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At 17, Morocco-born Manitoban makes it big in the Music City

Music

Manitoba's Faouzia becomes first teenager to win Nashville music competition

Young artist signs up with Paradigm Talent Agency, which helped nurture the careers of Coldplay, Feist, Ed Sheeran and Sia

Last week, the 17-year-old from southern Manitoba beat out 6,000 contestants from 100 countries to win the Grand Prize at the Nashville-based Unsigned Only music competition.

Known by some for its traditional fiddle music and its annual country fair, Carman may soon be famous as the hometown of a Casablanca-born singer named Faouzia Ouihya.

Last week, the 17-year-old from southern Manitoba beat out 6,000 contestants from 100 countries to win the Grand Prize at the Nashville-based Unsigned Only music competition, convincing judges such as The Killers, Aimee Mann and Phantogram that she was the Next Big Thing.

The event's first-ever teenager to land the award, she won $20,000 (U.S.) in cash, a scholarship to Berklee College of Music's five-week summer performance program and one-on-one mentoring sessions with executives from big record companies such as Island Records (Universal) and Sony Music Nashville.

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Morocco-born Faouzia Ouihya, who goes by just Faouzia, has signed up with Paradigm Talent Agency.

On Friday, it was announced she signed up with Paradigm Talent Agency, which helped nurture the careers of Coldplay, Feist, Ed Sheeran and her favourite singer, Sia. On the same day, her single, My Heart's Grave, was released.

A pulsating song about betrayal and loss which starts with a playful piano line, it soon breaks out into pumping beats that carry Faouzia's mature voice. "Only time can heal but it's running out!" Faouzia moans with a great amount of maturity, an attitude that resembles that of New Zealand singer Lorde, who became famous overnight at the age of 16 with her debut single, Royals.

"This is such an amazing opportunity," Faouzia said in an interview on the phone with The Globe and Mail from Carman, a small-town community surrounded by fields of corn and vegetables. Life is going on as usual for the teenager who just got home from school.

When Faouzia was just a one-year-old, her family moved from Morocco's biggest city to Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, Man., before settling in Carman. At an age where girls are obsessing over Lego or Barbie, five-year-old Faouzia – fluent in English, French and Arabic – was eagerly practising on her family's piano and writing poetry. She grew up listening to the Arabic music which her parents were playing all day long, an early influence that still plays a role in her composing today.

One year later, Faouzia wrote her first song.

Her mother still keeps the little sheet of paper, the one on which the writer noted her ideas. "It was about how being different is okay," said Faouzia, who felt excluded as a young girl. "As a kid, maybe not just fitting in is the biggest thing I've had to overcome."

Faouzia’s prize includes $20,000 (U.S.) in cash, a scholarship to Berklee College of Music’s five-week summer performance program and one-on-one mentoring sessions with big record company executives.

By the time she was 13, she started producing melancholic piano-pop-covers of her favourite songs such as A Great Big World's Say Something and Adele's Hello and aired them on YouTube.

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It didn't take long until the girl with the intense voice from an obscure town won over the hearts of 100,000 listeners, soon followed by her own catchy first single, Knock On My Door, in 2015, which went on radio-rotation and revealed a pop potential that goes far beyond covering songs other musicians are famous for.

Faouzia says her inspiration mostly comes from her parents for their courage to move to Canada and also from her two sisters. "If I can just take a part of how strong they are and put it inside me and follow their example, than I feel like I'll be set."

Editor’s Note A previous version of this article stated that the singer Faouzia Ouihya and her family moved from Morocco to Carman, Man. The family first lived in Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, Man.
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