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The Economist on French rap

Jul 3

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Friday, July 03, 2009  RssIcon

The media’s silly season has begun; this week’s edition of political magazine The Economist has an article on French hip-hop.

Using a government-funded urban music festival in Paris as its point of entry, the gist of the article is that the French rap scene is now maturing and being recognized by the cultural-political establishment. It’s simplistic analysis that’s stained with stereotypes, and we almost feel bad at kicking such an easy target. But we’ll kick away regardless and deal with our feelings later.

For one thing, French rap is old news. Four years ago, at a time of urban rioting in France, your correspondent wrote about how French rappers played a vital part in the media debate about the problems in suburbs. As university-educated politicians pontificated, artists like Disiz La Peste and Diam’s would rationally and articulately respond by sharing their experiences and giving a balancing point of view. Such confrontations on TV debates were important in educating mainstream France on the reality of life in their home neighbourhoods.

Furthermore, it’s simply untrue to suggest – as this article does – that state funding of a music event implies official recognition of the music being played there. In France, many large and small music festivals receive financial support from their local authority. For instance, the recent Solidays festival was in part supported by the centre-right local government of Hauts-de-Seine and featured many acts who were vocally critical of centre-right policies on immigration and minorities. The only time politics comes into play is if a controversial act raises public objections: this happened at the recent Printemps de Bourges because of the appearance of Orelsan, a rapper known for a track called ‘Sale Pute’ (‘Dirty Whore’) that featured violently misogynistic lyrics. Orelsan eventually apologized and dropped the song from his set.

As in those articles where we should be shocked at French people eating Big Macs rather than haute cuisine, this Economist piece depends on stock images of France: snobby “purists frowning into their opera glasses” are juxtaposed with the “multiethnic, semi-ghetto culture of the banlieues, where themes of exclusion, drugs and violence that inspired American rap find an echo”. Note the reinforcement of the mentality that the suburbs are synonymous with drugs and violence. For sure, social problems exist there but quite a lot of people in the banlieues are smart, conscientious community members forced to overcome prejudice towards their postcode whenever they apply for a job.

And no more so than having to live on a ranch to appreciate country music, you don’t have to come from a ghetto to make or like rap. We mentioned in our Solidays review how Manu Chao, of the third-world sounds and revolutionary politics, was born and raised in the comfortable Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. And Orelsan is from a white middle-class background too. Rap is as commercially successful here as in the USA because white middle-class kids are getting into it.

Also, the ethnic communities of France are not listening exclusively to rap and hip-hop – their musical tastes tend to reflect the variety of their origins and rap is only one (though highly visible) part of that. Rai from north Africa is so popular here that it has huge-selling stars in France like Cheb Mami – who is currently in the headlines as he is being prosecuted on accusations of forcing a girl to have an abortion. Music from the Antilles, such as zouk, is also massive here – and west African acts like Les Nubiens can easily fill large venues like the Elysée Montmartre. So it’s simply not true to blindly equate the French suburbs or French ethnic groups with rap music. And rap is being integrated with traditional ‘white’ French sounds – we featured Java recently, a hugely-popular group that combines punk, rap and musette accordion.

When The Economist tries some musical commentary by explaining the vibrancy of French hip-hop, it persists with the ghetto-culture line – which is perfectly valid – and mentions in passing two secondary reasons. First, the language quota on national radio creates a demand for French vocal music. Second, there’s a tradition of lyrical, word-heavy singing in France – not with the melodies of music-hall or pop singers like Edith Piaf or Françoise Hardy respectively, as the article states, but with the likes of Georges Brassens and their subversive ballads delivered in near-speaking tones.

But perhaps one subtle reason why rap and hip-hop have taken off in France is because they’re American. Ever since Josephine Baker became a Paris cabaret sensation in the 1920s, French music has been in thrall to the USA despite the occasional outburst of anti-Americanism. Bebop prospered in post-war Saint Germain; Johnny Hallyday and a host of imitators adapted rock n’roll by translating the lyrics of Stateside hits into French; Serge Gainsbourg’s late ‘60s masterworks are crammed with American pop-culture references (to the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Ford Mustang and Harley Davidson); grunge fuelled the rise of Noir Désir, France’s biggest rock act – and French rap is just the latest in this long transatlantic tradition where America equals glamour and coolness.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too demanding of The Economist’s views on popular music. The current edition also features an obituary for Michael Jackson: you may be surprised to read which two of his biggest hit singles they describe as having a “light, infectious lilt” and a “soft, syncopated sadness”.

Here’s some current French rap for you: from his album ‘Réel’ it’s Kery James with ‘Le Retour Du Rap Français’:

Location: Blogs Parent Separator French Letter

6 comment(s) so far...


Re: The Economist on French rap

Dear Aidan,

Thanks for your article. I like The Economist, but I sometimes wonder whether their strength over American news media (that is, my own country's) isn't so much in their accuracy, but in that they give broader coverage of world events and happenings. What you hear from them may not always be correct, but at least you'll know something exists.

Personally, I had heard of MC Solaar since the early '90s, but what really clued me to French hip-hop was the movie LA HAINE, and particularly "La 25ème Image" by Iam & Daddy Nuttea. I can't consider myself knowledgeable about the scene in France, but it removed any doubt there was first-class hip-hop there.

By Carl on   Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Re: The Economist on French rap

Damn, smacked down the Economist. Thank you for the very well written and reasoned, true insight into the French hip-hop scene.

By Andy on   Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Re: The Economist on French rap

Carl, I like The Economist too for the breadth of their coverage - but accuracy is important too!

Andy, thanks.

By aidan on   Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Re: The Economist on French rap

Mr. Curren,

You claim to be setting the record straight on what you purport to be a
fallacious Economist article. The result is of looking for a fight where none exists.

*) The Economist article does not state that Rap is brand-new news.

*) Yes, absolutely, if municipal and other public agencies sponsor rap
festivals that unequivocally represents official recognition. As professional journalists
are wont to do there is a quote from none other than 'Bruno Laforestrie, who runs a hip-hop radio
station and is director of the festival.' '“Now we’re finally getting official recognition”'
Are you the director of a bigger such festival with proof that you have no official recognition?
Governments are official. Governments giving money is official recognition.

*) Yes, before such Rap events, the majority of the festival season entertainment
was of a more aloof variety. Yes, I'd bet that the majority of the attendees
of the opera-festivals would be jarred by Dirty Whore rap artists.

*) Of course there's a similarity of experience between certain semi-ghetto areas of the banlieues
and the semi-ghetto areas in America.

*) Nowhere does the journalist imply that one should be shocked at McDo consumption in France.

*) Nowhere does the journalist imply that the ethnic communities of France are listening exclusively to rap and hip-hop.

*) If you think that themes of exclusion, drugs and violence are non-existent in certain banlieues
you are deluded. Even if you themes of exclusion, drugs and violence are equally prevalent
in the cités compared to rural areas or central Paris you are misguided.
[no insults here - there are *if* - and no-one would think these]

I tire of pointing out the fallacies of your argument, except to say
that, yes, “light, infectious lilt” and a “soft, syncopated sadness” is
a perfectly valid view of some of Michael Jackson's works.

You may have all the knowledge in the world of the world of
French rap, but the point-by-point rebuttal of the Economist
failed miserably.

Louis Pollock

By Louis Pollock on   Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Re: The Economist on French rap

Mr Pollock,

I was wondering if you were the writer of this Economist piece or even a 'professional journalist' - but I doubt it. A professional journalist wouldn't have mis-spelt my name, as you have done.


I stand by my view that government funding of a cultural event does not suggest government 'approval' for the works being performed. I worked in arts administration, seeing as you asked: the only criteria for arts funding is that the projects enrich the cultural life of their community.

The sentence in your (sorry, this writer's..) article that says "the American-inspired street arts of rap, hip-hop and graffiti have become so vibrant in France that even officialdom has taken note" implies that French urban music has only recently become prominent. The Chirac cabinet watched "La Haine" together, for instance, so officialdom was certainly taking note of French rap/urban culture at least 15 years ago if the President was making a gesture like that.

I never said that no problems exist in the banlieues: my point is that there are banlieues and residents who don't suffer these problems but are consistently being portrayed as urban nightmares populated by delinquents. Also, problems like unemployment in these areas are often hysterically used to suggest seething ethnic rage about to explode - the second section of this BBC report is a case in point:

The sentence "Over the past 25 years, French rappers have drawn on their banlieue culture to devise their own form of rap" and the later reference to "the multiethnic, semi-ghetto culture of the banlieues, where themes of exclusion, drugs and violence that inspired American rap find an echo" implies that all French rappers come from troubled banlieue backgrounds and that banlieues are synonymous with rap.

I didn't imply that the journalist was implying anything about McDo: I was comparing this lazy article to a classic of the same genre. Perhaps that was too subtle for you - or you were just looking for a fight where none exists.

This writer is entitled to his/her opinion about music: I'm entitled to point out how uninformed that opinion is when it considers Edith Piaf and Françoise Hardy to have any influence on French rap. There's a huge body of French lyric music that's polemical and delivered in near-spoken style (I mentioned Brassens above; Gainsbourg too) - very different to the melodic cabaret or folk-pop of Piaf and Hardy respectively.

If you wrote this article or work for The Economist, at least have the spine to say so. If you didn't write it or don't work for The Economist, you're just scary.

By aidan on   Thursday, August 06, 2009

Re: The Economist on French rap

Mr. Curran,

No, I've nothing to do with the Economist or journalism.
Sorry to hear being critiqued was scary.
Perhaps further such commentaries here will be tighter.

Louis Pollock

"Over and out."

By Louis Pollock on   Thursday, August 06, 2009

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Aidan Curran, based in Paris, has been writing for CLUAS since 2004. More info about Aidan...

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