French Hip Hop narrates a generation

As US hip hop has been subject to proclamations of death by those who long for the “Golden Era”, French critics have made similar diagnoses at home. However, the purported transatlantic demise encompasses the once proud traditions of French culture as a whole. The French conservative government and commentators alike have vocally lamented the nations diminished presence as a cultural and linguistic power.

But what this deathbed declaration neglects, and some would argue intentionally, is the powerful contribution of hip hop to the contemporary cultural landscape of France. As the French youth has become characterized by the second and third generation sons and daughters of colonial immigrants, these young people have become more and more disillusioned with the aristocratic conventions of French culture. Hip hop has offered a lurid expressive mouthpiece for the frustrations and experiences of minorities, lower socioeconomic groups and those who feel isolated–physically and ideologically–by traditional French culture.

La Culture Française

Culture in France is a serious business. State subsidies, quotas and tax benefits do their best to celebrate everything French and glorify the country’s image as the birthplace of modern art, the continental home of romantic literature and the creative refuge for modern literature and philosophy. President Nicholas Sarkozy recently went as far to make the oxymoronic proposal for the democratization of “culture,” and this year commissioned an extensive committee analysis of what it means to be “French.”

French cultural production has suffered in the age of globalization, however, to a phenomenon French critics prefer to call “Americanization.” As of 2006, according to Time Magazine, US films account for half of cinema tickets in France, French authors are struggling to make an impact at home and overseas, while American authors like Paul Auster and Philip Roth have found growing audiences in France, and Paris is now a distant third, behind New York and London, in art auction sale numbers.

Conversely, this period of cultural decline has seen hip hop flourish in France. The shared propensity towards revolution of both hip hop and the French and the shared experience of an African diaspora has seen France become the world’s second largest hip hop market and producer.

L’Histoire du Hip Hop Française

Large economic development during the 1960s requiring a labor force resulted in mass immigration to France from North Africa. This left the immigrant and poorer labor groups concentrated in the outer suburbs of the major French towns, isolated and excluded.

Hip hop was the natural expressive choice for young citizens with social demographics and perceptions that would drastically diverge from any French generation before it.

DJ Cut Killer, a Moroccan born, Parisian raised French hip hop representative for more than 20 years, understood the power hip hop offered to those trapped in the societal fringes.

“It was really hard to live there. That’s why the young generation was really angry and when hip hop came we saw in this movement and this music how the United States, the urban people, the people of the streets, could manage this situation. This form of expression, the MCs the graffiti, all of this movement, and especially the dance, it was really huge for the urban people of France.

They were dancing in the streets, the graffiti was there to, how do you say “deranger” (to disturb), and to tell the people that they are angry. That’s why the young generation liked this movement, especially the MCs.”

French producer De La, who has worked with US artists like Blu, Talib Kweli and Elzhi as well as compatriots Les Nubians, described his eventual involvement in hip hop as inevitable. “It was everywhere in Paris and its suburbs in the 90s, so I guess it was only a matter of time before I got into it. It was the perfect music for our environment back then.”

L’Intersection du Hip Hop et La Culture Française

The brilliance of traditional French culture was always in protest to the academic and societal norms of the time. Impressionism and Cubism were distinct challenges to traditional schools of painting. Existentialism and absurdist literature challenged the most basic societal conceptions of human existence. And French literature has an especially close affinity with the suffering of those marginalized by the class distinctions of French society. However, the dissident power of these movements has been marginalized through its appropriation by the affluent and academics.

Now hip hop is the chosen expressive form for those disappointed and disillusioned by their French cultural and social experiences. Hip hop is the migration narrative of the African immigrants. Hip hop is the voice of second and third generation Franco-Africans who still experience the pains of displacement. Hip hop is the mode in which the immigrant populations of France have written their neglected stories into the pages of the rich French cultural canon. Ultimately hip hop has become the mouth piece of those who are excluded by the strict and conservative traditions of France.

Groups like IAM, the hip hop flag bearers for the southern city of Marseille, and La Rumeur, an act that combined music with multi-media activism, found an identity through hip hop while expressing their feelings of segregation in France. La Reumer, in offering politically educated street heat, specifically denies any ties to a genre labeled “French hip hop,” preferring to refer to their music as “rap by the sons of immigrants.” The acronym IAM takes a number of meanings, the most prominent being ‘Invasion Arrivée de Mars,’ (Invasion from Mars), Mars meaning Marseille. Situated on the Mediterranean, Marseille has a large African immigrant population and the persistent metaphor stressed is the multi-cultural group’s feeling of alienation in France. And becuase of this, the group finds identity in allusions to Africa, especially the ancient mythology of Egypt as they carve a fresh chapter into the French cultural canon.

La Langue Française

Intrinsically tied to the French perception of cultural supremacy was a concurrent belief in linguistic supremacy. But as the rhetoric of French cultural decline has grown it has been mirrored by the purported decline in the French language, yet another apparent consequence of globalization. Such an analysis is an anachronistic misinterpretation of global linguistic demographics.

The French language was once a powerful tool of colonial dominance and academic influence. Now, French is only the twelfth most spoken language in the world and more than 50% of French speakers are of African origin. And while French conservatives have again argued that such phenomena have caused a loss of French identity, Abdou Diouf, former president of Senegal, who is now the secretary general of the francophone organization asserts the opposite. “Diversity, not uniformity, is the real result of globalization,” he told the New York Times. A shared language no longer implies shared political and social views.

And while the cultural roots of hip hop were shared, French was a unique linguistic instrument that immediately gave artists across the Atlantic a distinct voice to their American counterparts and access to a rich literary tradition. For immigrants and their families it was also a language common to their origins that had been cleansed of any feeling of colonial suppression.

“Back in the day it was really hard because a lot of people didn’t understand the English really well, I mean its France. So they liked the music, they liked the artists like Public Enemy, the artists with social lyrics. But most of the people saw the videos and understood the beats but not the lyrics, they understood the titles but not all the content,” says Cut Killer.

“So this is why French artists came in the late 80s and early 90s, and became the first huge artists from the ghetto. It was the first portal for the people from the suburbs to express themselves via the music. They release all their anger, they can express it themselves.”

Laurent Fintoni, a French/Italian national, a music journalist, radio DJ and co-curator of nonprofit art and culture program “Original Cultures,” described the immediate personality and accessibility of a culture that relied on the French language. “French hip hop was the first to really establish its own voice after being exported from America, and to do so faster and to a degree and to a higher level than other countries. I think there’s a host of reasons for this, most documented, included socio-economic ones but really you could say it does boil down to the fact that French is a very poetic language and it lent itself incredibly well to hip hop as a vocal art form.”

Inherently associated with the French language is the long and illustrious literary culture of France, a culture that has always represented those marginalized in France and promoted civil liberties. Now hip hop has established such an important presence in France as to become a part of this powerful literary cultural canon as well as a contemporary influence on the French language itself, as the sounds of the street become a increasingly regular presence in everyday language.

“If anything Hip Hop is as much a part of its history as French poetry. French lends itself incredibly well to rhythmic patterns I think, the language is poetic, if we talk about more modern elements, the use of things like verlan (backwards speaking where syllables’ order is swapped), it’s definitely contributed to the expansion of the French language, both in an artistic and social context. Hip hop’s use and misuse of French enhances the tradition, feeds its growth,” Fintoni added.

De La emphasized the power of the French language to carve out a unique personality for the appropriated culture. “Lyrically, I think French rap naturally developed its own identity and kept it. Rappers couldn’t really emulate the US lyrically, because the language was different, we have our own slang and our topics are different… Of course we still learned a lot from the US in terms of lyrics & flow, but rappers couldn’t just copy/paste like some producers did.”

La Révolution

While the cultural contribution of hip hop is defining the history and cultural presence of the neglected blocs of France, it is the social awareness and activism that has seen French hip hop make a broader impact on French society. The French government has been forced to take notice of the permanent presence of the culture, and at times has been embarrassed by their attempts to suppress the movement.

Since hip hop made a loud arrival on the French political scene the government has blamed the artists for starting riots and sued a number of rappers for defamation. This saw hip hop begin to extended its social critique to French freedom of speech laws. However while most of the cases have ended in an acquittal the lengthy and expensive process has been used as a deterrent by the government.

“For an MC to be attacked by the politicians just because they said fuck the system shows the power,” said Cut Killer, “But it is a really delicate situation. Some artists understand the situation and continue the battle in court. But some artists are really disappointed because they don’t have the money to hire a lawyer.”

But in 2008, after 5 years and two appeals, in a case originally brought by Nicholas Sarkozy the then interior minister, rapper Hamé of La Rumeur was acquitted of libel against the police. As part of La Rumer’s often multi-media releases their album included a magazine in which Hamé criticized the police for their treatment of minority groups. Hamé’s high profile acquittal in the highest appeal court has been celebrated as a victory over the archaic and draconian libel laws born from the feudal based legal system aimed at protection of the monarch.

“If they wanted us to shut up, it didn’t work,” Hamé, said in an interview with the New York Times. “All these legal issues, all this censorship is making me want to do three times more.”

This is where French hip hop is at its best, challenging artistic, social and cultural complacency and perceptions. And this is what has always attracted artists to the culture.

“I see it as a voice for minority and forgotten peoples,” said 20syl, the MC/Producer for progressive live hip hop band Hocus Pocus and DJ in the legendary C2C crew. “It’s also a good way to question myself and the world I’m living in. Musically and graphically, it’s freedom, you have no rules, no boundaries.”


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