Atlas Electronic is far from the huge festival we're all familiar with. It still, however, operates on the belief that gathering a group of around 2,000 people carries with it a massive responsibility to inspire and connect all people. It is a place to come together, discover and contribute. We sat down with founder Karim Mrabti to speak on all things Atlas and how he and his team are trying to improve the creative infrastructure within Morocco to facilitate the development of its growing talent.
Why did you choose Marrakech as the home of the festival?
At the time, there was a scene growing in Marrakech that wasn’t quite tipping over the edge. We were enthusiastic to provide a platform supporting young Moroccan creatives of all disciplines so they could grow. It felt natural especially as almost everyone in the Atlas team originally hails from Morocco.
Saying that, while Marrakech is the undisputed birthplace, it probably won’t be the final destination of Atlas. We’ll eventually reach a stage where we’ve helped put in place sturdy enough infrastructure for the Moroccan community to grow. We see a future where the festival is hosted in another city within Africa or the Middle East, because then it will provide us with another challenge and opportunity to help support a new community of creatives.
Why do you feel facilitating travel and engaging with cultures is so important?
Travel and venturing outside of your comfort zone means everything to how you experience things and then perceive the world and its people. That being said, the inability to travel where you want as someone who creates... or as someone who needs that input to evolve as a person (as everybody kind of does) is deeply troubling and problematic. Travel is important for experience, work and leisure, but it is so essential in the forming of opinions, ideas and the development of knowledge.
How have your thoughts on travel informed your discussions when organising the festival?
Following on from the ability to travel abroad, or lack thereof, we've really come to understand the gravity of the situation. We do talks, campaigns, workshops and we book artists from countries that experience this problem, but we still want to do more.
We have a diverse community of both artists and attendees from certain regions who come to the festival but have to suffer through an arduous process to obtain visas for entry. We can’t help with the process and we can’t change the law, so it is why we reimburse people's visa costs. It helps alleviate some pressure and encourages travel and movement. It’s something we hope other festivals and organisations will pick up if they’re considering how to be more accessible to particular members of their community.
It's also why we have a 50:50 approach where we reserve half of our tickets for Moroccans. As much as we want to attract foreigners we are a festival for locals. Keeping this ratio is also a great way to stimulate a better and more diverse exchange in culture, knowledge and interest amongst our visitors.
What role does the internet play in the mobility of knowledge?
The internet is huge! It’s a place for thoughts and discussions to be shared and sparked. Digital life has played a massive part for anyone in a country with limited mobility, as the internet has no boundaries (unless you live in a completely censored country). It is why we try to use it in a way that is inclusive. We stand up for the marginalised, whose stories you otherwise would not have heard of. Although in many issues we are limited in our capacity to effect change in a concrete manner, we use our platform to raise awareness as the bare minimum.
As part of continuing to tell the stories of the marginalised we've incorporated a guest writer’s programme for anyone who feels connected with what we do and wants to write a piece on a subject - related or unrelated to Atlas.
How do you ensure your programming reflects the values of the festival?
We don't book people just because of their music or arts. We look at the balance in our programme throughout many categories: genres; local and international; men and women, and we also make sure that we keep that balance between established artists and those who have never performed on a big stage.
We're more enthusiastic about upcoming artists doing crazy things, but don’t necessarily have that platform to showcase their work. It’s more rewarding than booking a big headline act whose performance at Atlas will simply be another in a series of Summer bookings. We need their performance and involvement with Atlas as a whole to be more personal and collaborative. Our favourite artists are the ones who arrive with curiosity.
Are you seeing greater inclusivity within the creative scene?
For sure. The DJ scene was top - down dominated by men so when it came to programming there was a certain awareness that wasn't there yet. Saying that, it has been obvious in the past couple years that people are becoming more aware and more inclusive. There is definitely a shift occurring in Morocco.
We have MMMC and OJOO GYAL - DJs that are just starting, female and from Morocco. The societal pressure that comes from a heavily male dominated profession meant that they initially felt there wasn’t a future for them in the game.
It was obvious to book them in and take them on a journey with us. We want to provide a safe environment for our artists to gain confidence that lets them feel like they belong and should continue. For us to do this and facilitate an opportunity so they can showcase their talent and perform alongside the likes of Kamaal Williams, James Holden and so on, is great.
How are you combatting talent drain within Morocco’s creative scene.
A lot of talented people within Morocco are like “hey listen, we need to go to Paris, London etc to blow.” It's funny because at the same time we were leaving Holland to come back to Morocco and build something here. We understand why artists would like to leave, but not when they hold the notion that they think going certain places in Europe is the only way to succeed. For us, we saw, and still see this as an opportunity to work towards a shared vision, build it in our own way, with our own people and in our own style.
After the first Atlas festival we showed that it was possible to do everything here. More people got into art and fashion. There’s been a proliferation of creative events and club nights. Three important record labels founded by locals have propped up. We were recently in a record store in Casablanca called “The People’s Choice” - the first in Morocco. These are only some of the many positive signs of a shift. Loads of people from the diaspora are coming back to Morocco and exploring their possibilities. The opportunities here are massive if people are willing to work on a grassroots level and work their way up.
What are you doing differently this year and what's next?
We’re doing more talks, more live music, more platform collaborations. For example we're giving people like Kamaal Williams and Casa Voyager the opportunity to curate their own stages. We want to give people the trust they deserve and make sure they’re an important part of the festival. There is no reason in our minds to not do things together.
One of our other ideas is to start a radio station. We’re just finding a solid and local network of people who feel the need to do this alongside us. Building infrastructure beyond Atlas itself is something we believe is so important to support everyone and their development.