Hip-hop artist French Montana loved two things as a child: sports and rap. Born in Rabat, Morocco, he played soccer, which afforded him an opportunity to see life in other places.
“Soccer gave me my first opportunity to experience the world,” Montana said. “I got a visa to play in Spain, and when I went there I was like, ‘Wow, there is a world outside of Africa.’ So when I came back, I knew I had to leave Africa to become what I wanted.”
Born Karim Kharbouch, his dream of leaving Morocco came true at 13 years old. He and his family emigrated to the United States. New York City became his new home right in the heart of the South Bronx, where he learned to speak English. He soon became the primary breadwinner of the home after his father moved back to Morocco, leaving his mother and younger brothers in New York.
In his latest single, “Famous,” off of his sophomore album Jungle Rules, he portrays his own background: a mother speaking to her child and wanting to protect him from the troubles that come along with fame.
The “Famous” music video debuted Jan. 18 and was shot in Morocco. In the video, Montana walks the streets of Morocco’s Blue City, Chefchaouen, styling customary Moroccan garb and passing kids playing soccer. He also visits his grandmother’s grave. The artistry of the lyrics is further matched with the beautiful, sun-kissed Moroccan landscape throughout the video.
Wanting to pay it forward, “Famous” is more than just a song — it sheds light on where Montana came from. Growing up, his family faced economic hardships, and he is giving back by building more schools for the kids in Morocco. This comes as an extension of his first-ever Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, “Unforgettable,” where he shot the music video in Uganda and later became inspired to give back. He partnered with Global Citizen on a health advocacy campaign with Mama Hope Foundation to provide health care for new moms and babies in Uganda.
Montana got his start in the music industry when his mixtape debuted in 2007. By 2010, he’d made a full splash with the hit “Choppa Choppa Down.” In 2013 he released his debut studio album, Excuse My French. He is the founder of Coke Boys Records, which later became Cocaine City Records. In 2012, he joined forces with Bad Boy Records and Maybach Music Group.
In between music rehearsals, Montana linked up with The Undefeated in Brooklyn, New York, to reflect on “Famous,” growing up in Morocco, his relationships with Diddy and Jay-Z, and his reaction to President Donald Trump’s comments about immigrants.
When did you realize you were famous?
When I walked into my mama’s job and told her that she didn’t have to work anymore. That was my claim to fame.
What was the inspiration behind your song ‘Famous’?
A lot of people think I’m singing to a girl, but I’m not. It’s more like a mother talking to her child. Like when you’re young and your mother doesn’t want you to play outside near the corner because she’s scared of trouble and all the hurt that the world can bring. She doesn’t want you to be famous but stay her little baby, because in the game there’s a lot of things that come with it, like the snakes, fakes and low-flying angels.
What is behind the good-works initiative tied to the music video for ‘Famous’?
We shot the video in Chaouen. It’s like the pearl of Morocco, the Blue City [because of the blue-washed buildings of the town]. When I lived in Morocco, it was about a three-hour radius to any school. Kids there know when they grow up they’ll go straight to the field, so a lot of them don’t even know how to read the Koran properly. So I knew that I wanted to come back to Morocco and open up a couple of music schools to open up lanes for kids to learn new things.
Why is giving back to Africa important to you?
God blesses you to bless other people. The moment you stop doing that, he’ll take everything away from you. I feel like I can shed light to where I come from, especially from me living in Africa for 13 years and then witnessing firsthand how the people in Uganda really need our help when it comes to health care and [the necessities of life]. That shouldn’t be questionable or a privilege.
Diddy donated $200,000 to the Suubi “Hope” Health Center as part of the Unforgettable health care campaign that you started last year. What was his decision behind that?
Shoutout to my big brother Diddy, that’s my best friend. He’s seen the vision from day one and said here’s a gift for you. Him helping my cause is better than buying me a car. That’s how you receive your blessings, in helping others who can’t help themselves. There’s no greater joy in life until you can help someone that has no motive at getting anything back from you.
What has Diddy taught you?
Never put all of your eggs in one basket. God only blesses people with good karma, so I feel God has blessed Diddy to become one of the wealthiest moguls. Last time he dropped an album was 10 years ago, but he still ranks as Forbes’ highest-paid hip-hop artist.
Can you elaborate about the call from Jay-Z about ‘Famous’?
Jay had asked me to send him the album, and when he heard it he said how ‘Famous’ was his favorite song. He knows what the song means because it can also be a father talking to his daughter. He wants to take [his daughter] Blue to the Blue City [Chaouen] too.
Where do your music influences come from?
Life. Feelings. The vibrations. When you’re at the gym and you’re on your last two sets but you do five more because that song came on, or when you’re chillin’ and that song plays that echoes what you’re going through and you start to cry. It happens to everyone. Music is the only language that your body and the world speaks.
You did some acting in FOX’s Empire. Are you hoping to do more acting in the future?
As far as films, I started the Cocaine City DVD series [back in 2002, which gave a glimpse into the lives of rappers like Remy Ma, Waka Flocka and Lil Wayne]. I directed about 16 episodes before I got into the mix [and was in front of the camera showing my rap game come-up]. So film has always been a top love alongside music.
I just finished directing my own movie, Respect the Shooter [in collaboration with A$AP Rocky]. It’s basically about a bunch of guys trying to make money. Michal K. Williams, Chris Brown, Fabolous, Snoop [from The Wire] and myself are all in it.
Who’s your favorite athlete?
Mike Tyson. He was raw and never held anything back.
As an immigrant yourself, what are your thoughts on President Donald Trump’s recent comments about immigration?
Trump is treating the states like it’s Trump real estate — where you have to be qualified to move into one of his buildings. A great leader spreads love, and he’s not doing that. I feel a lot of the real heroes [in America] come from other places. They weren’t born here; they come from different parts of the world. He’s going to last four years, and then we’ll move on to the next president.