by Valcy Etienne:
My first sampling of foreign hip-hop was through an American television show. Immediately after hearing a French rap song on the Sex and the City finale, I Googled the lyrics to find the song name: “La belle et le bad boy.” A 2002 song by famed artist MC Solaar, the track tells the story of a modern Romeo and Juliet. Poetic at times, but more often nonsensical (a line of the lyrics reads, “Lui ne craignait pas les balles, c’etait le goal,” which translates as “But he didn’t fear balls, it was the goal”), the song is fitting as an introduction to the French Hip Hop scene: MC Solaar is widely acknowledged as one of the most popular and influential French rappers. Rising to popularity in the 1990s and widely acclaimed for his lyricism, this French rapper is but a small sample of the larger French hip hop scene—which brings into the spotlight race and postcolonial relationships between this European country and former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.
MC Solaar was born Claude M’Barali in Dakar to parents from Chad, a landlocked country in Central Africa. When he was six months old, Solaar moved to the suburbs of Paris. Although Paris has been important for giving him fodder for many of the themes of his later work, Solaar credits the nine months that he spent in Egypt as the most instrumental for his interest in hip-hop and rap. In Egypt, he lived with his uncle and discovered Afrika Bambaataa, an American DJ from New York City who was instrumental in the early development of American hip-hop. Upon returning to France, Solaar began to create music. His lyrics are known for their poetry-like aesthetics and high command of language, which are conveyed via wordplay and philosophical inquiry (he received a post graduate degree in philosophy from Campus Universitaire de Jussieu).
In many ways these themes are representative of the hip hop genre at large. The exact “start” of hip-hop music as a genre is up for debate: some acknowledge hip-hop’s origins to be grounded way back in the Mali Empire with West African storytellers, while others attribute American DJ Kool Herc’s dance parties in the early 1970s as the start of modern hip-hop culture. In any case, one thing is certain: hip hop is a form of musical expression that highlights the developing nuances of culture and globalization at large. Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson explored the phenomenon of hip-hop in a 2006 New York Times Op-Ed titled “A Poverty of the Mind.” In his piece, Patterson argued that mass communication (and by extension the hip scene at large) is controlled by the wealthy, government, and businesses in countries around the world. This lack of control by the masses in turn causes the youth to start their own form of hip-hop to express their feelings of discontent — a process which is especially true for France.
In the case of France, many hip-hop artists come from poor urban areas on the outskirts of cities called banlieues and draw on their experiences and upbringings as inspiration for their lyrics. These experiences are not dissimilar to the immigrant African communities in France, who have dealt with discrimination with respect to employment opportunities. Indeed, artists like Sexion D’Assaut, La Rumeur, and Saïan Supa all explore some sort of tension in their lyrics. While these experiences are unique to each individual theme and artist, many of the larger themes, like civil strife and racism, are common. Such similarities give rise to the similarities of human nature—which is what makes music such a powerful platform in terms of self-expression.
Valcy Etienne ’14 is in Berkeley College. He is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on topics of popular culture and technology. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.