A Comprehensive Guide to French Rap Culture
Picture this: it is late in the 1970’s and the Bronx in New York City is racked with discrimination, poverty and gangs. It is a ghetto. On the weekends, the local gang known as the Black Spades throws a block party and the entire community comes out to dance and take part in the festive event. They carry on through the night with a new type of soundtrack beating in the background. This soundtrack, fueled by political oppression and gang community, will soon take modern music by storm. This is the beginning of Hip Hop.
The beginning of Hip hop in France
Hip hop is defined by its quick-paced lyrical style of rapping, its use of record players, its unique style of breakdancing and the visual usage of graffiti. Love it or hate it, hip hop is more prevalent than ever in modern culture and has an impressive story to back it up.
Before 1980, hip hop was mainly confined to the United States. After slowly gaining ground and popularity, it began spreading to other countries. One of the first countries to adopt hip hop music was France.
In 1982, rappers and hip hop artists from the United States embarked on their first tour of Europe. Many French citizens with African heritage were influenced by these American rappers and their connection to their own historical roots.
One of the most famous French rappers, Mc Solaar, explains that the power and influence of Hip hop comes from the message and philosophy it prescribes to. It is a message of creation instead of destruction, art instead of violence. Mc Solaar, who was France’s first hip hop star, describes hip hop music as a chance to lash out from underneath France’s historical oppression in a creative and meaningful way. I have attached his original recording here. Check it out.
Like in the United States, hip hop first made its home in the ghettos of France’s biggest city. Parisian suburbs were a breeding ground for the new type of experimental music.
Thanks to numerous new hip hop themed radio stations, France’s rap culture began to expand. After the dramatic success of Mc Solaar, other French hip hop artists began to float up into France’s mainstream music. By the mid 1990’s, rap music took over the mic to become one of the most popular types of music in France.
Success in French rap
France now has the most active hip hop culture in all of Europe. Its hip hop market is second only to the United States. Hip hop’s success in France is due to various reasons.
The French language is fast and flowing, harmonizing with rap and giving off an eloquent effect. France’s colonial history has led to many immigrants and minorities from French speaking African countries seeking refuge in France. Many relate to the plight of the oppressed minorities in the United States. Also, the French government has made it a requirement for all French radio stations to stream at least 40 percent native French music. This gives French rap a strong platform.
Modern day rap culture in France
The French city of Marseille is home to a specific type of French rap –Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
French rap is typically broken into two different sub-genres: that of the southern style and that of the northern style. The northern style, largely coming from the suburbs of cities concentrated around Paris, tends to resemble the common style known as gangsta rap.
Gangsta rap focusses on themes such as police brutality, violence, life in the ghetto and drugs. Rap from the south, however, tends to be much more politically aware. It is defined by its insight into society and its perception on the reality of living.
When rap culture in France was just starting out, it was criticized for its blatant plagiarism of American hip hop and culture. Some of the most famous French rappers admitted that French rap used to only be a regurgitation of American ideas. Since then, French hip hop has evolved to offer its own interpretation to the world of rap.
Rap as protest music
There are some French hip hop stars who have gotten a bad rap (got it?) and have been accused of selling out on the original spirit of hip hop, turning it into a money making scheme. This is nothing new. It has happened in the United States and will continue to happen wherever big money is to be found.
That being said, hip hop music still retains its flare as an art form centered around protest. Today, as in times before, France is plagued with controversial discussions on immigration. People are fleeing Arab countries in the Middle East as well as Sub Saharan African countries.
With this immigration comes the inevitable retaliation from many French citizens, and, from this retaliation, comes the even more inevitable discrimination towards minorities and migrants. Hip hop and rap has once again been taken up by the young generation as a way of giving voice to the people who live on the edge of French consideration. Like a sampled DJ track, history shall forever repeat itself.
Famous French rap artists
Mc Solaar was the first international rap star from a French speaking country. He was born in Senegal but moved to the suburbs of Paris when he was young. He was known for his poetic lyrics and clever philosophy. His first hit was called Bouge de Là.
IAM is a French hip hop group that was formed in the late 1880’s. After years of playing together, they finally made international fame with their album L’école du micro d’argent. The members of the group have all gone on to pursue their own careers.
Orelsan is a contemporary French rapper. He is one of the most well known in France, as of now. His songs tend to mix comedy with violence. Basique is one of my favorites. Put on the subtitles.
Keny Arkana is one of the best examples of the southern style of French rap. Coming from Marseille (the center of France’s southern rapping style) her lyrics are about society and politics. She speaks often to civil unrest and the violence in France.
Gaël Faye is a modern French rapper from Burundi. He was born during his country’s civil war and fled when he was young. He has written a book on his experience called Petite Pays.
Chilla is an emerging artist in France. Many people have predicated that she will be the new voice of French rap. She uses her lyrics to break down stereotypes. She focusses on feminist ideas and non-conformity.
Like society and politics, French rap culture is continuously changing. Rooted in protestation and political outcry, French rap culture is still flourishing. Let us hope that it stays strong and will continue to meet the demands of the political climate. Listening to the voices of the newest rap generation, I am filled with hope and admiration.
If you are looking for some more songs for your playlist, check out these links!