By Michael Oliver
Dave’s Mercury prize-winning debut album, Psychodrama, was the biggest-selling British rap album in the UK in 2019, certified gold for selling more than 100,000 units. Those numbers wouldn’t even have landed him in the top 10 biggest rap albums in France last year, where artists from greater Paris sell more rap albums than acts from any other city. But, while Dave won album of the year at this year’s Brit awards, and gave a nationally televised performance decrying the prime minister as racist, at last month’s Victoires de la Musique – France’s equivalent of the Brits – none of France’s black or Arab rappers were nominated in an album, artist or song category.
Days after the ceremony, French music industry body SNEP, which is responsible for collating the charts, distributing royalty payments and more, declared rap music an “overexposed phenomenon” in their 2019 market report. It argued that “fan support for urban music must not eclipse the performances of other musical genres” – an explicit call for less promotion and celebration of the most successful French popular music movement of all time.Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
This popularity, SNEP said, would be “corrected” as older listeners – who are assumed to listen to other types of music – started paying for subscriptions to streaming services. Unlike in the UK and US, SNEP does not count ad-supported streams or YouTube views towards sales – an unfortunate decision for rap, given that it is the country’s most streamed genre. These constraints notwithstanding, last year French rappers were responsible for 16 of the 19 No 1 singles in France, and topped the album chart for 31 weeks.
Domestic rap has become the soundtrack to a national identity crisis, viewed by its detractors as a threat to the cultural landscape of a country marked by bitter racial divides. Yet, after three decades of attempts to delegitimise it, many artists have come to ambivalently accept the persistent discrimination. There was no outrage at their being overlooked at the Victoires. Most musicians and industry figures I approached for comment were not prepared to speak publicly about prejudice within the industry, even while acknowledging it as omnipresent. One artist manager said: “It’s not shocking, it’s always been here. We work on the fringes, organise ourselves, create our own businesses and move forward.”
French rap’s ascent from peripheral subculture to mainstream staple began during the golden era of 90s US hip-hop. Inspired by the political rhymes of Public Enemy, rap français built its reputation on vociferous social criticism, opposing racism and police brutality. The commercial achievements of the groups Suprême NTM and Iam helped make France the largest hip-hop market outside the US, which it remains to this day.
While American rap edged towards consumerism, French rap continued to reflect the social chasm of life in the banlieues – suburban housing estates – where France’s migrants had become progressively ghettoised. France had been largely white until the 1950s. An increase in migrants from the country’s North African former colonies throughout the 60s and 70s paralleled a period of immense economic change intensified by the oil crisis in the 70s. As successive governments failed to temper unemployment, a prominent far-right rhetoric emerged, scapegoating migrants for the economic malaise.
As Jean-Marie Le Pen’s xenophobic Front National party stoked racial tensions in the 80s, proposing to change the law to favour French nationals for jobs, rap became another target. In 1995, the group Ministère Amerwere charged for an anti-police song, casting the first stone in a decades-long conflict between the interior ministry and rap. The same year, Suprême NTM were arrested while performing their song Police and sentenced to six months in prison.
In the 2000s, rap found a new enemy in interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy. The future president led a decade-long campaign against rap, bringing libel charges against La Rumeur and Sniper, and making it an imprisonable offence to “offend the dignity of the republic”. Sarkozy’s issue with rap rested on its alleged anti-white racism, a declaration supported by more than 200 parliamentarians, who, following the 2005 French riots, accusedmultiple rappers of inciting violence and racism. The same year, Sarkozy’s UMP party instituted a law requiring schools to teach students the positives of colonialism.
When he became president in 2007, Sarkozy introduced Le Pen-style rhetoric into the mainstream, courting far-right support with racially charged declarations to limit benefits to migrants and ban halal meat from schools. Before his campaign for re-election, his ally and interior minister Claude Guéant infamously declared that “all civilisations are not of equal value”. Journalist Raphaël Da Cruz says that Sarkozy’s legal pursuits validated the anti-immigrant sentiment that most rappers had faced throughout their lives, “resulting in a generation of rappers avoiding airing their grievances with politicians and police brutality, for fear of cancelled concerts, losing record deals or political reprisal”.
When Sarkozy stepped down in 2012, rap was in the midst of a renaissance, facilitated by the rise of the group Sexion d’Assaut, who left social commentary behind to embrace a pop-friendly, confrontation-averse style. The group’s success renewed major label interest and coincided with the streaming revolution. With access and distribution democratised, a new generation of minority French youths could now break into the charts – and make money.Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
SNEP integrated streams into sales in 2016, and the resulting tidal wave of domestic rap that entered the charts was typified by French-Algerian brothers PNL, who independently sold a million copies of their album, Dans la Légende. Like France’s World Cup-winning football players – who in 2016 were up against an attempt by the French Football Federation to introduce a quota system to restrict players of African origin – France’s black and Arab rappers rose from ostracised communities to provide the country with its most notable 21st-century cultural achievements. As Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, made historic gains from the anti-Islam mood in the wake of the Paris terror attack in 2015, Muslim rappers such as PNL and MHDemerged to front a domestic rap revolution from the throes of racial intolerance.
“MHD’s afro trap style was pivotal in rap’s growth,” says Binetou Sylla, producer and owner of Syllart Records. MHD, who is currently awaiting trial for a 2018 murder allegation, blended contemporary trap with the pop music of his Senegal and Guinea heritage, and, Sylla says, “created space for a new generation of Afro-French artists such as Ninho and Aya Nakamura, and even encouraged established rappers such as Booba to embrace their roots”. As Le Pen’s popularity led to a run-off with Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 presidential election, France’s widening schism was underscored by a record breaking year for rap: 11 No 1 albums, with SNEP handing out more than 200 gold, platinum and diamond singles sales plaques to French rappers.Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
But four months into 2018, SNEP hastily reformed its chart criteria, disqualifying all streams played without a paid subscription. The organisation – composed of members from all major labels in France – insisted that the change (aligning with Germany and Italy, but not the US or UK) was made to ensure a sales system more reflective of revenue. However, an A&R director of a major French record label, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, maintains the sudden change was “clearly a response to rap’s unanticipated success”.
The amendments did little to impede rap’s growth, which in 2018 led to nine No 1 albums and 14 No 1 singles (almost twice the number of rap hits to ever top the US Billboard 100 in a year). SNEP retorted in January of 2019, this time with another revision to album classifications that divided the number of streams of the most played song on an album in half. Still, rap’s success continued. In 2019, PNL’s Deux Frères was one of 10 No 1 French rap albums and one of five to be certified multi-platinum; former Sexion d’Assaut frontman Gims filled the 81,000-capacity national stadium and Sopranoplayed two sold-out concerts to 100,000 fans in Marseille.
And yet, at this year’s Victoires de la Musique, rap’s landmark achievements were whitewashed in favour of purveyors of the French chanson style. Aside from PNL’s cursory nomination for an audiovisual award, decided by a public vote, only two rappers, both white, were nominated. Both lost. For the first time in 20 years, there was no category for urban album, previously known by the bizarre racial catch-all “rap, reggae or groove” award. Victoires’ president, Romain Vivien, refuted claims of a lack of minority representation,saying that the nominations merely reflected its members’ sympathies, though this itself is arguably a sign of institutional racism.Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
The Victoires, created by the ministry of culture as part of its objective to promote and protect French cultural heritage, were not designed for hip-hop, according to Jonathyne Briggs, author of Sounds French: Globalisation, Cultural Communities and Pop Music. “Rap has always been seen as something external, imported to France, only exacerbated by its connection to the culture of émigrés”, he says. Briggs believes the continued focus on traditional pop forms will do little to hinder rap’s popularity, though: “Pop music is about conformity. Rap’s nonconformity is still able to amplify discourse outside of existing structures.”
The late funk musician Manu Dibango lamented the homogeneity at this year’s Victoires, claiming the list of nominees read like a “vain search for diversity”. According to Olivier Cachin, a journalist and presenter of rap TV shows for 30 years, what began as indignation 20 years ago is now an irreconcilable “divorce”. From the humiliation of Celtic trio Manauinfamously besting French rap royalty SuprêmeNTM, Arsenik and MC Solaar to the first rap award in 1999 to the inexplicable exclusions in 2020, Cachin says the message to rap was always clear: “You’re not welcome.” Many believe it’s time for rap to have its own award show, such as the Mobo or BET awards; a statement ceremony that, in France, would only serve to spotlight the gross racial divide within the industry.
A spokesperson for SNEP suggested to me that rap’s presence in France is merely cyclical, pointing to pop’s success in 2019. “It’s important to remember the biggest selling album of the year was Angèle’s,” they said, referring to the 24-year-old Belgian singer. “While urban music comprises much of the top albums and singles, it doesn’t reflect the interests of France as a whole, which are still largely pop, rock and chanson française”.
It’s a telling statement, one that aims to downplay the Frenchness of those listening to rap music, in keeping with how the terms “chanson” and “rap” are demarcated down ethnic lines. Malian-French pop star Aya Nakamura was inaccurately labelled “the voice of French rap” by SNEP. When PNL submitted their album Dans la Légende for the Victoires in 2017, they declared the project not to be urban, but chanson. While they were not selected for the ceremony, their reasoning was later given as a reason for getting rid of the rap category.
Lansky, journalist for French rap website Yard, doesn’t see these industry machinations as obstacles for French rap in the long-term: “The reality is that rap is the new pop, and many current artists labelled as pop, such as Angèle, Louane and Kendji Girac, are looking to rap and related genres for inspiration.”
In the French charts so far in 2020, the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights provided a one-week break in nearly four otherwise continuous months of No 1 singles by black or Arab French rappers: Gradur, Gambi, Naps and Ninho. This is against the backdrop of Le Pen, whose newly named National Rally defeated Macron’s La République En Marche to win France’s European elections in 2019, preparing to challenge the incumbent president once again in 2022.Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
French rap was once on the periphery of acceptable taste, loudly reporting on the cracks in France’s supposed universalism. The attempts to quell it show how powerful it has now become, with its successful black and Arab rappers challenging the very idea of what it is to be French. As the anonymous A&R director asserts: “A genre that has been established in a country for more than 30 years cannot be qualified as a phenomenon. Today, rap is as much a part of France’s culture as its cuisine, wine or bad faith.”