The big, bad reputation of Dutch-Moroccan rapper Raymzter is dented within minutes of meeting him. He shakes hands politely, is soft-spoken, and offers a cup of coffee. Reclining on a floral couch he displays none of the rebel attitude that makes his stage performances such a hit. Raymzter (pronounced rhymster) is the sort of rapper you could take home to meet the parents. In fact, it's the parents of Raymzter's Italian producer, Massimo Baudo, who open the door of the neat terraced house on a new housing estate outside Amsterdam, when a reporter arrives for a visit.
In a tiny studio in the attic, Raymzter is putting the finishing touches on his debut album, Rayalistisch (a pun combining his stage name and the Dutch word for realistic), which is out next month. The disc will feature Raymzter's hugely successful and controversial first single, K__ Marokkanen (F___ing Moroccans), a biting commentary on white Dutch attitudes toward young Moroccans following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (sample lyric: "They look at me as if I flew into the Twin Towers"). The song reached No. 4 in the Dutch pop charts despite, or perhaps because of, being banned by some stations due to its racially and politically charged message. "So what?" says Raymzter. "It made people think about the way they stereotype ethnic minorities, and that was the point."
Raymzter's message is all the more pointed because it comes at a time when the Netherlands' traditional tolerance is being tested by frustration over the sharp rise in petty crime attributed to young, urban Moroccans and a general anti-Muslim feeling since Sept. 11. The result is the growing stigmatizing of a whole generation of Dutch-born Moroccans. So K__ Marokkanen has become something of an anthem among all sorts of foreigners living in the Netherlands. "So many people come up to me in the street and say they can identify with the sentiment expressed in the text," Raymzter says.
Raymzter, whose real name is Raymon Renssen, 23, leads a pretty tame life for a rebel rapster. He lives with his mom, who is a single parent, two younger brothers and sister in a terraced house in one of the less salubrious neighborhoods of Almere, a new town some 30 km northeast of Amsterdam. His father, a Moroccan, abandoned the family when his son was just a toddler. In the evenings, Raymzter mostly stays at home helping his mother with the kids or baby-sitting. "If I'm out, I'm usually performing," he says. "I've spent the last year concentrating on my music." That concentration is beginning to pay off. K__ Marokkanen sold 25,000 copies, impressive in the small Dutch market. Raymzter says he is not looking for international stardom, which is just as well given that his lyrics are in Dutch.
He first got into rap in his early teens when an aunt gave him a tape by Public Enemy. He had to balance his musical aspirations with his day job as a baker until 2001, when he won the Netherlands' most prestigious pop award. He's since used his popularity to promote several youth community projects by giving rap workshops to youngsters in the poor neighborhoods of Amsterdam.
Part of Raymzter's appeal lies in the fact that he's singing from the heart. His lyrics are rooted firmly in his own experience. His new single, Down Met Jou (Down With You), is also deeply personal; it's about failed friendships, betrayal and absent fathers. He also suffered from the racial abuse he now sings about. "I can still remember what they used to call me: f___ing Moroccan," he says.
Raymzter's music reflects his dual heritage. Most songs have a typical Dutch sing-a-long rhythm with tinges of more exotic North African melodies thrown in. Raymzter usually writes the music first. Once he's got the rhythm right, he'll work out the lyrics and then call up Baudo who's produced CDs for top hip-hop names on both sides of the Atlantic to flesh things out. Most of Raymzter's friends and the people he works with are from ethnic minorities or of mixed race, but Raymzter says he feels as much Dutch as Moroccan: "Maybe it's just that most of the people involved in rap music are from ethnic minorities." Raymzter says he doesn't write political songs. But when it comes to race relations these days, the personal is political.