posted on July 02, 2009 19:00
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’: