer in a band in Algeria in his early twenties, which inspired Derradji to try it out himself – a natural fit for someone with such a clearly developed sense of rhythm. The two mediums – music and dance – give her different ways to reach an audience.
“You can say what’s in your heart in music. But you can also tell by your dance moves,” he says. “It’s two feelings – which I can’t really explain – but they’re not that different. You can feel it when you’re on stage – they’re pretty similar reactions (from the audience), but maybe that it’s a bit more intense when you’re singing, because you’re talking directly to people, but that’s really the only point of difference between the two types of art.
When Derradji decided to go to France one way or another, he “hoped to make music. Or to dance. To remain an artist anyway. I was sure that an artist’s life in Europe would be much better than a life as an artist in Algeria, I was sure of it.
The move definitely worked for Derradji. But sometimes it seemed not. The title of the album “Sans Visa” is a nod to the fact that he arrived in France without the necessary papers to stay there.
“I had no papers. I had no house. I had no food. I was sleeping on the streets,” is Derradji’s straightforward assessment of his grim situation there. “It was very difficult at the beginning. First, I had to find a job “on the black”, as we say here, that is to say that we work without papers. Once I I started making money, I could pay the rent for a room here in Paris. After that, I managed to get my papers and I was a bit more stable. That’s when I I started thinking about art again. Those first years, I didn’t think about art, I only thought about how to live. But then I started working on my music again.
His big break came when a friend invited him to a radio show to perform a freestyle rap, titled “Guerilla,” which quickly went viral.
“It’s about my life, my character, my music. Talk about me. It’s a song for me and for the people in Algeria who live as I was,” he said. “I didn’t think it was that bad, but it got huge. I was shocked.”
He hasn’t really looked back since, making a name for himself in the French music scene and beyond, and working with numerous collaborators.
“I produce music, but I also work with a lot of producers. I write all my lyrics. I do maybe 90% of all my melodies. But I love working with people and trying to take a bit of their inspiration and mix it with mine. It’s important,” he said. “You can’t do it all alone. It is not possible. And it’s not fun.
“I don’t go to someone’s house because they have a ‘name’, you know? I’m going to see someone because I’ve heard what he’s doing and I want to work with him. It’s a matter of feelings.”
‘Feeling’ is perhaps the single most important factor in Derradji’s work – the thing that has most helped him connect with hundreds of millions of people around the world.
“I am a great optimist by nature. Optimism is what kept me going, so as long as I can, I will continue to convey that to my audience,” he says. “My music is universal; it has no borders and does not stop at a single musical genre. This is where the strength of my music lies; to be able to unite so many people around the same objective: to make people happy.