France: Soundtrack to a Riot
A rap of protest from the ghetto
BY Marco Werman
March 28, 2006
Marco Werman is Senior Producer with Public Radio International's "The World," covering music for the program. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Werman got his start in radio while freelancing in Burkina Faso, West Africa, for the BBC World Service, where he later worked as a producer. This is the third music story Werman has reported for FRONTLINE/World.
I have been listening to French rap and hip-hop for nearly 10 years. MC Solaar was the first artist of this genre who caught my attention. He came of age in the early 1990s. MC Solaar stood out because he was the first young Frenchman with African roots (he was born in Senegal) who rapped about the economic situation of his brothers and sisters in France. He became well known and sold lots of albums. The American rappers he met were intrigued by a Frenchman who could "throw down" almost as well as they could.
A lot has changed since the first rappers began to lay down "leur flow' in France. A lot has changed in America, too. It says something about how artistic rebellion often gets rechanneled by an artist's need for a steady salary. Look at the case of Ice-T. He wrote and recorded "Cop Killer" with his band Body Count in 1992. It was Ice's way of dealing with the Rodney King beating. The song landed him in a battle royal against Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center. And though Ice-T has maintained his credibility, it's amusing that he now plays a cop in the weekly NBC crime drama "Law & Order: SVU." What a difference a decade makes.
A decade has also made a big difference in France.
For this week's Rough Cut "Soundtrack to a Riot," producer Camille Servan-Schreiber and I went to Paris to talk to a multitude of rappers -- some successful, some rapping in their living rooms -- to find out what lay at the heart of last year's riots and how this anger has been expressed in today's rebellious rap music. We also talked to French lawmaker Jacques Myard, a parliamentarian in President Jacques Chirac's Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party, who believes that the last 10 years -- a decade led primarily by Chirac's party -- has been an economic disaster in France. He told us that if you want to know why kids in the housing projects outside of Paris are unemployed and angry, it's because of wide-reaching macroeconomic policies, among them taking advantage of the cheap labor in India and China, which translate into fewer jobs being created in France. The country is doing the best it can against these overwhelming factors, Myard says.
For whatever reasons, the economic climate is grim, especially for those from Mali, Algeria, Senegal, Haiti, Turkey, Tunisia and Ivory Coast, who now live in the housing projects. The children of these immigrants, who were born in France and consider themselves French citizens, feel shunned by the mainstream and have found creative ways to express their pain and anger. Even if some of these kids didn't have pain and anger, they would still, like all kids, need to find ways to blow off steam.
The riots in November 2005 made that abundantly clear to the world. And the soundtrack to those riots was rap music.
I'll be honest: I don't find hardcore rap, in any language, a turn-on. It's too angry. And for many of these musicians, their entire profession seems to be based on how much more hardcore they can be than the competition. This toasting and boasting braggadocio is one of the tenets of the hip-hop genre. I prefer the funkier, more jivey voices, like Arrested Development, The Roots and the Fugees in the United States and Bisso na Bisso, a band of young French with Congolese roots.
In our video story, we hear from the successful French rapper Hamé, from the group La Rumeur. He tells us that when American rappers blew up big-time in France in the mid-1980s (with bands like NWA and Run DMC), young kids like him were flabbergasted. "Black Americans singing this angry stuff against white authority...we saw that, and that made us think we could do that, too," explains Hamé.
La Rumeur did do it. And when you see how the young, attractive French technocrats at Capitol EMI, the group's label, coddle the four artists in the band, escorting them protectively to our interview in a nearby cafe, you realize that La Rumeur is living a ghetto-fabulous life in France. But they're also keeping it real, making pronouncements about the French government, about the way the cités (the housing projects) have been ignored, about the racist world they live in. If you are a person of color, you very well may be judged as unsuitable the moment you walk into a room for a job interview.
You begin to understand, then, how rap can get so hardcore in France. In the video, I speak with Richard Makela, a.k.a. Monsieur R. He didn't reach the same level of university education as the guys in La Rumeur, but through his Congolese parents, he does understand the often-oppressive history of France in her former colonies. In conversation, he articulately connects the dots, from the streets of Kinshasa to the halls of Gennevilliers, the notorious Paris suburb where youths burned cars last November, and where Monsieur R grew up.
Monsieur R is also the producer and performer of a song called "FranSSe" (the double "S" is an allusion to the Nazi secret service). The song and video, which we show clips from in our story, has been banned in France. It's surprising that what has drawn the most ire from the authorities offended by "FranSSe" is not the bare breasts of the writhing porno stars. (Let's not forget that on practically every block in Paris there's a lingerie shop window display triggering some high pulse). Nor is it the damning images at the beginning of the video showing President Jacques Chirac getting cozy with the late Congo dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. What's really angered the authorities, and pushed Myard to sign a petition to charge Monsieur R and other rappers with inciting last year's riots, is the fact that he has insulted France. He says, "I piss on Napoleon's grave."
The cars have stopped burning, but the tensions are still high. After going to France and speaking with rappers, lawmakers and kids in the projects, I could only think of the final scene at the end of Mathieu Kassovitz's brilliant 1995 film, "La Haine" (Hate). After the protagonist is accidentally killed by a cop, and the cop and a street kid raise their guns to each other's faces, the narrator reminds the viewer ominously, "It's not so much how you fall that matters. It's how you land."
Reporter, "Soundtrack to a Riot"
Comments for this story are now closed.
I was completely shocked when I learned of this discrimination in France because I was completely ignorant to what was happening in France. I feel that this situation is very similar to how America was around the 1960s with the African Americans struggling with equality and identity and being forced into separation. This documentation was fantastic and captured the turmoil of this young generation well and the daily frustrations that they go through. Voicing their opinions through political rap is a good way to project their frustrations and grievances and will help spread influence amongst France and also around the world to acknowledge their situation. I hope that someday this inequality will end and will transform like America did. This message being sent by the new generation in France should cause a wave of change within France because they addressed the problem and are making a statement to what change needs to occur. In such a progressive time period I am surprised that discrimination exists in France, especially since I view Europe as modern.
I understand the hopelessness and apparent lack of opportunities that these young people are facing. I want to say this: Don't give up hope. It is not as bad as it seems. Instead of building anger and resentment towards the things you wish to change by burning cars and rioting, why don't you use your youthful talent and passion to MAKE this change you so desperately want to happen? The solution to unemployment: work together to create your own enterprise. Move out of the projects to a different part of France, or even to a different country! If you really want to be considered French citizens and have equal rights and opportunities, show respect for the country instead of desecrating it.
Just wanted to add a comment about this topic and react to all those comments I've been reading. I'm French, work in Paris and live in the suburb. I'm not coming from any ghetto or project as you may say but know some pretty well and a lot of my friends come from immigrant families (African, Arabs). Anyway, don't get confused, the riots were an issue but the media made a lot of noise around that and I think all of this was exaggerated. I'm not saying this shouldn't be taken into account but there is a lot of misunderstanding around that. OK, let's clear this up then! Yes there is discrimination, yes blacks, Arabs and all kinds of different people are facing issues to get jobs (even get interviewed) but this is NOT a reason to burn everything up! First of, a lot of those who provoked the riots were definitely not the ones looking for a job but just some young (not that young for some of them) people taking advantage of the situation to have "fun" and turn the streets into a big mess. I personnally felt very disappointed and quite ashamed to watch the foreign TV channels and see how France was pointed out. Remember, poor people who had jobs got their cars burnt and they turned into unemployed people after that!! Wake up, France is not that bad, our social system is one of the best (maybe not finally...) and there was no real strong reason for those riots. Plus ,the riots came up when those kids got hurt and killed accidentally (the movie "La Haine" actually reflects very well this situation) hence nothing to do really with unemployment. However, this still shows how a new generation feels how hard life is getting. Another thing I wanted to highlight, not all Arabs and African stay home and don't go to school. They do have access to education, the environment they live in might be difficult sometimes but a lot of them are studying. Long story short, nothing is black and white, don't get confused guys, the riots were not made by rappers, immigrants go to school and France's situation has nothing to do with the American one. Two different worlds with two different histories. It's good to discuss this topic but it's more complex than what people (especially media) see it. Thanks for your interest in our country and all your feedback.
I like to hear that man.
Brother Flagg - Los Angeles, CA
Thank you. As a child of the 60s, it give me pause, and I think "how things change, yet remain the same." I wish that every American rapper would see this, in the hope that they would come to better understand and realize the power of the spoken word, and work harder to use their wondrous talent for positive change. I see in these young people such a strong desire to be able to compete and contribute. It behooves the leaders of all nations to work harder at finding ways to harness the drive, power, and energy of our youth. We need only to give a listen to their expressions of frustration to know what is needed.
Jose Orellana - San Francisco, CA
Here we go again; nothing more than the usual rhetoric of victimization and exploitation. It is all about the past, revenge, and entitlements. Some blinded by white guilt and others exploiting it, this type of reporter and this second or third generation of "French" seek nothing more than to revive old clashes between generations long gone of colonizers and colonized. Of course, the presumption is that France was only able to become a developed nation because of its past exploitation of its colonies. If that is the only reason, could you explain why Portugal having colonies well into the 20th century is the poorest nation in Western Europe or Germany, a country without major colonies and over a long period of time is one of the richest countries in Europe? Everything is more complex than what I am stating and definitely much more than what this news piece leads to believe. In my opinion, it is a crisis of identity and basically wanting to receive something the easy way without working hard for it. Who says after a few generations in any country or nation a minority gets to receive equal treatment? It takes centuries. Look at how Jews or Roma have been treated as second-class citizens in the West and in Muslim countries. And also it took centuries of war and death for the different native French ethnicities to stop murdering each other and create a less than perfect nation. As a 30-year-old immigrant from Guatemala in the US, I am still aiming at getting an education and thus stop working in low skill jobs. But I am conscious that I will only get respect and a competitive advantage if I work harder than a "native." And finally the lesson I will teach my children is that the civil rights movement was a fight to be able to assimilate and not to Balkanize the nation. And I am now here and do not want to go back to my country so I want to strengthen this country and not divide it. Of course there are many positive things of my culture than I am bringing to this country but overall I! More willing to learn than to teach, if not why am I in new place if not to learn something new?
Isn't it wonderful what american culture has given to the world with rap ?
I am reminded of henry miller's quote that "america is a poison which will eventually poison the entire world."France needs to take the Japanese approach to immigrants and immigration, not the american approach.France does not need to turn their country into a carbon copy of new york city. But the hubris of americans is that they believe that if they do it, everyone else should do it too.America and american journalists have no clue what france needs. They would do better to turn their attention on their own fractured and excessively violent country. .. Quite clearly, the social policies of the last 30 to 40 years in america have increased the violence, not lessened it.American liberal multiculuralists can teach us nothing until they get their own house in order. With...00 french policemen injured and maimed and its cities ablaze, the french are in no mood to listen to the multi cultural pied pipers tell us what we need to do. It is them and our liberals primarily, who have created this explosive situation in france.Should we look to the model in america that is producing so much violence, destruction and unrest, or should we look elsewhere - to Japan perhaps ?
djon sende - Tucson, Arizona
Fantastic documentation of this side of France. Having lived in France for eight years, I can understand what these young rappers are trying to accomplish, even if it's a small degree of self actualization, someting we in the US take for granted. It's important for the young in France to be exposed to this kind of message these rappers deliver, because it will come to define their culture as what it means to be French. Hopefully, France can recognize it's path into the melting pot world and deal with it with open arms. It seems to clearly be its only option.
James Moore - Phoenix, AZ
A bunch of high school educated, rap singers, whining why they don't get jobs. The problem with Arabs and Blacks is that education is not a high priority among them and thus their youth are into the gangster wannabe culture. It is more a problem of their culture than the culture of the French society which is responsible for their situation.
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
French officials have acknowledged that higher education is largely blocked to the sons and daughters of Arab and African immigrants. Since the riots some small steps have been taken to open up France's university system, but high unemployment and lack of opportunity at the post-high school level continue to be impediments for the youth living in the working class suburbs of Paris.
Spencer Pangborn - Taichung, Taiwan
Great piece! I studied in France and I agree with your depiction of the current social situation in the suburbs. One thing that caught my attention was la perif. Anyone else see a correlation between that border and 8-mile that separates the whites and blacks in Detroit? But Eminem came from the white part and now he's rich and famous.
richard winefield - san francisco, CA
The entire [March 28] show was good, and the Rough Cut on French rap is gritty, in your face, and very enlightening. I love this show, and the website.
I am French and saw your piece by chance while browsing. I have to say that for a French young woman from an African descent living in a housing project, your piece seems quite accurate. It's also good to have a point of view from the outside. Great job!
Beth Smaligo - Lancaster, PA
Journalist Marco and Producer Camille:
I think it's great that an American journalist and a French producer can team up and flesh out this story together. I would think there would be racial issues tied into the socioeconomic frustrations felt by these sons and daughters of immigrants who still can't get work and assimilate into mainstream society. They must feel like the minority outlier of France. It was interesting to share this story with my best friend (she's majoring in French, and will study in Paris in two years). She thought that Parliamentarian Jacques Myard's comments about Monsieur R were uncalled for. Isn't it difficult to be a journalist and not let your opinion seep into such a politically charged story?
What a waste of time. So what exactly were the riots that lasted 20 days about? Government corruption? Poverty? Racial discrimination? Religious discrimination? Unemployment? All this piece covered were rappers with questionable "rapping skills."
Maybe you could make this into a podcast and feature some pieces that weren't in the webcast, no? If you podcasted it, then you could narrate/translate what the people were saying (someone mentioned subtitles). Subtitles are good (not to be selfish), but for a blind person, someone has to be a really good reader because they flash so fast across the screen. Also, podcasting would give a fresh angle to this story. Maybe you could put other pieces that didn't/couldn't fit into the polished webcast. Just a suggestion. I think it's great that an American journalist can travel to France, and really get as deep into the story as possible without a transloator. That is truly international journalism. When you really want to get as much information as possible, learn the language, travel to the country, and start interviewing. This story should be kept on the radar for a while.
idris mignot - new york, ny
Great piece! Even though this is supposed to be a Web exclusive I wish this had been aired on the TV program. Some very interesting issues are being raised by these young musicians regarding a government that is holding its own citizens responsible for ineffectual policy-making or lack of progressive policies altogether. I was angered by Myard's statement that Monsieur R not exert undue negative "influence" over the masses -- it's completely ludicrous. It should be considered scandalous that Monsieur R is being charged by the French Government for inciting violence! This is a thinly veiled act of race/class driven, State-sanctioned censorship and, does anyone else see it, repression. It is altogether outrageous in the scope of European "democracy."These young people are fully French ctizens and by right should be treated as such. At root here are shifting notions of what it is to be "French" with particular emphasis on canonized beliefs regarding French nationalism, French culture, French propriety, French entitlement, etc. To colonialism attends responsibilty and certainly to post-colonialism attend consequences. Monsieur R's warning that if things don't change for French youth the next time there may be rioting on the Champs-Elysees with possibly a more dire outcome is reminiscent of James Baldwin's civil rights era warning to American society in his essay, "The Fire Next Time". As we, in my best hopes, move toward a planet on which all people can experience freedom, let's hope that France might begin to learn from America's prior mistakes.
Chris - Elizabeth City, North Carolina
This was a great story and I wished it had aired on TV so, that I could see all the subtitles. The thing that I found interesting was the similarities, that I see, between what is happening in France with French rappers, in Brazil with Brazilian rappers, in Palestine with Palestinian rappers and to a lesser degree the present generation of rappers in the United States. I wonder will the French government switch gears, like the United States government has done, and just simply start ignoring rappers in the hopes that financial success will eventually lead to a different, less political, style of rap emerging.
Very valuable broadcast.Thank you so much!
Journalist Marco: Wow. What a story! I could not see the subtitles, but I've listened to your reports on PRI's "The World" and I read your blog about France, and it was really powerful.