Telegraph (London), Dec. 8, 2005
French politicians have called for legal action to be taken against hip hop musicians in the wake of the French riots. Joe Muggs reports
The waves of riots that swept across France this year have had an unexpected consequence for the French music industry.
Last week, 200 politicians backed a petition by MP François Grosdidier calling for legal action against several hip hop musicians for their aggressive lyrics.
Although prime minister Dominique de Villepin immediately dismissed the idea, it could not have come as a complete surprise to the rappers to find themselves in the eye of the storm.
For more than a decade, French rap has been the voice of the banlieues, the poor suburbs, and it has long been full of warnings of violence to come in those areas. The tensions — and the musical culture — of these estates were briefly brought to international attention by the 1996 film La Haine (“Hate”), but it is the hip hop world that has kept the issues uppermost in the minds of French youth.
French hip hop is very different from its UK counterpart. The flowing, expressive tones of the language give it a clear identity within the world of rap, whereas British rappers struggle to differentiate themselves from Americans.
Also, with an irony that must make the French government wince, the music gained an incalculable boost from legislation introduced in 1994 to “protect the French language”. This enforced quotas on all radio stations, obliging them to play at least 40 per cent Francophone music.
As a result, home-grown rappers found that they received as much of a platform as megastar American acts. Their music is now massive, with an act that sells fewer than 100,000 records considered “underground” — even high-profile British rappers would be thrilled to shift 20,000 units.
Laws designed to protect the “French identity” thus helped create a movement which is now seen as a threat to that identity. Artists have been prosecuted for “dangerous” or obscene lyrics, especially in the south, where Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National is strongest.
There has been anger in the French rap world that the equally contentious novels of Michel Houellebecq, which depict banlieue residents as rapacious animals, not only go uncensored but are considered a great French cultural export. The 200 MPs, by contrast, have accused the rap world of causing the recent riots, forcing Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to state that the government is not anti-hip hop.
The French rap scene is varied, but universally politicised. From the melodic, philosophical approach of internationally known stars such as MC Solaar and Saian Super Crew, through the avowedly leftist Assassin, the fierce Islamic discipline of Rohff and the cold gangsta style of Booba (“the French 50 Cent”), every act has its own take on the poverty and segregation of the banlieues.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a crew worth its salt which hasn’t been warning of the volatility and violence of the suburbs,” says Rupert Davies of Virgin Records, who has lived in Paris and written academic studies on the roots of French hip hop.
“But it’s not a racial or religious thing, however much it might be presented as such in the media outside France. It’s entirely about poverty.
“The scene is as much white French and Jewish kids as it is North Africans and Arabs. All of them feel as if they’re not truly French, as if they’re excluded from the cities — and in many ways they are. The way the suburbs are separated from the ‘nice’ areas is like nothing you can imagine in a British city.”
It is hip hop that gives those disenfranchised places a platform: now, the French state is having to deal with the voices that it has itself promoted.