Through analysis of recorded music and other media, as well as interviews and fieldwork with hip hop communities, J. Griffith Rollefson shows how this music created by black Americans is deployed by Senegalese Parisians, Turkish Berliners, and South Asian Londoners to both differentiate themselves from and relate themselves to the dominant culture. By listening closely to the ways these postcolonial citizens in Europe express their solidarity with African Americans through music, Rollefson shows, we can literally hear the hybrid realities of a global double consciousness.
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Hip Hop's Postcolonial Politics in Paris
Repping "Aulnaywood": Hip Hop's Postcolonial Racial Politics
On March 21, 2007, I attended a hip hop concert and political rally sponsored by Ras L'Front (Fed Up with the Front), a self described "anti-fascist" political organization founded in direct opposition to the rightist anti-immigration Front National (FN) Party. The presidential election that the city was gearing up for was touted as the most important in a generation and cast as a referendum on France's strained social welfare system and the country's views on immigration and globalization. Represented in news accounts as a battle over the fate of France's future with Ségolène Royal on one side and Nicholas Sarkozy on the other, the field of candidates also included the FN's thenperennial candidate Jean Marie Le Pen, the moderate François Bayrou, and Ras L'Front's presumed favorite, the French Communist Party's Marie-George Buffet. Even more so than its American counterpart, French hip hop is at the center of debates about cultural and socioeconomic policy in minority communities, and outspoken MCs were in high demand to speak about social issues in the wake of the 2005 riots in the low-income Parisian banlieues (suburbs). Minority rappers appeared on national talk shows nightly to offer viewpoints differing from the otherwise all-white panels of politicians, analysts, and activists. In addition, in my two months in Paris during this, my first research trip to the city, I was able to attend three separate hip hop concerts presented by political organizations. I also had an opportunity to conduct an interview with one such political organization that had recently stopped presenting hip hop concerts in support of their cause.
In an interview at a café near the 19th arrondissement offices of SOS-Racisme, an antiracism NGO with ties to the French Socialist Party, an employee who wished to remain anonymous began by telling me that they had stopped organizing hip hop events because of the heightened security costs brought on by fears of rioting. However, as the conversation progressed, the organizer revealed that there was something else going on as well. The Socialist Party's official stance regards race to be a fiction and therefore opposes the idea of gathering demographic statistics on the ethnic makeup of the country or otherwise representing minorities as such. Following from the logic of that stance, the NGO began distancing itself from rappers who identified themselves as ethnic minorities in their music and lyrics. As the representative of the NGO explained, "the Socialist ideal that there are no minorities in France" was compromised by the increasing prominence of self-consciously "minority" rappers, and SOS-Racisme stopped using hip hop as a political tool altogether. SOS-Racisme was at the forefront of hip hop political organizing in the mid-1990s but, as the NGO rep explained, the organization had turned to stand-up comedy as its preferred method of cultural engagement as rappers became increasingly "racialized." Clearly, for SOS-Racisme racism was real, but race was too much of a hot-button issue.
Following the French ideal of laïcité (secularism) — the official government stance that there shall be no impingment of private religious beliefs or ethnic practices in public life — the idea of racial identity, and thus of racial solidarity, is eschewed in official public discourse. Indeed, the Enlightenment concept of laïcité and its private/public split has had profound impact on freedom of religious expression in France, as widely publicized in the oft-jingoistic headscarf and burkini debates of the last decades. Notably, this private/public binary also extends to the realm of artistic political expression, as exemplified by the nationwide hip hop and free speech debate surrounding "L'affaire NTM."
On Bastille Day, July 14, 1995, the Parisian rap group NTM was set to take the stage at the "Rendez-vous de la Liberté" music festival in the southeastern French town of La Seyne-sur-Mer. The festival, organized by SOS-Racisme, featured the multiracial hardcore rap group NTM, as well as MC Solaar, pop singer Patrick Bruel, and a host of politicians and intellectuals associated with the French Socialist Party. The concert's promoters arranged the Bastille Day festival to reassert the French doctrine of liberté, égalité, fraternité in the face of troubling developments in French ethno-nationalist politics. The nearby cities of Toulon and Orange had recently elected right-wing mayors who ran on the anti-immigration platform of the ultranationalist FN — a landmark early victory for a party that has seen a dramatic rise in the intervening decades. Although the promoters of the festival intended the artists and politicians to speak out against the FN's racist and xenophobic views, NTM's performance at the event far exceeded their goals, sparking a national debate on the place of free speech in French society.
About halfway through their set, NTM was getting the crowd psyched up for their controversial song, "Police," with a call and response of "nique la police" (fuck the police). The two members of NTM, Joey Star (Didier Morville) and Kool Shen (Bruno Lopes), had written the song two years earlier in response to the rampant police brutality they saw in their native banlieues. The police on duty at the event, offended by the verbal assaults, detained the rappers and filed a lawsuit against NTM. The verdict that was handed down more than a year later sentenced the two rappers to three months in jail in addition to a six-month performance ban and fines. Though NTM's performance at this festival celebrating French liberty was protected by freedom of expression laws, the statutes applied only to artistic expression, not political speech, as the police and the prosecution successfully argued NTM's "chants" were.
Though grassroots pressure ultimately led to the suspension of Joey Starr and Kool Shen's prison sentences, French law found NTM's statements to be legal as art but illegal as speech. As André Prévos explains: "They were condemned because they stepped out of their 'performer's domain' and came back into the so-called 'citizen's domain' where protections under the rules of free expression are different and less comprehensive." In effect, French law states that you may practice your ethnicity in private and air your grievances in art but — following the ideology of laïcité and its binary compartmentalizations — not in public and not in political speech. L'affaire NTM thus marked the highwater mark of SOSRacisme's involvement with hip hop.
Picking up where SOS-Racisme left off, the Communist Party–affiliated Ras L'Front presented a hip hop show billed as "Rap Populaire Festif." The NGO's concert was held in the theater of the Ligne 13 community center in the north Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis and featured a number of hip hop acts from Paris and surrounding communities. The show's headline act was Ministère des Affaires Populaires (Ministry of Popular Affaires), or MAP, a group of North African and ethnically French origins that fused the music of a Raï violinist (a popularized Algerian folk music genre) and traditional French accordion melodies over a turntable-driven hip hop beat. MAP's stage show perfectly suited the political aims of its left-wing sponsor, beginning with the two rappers, Dias and Hk, entering in long blue coats — a symbolic gesture to their working-class message.
The concert also featured the music of the Latino-identified MCs Skalpel and Pizko — members of the Chilean-French hip hop collective La Familia. The attire that the two rappers settled on for their set consisted of matching t-shirts featuring the word "Aulnaywood." The shirts referred to Aulnay-sous-Bois, the nearby suburb infamous as the starting point for the 2005 "riots" (or more accurately: antiracist revolts) and the area in which Skalpel and Pizko were raised. The construction "Aulnaywood" is also a reference to, and wordplay on, Hollywood. As such, the shirts are a densely signified hip hop statement that plays on the spoken sound of the banlieue name and its "sous-Bois" (in the wood) suffix while highlighting the recent media attention that the long-neglected suburb had been getting, through the synergy of news coverage of the riots and the activities of the many rappers who call the area home.
As Pizko later described to me in an interview at his apartment, the destructive actions of youth in the northern suburbs were an unfortunate but understandable response to years of systemic marginalization. His parents had fled the American-backed military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and found a refuge on the outskirts of Paris where he grew up with other minority youth, most of them from the former French colonies — Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Vietnam, Cambodia, Haiti, and so on, he explained. He and Skalpel's connections to Ras L'Front came through the continuation of their parents' social justice activism and involvement in Chilean workers' rights politics. In making his point about the roots of the banlieue riots, Pizko described how in addition to the material marginalization of poverty, the French school system stressed only French culture and European history in the context of predominantly nonwhite classrooms. "They would say our ancestors are Gauloises, you know [like the cartoon character] Asterix. That's what they say in the school. And after colonization they said to the African youth, the teacher would say: 'your ancestors are white.' That's what they say to African people. It's [as if it were] an historical truth. It's like in South America, they say your ancestors are Christopher Columbus. What is before? We have nothing." Through his description of postcolonial youth and their education, Pizko emphasizes the cultural ancestry that the French school system hopes to instill in its students. From one perspective the color-blind ideal of including people of all ethnic backgrounds in the proudly universalist history of the French Republic is a very progressive project. Yet, like American curricula that attempt to weave a similar narrative of political equality, it is fraught with the pitfalls of eliding counternarratives of material exploitation and racialized subjugation.
He came back to the subject of his school and community later, noting that other stories such as his need to find expression.
I was born here. ... I educated myself here. I went to school here. And every day I was with different people: with Arab people, with black people, withChinese people, but they're all French because they were born here and they were educated here. So color is one thing, appearance is one thing, but imagine all these people with African origins, with Chinese, with Arab origins — when we go back to our countries we're French. But the influence of propaganda is creating a lot of discrimination. The "French" people (curving his fingers in quotation), you know — white with the baguette — they don't understand that. Stereotypes exist in the country. They don't know about our life here. You know?
In Pizko's view, French people of color understand that their country is now a highly pluralistic society. Despite the universalist political ideal, however, the idea of a "French" person as racially white and culturally Gallic persists in the minds of many ethnic French. In short, said Pizko, that is why he needs to tell his story as a self-defined Latino Frenchman — to make people realize that their country is not what they think it is.
In his track "Ciencia de Barrio" (Barrio Science) featuring Skalpel and the production of his La Famila crew, Pizko raps in Spanish from a Latino-French perspective. Although he also writes rhymes in French, he says that many in France understand the foreign language and that it makes him stand out in the French hip hop scene. In addition, it creates a Latin American audience for his music and has enabled him to work with producers and other MCs from the Spanish-speaking world.
"Ciencia de Barrio" begins with a brief loop of one of the most sampled musical moments in the hip hop tradition: James Brown's "one, two, three, four" from the opening of "Sex Machine." The beat throughout the recording features a simple hip hop drum and handclap track with a flamenco-style sweep picking guitar loop. The guitar sample was played by Pizko himself and recorded in his home studio consisting of a computer-based digital setup with a mixer, a small synthesizer, a single turntable, and a nice (as he pointed out) Sennheiser microphone. The track also features another guitar reference — symbol of Spanish music par excellence — in Skalpel's nod to the Latin American guitar hero, Carlos Santana: "Yo soy Latino com' pasa montaña / ... Corazón guitarra como Santana" (I am Latino like a mountain pass / ... Guitar heart like Santana).
Pizko, himself, also sings the track's hook about technologies of solidarity and opposition on the track: "Ciencia de Barrio / A compartir con nuestra gente" (Barrio Science / To share with our people). Throughout the track, Pizko and Skalpel articulate a revolutionary Latino identity in the Parisian context with references to the social struggles on the margins of the city. Skalpel also displays this identity through a prominent tattoo of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata on his left forearm. In a feature article in Unité: Le magazine des acteurs Hip Hop (Unity: the magazine of Hip Hop actors/performers) that he gave me in lieu of an interview, Skalpel explains his take on immigration through the lens of Zapatista inspired redistribution and reparation.
If anyone considers that an African or a French person of African origin who lives in France is a leech or a profiteer they would have to owe them three centuries of squatters rights to reimburse them for all that France carried off and spoiled on the African continent. And it is similar for all the neocolonial powers. ... There is no immigration problem, there is only a problem of exploitation and of redistributing wealth. In chapter 6 we will encounter MCs who look to Malcolm X–inspired selfreliance to even the playing field "by any means necessary," but here Skalpel and Pizko look to the community-centered socialism of Zapatista redistribution.
While fiercely proud of their Latino heritage, Pizko and Skalpel also believe in the potentialities of cultural fusion, be they linguistic, musical, or otherwise. Indeed, much the same could be said of MAP's Algerian-French fusion. In his track "Dale Latino" (make it Latin) Pizko mixes French and Spanish lyrics, often interspersing words from each language within a single line of poetry. In explaining the process, he pointed to the US Latino hybrid commonly known as "Spanglish," saying: "you know how in America they have something like 'Spanish and English'? It's like that." In the example of "Dale Latino," Pizko sings the chorus in two-part harmony moving from Spanish to French in the lines: "Dale Latino / Si os connais pas bien" (Make it Latin / If you [Sp.] don't know well [Fr.]) and back to Spanish through the line "Represent par los hermanos" (Represent for [Fr.] the boys [Sp.]). Although the lyrical and musical flow is not at all disjunct, the track seems to be a conscious effort to move back and forth between the languages as often as possible — a type of poemusical challenge for him to express these two sides of his singular Latino French identity. In doing so, he both performs and embodies his broader message that France needs to come to terms with its own diversity.
"La France MÉtissée, on l'Aime et on y Vit!"
The theme of hybridity and cultural diversity provided the well-publicized slogan for another political hip hop concert in the run-up to the 2007 French presidential election. Exploring the area around the Seine-Saint-Denis Metro station and the Saint Denis Technical University (IUT de Saint Denis) before the Ras L'Front show, I came across a flyer for another show linking hip hop to political activism. This show, the Festival Etudiant Contra le Racisme (Students Against Racism Festival), presented by the French university students union (UNEF), comprised a lecture and concert (literally) under the banner of "La France métissée, on l'aime et on y vit!" (mulatto France, we love it and we live it!). In addition to the slogan and the logos of the festival and student union, the banner included a map of France created through a collage of the faces of around 100 well-known — and mostly nonwhite — French people including the rappers Kool Shen, Joey Starr, and MC Solaar and athletes Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram, and Tony Parker.
Excerpted from "Flip the Script"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments Introduction
Hip Hop as Postcolonial Art and Practice
1 “J’accuse”: Hip Hop’s Postcolonial Politics in Paris
2 Nostalgia “En noir et blanc”: Black Music and Postcoloniality from Sefyu’s Paris to Buddy Bolden’s New Orleans
3 Musical (African) Americanization: Strategic Essentialism, Hybridity, and Commerce in Aggro Berlin
4 Heiße Waren: Hot Commodities, “Der Neger Bonus,” and the Commercial Authentic
5 M.I.A.’s “Terrorist Chic”: Black Atlantic Music and South Asian Postcolonial Politics in London
6 Marché Noir: The Hip Hop Hustle in the City of Light
7 “Wherever We Go”: UK Hip Hop and the Deformation of Mastery
8 “Straight Outta B.C.”: Differance, Defness, and Juice Aleem’s Precolonial Afrofuturist Critique
Hip Hop Studies and/as Postcolonial Studies Notes
Discography and Videography
Audio, video, and other resources are posted on this book’s companion website: www.europeanhiphop.org.