Rap Francais: France and the Art of Storytelling

Apocraphe has been an active part of the UK Hip Hop scene since 1997 as an MC and event organiser, and set up the well-respected record label Main Rock Records in 2003, ran a weekly internet radio show on Conspiracy Radio and covered the 2005 General Election for BBC Radio 1Xtra alongside SkinnyMan & Plan B. Since 2010 he has been resident in Paris where he operates Main Rock France Studio, as both a sound engineer and mixing artist and as the manager of French Jazz-Hip Hop band, Naiad.

This is the first of an ongoing feature for Afropean in which Apocraphe aims to provide an insight into the effervescent French Hip Hop scene, both past, present and future, breaking down some of the differences between the US, UK and French music scenes, and touching on some of the reasons why the French scene is the most successful in the world outside of the States.

Migrant Communities and the Love of Language

Hip Hop is always integrally linked to immigrant cultures, as well as the struggle of the impoverished and ghettoised at its roots. Both the UK and the USA had, at the core of its living connection with black music, an Afro-Carribean community, alongside the ‘home-grown’ African American culture that had grown out of the blues and the slave plantations of the South. The connection to Africa was historical, or a modern re-imagining in the policies and opinions of the black revolutionaries of the ‘60s and ‘70s, unlike the ‘living’ connection of the French migrant communities.

Whilst France also had colonies expanding into the ‘Antilles’, such as Guadeloupe and the Reunion Islands, their connection has always been more extensive to Africa itself, with the northern African communities their most prevalent minorities – made up of Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians – and the black community is also more tightly rooted in its links with the continent, with huge Cameroonian and Malian populations. Even within their West Indian origins the influence is strongly West African – Creole culture has always preserved and played with African rhythms and griot-style storytelling, and the prevalent Zouk music form was originally a mixing of West African stylings with a calypso feel. As such, the art of African storytelling is strongly evident through French rap.

At the same time French culture as a whole has a greater history of storytelling and social protest through witty and skilful lyricism than the Anglo-Saxon world has had in the past 100 years. The ‘troubadour’ school of music has stayed alive since the middle ages amongst the Francophone and their modern counterparts – Jacques Brel and George Brassens – were talking politics and making biting lyrical political satire long before the brief resurgence in the Anglophone world, when the likes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen revived the dissipated folk music tradition (the latter in fact singing a version of a French Resistance song on ‘The Partisan’).

The delight in wordplay and a love of language is deeply ingrained into the French and as such the arrival of Hip Hop in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (the French were very much early adopters) fitted very comfortably into the mentality, and the struggles of the poor and ethnic minorities, as well as their banlieue ghettoization, mirrored the experiences of the Afro-American communities creating the music form. These varying interwoven traditions, along with an ingrained admiration for intellect absent for hundreds of years from Anglo-Saxon society (no other language in the world has phrases such as ‘too clever by half’ or ‘too smart for his own good’ promoting the natural mistrust of anyone seeming to be too intelligent) has led to a varied, creative, and linguistically agile version of the art form.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INuD2D7R8bk

Experimentation and Protectionism

The French are also by nature paradoxical. Whilst they are in many forms fiercely traditional, they are also extremely open to new types of music, and experimentation within styles already existent. Their greatest musical legend, treasured to the national heart, was Serge Gainsbourg, a man decades ahead of his time. Even now, when one of his songs comes on when listening to the radio, I often think it is a new piece of music – he still sounds cutting edge on many of his tracks. I’ve yet to meet anyone French who doesn’t love him, and that crosses all generations and musical styles. With his career starting in the 1950s he moved through genres, from the French cultural staple of Jazz across all forms of modern music, experimenting early with various forms of World music, through Rock, Disco and Reggae, and was very influenced by black music forms. In addition, like Brel and Brassens, his satirical lyrics, intricate wordplay, and rhythmic poetry were the equivalent of any modern lyricist. This means that the French of every generation since Hip Hop was created have grown up exposed to these ideas as a possible part of musicality from a very early age, making the transition to Hip Hop as expression a natural step for many.

The protectionism of the French has also paid dividends for the French artists. In the same way that they protect the French language from the aggressive colonisation of English words with the Academie Francaise, and French industries such as car manufacturing are strongly promoted with many French considering it a matter of honour to regularly ‘buy French’, the music industry has been similarly regulated. Under the so-called ‘Toubon’ law passed in the mid-‘90s, 40 per cent of all music played on the radio in France is required to be in French. Obviously the result has been that as the popularity of the music has grown, whilst in the UK mainstream shows on Hip Hop could concentrate on the proven commercial successes imported from the States, in France there has been a legal necessity to support a home-grown, French-based industry in a way that UK artists could only dream of.

Racism and Integration

Another aspect of the paradoxical French nature is racism and their attitude towards it. On the one hand France is much more overtly racist than the UK has been for the past 20 years (at least), to a shocking degree, in terms of the casual and aggressive racism encountered on a daily basis, and even espoused by politicians and leading social figures. For example, the former Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said that “when there is only one [Arab] it’s okay, it’s when there are many that problems start” in 2009, and he was fined just 750 euros and it in no way affected his political career.

Yet on the other hand it is also far more integrated in many ways than the UK. Whilst there are still definite communities (along religious lines as well as country of origin), within the blocks you end up far less often with ghettos of specific minorities, instead with poor white, Arab and black living intermixed together. As such there is much more of a sense of poor versus rich; the disavowed versus the privileged than of ethnicities against each other. Although a sense has started to occur of a more ‘white’ revival of boombap style music against a more ‘black/Arab’ roughneck form, that too is much more a cultural divide of class than of skin colour and far less defined than in the UK.

Whilst there is a strong argument that the creation of Grime music was to capture back the music of the street from the middle-class white males who had come to dominate the fan base of the UK Hip Hop scene, there is no such feeling I have discovered within the past three years here active in Paris, and the two forms are more open to cross-over and mutual respect than in the UK. Indeed the scene is generally more united with a sense of supporting their own – one of the strongest criticisms I regularly hear levelled against French legends IAM and Keri James is that, as they have become successful, they have not utilised that to bring anyone through and support up and coming artists – something unacceptable to the French way of doing Hip Hop.

Stay locked for future articles exploring the artists and outlets that Apocraphe discovers in Paris.

Apocraphe’s last album with Disebeats ‘Prison Earth’ can be downloaded free of charge at www.bandcamp.com/mainrockrecords

Naiad can be followed at http://www.facebook.com/Naiadhiphop whilst their music videos can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/user/naiadhiphop

 

Comments

Afropean, writer, photographer, broadcaster, music geek.

2 Comments

  • Reply April 30, 2014

    Chico-Rei

    Love the article, as a guy who grew up on UK hiphop and grime and getting into French rap. I really enjoyed the comparison, looking foward to hearing more.

  • Reply October 27, 2014

    Gbezera

    Very interesting article, unfortunately I don’t know enough about the UK scene but indeed always had the same intuition about the love for lyrics in french rap and where it came from. Lest we forget the importance -still- of litterature and the love of “le bon mot”, which would be like a witty phrase or whatever, and is basically a punchline.

    Only thing that surprises me is IAM being seen as not pushing other acts, they’ve put various groups from Marseille on the map or given them a larger platform (Fonky Family, 3e Oeil, Def Bond…) via their labels, albums and compilations (Sad Hill, Chronique de Mars, etc.). I haven’t followed Kery James as closely but he himself comes from Mafia K1fry and Ideal J, so in a sense I feel he was putting people on before his succes as a soloist.

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