The Arab World Institute in the 5th arrondissement of the city has recently been hosting HIP-HOP du Bronx aux rues Arabes, an exhibition curated by celebrated veteran rapper Akhenaton. The show walks us through the history of hip-hop from the perspective of the French, from the Bronx big bang of Afrika Bambaataa to ebullient North African and Middle Eastern MCs rising above the poverty of their surroundings, taking in everything from the mid-80s block parties of Stalingrad in the 10th arrondissement (hosted by artists like Jay-One and the Bad Boys Crew) through to contemporary Egyptian players like Deeb and the Palestinian-British ‘first lady of Arabic hip-hop’, Shadia Mansour.
Then there are the movies and soundtracks. In one area you can watch the whole of the 1979 Bronx tale of warring gangs 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s if you want to. On another wall you’ll see the soundtrack to La Haine, the cult classic set in the banlieues, or suburbs, of mid-90s Paris. It was praised for its realism on its release in 1995 – though with a Jew, an Arab and an African as the three central protagonists, it seems a world away from the ghettoised reality of the quartiers populaires of 2015. These films remind us how quickly a place can change as a result of the political climate, and also remind us that hip-hop is a living thing - it keeps changing and growing and evolving, making museumification of a genre with few boundaries all the more difficult.
“Always!” agrees Akhenaton, whose real name is Philippe Fragione (his grandparents were Italian). “I always said it was a crazy horse. I said we could hold it here for a few months but this horse will run. You can’t put anything on its back. I’m just trying to show in a short amount of time the beauty of hip-hop. That it’s colourful. Hip-hop is about entertainment and engagement.”
It’s surely no coincidence that the exhibition has appeared now, when socio-political divisions are in the spotlight again in France. “Malicious generalisations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West,” opined Edward Said in 1997, four years before the Twin Towers had even fallen. The Charlie Hebdo shootings in January have solidified perceptions of what “Islam” is supposed to be with certain sections of the media. If people are being demonised for their beliefs or ethnicity already, then an ancillary love of hip-hop is enough to get some commentators in a proper lather. Predictably enough, the Mail Online ran a feature in January this year dubbing the Kouachi brothers “dope-smoking, rapping, loser ‘brothers’ turned mass killing commandos”, and a plethora of media outlets across France (and across the world) published reports of a similar nature.
“Every time we see a terrorist now we see pictures of him before, and of course he’s rapping,” says Akhenaton. “So people are like, ‘He used to rap, curses! First you rap and then you blow yourself up!’ I think we’re in a certain period now where we need to say it again – that hip-hop is a culture, hip-hop brought so much to the entire world and to society. When we talk about rap music in France people think it’s all about delinquents, you know? We are creating things. There are these amazing performers, graffiti artists, rappers.”
While the exhibition was a noble and enthusiastic stab at representing what hip-hop culture is (and a fun one at that), it was always going to be a facsimile. On May 19, across town in the 11th arrondissement, comes the real thing. To celebrate Malcolm X’s birthday, and to raise funds for a forthcoming publication about him, 11 Arab Muslim MCs gather together for a night titled Who Is Malcolm X? at Le Bataclan. Organised by the much-loved French rapper Disiz, the bill includes Kery James, Youssoupha, Faada Freddy and Médine. It transpires that trying to pin down French rappers is like trying to hold water in a colander. James’ people say he’s too busy shooting a movie; Youssoupha doesn’t answer. Disiz agrees to meet me ahead of an appearance on Radio France, but the day before he suddenly cancels with no reason given. A future rendezvous is promised, but his manager then stops answering my emails.
I wonder if it had anything to do with an article I wrote for The Guardian in January which was partly about Disiz’s former rap crew 1995, a kind of French hip-hop supergroup that also featured Akhenaton and a young gun called Nekfeu. In the article I discussed how Nekfeu kicked up controversy in 2013 when he spat an incendiary line on a track used on the soundtrack of the film La Marche, calling for an “autodafé contre ces chiens de Charlie Hebdo” – “a bonfire for those dogs Charlie Hebdo”. The fact the satirical publication's offices had already been firebombed made a lot of people uncomfortable, not least the members of his own band.
“I told Nekfeu - and he’s an amazing rapper - but I told him, ‘I don’t agree with what you wrote’. But these people don’t give us a chance - they tie us with chains and we all look the same, and that’s terrible. Nekfeu wrote an apology letter right after that, and even then when people had been killed in January, they forgot about his apology letter from two years ago and they only spoke about his verse. That’s not fair to him, that’s not fair to rap music.”
Disiz also wrote an impassioned letter on his Facebook page the day after 11 journalists and cartoonists and one policeman were executed by the Kouachi brothers at Charlie Hebdo’s offices, incidentally just a stone’s throw from Le Bataclan venue in east Paris. He said at the time that he was “devastated” by the attacks, consumed with a “cocktail of fear, sadness and anger”, and that he worried for his mother “when she goes to work tomorrow”. He signed off dramatically, saying: “France is not grieving for Charlie Hebdo or the freedom of expression, France is in mourning for itself, because after yesterday it is dead and will never be the same.” As a last ditch attempt to make contact, I send him some questions asking him if he still feels the same way nearly six months on, but again no reply.
Thankfully, one rapper from the Malcolm X night does agree to meet me. His name is Médine, and he drives from his home in Le Havre to Paris for the afternoon to chat. Médine grew up on the Quartier Mont-Gaillard, a 1970s housing project classified by the French government as a ZUS, or “sensitive urban zone” – areas characterised by their high percentage of social housing and high levels of unemployment. He started his creative life with the group La Boussole, and many members of that collectif now put out records on their own lauded imprint, Din Records, including Tiers Monde, who also performed at Le Bataclan in May.
Politically minded from the beginning, Médine’s first solo album in 2004 was called 11 Septembre, while the following year, after suburban riots swept the country, he wrote a piece for Time titled ‘How Much More French Can I Be?’ Recently he provoked the ire of public intellectual and chat show zionist Alain Finkielkraut, who objected to his track ‘Don't Laïk’, a provocative morceau that criticises French secularism, or ‘laïcité’, and challenges what he sees as the one-sidedness of freedom of expression. Lines, roughly translated, include “Marianne is a tattooed FEMEN / ‘Fuck God’ on the teats”, and “God is dead, said Nietzsche / “Nietzsche is dead, signed God”. It’s bracing stuff.
After the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Médine says there were “certain figures, certain philosophers, like Finkielkraut, who were looking to exploit this moment in French history. This was a critique of that.” But, he adds, “it’s important to stress Finkielkraut is an academic and part of the establishment in France. There are parallels between the way he condemned the track and a broader way of thinking in France, so it’s not entirely Finkielkraut who is responsible for this. It’s the symptom of a broader problem.” Médine is keen to point out that he himself is in no way a spokesperson for Arabs or Muslims; he is simply a French rapper. Unsurprisingly he’s no fan of far-right politician Marine Le Pen either, whose job, he says, it is to “notice disquiet in French society and find scapegoats for those problems – the scapegoats could be Arabs or Blacks – and focus attention on those members of society.” Finkielkraut and Le Pen both make guest appearances in the video to his new track, ‘Reboot’.
“After Charlie Hebdo there was this hunt to shut people up, to stop people criticising.”
In January 2015, three million citizens marched from Place de la République to Place de la Nation on the Sunday following a week of horrifying shootings, including another shoot-out at a Jewish supermarket in Vincennes. I joined that march, and in the emotion of it all, with so many people around me, it felt as if France was more unified than it had been in a long time, and certainly more so than the French had believed they were previously. Shortly after, I interviewed Fauve, a rap phenomenon of white, middle class origin, and they spoke of change. “I don’t know if people from La Courneuve come to our shows,” they told me in an interview for The Quietus , “but still it's a wide spectrum of people of our age in this country. Everyone's saying French people are depressed and everybody hates each other, but it's not what we see. We think it's wrong actually, it's false. And when we went to the march it was kind of the same feeling, a good feeling.”
As a journalist who only lives a few blocks away from the Charlie Hebdo offices, I completely identified with the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan that soon proliferated, never thinking that it might be exclusionary or divisive.
“Since 7th of January there’s been this polarisation in France,” argues Médine. “You have two camps, the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ camp and the ‘Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie’ camp, and there’s no nuanced debate between the two. So somebody who is in favour of freedom of self expression can’t be any more sophisticated than that, and a Muslim who wants to critique secularism can’t either.” (“The polarity is deepened and the chance of dialogue between cultures is postponed,” warned Said presciently.)
In Médine’s video for ‘Speaker’s Corner’ the French flag is used as a gag for the mouths of onlookers as he wanders by, and I wonder what this symbolises.
“So basically after Charlie Hebdo there was this hunt to shut people up, to stop people criticising. My album is called Démineur [Minesweeper], he says, which is what he calls “people who are looking to defuse the situation, who are talking intelligently, but are being shut up. That’s what’s symbolised in that video.”
So Médine didn’t go on the march? He shakes his head. “One of the important things to note about that day is that there were people marching who you could describe as terrorists, people who’ve been working to restrict Arab freedom of expression for many years. World leaders like Netanyahu. Journalists like Caroline Fourest who claim they’re in favour of freedom of expression but are actually inflaming the situation.”
"The Muslim community has been demonised over the last 10 years.”
Because of his beef with
Charlie Hebdo, Akhenaton didn’t march either.
“Some of the [magazine] covers were very hurtful for a lot of people, and some of them were even racist. I remember that cover with 10 black women with hijabs screaming and all pregnant saying Where is our welfare?’” He and many of his friends used to read Charlie Hebdo, but after September 11 the paper’s agenda gradually changed, prompting him to finally speak up almost a decade ago.
“When they published the Denmark drawings in 2006 I got into an argument with them. I said, ‘You don’t drop a bomb on seven million people. You are on a dangerous path. It’s dangerous for you, it’s dangerous for the kids’. I couldn’t march. It was tough for me. Especially when that happened and they were on TV saying some rappers didn’t help. Didn’t they have something more interesting to say? ‘Some rappers didn’t help us’? Like we’re social workers?”
So what of La Haine? Twenty years on, how has the ethnic makeup of the banlieues changed? You won’t find many Jews in gangs of youth now, acknowledges Médine. “Maybe 20 years ago it was quite a realistic image of the world in the communities, but actually what you find now is that it’s changed quite a bit, as the Jewish community have moved out. And that’s due to a number of issues, and maybe there are leaders in the Jewish community who have misrepresented the political situation there. We’re not very happy about that, that there is less diversity there now.”
“The way we grew up, it was all mixed,” says Akhenaton. “You came in from the same neighbourhood, and we were not watching the colour or the religion. And now I think fear is present, certainly since September 11. I went to school in the middle of the projects, and the other day I was driving through and I saw a crew of 25 kids, all black. I’d never seen that in this neighbourhood before. It was strange. Normally when I used to see a crew I’d see 60 people altogether, all colours. Seeing that, to me, is a bad sign of the times.”
Is it more difficult for a young Arab Muslim growing up out in the banlieues since that article appeared in Time?
“Yes, it’s more difficult," says Médine. "The Muslim community over the last 10 years has been demonised particularly. It was difficult for a young Muslim guy from the banlieues to get on before, and after Charlie Hebdo it has become impossible. It’s been like being in prison this last decade.”
Hip-hop represents just a tiny fraction of the infinite number of different experiences that take place within the Islamic world. As the exhibition at l'Institut du Monde Arabe demonstrates, it is vibrant, creative and inclusive – and you don't have to adhere to any belief system to appreciate it.
Looking to the future, Médine is hopeful. Stigmatisation is “actually incredibly creatively stimulating because it provokes us and gets us thinking," he states. "The Muslim community in France isn’t in a state of victimisation, we are working to improve the situation. I think there’s a danger of seeing every Muslim on a journey to being radicalised.”