Many French hip hop artists come from poor urban areas outside of Paris known as banlieues, Lyon, Lille, Le Havre, Strasbourg, Toulouse, or Marseille. Hating within French society and colonial past plays a large role in the success of French hip hop. In order to fully understand French hip hop, however, it is imperative to consider and understand the political and social status of the minority groups living in France. Many French rappers are products of the HLM and use their tough upbringing as sources of inspiration in their lyrics.
The fervent protest at the heart of French hip-hop can be traced directly to the economic boom following World War II. France required manpower to sustain its newly booming industries and the governmental solution was the mass immigration of peoples from regions of past French colonial occupation to fulfill the gaps in personnel. As early as 1945, l'Office national d'immigration (ONI) was formed to supervise the immigration of new workers. Unfortunately, Africans were not given the same employment opportunities as their Caribbean counterparts because they were not citizens, and more often than not ended up working as petty civil servants and menial employees living in dilapidated housing projects. Much of the resistance to social and economic imbalances in French hip-hop relates back to these unequal conditions, as is evidenced most explicitly in the lyrics of Aktivist's song, "Ils ont," which translates to "Aktivist denounces intolerance to all immigrant fathers/Exploited in France since the 50s-60s/...their bodies are falling apart/And their children are still being judged according to their origins."
The first major star of French hip hop was MC Solaar, born Claude M'Barali in Dakar, Senegal. He moved to France in 1970 and lived in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges. His 1991 Qui sème le vent récolte le tempo, was a major hit. The European Music Office's report on Music in Europe claimed that the French language was well-suited for rapping, and that MC Solaar's popularity came about "probably because of his very open and positive attitude, his strong literary talents and humour". He set many records, including being the first French hip hop recording to go platinum. Most artists claim that the French language hip hop style was influenced by Renaud Séchan songs.
Following MC Solaar's breakthrough, two broad styles emerged within the French hip hop scene; artists such as Solaar, Dee Nasty, and Doc Gyneco championed a more mellow, sanguine style, while more hardcore performers such as Assassin and Suprême NTM assumed a more aggressive aesthetic. Many such artists found themselves at the heart of controversies over lyrics that were seen as glorifying the murder of police officers and other crimes, similar to outcries over violent thuggish lyrics in American gangsta rap. The cases include the notorious Ministère AMER's "Sacrifice de poulet", NTM's "Police" and later Lunatic's "Le crime paie".
Then in middle 90's Skyrock, a speciaised rock radio turned specialised rap radio, began leader in promotion of hiphop music. This radio gave and give opportunities to band who signed under major licence. So they get more financial support and more advertising possibilities but often they get formated to standard commercial hiphop as desired by artistic directors. The famous french lyrical ability started with IAM, MC Solaar and NTM get lost in underground as missed artist as 2 Bal 2 Neg, Scred Connexion, Expression Direkt, Svinkels, La Rumeur or the old school MC Rockin' Squat of the Assassin crew (La caution and Kabal were member). At this time the promoted artists were the Secteur Ä, KDD, Alliance Ethnik, 113 and Yannick with his hit "Ces soirées là" who were mainly on the fun side with poor lyrics. Noadays promoted hiphop artists are often, like USA rappers made it, false gangsters giving stories about how it's hard to grew up in ghetto and the necessity to hustle to make money and get flashy consumers.
Columnist David Brooks writes that "ghetto life, at least as portrayed in rap videos, now defines for the young, poor and disaffected what it means to be oppressed. Gangsta resistance is the most compelling model for how to rebel against that oppression." He argues that the gangster image of American hip hop appeals to poor Muslim youth in France, as a means to oppose the racism and oppression they experience. Jody Rosen counters Brooks' argument, criticizing Brooks use of a few, old samples of potential French gansta rap that contain violent or misogynistic lyrics. Brooks fails to accurately assess French hip hop's larger scope, and discounts it's potential for "rappers of amazing skill, style, and wit."
France is the world's second-largest hip-hop market and the fifth largest global music market, with 7 percent of the world's music sales but an unusually high proportions of local product (Negus: 159-60), although the domestic share of the French music market dropped from 48 percent to 44 percent in 1998 (Boehm 1999). Francophone rap was given a boost in the early 1990s by a decision of the French ministry of culture, which passes insisting that French-language stations play a minimum of 40 percent of French-language music.
It makes up one quarter of the radio's top 100, ten percent of the local music production, and has sold hundred of thousands of CDs. French hip hop, however, is often criticized for imitating American style hip hop. Even French Rapper MC Solaar agrees, saying, "French rap is pretty much a U.S. branch office... we copy everything, don't we? We don't even take a step back." France continues to defend its hip hop and claim that it is much different than the its counterpart in the United States. Racial situations and harsh living conditions are commonly rapped about in the United States. In France, institutionalized racism, if not already in place, is rapidly becoming a reality.
In the 2000s, similar to developments in the USA, a gap has begun to emerge in French hip hop between artists seen as having sold out, belonging to the mainstream, and more innovative independent artists. La Rumeur, and Sheryo, some hardcore rappers are known for their rejection of mainstream French rap, while Casey, Rocé, Médine and Youssoupha represent a mix of hardcore or purist rap and mainstream designs.
Music was one way that rappers were able to bring their African heritage into their country. French tracks are often enhanced by recordings of African musical instruments, such as the kora, the balafon, and the ngoni. French rappers incorporate many different drums from African cultures into their hip hop, again installing their African heritage.
Themes in French hip hop include opposition to the social order, humor and puns, as well as racial and cultural identity. Whereas early French hip hop was seen as mimicking American hip hop in terms of aesthetic appeal, later French rappers added their own cultural and racial identities to the mix. With the rise of IAM's pharaoism, or allusions to ancient Egyptian pharaoh's, we see them attempting to negotiate and create a space for themselves in a social scene rife with discrimination and racist ideologies. Whereas American hip hop is often focused on black youth culture and therefore connecting to a black diaspora community, specifically in Africa, French hip hop focuses more on anti-Islamic and Arab-European tensions. It is important to note that because most French rappers were of Arabic origin, and because their parents had fled from Algeria because of hardships, pro-black themes are rarer in French hip hop. The first openly pro-black African song was "Lucy" by B-love, in which the singer references the oldest human remains found on Earth of an African Woman who was named Lucy. The performer suggests that Lucy was "the mother of us all."
Many French hip hop artists express strong ties to Africa, though not overtly. Rappers from the 1980s and 90s needed to keep their references to Africa subtle for a few reasons. First, explicitly praising Africa would have been offensive to the many immigrants who fled Algeria and other North African countries because of the economic adversity they faced there, and many rappers probably had parents who had done so. Also, obvious Afrocentrism would have provided the French anti-Arab extreme right with an opportunity to tell Arab immigrants to return to North Africa. And finally, rising conservative Islamism in North Africa would have prevented rappers from being able to imitate their behavior in their native land.
The progress of rap in France is associated with the postcolonial relationships founded with former colonies of Africa and the Caribbean. Therefore, the definition of Africa according to French ideas, and the nature of racism in French society is crucial to understanding the reason for the hip hop and rap sensation in France. Rappers are overwhlemingly of African descent, and in tackling the issue of their invisibility in French society and declaring their origins, they redefine their identity and defy French notions of race and citizenship.
Some black French hip hop artists have used their music to address challenges and issues that cause poverty in African nations. The French hip hop group Bisso Na Bisso's song "Dans la peau d'un chef" refers to the corruption of African heads of state. Though their music and the issues they cover focus more on their home country, the Republic of the Congo, all member of Bisso Na Bisso live in France and rap in French. Although many artists that have dominated the hip hop scene in France are of African descent, themes dealing with the intimate connection between France and various African countries tend not to get much promotion on mainstream radio and even less consideration in scholarly research on the subject. While the popularity of nationally grown rap in France grew with the presence of MC Solaar, his involvement in the overall French hip hop subculture is non-existent as many consider his work to be in the traditional vein of French pop and not of the politically-minded, mostly African-influenced hip hop aesthetic of France.
Specifically, IAM incorporates many African-related themes into its music. Their 1991 song “Les tam-tam de l’Afrique” was one of the first French rap hits to deal explicitly with slavery. This particular track "focused on the plunder of Africa, the abduction of its inhabitants, the Middle Passage, and the plantation system in the Americas." It uses a sample from a Stevie Wonder song called "Past Time Paradise, which, appropriately, touches on race relations and slavery as well. Many other French hip hop artists made similar statements through their music, by collaborating to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in France in 1998. In order to mark the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Martinique (which is an overseas department of France in the Caribbean), on May 22, Paris's Olympia theater hosted a concert that opened with "drummers chained together" and featured performances from "rappers of African decent such as Doc Gyneco, Stomy Bugsy, Arsenik, and Hamed Daye."
IAM also incorporates images associated with ancient Egypt. Several group members assumed names reflective of this influence. For example, IAM member Eric Mazel goes by the name Kheops, the name of the builder of the Egyptian pyramids .
The African music influences in French hip hop also extend to the use of African instruments such as the Kora, balafon, and ngoni. Many of the drums played in Africa and the Caribbean music such as “derbuka from North Africa, djembe from Senegal, bete drms from Martinique, gwoka drums from Guadeloupe, etc…). The mixture of the diverse traditional African, Caribbean, and other instrumentals is what produced the French hip-hop and made it distinct. It does not necessarily represent the French inside France, but rather the minority within France that has its own origins and African connection. The majority of the most influential rappers are from African and Caribbean origins like MC Solaar, Passi, Lady Lasistee, Hamed Daye and many more. Also the immigrants in the French community are not separated like some of the black communities in the United States. “Blacks, Arabs and Whites living together in a social systems where they were all going to school and also to university with more equal chances — and therefore more integrated into society”.
A large number of the hip hop artists in France are children of North African Muslim immigrants. This multilayered identity presents itself in the content of their music and Islamic ideals are ever present in their music. In the current atmosphere of Islamophobia and racism in France, Islamic hip hop has become an art of protest especially in the post 9-11 world. . Muslim hip hop artist and groups such as IAM have utilized their art to address these social issues.
In France today the Arab community has an enormous participation in the hip hop scene and fuels much of its growth. Despite the fact that much of their work is discounted by the traditional French audience, Arab rappers use their work to explore issues surrounding this sense of exclusion and tensions in the community. The Arab community has made a major contribution to French hip hop by discussing the difficulties that they go through everyday in France as a minority group via their music.
The youth of the Arab community, like the children of immigrants to Britain, struggles to find their identity in these colonial countries where much of the older, French generation thinks of the music listen to by the younger generation (like reggae and hip-hop) to be "noise," not art. . As a result, most artists incorporate their roots into the present by fusing hip-hop with the music listened to by their parents (African, or Mid-eastern music). Instead of this fusion being celebrated, it is looked down upon, and is often unacknowledged. Hip-hop, known as a powerful instrument of protest and rebellion draws in French minorities that are frequently disrespected in French society. This is one of the reasons that hip-hop in France is readily dismissed as "other" and associated with immigrants.
One of the most prominent Islamic hip-hop artists is the rapper Akhenaton from the group IAM. Akhenaton was born Philippe Fragione, to Italian immigrants and converted to Islam despite his family ties to Catholicism. His stage name "Akhenaton" was chosen after the first monotheistic pharaoh in Egypt. The goal of Akhenaton's music is to represent the spiritual Islam which is tolerant and mystical in order to loosen the high tension in France due to the prejudice against Muslim immigrants. The group IAM is an anti-establishment group as they want "nothing to do with the state," thus actively rejecting the way the French government is handling the tensions in the country. The group IAM spreads positive messages about Islam and tolerance, a philosophy revealed by the group's multi-ethnic make-up including members that are "Madagascaran, Senegalese, Algerian, Spanish, and Italian plus one white French Native" . Muslim hip hop artist and groups such as IAM have utilized their art to address social issues as well as religious ones. . Many scholars and Muslim clerics have studied whether hip-hop and music in general is permissible (Halal) in Islam. There have been many different opinions and controversy regarding this subject: "But for some conservative Muslims this verges on blasphemy; they say music is "haram" - or not allowed - in their strict interpretation of Islam". Thus, there are clearly two opposing sides within Islam on the subject of hip-hop not only in France but around the world. However, regardless of whether conservative Islam permits hip-hop or not, Islamic influences on hip-hop continue to shape the future of Hip Hop globally, as it speaks to the more than 1 billion believers in the religion. .
French hip hop stands out for its "flowing, expressive tones of the language [that] give it a clear identity within the rap world." In many French rap songs Verlan is used which is a slang that twists words by reversing and recombining them. This makes it difficult for even French speaking listeners to understand what the MC is saying. Even though it is difficult at times to understand completely the lyrics that are being said rappers still get the heat for causing violence and disturbance within society because of their intense message of rebelling against the system.
It is said that one of the most interesting points about French rap is the idea that "poetry and philosophy are greatly esteemed in France, and that they're even more greatly esteemed in French." It is general knowledge that the French love lyrics, and it seems as though no other European national is as committed to the proliferation of its mother tongue. In fact, French law states that radio play must contain at least 40% French-language material.
David Brooks claims that French rap is a copy of American gangsta rap of the early 1990s. However, his position was attacked by Jody Rosen in her article which debunks Brooks's belief that the French hip hop scene is no more than a carbon copy of earlier American work.
United States rappers currently rap about “bling-bling” and, although many French rappers do follow that trend, other French hip hop artists are still focused on making a difference in France with their lyrics. The authors of the “Arab Noise and Ramadan Nights: Rai, Rap, and Franco- Maghrebi Identity” state that The French rappers rap about “the history of slavery, humanity’s origins in Africa, Europe’s destruction of African civilizations and the independence struggle led by the Front De Liberation Nationale.” The components of their music are mostly influenced by the American rappers, but they also have their own style such as having their culture's tune in the beat. And they rap in their language and their phonetic sounds differ in time to time.
As France has embraced hip hop, they put a huge emphasis on the lyrics. The love to sing about love and poetry, and they also love to rap in French dialect. No other European nation is as committed to rapping in its mother tongue. The French government has a mandate that 40 percent of the music played on the radio must be in French. This has inspired lyrical expression in the French language. Part of this is due to the strong nationalism that take place in France. Hip hop is a way for artists to express these feelings. In the nineties hip hop became the sound of Paris as well as suburban and provincial France for that matter. More precisely, a hip hop built of French language lyrics laid on top of traditional break beats and elaborate samples. France used American hip hop as a base and then made its own flavor of hip hop based on the use of French lyrics.
The image of the banlieue, comparable to what, in the states would be called one's "hood", has propagated itself into French pop culture in the form of clothing, accessories, attitude and of course the hip-hop music it yields. This fascination with the banlieue image has also found its way into the big screen with the movie B-13 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/District_B13). This action/martial arts film depicts a somewhat exaggerated view of what one of the worst suburbs(which is what banlieue means, roughly translated) would be like 6 years in the future. Ironically, one finds within this move almost every iconic paradigm inherent to the gangster image in the U.S. We have a plethora of drugs and guns. We have a Don Corleone/Scarface figure who, under the influence of enough of his own product, considers himself invincible. There is, of course, a general disdain for corrupt police and politicians, and last but not least, there is the unfair imprisonment of the protagonist. The aforementioned traits contained the sub-plots of Juice, Boyz in the Hood, Belly and New Jack City among other movies considered pivotal to gangsta rap culture. The obvious parallels seen in the glorification of the banlieue and that of one's "hood" is not one to overlook. The commonalities in the two cultures are indicative of the fact that a.) almost every hip hop movement was bred from necessity and from rebellion. The guns, drugs and money of the hood are typically not the aftermath of an easy life but the result of a struggle whether it is as a hustler or as a gangbanger. Hip-hop provides an outlet for people in the struggle to lash out at the powers that be, and to rebel in some small way against the life they're stuck in. b.) the glorification of the banlieue also reminds us that there will always be a consumerist market of people, not in the struggle, who will take advantage of the allure of the image without totally understanding it.
Such as much of the rap and hip hop in the United States talks about money, women, guns, etc., rap in France is also somewhat following this path. Yet, many artists still rap about their ties to Africa, culture, and sending out important messages. However, hip hop in France is taking on the same image as hip hop in the United States. Its changing to talking about gangbanging, raping, and other illegal activities. The scene is moving away from its origins to send a message. Not only in France, but in many African countries, French hip hop is played and heard. "The images, modes and attitudes of hip-hop and gangsta rap are so powerful they are having a hegemonic effect across the globe."
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