I’ve been wanting to write a piece about this artist for so long that I can’t even begin to describe how excited I am to share this with you, not in the least because she’s a dear friend whose life philosophy has been pulling me out of some very dark places these last couple of months. But first and foremost, because of her vast creative universe that stretches far beyond music production and, in a way, symbolizes a new generation of multi-disciplinary artists who, rather than seeing their work as an output, challenge themselves to fully embody it, letting it seep through every aspect of life. Read along to discover the artist behind NEW ERA 2022 and the universe of Gj Leith.

We sit at the round table in her studio in Marrakech on an arbitrary Friday morning to have what could be one of our everyday conversations. Only this time around, she gave me permission to record it and write something about it. Although when we first met, Gj Leith came across as quite a private person or, dare I say, shy girl, over the years, we have cultivated the healthy habit of having heavy conversations for breakfast in which disagreements are common and challenging each other’s thoughts is the norm.

By coincidence, we settled in Morocco around the same time after the last edition of Atlas Electronic in 2019, where she played with her duo JANTES. Hers was a return to the country she was born and raised in, mine a return to the country I have been told is where I’m from. We have been working on our artistic projects in parallel with each other ever since. Sometimes our paths would cross, and each time they did, I got to learn more about the brain that made all of this tick, eventually leading us to the release of her first solo EP, NEW ERA 2022 on raghoul.

‘If someone were to ask you who this alias is, how would you describe that to this person?’, I asked her quite blatantly. I know she hates these kinds of questions, broad and unclear, but I had to start somewhere, so I did. ‘I think the alias came at a time when I was trying to gather a bunch of skills and looking to diversify my skill set.’

– Gj leith

I know she started as a vocalist, but she was right in that her artistic practice entailed way more than that. ‘I would choose all the music I was doing the vocals on, mostly ghetto music that I would dig on the internet. After that, I quickly started wanting to DJ. So I did. I got more into production, first within my duo JANTES and later as my solo project.’

Learning all these things simultaneously must have been quite time-consuming, and she made it sound fairly easy. ‘Gj Leith came when I wanted to start my own thing. I’ve always considered myself a solo project because even in the work with Tsip (the other half of the iconic duo), the work was on and off. After we started doing lives together, I started producing and doing my own vocals. Only when we started DJing together we started doing the whole production and vocal process together. Between all of these phases, there was always this persistent need for me to do my own thing and around 2021, I decided to go for it.’

She takes another drag from her tightly rolled joint, the room fills up with thick smoke, and she continues: ‘I think I wanted to have my freedom back somehow.’ Whoever spends more than 24 hours with Gj Leith will learn that no matter what, the bitch will do her own thing. ‘I’m not formatted like that. I don’t want the song to sound clean, and I don’t want the vocals to sound a specific way either.’ 

I’m thinking back to some of our b2bs in her family home in the mountains, and I remember not a single track surpassing the 3-minute mark, with most tracks not even hitting 2 minutes. It’s great practice for artists who tend to stretch and bend their sets like myself, forcing us to think fast and act even faster. 

The music we listen to in the car is no different. Beats hit hard and straight to the point and are generally on a loop as they are so short they leave you wanting to go for another round immediately. I’m curious if there’s any link between the tracks she listens to and plays and those she makes, what inspires what. ‘I suspect it’s related to how my mind works. I know some people can do something for a long time, but I really can’t. Even in my mixes, I like to go a bit fast as I like to hear a part of a song but not necessarily the whole thing.’ I want to ask her where she draws her inspiration from. Another question I know she’ll fucking hate. ‘I think I can name like 20 genres in the number one position, but I can tell you what I don’t listen to, or what doesn’t inspire me…’ I’ll take it.

– Gj Leith

‘So, because I’m a DJ, people place me in the electronic music scene. But I don’t listen to electronic music. If I’m being honest, there are probably not more than a dozen electronic music styles that I could listen to which might seem like a lot but it’s really not.’ She continues to explain that the genre doesn’t touch her at her core, and I wonder if it bothers her that she still gets placed into that category.

‘No, because I get it. It’s electronic music. I use my computer and drum machines and whatever. Even the patterns I use are not either hip-hop-ish or something else. It’s hybrid, so they can place me anywhere they want.’ And it’s not just about the label of the genre. ‘You would expect from someone in the scene to have a certain knowledge of certain basics that I don’t think I have, to be honest.’

I know she’s not talking about the basics of production or the music itself but something bigger than that. ‘Do you think it’s important that if you play certain music, you’re informed about the culture?’ I ask her almost rhetorically. She looks at me with are-you-seriously-asking-me-this-eyes, and I can’t blame her. ‘Of course. And I’ve learned it the hard way. When I was younger, I used to hate certain music styles that I do listen to now. And I think it’s also because I didn’t have access to certain information, you know.’ In other words, what she thought certain styles were was limited to what she had access to. ‘And when I discovered more about the cultures behind these styles, I started encountering some difficulties, especially in France.’ 

She goes on to explain how as she continued to explore, she grew increasingly uneasy with the hypocrisy of the discourse around these music genres like hip-hop, reggae and shatta music, and the appropriation of said cultures. ‘After criticizing it, in the end, these people ended up listening to this stuff and appropriating parts of their culture. When I saw that, I knew I could not appreciate certain types of music without appreciating the people who did it in the circumstances and context they did it in.’

– Gj leith

The culture is broad and much larger than music alone. It involves its fashion, customs, history, dances, languages and foods. ‘I remember when I was a kid and at the beginning of the school year, the teacher would ask us what we wanted to become, and I would always come up with my list of 10 jobs. And the teachers would tell me, you can’t do all of these jobs at the same time. But I always told them: don’t worry, I will.’ She continues talking about some of the first cultures that inspired her in this way, mentioning the punk scene in London and her fashion inspiration by Vivienne Westwood, ‘who, in terms of fashion and vision, is in my top 3.’

‘Early on, I linked having a music style with having a more general aesthetic. Not just in the way you dress but in your little booklets, in the way you personalize your items, etc. I was always interested in the visual aspect of my work, taking pictures, dressing up, dancing, because I have always thought of these things as one.’

This is nothing new to me but to hear her say it out loud does make things fall into place. Part of what makes her aesthetic so strong is its authenticity – the deep understanding of the cultures she has both studied and embodied. However, I can’t help but notice that a lot of inspiration comes from outside of Morocco, and I wonder if that plays a part. How does she position herself within this larger global music scene? Does she even want to make it locally? And if not, why come back to Morocco? Surely, it would’ve been easier to do there?

‘In terms of music, I don’t think I position myself locally. Unfortunately, most people listening to my music or listening to JANTES are not Moroccan. But they say you cannot be a prophet in your own country, right?’ We both laugh. I guess she’s right. The grass always seems greener on the other side. 

‘As for my inspiration coming from outside Morocco, I guess that rings true now. But I still grew up listening to a lot of Moroccan music in the broadest sense of the word. Music from my region, Gnawa music, Moroccan bands playing fusion or whatever. And I think I’ll never be able to listen to just one style. There are so many beautiful things out there. So yeah, maybe that plays a part too in that I position myself more globally.’ ‘Would you want that to change?’, I ask her. ‘Not necessarily. If it happens, it happens. And I think it could. But I don’t believe it will start here for me.’

As I write this, I’m thinking of the difference between where and by whom art is produced versus where and when it’s consumed. Who it serves, and how the way we, cultural actors, shape this. Although Morocco’s (music-)infrastructure is relatively pre-mature compared to other places in the world, and we don’t have a strong culture of consuming art, especially when it’s more unconventional, we produce so much good stuff. Much like Gj Leith, there are artists who do their work here, knowing it will be consumed elsewhere. And quite frankly, the days of the West as a compass for what’s cool or hot are counted (don’t @ me).

I asked her what brought her to NEW ERA 2022. ‘I’ve always liked this concept of the new era because I used to change environments all the time. And each time I change my surroundings, I don’t have the same circle, and it actually kinda feels like a new chapter.’ I was waiting for when we’d start talking about the World Cup, and she did not disappoint. ‘I think it’s also this whole vibe of promoting the dream big state of mind that came with the World Cup and Morocco getting so far for the first time ever.’ I get it; it’s the thrill of flirting with potential.

As a Moroccan-born Moroccan who lived abroad and who positions themselves more globally as an artist, what made her decide to move back here? Surely it would have been easier to be in Paris? ”Cause I’m Moroccan,’ she laughs. I mean, she’s not wrong. ‘It’s complicated and there were many factors that all pointed in the same direction. Firstly, I felt like I was losing part of my values in order to make it work for me there. And I felt like I was so good at it. Dangerously good. So good that I got scared to find myself becoming a person I don’t really want to become.’ It takes some serious cojones to be able to pull yourself out of that. As a child of the diaspora myself, this game of give and take, tokenization, and being palatable sounds all too familiar. ‘But secondly, I just love my country. It’s always sunny here, beautiful, and the people are nice. Sure, it’s not perfect, but what is?’

‘There was also this strong desire to link with Africa and South America and wanting to extract myself from the Western world, but here I was still doing these things for my career in France of all places – which surely would have benefitted me more -, but I felt like a hypocrite. Always speaking about stuff but not living it. I knew it would take longer for me here and that I would need more patience. But I knew what I signed up for.’

With the world slowly waking up, more and more people are trying to be critical of how their lives contribute to the status quo. Working in places with ‘pre-mature’ infrastructures allows for a lot of freedom to shape things as you want, but it also comes with challenges. ‘I feel like the biggest challenge is the lack of stimulation. It can end up feeling like you’re building something in the middle of the desert, and the trees are still fucking seeds, and you know the seeds are going to come up one day; it’s just taking so much time under the burning sun.’

I wonder what seeds she has planted for the future. ‘I just want to put more stuff out, things I’ve been working on for a long time. I feel like I finally have all the skills to do what comes to mind and have nice friends with whom I can collaborate. There’s a series of mini mixes coming with b2bs from time to time, and I’d love to put out more visual content as well because I really enjoy the process of art direction, and I believe it will help a lot of people understand my universe a little bit better.’

NEW ERA 2022 is out now on all streaming platforms

Words by Manal Aziz
Image by ma3kouda
Artistic direction by Gj Leith
Clothing design by Youssef Idrissi from LATE FOR WORK

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