French Montana - Karim Kharbouch - on the perils of fatherhood
It’s easy to make a snap judgement on Karim Kharbouch.
Under the moniker French Montana the rapper has built an impressive career on the back of swag-laden bars, braggadocio hooks and a curiously masterful ability to craft a hit record. His lyrics are littered with lines on luxury fashion, loud cars, and loose women, all done in his trademark lethargic rap style.
Countless musical collaborations, video projects and constant flow of social media output only serve to solidify a picture of a man who embodies all the stereotypes of a modern day rap superstar.
But by taking the time to sit back and listen—and we mean really listen—to Kharbouch tell his story, you quickly understand that while the bravado and bling is real, it’s also all part of the plan. The hype is part of the hustle, and for a man who has had to scrap for every inch he’s earnt in life, that is exactly what he wants. He’s not in the game for the fame, he’s in it because he doesn’t know any other way.
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Born in Morocco, Kharbouch learnt early on that life was one big hustle. Raised by a Somali mother and a too-often-absent Moroccan father, he spent his first 13 years on a family estate just outside Casablanca. School was tough—but it was for everyone—and but his father, Abdela, had plans to move the family to New York to seek his fortune in another of his regular wheeler-dealer schemes.
Uprooted to the Bronx, Karim was enrolled in a high school, but speaking only Arabic and French he struggled to settle, eventually dropping out, but not before he was branded with the rather derogatory nickname ‘Bonjour’ from his classmates. However, never one to be backed into a corner, he rebranded himself as ‘French’ and, in turn, seized back control of his life’s narrative.
The addition of Montana came later, not through his love of the Northwest state, but in homage to his hero, Scarface’s Tony Montana. Three years in and Abdela left to return to Casablanca.
Jumper by Saint Laurent; coat by Stella McCartney, Yellow Submarine collection.
He wanted to take his family with him but, growing tired of his constant schemes, his wife refused, so he abandoned them. Karim, then 17, became the de facto man of the house, charged with looking after his mother and two young brothers. Aside from his mother’s welfare cheques, whatever other money they had had to come from him, so he did what he could to provide, legally and illegally, risking not just jail but deportation.
Life on the fringes of the law tends to have two outcomes: breaks you or makes you. For Kharbouch, it was very much the latter—sharpening his resolve and fueling his ambition. He first started making headway by producing and selling DVDs of street culture, which allowed him to developing his musical talent alongside a subset of underground rappers.
He started rap battling under the name Young French, while trying to survive until he eventually established himself as someone who had paid his dues befriending the likes of Rick Ross, P. Diddy and Drake. His 15-year career has seen him rise to international fame with a string of club bangers including ‘No Stylist’, ‘Wiggle it’ and 2017’s ‘Unforgettable’— which has cleared one billion views on YouTube—but it has also seen him lose friends to both gun crime and prison, and even earned himself two scars on the back of his head where a bullet that nearly killed him entered and exited.
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Kharbouch has always been careful to play his cards close to his chest, but it was during the filming of the ‘Unforgettable’ video that gave people a peek into who he really is. Filmed in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, his experiences there eventually led to him spearheading a charitable mission that would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for improved children clinics and hospital facilities.
Having eventually found the creative and commercial success that he worked so hard for, is the next evolution of French Montana one that shares that success he so openly boasts of with others? From a fraught relationship with his father, what kind of example does he want to set for his own son, Kruz, who turned 10 earlier this year?
But rather than write his story for him, we let the eternal hustler speak for himself, judgement free.
What do you remember of your childhood in Morocco?
I only really remember it in bits and pieces, but I remember it being tough. We weren’t struggling, but we weren’t rich, neither. It was tough because my father was not around a lot. I mean, when I was born he was in jail so... I remember him being away a lot, so I had to be the man of the house from quite a young age.
Did you have much of a relationship with your father back then?
Yeah, I did, but he always had something going on.
He was a hustler, y’know. He was somebody that was always going to do what he needed to make money. He was from the countryside outside of Casablanca, y’know, like, the ‘country-country’. There were like 10 houses in his village and one big Mosque.
“Growing up it was always a case of if you have a problem, you sort it yourself. If you told your father he’d hit you, if you told your mother she’d hit you as well.”
I remember visiting my grandparents there and there were no street lights so when it got dark, it got real dark. It was weird, they all used to believe in ghosts and when we would go there I would just think, like, how can you guys still live like this? To me that made the idea of hustle very real, and it taught me early on that God only helps people who help themselves.
Do you think you got your hustle from your dad?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like it’s not something that I learnt from him, but more something I have in my genes. I was born with the hustle. My mum used stay at home and he would go out and make the money.
Growing up, who did you turn to if you had an issue?
If I had a problem I tried to learn to deal with it by myself without telling nobody.
Why was that?
It only ever made it worse if I told my parents stuff! [Laughs] I didn’t want to add stress to their lives, like, they had enough to worry about, so that any problems I had would just add to that.
Did your brothers used to come to you for advice?
Not really. I looked after them, but in our household it was always a case of if you have a problem, you sort it out yourself. If you told your father he’d hit you, if you told your mother she’d hit you as well.
Was that pretty common?
Yeah, growing up we used to get hit all the time.
At school we used to get hit with all kinds of s**t. Cables and things. So we just learnt that if someone hit you, you just smack them back—that’s how they raise them there in Morocco, y’know. Over there it isn’t the usual way. If you’re misbehaving then they take you to the front of the class and beat the s**t out of you. A totally different world, not even comparable. But, y’know, I guess it makes you tough. I’m guessing that was their goal, to make us tough. I had to go through that until I was, like, 14-years-old, until we left.
“I worked on the street; I got shot; I struggled; I watched my mother struggle —and knowing that the work I do means that [my son] doesn’t have to do that, that makes me comfortable. I’ll always make sure of that.”
Where you excited about moving to the US?
I remember wanting to embrace it. I didn’t hate my life in Morocco at all, I just knew I needed to escape it—I knew I wanted to do more with my life. I saw it like graduating.
I wanted to make some money and in Morocco looking for a job is like a crab bucket, and you’re lumped in there with everybody else, all getting paid the same and didn’t matter if you went to school or not.
How much of a culture shock was moving to the Bronx?
Huge. For a 14-year-old kid to have his whole life change without even being able to prepare for it. Back then I only spoke Arabic and French, so the language barrier was pretty tough. It’s not even like shifting gear, it’s like being in a whole different race track. Not speaking English at school meant that I couldn’t communicate with people, so no one would talk to me.
It was pretty tough, not just not fitting in but trying to shape your life and who you wantedto be without being able to communicate with those around you.
Mr Kharbouch wears: Jumper by Valentino; coat by Tom Ford. Kruz Kharbouch wears: Jumper by Balenciaga; Blazer and trousers both by Dolce&Gabbana
So a few years after your family moved to the US, your father left. What was that like for you?
I was 17, and my mother didn’t know English—she still don’t know English!—so I had to become the man of the house. At times it was almost like I was married to my mother and my two little brothers became my kids. It made me have to grow up a lot faster.
Whenever my father used to call from Africa and he’d ask “how’s your brothers and your mother?” and I used to laugh and say “what, did you forget that you’re the father?”
You have a son now. Are you a good dad?
Of course I am. Considering what I had growing up, by comparison, I’m a great dad.
How did becoming a father change you as a person?
It made me feel comfortable. Comfortable to do what I do. I work to make sure that he never has to go through what I went through. I worked on the street; I got shot; I struggled; I watched my mother struggle—and knowing that the work I do means that he doesn’t have to have worry about stuff like that, that makes me comfortable. I’ll always make sure of that.
Who is Kruz’s dad, French or Karim? Or do you not see it like that?
I don’t really feel that it’s two different people. So it’s not like that. The fame was not something that I wanted or needed. I just hustled for money. I didn’t get into this to be a star, I just found that I had a talent that would people would pay for and I worked on that as a way to support myself and my family.
Does your son get what you do for a living?
Yeah, he gets it. He’s very smart. He knows that sometimes I’m away on tour for months at a time and he knows that life doesn’t change.
How is your parenting style different from the way you were raised?
My son’s life and my life are very different. My life always been about making money and holding grudges. I don’t know what his is going to be like. I don’t know if he’ll even still be talking to me in 16 years’ time!
My son is lucky to be raised the way he is. He gets his knowledge from his mother—she is smart and graduated from college—and then from me he gets the hustle. He’s one-of-a-kind. He’s advanced too. The other day he had to do a project that should have taken two weeks, but said he could do it in two days! That’s slick. I know that he gets that from me.
What do you want for your son?
I want him to go to college. I want him to have the chance to study and be what he wants to be, I didn’t get the chance to do that. I wanted to get a basketball scholarship and go to college, but I didn’t have the opportunity or the right paperwork to do it.
And by the ‘right paperwork’ you mean because of the legality of your status?
Yeah, that and I dropped out of school. In the US if you don’t have the right paperwork then you can’t get a proper job or a social security number. I didn’t have that, so it was real tough. I had to hustle on the street, knowing that if I ever got caught, I would be deported.
Every day was like walking a thin line—like a tight-rope between two mountains—knowing that if I got caught then I was out, and it was like that for years. These days, I laugh when I hear people who complain about this and that, as most didn’t have the struggle I had.
The issue of shootings in the US seems to be an on-going problem. As someone who has personal experience of being shot, are you scared of the world that your son is growing up in?
No. My son will have better opportunities in his life than millions of other kids. I’m proud of that, and I’m proud that he doesn’t have to grow up the way I did. It’s like two different worlds.
He’s more protected by his mother, and she is more protective than my mother was. When my father left, my mother couldn’t teach me nothing, Kruz’s mother will raise him right. She’s like a tiger mom—but in a classy way.
Could he grow up to be President?
Of course! In fact, he could probably do a better job than the current one is doing right now! [Laughs]
If given the chance, would you trade your upbringing for his?
No, never. There are certain things where I am, like,
I have no idea how I made it through, there must have been somebody watching over me. There are things that I made it through I’d never want to do again, but I see it now as a humbling experience. Like a beautiful struggle where every piece helped to get me to where I am now.
What is the biggest fear you have for your son?
That’s a double-edged sword. Growing up not having what I wanted, made me the person that I am today. Not having money made me appreciate having money. And for him, my biggest fear is that he doesn’t appreciate the value in things.
I want him to be humble about life and the things he has.
Is humility an important value to you?
It is. I feel that today everyone is constantly seeking attention and that self-respect has less meaning.
The biggest lesson my parents taught me was to have morals, to have principles that you live your life by. Know what you value, and try to be true to who you are. If I can pass that on to my son then he’ll be just fine.