In December 2016, in a televised interview on the state-run French TV channel France 2, Maître Gims, one of France’s best-selling rappers, revealed that he was still in the process of becoming a French citizen. For Maître Gims, this was merely a procedural issue and deserved no more discussion than that. However, Yann Moix, one of the talk show hosts, was so surprised by the revelation that he quoted Maître Gims back to him and queried as to why he did not feel the need to become a citizen of the country which had housed and loved him, and helped to establish his successful career. The debate then ensued in what became a very tense atmosphere. Maître Gims insisted that it was not contradictory to both represent France in a positive light, as he did whenever he performed, particularly outside the country, and simultaneously continue to feel that he was an ‘African’. Yann Moix, meanwhile, failed to understand how the two could co-exist.

This uncomfortable debate in the public sphere was reflected in another related incident from May of the same year and implicated another hugely successful (and ‘fully French’ by passport) rapper from the same rap collective, Black M. The 29th of May 2016 was the centenary of the Battle of Verdun, and Black M, whose father of Guinean origin had served in the 14th Regiment of Senegalese Tirailleurs in the Second World War, had been invited to perform as the headlining act of the ceremony. However, after relentless campaigning from the extreme political right, spearheaded by then Front National representative Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, his concert was annulled. The incident made headlines and brought into question not just how France saw itself and its citizens, but where exactly the line was drawn between politics and art.

Maître Gims and Black M are examples of how the idea or issue of ‘belonging’ to the French nation-state is still in question. The discourse at both a bureaucratic and political level of the French state is replete with a litany of diction related to the ambit of the nation and the composition of its progeny. And yet, it is neither unfamiliar nor new.

Maître Gims and Black M are but the question marks at the end of a very long query put to the French Republic by those desirous of being a part of it, but to whom the Republic does not reciprocate this loyalty. In the words of rapper Youssoupha, “On me conseil de faire le point, je fais des points d’interrogation” [They tell me to put a full-stop / I draw a question mark]. Of this long inquiry, rap and rappers can only really claim the last exclamation. Yet, what makes this last section so interesting is that French rap provides a poetic and often politicised discourse on the state of contemporary France, which it attempts to engage in debate, rather than unabashedly lambasting the French authorities without expectation of returns.

In other words, rap can be the cultural lens through which to write a socio-political history of social conflict and change. Moreover, wrought within the lyrical intricacies of Rap are rich historic references to the ambitious and universal ideals of the French Revolution. With ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ engraved on the walls of governmental buildings, enshrined in public spaces, and inscribed in the syllabi of national educational institutions, these still form the national trope of the French nation-state as far as it is realised and imbibed by those who reside within it.

In this way, the history of rap becomes a foray into the subaltern; it is a history of the experience of change in societies through the perspectives of the marginalized, the political consequences of this periphery, and the confrontations, both symbolic and actual, that may have resulted from the catalytic rise of this ostracized group into the public eye.

Behind the various musical personas and façades is a political polemic, one which some rappers have elucidated explicitly, while others have only voiced (sometimes absent-mindedly) as part of a personal discourse. Thus, a contemporary history of France through the words of rappers details an eerie alienation, and unveils the fiction of the multiculturalism that was championed during the 1998 football World Cup as the success of a country that saw itself as open and liberal from its very foundation in the modern world.

Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Doc Gynéco’s homage to the Death of Marat. Image courtesy Studio Harcourt, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

This homage by rapper Doc Gynéco to one of the most famous French paintings of the eighteenth-century asks all the relevant questions through a singular image: Is Doc Gynéco claiming to have been subject to societal slander and a metaphorical political assassination for his incendiary language and ideas, much like the revolutionary Marat? Does he intend to depict himself as an outsider in the same society, beholden to the same ideals, but for a different set of reasons? Whatever the stimulus may be behind this particular photograph, its resonance is powerful to an already savvy audience that can recognise the references, all of which are particularly French. Though this may seem like a somewhat intellectual ‘clin d’oeil’ [wink] to the haute-culture of art-lovers in France, this particular painting of Marat is so widely-known, and so intimately tied to the ideals of the French Revolution everywhere present, that every ordinary resident in and citizen of France would find within Doc Gynéco’s portrait something to recognise.

France (and Europe more widely) has been embroiled in an increasingly overwhelming identity crisis. The onset of immigration in the post-World War, post-Cold War, post-colonial era heralded a new kind of society which, for as long as it could, held onto its original roots and what it considered to be its inherent characteristics. It has tried to ensure that those who entered the hexagon would disappear and become part of the population without disrupting the pattern, or bringing their own cultures, ideas, notions, and norms into the fold. There has been a retrospective solidification of an ‘identity’ (‘being French’) as against an ‘Other’. Despite overtures of multiculturalism, the reality remains, as Pit Baccardi succinctly states, “Français quand on gagne, immigré quand on perd” [French when we win / Immigrants when we lose].

Yet, despite its accusatory and sometimes inflammatory lyrical content, the consequences of the words of French rappers have not yielded substantial political change. This message is clear in the lyrics of rapper Demi Portion’s recent song ‘1990’: “Rien n’a changé tu sais, partout c’est la même / La majorité d’entre nous ont tous connu un problème /  (…) Ça sonne 90′ en même temps c’est 2020 / (…)  Mais entre l’époque et maintenant / Rien n’a changé / (…) La même mélodie / Les mêmes thèmes / Les mêm [Nothing has changed you know, it’s the same everywhere / Most of us have experienced problems / (…) it seems like (19)90’, but it’s 2020 / (…) Between the past and now / nothing has changed / (…) the same melody / the same themes / the same problems]. Rap has been decried as inciting violence and overstepping legal boundaries by politicians and representatives of different French governments, and the repercussions are always felt on an individual level by the rappers themselves. Their music becomes an example of a defamatory art, rather than a polemic attempting to engage the State in a conversation about what it means to belong to the Republic.

History, however, demonstrates repeatedly that this stagnation of self and idea is unnatural, that ideas do evolve and identities with them. The French Revolution(s) and the decades of unrest and change that ensued are in themselves markers of how fragmented ideas and societies can be, and how they constantly reshape and reform in varying contexts. Creating a national epithet (the quipped and ever-ready phrase of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ being one such feature) may have been instructive and important as part of the process of nation-building, but what each of those words implied, and to whom they applied, diverged hugely and continue to be liberally (mis)applied. This is the changing nature of definition. Liberty in 2020 is a very different thing to liberty in 1789 or 1848. Essential elements may be retained, but the key is in the nuance, much like in the rap songs themselves.

Rap in France has been perceived variously as art, reality, politics, and everything in between. It is this blurring of its purpose, and the huge range of expectations which it generates in its audience, that has made its place in French society difficult to establish. Yet its ever-increasing volume, with no small support from the youth, has made of it such an omnipresent influence that the French State has been forced to bring it into its cultural sphere of acknowledgement, if not yet acceptance.

Despite the missive being both loud and creative, and the platform of rap music increasing every day in its size and reach, this does not translate into political action on the part of rap’s audience. Though the listener may connect emotionally to the themes and tone of the songs, he or she does not push that connection forward into activism or dissent. The words remain words, rather than becoming actions (in the vast majority), to paraphrase a song of British rapper Plan B. To the question “Can the subaltern speak?” French rappers have the following answer: yes they can; but are they heard?

 

  Paroma Ghose is a historian of music, culture, and national identity. She earned her PhD from the Graduate Institute in Geneva in 2020. She is also the author of a bilingual blog in French and English in collaboration with the Swiss newspaper Le Temps. She is a fellow of the Pierre du Bois Foundation for Current History. She tweets as @paromaghose

 

 

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