French Rap's Bad Rap
The music foreshadowed the country's recent riots, but it didn't cause them.

By Caspar Melville

THERE IS NOTHING quite so comforting as a bad-bad explanation of a social phenomenon. All you do is take two things you don't like — say, rap and riots — and suggest that one causes the other. Thus, in the aftermath of France's riots, it seemed that many French politicians knew exactly who to blame. One hundred and fifty-three members of the lower house of Parliament and 49 senators backed a petition by conservative lawmaker Francois Grosdidier asking the justice minister to press charges against seven acts: singers Smala, Fabe and Salif and the rap groups Lunatic, 113, Ministere Amer and Monsieur R. The petition wants them charged with inciting racism and anti-Semitism, and inflaming, if not actually causing, the rioting.

The confrontational content of this music was, according to Grosdidier, "one of the factors that led to the violence in the suburbs."

"When people hear this all day long … it is no surprise," he added, "that they then see red as soon as they walk past policemen or simply people who are different from them."

The bloggers, pundits and young newspaper reporters born in the hip-hop age have responded. Rap, they say, does not cause the outrage and frustration of its environment, it merely expresses it. Though it may be crude and aggressive, it articulates the real concerns of a forgotten community, and it has been doing so for some time. The lyrics of 1990s rappers Supreme NTM now read like a prediction: "What is it, what is it/ You're waiting for to start the fire?/ The years go by, but all is still the same/ Which makes me ask, how much longer can it last?"

The defenders of rap are, of course, correct. For the French right to try to blame a type of music for causing rioting repeats the worst kind of simple-minded causality spouted more than 15 years ago in the U.S. by Tipper Gore, the Rev. Calvin Butts and all those up in arms about NWA's lyrics or, later, Ice T's "Cop Killer." They rest on the most banal idea about how media work. This is the notion of the "hypodermic model" — the song is imagined to contain a message, much like a drug, which is injected into the listeners, causing them to do a certain thing. If the song says kill, they go and kill. But culture just doesn't work like this.

French rap has been talking about rising inequality, the frustration in the banlieues (suburbs), police corruption and the impermeability of French society for immigrants and their children for more than a decade. It's just that the French political elite didn't care to listen. What the rappers had been saying was a glimpse of the obvious.

So why did it come as such a surprise to the French establishment?

These riots had very little to do with rap or race, and plenty to do with racism. Above all, they were about being French. Gallic hip-hop first went global in the early '90s through MC Solaar. Solaar was charming, chic, intellectual, sympathetic, beautifully turned out in sweater and shades. In short, he was French. And so are all the rappers Grosdidier wants to have up on charges, and most of the rioting youths.

Organized political action in pursuit of justice, powered by righteous anger, is as French as pastis, not an alien import as the Grosdidier types would like to believe.

Under all is a delicious, and rather French, irony. Why is Franco rap so big, so influential and audible in France? Because France, long anxious about the encroachment of Anglo-American values embedded in the Trojan horse of English, operates a strict cultural protectionism across its whole media output. There are quotas that set aside considerable screen time for domestic films, and similarly strict rules to ensure sufficient French-language pop music on the radio. The main beneficiary of this has been French rap.

You could argue that the French language, whose subtle malleability makes it ideal for the precipitous, multilayered wordplay of rappers, is being refreshed, updated, internationalized and broadcast to the world through French rap. French rap is in no small part a creation of the French-for-the-French Gallic nationalists. And now they want to prosecute it for telling the truth about the divided state of their own country.

Meanwhile, back in the banlieues, car-burning has returned to its "normal," pre-riots level of about 60 a day.

Caspar Melville is editor of New Humanist magazine to Caspar Melville is editor of New Humanist magazine.This article is adapted from an article in the current issue.