“You’re not welcome”: the racial divide in rap in France | The music

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rePsychodrama, ave Mercury’s first award-winning album, was the UK’s best-selling rap album in the UK in 2019, certified gold for the sale of more than 100,000 units. These figures would not even have placed him in the top 10 of France’s biggest rap albums last year, where artists from Greater Paris sell more rap albums than numbers in any other city. But, while Dave won the album of the year at this year’s Brit Awards, and gave a national television performance decrying the Prime Minister as racist, during the Victoires de la Musique last month – the French equivalent of British – none of France’s black or Arab rappers were nominated in an album, artist or song category.

A few days after the ceremony, the French organization SNEP, which is responsible for collecting the graphics, distributing the royalties and more, declared that rap music was an “overexposed phenomenon” in its report on the 2019 market. argued that “fan support for urban music should not overshadow the performance of other musical genres” – an explicit call for less promotion and celebration of the most successful French popular music movement of all time.

This popularity, said SNEP, would be “corrected” as older listeners – who are supposed to listen to other types of music – start paying for subscriptions to streaming services. Unlike the UK and the United States, SNEP does not count ad-supported streams or YouTube views in sales – an unfortunate decision for rap, given that it is the most popular genre in the world. country. Despite these constraints, last year French rappers were responsible for 16 of the 19 No. 1 singles in France and dominated the album charts for 31 weeks.

Domestic rap has become the soundtrack of a crisis of national identity, viewed by critics as a threat to the cultural landscape of a country marked by deep racial divisions. However, after three decades of attempts to delegitimize, many artists have come to accept persistent discrimination ambiguously. There was no indignation that they were overlooked at the Victories. Most of the musicians and personalities in the industry whom I approached for comment were not prepared to speak out publicly about prejudice in the industry, even recognizing them as ubiquitous. An art director said, “It’s not shocking, it’s always been there. We work on the margins, we organize, we create our own businesses and we move forward. “

The rise of French rap from the peripheral subculture to the staple began during the heyday of American hip-hop in the 90s. Inspired by the political rhymes of Public Enemy, French rap has built its reputation on loud social criticism, opposing racism and police brutality. The commercial achievements of the groups Supreme NTM and Iam have helped make France the largest hip-hop market outside the United States, which remains to this day.

As American rap evolved into consumerism, French rap continued to reflect the social abyss of life suburbs – suburban housing estates – where French migrants have gradually become ghettoized. France was largely white until the 1950s. An increase in the number of migrants from the country’s former North African colonies during the 1960s and 1970s corresponded to a period of immense economic change intensified by the crisis oil of the 1970s. While successive governments have failed to moderate unemployment, prominent far-right rhetoric has emerged, making migrants scapegoats for economic unrest.

While Jean-Marie Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front xenophobic party fueled racial tensions in the 1980s, proposing to change the law to encourage French people to work, rap became another target. In 1995, the Ministry Amer group was charged with an anti-police song, laying the foundation stone of a decades-long conflict between the Interior Ministry and rap. In the same year, Supreme NTM was arrested while playing his song Police and sentenced to six months in prison.

In the 2000s, rap found a new enemy in the Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy. The future president waged a ten-year campaign against rape, bringing defamation charges against La Rumeur and Sniper, and making him an offense punishable by imprisonment for “undermining the dignity of the republic”. Sarkozy’s rap problem was based on his alleged anti-white racism, a statement supported by more than 200 parliamentarians who, following the 2005 French riots, accused several rappers of inciting violence and racism. The same year, Sarkozy’s UMP party instituted a law obliging schools to teach students the positive aspects of colonialism.




French rapper Gradur.

“Political rhymes” … The French rapper Gradur. Photography: Joel Saget / AFP via Getty Images

When he became president in 2007, Sarkozy introduced Le Pen-style rhetoric into the mainstream, courting far-right support with racist statements to limit benefits for migrants and ban halal meat in schools. Before his campaign for re-election, his ally and Minister of the Interior Claude Guéant sadly declared that “not all civilizations have the same value”. Journalist Raphaël Da Cruz says Sarkozy’s lawsuits validated the anti-immigrant sentiment that most rappers have faced throughout their lives, “which prevented a generation of rappers from expressing their grievances with politicians and the brutality of the police, for fear of canceling concerts, losing recording contracts or political reprisals ”.

When Sarkozy resigned in 2012, rap was in the midst of a renaissance, facilitated by the rise of the Sexion d’Assaut group, which left social comment behind to adopt a pop-friendly style opposed to confrontation. The group’s success rekindled interest in labels and coincided with the streaming revolution. With democratized access and distribution, a new generation of young Francophones in a minority situation could now break through the charts – and earn money.

The SNEP integrated the flows into sales in 2016, and the resulting domestic tidal wave entered the charts was characterized by the Franco-Algerian brothers PNL, who independently sold a million copies of their album , In the Legend. Like the French football players who won the World Cup – who, in 2016, encountered an attempt by the French Football Federation to introduce a quota system to restrict players of African origin – black rappers and French Arabs have come out of ostracized communities to provide the country with the best notable cultural achievements of the 21st century. While Le Pen’s daughter Marine made historic gains in anti-Islam mood following the Paris terrorist attack in 2015, Muslim rappers such as PNL and MHD emerged to lead a revolution in domestic rap plagued by racial intolerance.




NLP at the top of the Eiffel Tower.

“Domestic rap revolution”… NLP at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Photography: QLF Records

“MHD’s Afro trap style has played a central role in the growth of rap,” said Binetou Sylla, producer and owner of Syllart Records. MHD, who is currently awaiting trial for an alleged murder in 2018, has blended a contemporary trap with pop music from his Senegalese and Guinean heritage and, according to Sylla, “has created space for a new generation of Afro-French artists such as Ninho and Aya Nakamura, and even encouraged established rappers such as Booba to embrace their roots. ” While the popularity of Le Pen led to a second round with Emmanuel Macron during the 2017 presidential election, the growing schism of France was highlighted by a record year for rap: 11 albums n ° 1, SNEP distributing more than 200 singles in gold, platinum and diamonds. sales plaques to French rappers.

But four months after the start of 2018, SNEP hastily reformed its ranking criteria, disqualifying all streams played without a paid subscription. The organization – made up of members of all the major brands in France – insisted that the change (aligned with Germany and Italy, but not with the United States or the United Kingdom) had been made to ensure a more representative sales system. However, an A&R director of a major French record company, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, maintains that the sudden change was “clearly a response to the unexpected success of rap.”

The changes did not prevent the growth of rap, which in 2018 led to nine # 1 albums and 14 # 1 singles (nearly double the number of rap hits to reach the American Billboard 100 in one year) . SNEP responded in January 2019, this time with another revision of album classifications that halved the number of streams for the most played song on an album. However, the success of rap continued. In 2019, PNL’s Deux Frères was one of 10 French rap albums No. 1 and one of five to be certified multi-platinum; the former leader of Sexion d’Assaut Gims filled the national stadium with 81,000 seats and Soprano gave two sold out concerts to 100,000 fans in Marseille.




Soprano performs at the Victoires de la Musique in 2018.

Soprano performs at the Victoires de la Musique in 2018. Photography: Thomas Samson / AFP via Getty Images

And yet, during this year’s Victoires de la Musique, the remarkable achievements of rap were laundered for the benefit of French outfitters song style. Besides the rapid nomination of PNL for an audiovisual prize, decided by a public vote, only two rappers, both white, were nominated. The two lost. For the first time in 20 years, there was no urban album category previously known by the bizarre racist, rap, reggae, or groove award. The president of Victoires, Romain Vivien, refuted the allegations of lack of minority representation, saying that the candidacies only reflected the sympathy of its members, although that in itself was a sign of institutional racism.

Les Victoires, created by the Ministry of Culture as part of its promotion and protection of French cultural heritage, was not designed for hip-hop, according to Jonathyne Briggs, author of Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities and Pop Music. “Rap has always been seen as something outside, imported to France, only exacerbated by its connection to the culture of emigrants,” he said. Briggs believes, however, that the continued focus on traditional pop forms will do little to hinder the popularity of rap: “Pop music is about compliance. Rap non-compliance is still able to amplify the discourse outside of existing structures. “

The late funk musician Manu Dibango lamented the homogeneity of this year’s Victories, saying the list of nominees read like “vain research for diversity”. According to Olivier Cachin, journalist and presenter of TV rap programs for 30 years, what started as indignation 20 years ago is now an irreconcilable “divorce”. From the humiliation of the infamous Celtic trio Manau, beating French rap royalty Supreme NTM, Arsenik and MC Solaar at the first price of rap in 1999 to inexplicable exclusions in 2020, Cachin said that the message to rap was always clear: “You are not welcome. “Many believe it is time for rap to have its own awards show, like Mobo or BET awards; a declaration ceremony which, in France, would only highlight the strong racial divide within the industry.

A SNEP spokesperson suggested to me that the presence of rap in France was only cyclical, pointing to the success of pop in 2019. “It is important to remember that the best-selling album of the year was that of Angela, ”they said, referring to the 24-year-old. Belgian singer. “While urban music includes a large part of the best albums and singles, it does not reflect the interests of France as a whole, which are still largely pop, rock and French song“.




Aya Nakamura.

“Demarcation of ethnic lines”… Aya Nakamura.

This is an eloquent statement, which aims to minimize the French character of those who listen to rap, in accordance with the way in which the terms “song” and “rap” are defined according to ethnic lines. Malian-French pop star Aya Nakamura has been falsely labeled “the voice of French rap” by SNEP. When PNL presented their album In Legend for Victories in 2017, they declared that the project was not urban, but song. Although they were not selected for the ceremony, their reasoning was then given as reason to get rid of the rap category.

Lansky, journalist for the French rap site Yard, does not see these machinations of the industry as long-term obstacles for French rap: “The reality is that rap is the new pop, and many current artists labeled as the pop, like Angèle, Louane and Kendji Girac, are looking for inspiration for rap and related genres. “

In the French charts to date in 2020, Weeknd’s Blind Lights have provided a week-long break for almost four if not continuous months of No. 1 singles by black or Arab French rappers: Gradur, Gambi, Naps and Ninho . This is in the context of Le Pen, whose newly appointed National Rally defeated Macron’s La République En Marche to win France’s European elections in 2019, preparing to challenge the outgoing president in 2022.

French rap was once on the outskirts of acceptable taste, loudly reporting the cracks in France’s supposed universalism. Attempts to stifle him show how powerful he has become, his successful black and Arab rappers challenging the very idea of ​​what it is to be French. As the anonymous director of A&R states: “A gender established in a country for more than 30 years cannot be called a phenomenon. Today, rap is as much a part of French culture as its cuisine, its wine or its bad faith. “



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