It’s 10pm on a Friday night, and Morocco’s capital city is truly buzzing.
Tonight is the opening event of the African continent’s biggest musical celebration, now in its 12th year: the Mawazine Music Festival. An audience of 150,000 has gathered at the OLM Souissi, an open-air arena-inspired venue in one of Rabat’s expansive city gardens.
And what has garnered this record-breaking festival crowd? That would be an artist who, on the surface, seems to contradict Moroccan culture in its entirety: the gossip-column celebrity and global sex symbol known as Rihanna.
If the packed-out show is anything to go by, Rihanna is well-loved in Morocco, despite her naughty reputation. Strangely enough, the Barbados-born chanteuse does fit in well here. Every artist performing at the festival boasts an international flavour either personally or musically, and she’s no exception.
Her return to Morocco is as part of her Diamonds World Tour, which will visit every continent over the next few months. Tonight’s performance offers something quite special, however: the rare opportunity to see Rihanna emerge on stage (almost) fully dressed.
Rumour has it Morocco has actually contractually obliged her to dress down for the occasion, and keep a lid on her raunchier side. What a country.
Standing in the crowd, it’s a peculiar scene. The young and the old gather, with no booze or drugs on sale or in sight, enraptured by the superstar in their midst.
The atmosphere is incredible; there’s no fear of judgement here, no British stiff upper lip to contend with, or hipsters worrying about looking cool. RiRi arrives on stage just over an hour late, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
Excitement reigns as the show begins. Rihanna’s most popular singles like ‘Umbrella’ and ‘Shut Up And Drive’ incite the grandest response, but lesser-known album tracks also receive an energetic audience reaction.
Rabat seems to appreciate that Rihanna has come to visit, hanging on every note of every song, and each word of her stage banter – whether they understand it or not, it seems.
The audience is made up of… well, everyone. Whole families are out together; children sit on their parents’ shoulders holding ‘I-heart-Rihanna’ signs. Well-dressed 20-something blokes dance together, completely uninhibited. Everyone seems to know the words, whether wearing burkas or skimpy maxi dresses.
Rihanna ends her main set with the trio of ‘S&M’ (without even one cheeky crotch-grab), ‘Only Girl In The World’ and ‘Don’t Stop The Music’, before an exhilarated audience invites her back for an encore with rapturous applause. ‘Stay’ and ‘Diamonds’ follow, and it’s safe to say Rihanna doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Without the distraction of too much flesh, Rihanna offers an impressive set on the strength of songs and vocals, combined with talent as an entertainer and dancer. She proves a fine choice of artist to kick off Mawazine – though she’s in good company, with performances from The Jacksons, Enrique Iglesias, Jessie J and David Guetta to follow.
And for anyone who thinks Morocco is a country full of traditionalist, conservative Muslims who don’t know how to party, make sure you get yourself over to Mawazine next year. You’ll be surprised.
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Words: Lauren Razavi
Photo: Sife El Amine for Mawazine Festival
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