A beloved French rapper, Maître Gims, sheds light onto the complexities of defining race in France.
It’s a story that you are unlikely to find elsewhere but has recently been captured by Netflix. A story of a Congolese man whose parents struggled to find their roots in France, of children being cared for under a benevolent French welfare system, a tale of separation after a deportation order, and ultimate redemption as financial success materializes.
It’s an African story and Gims who sits at its center is a rare person of color with voice. He wears the color of his skin lightly, without violently claiming it as a source of identity, yet it is inescapable. In that respect, it is also a French story about a child of the republic, cared for by her generous social protection system, and a country that has supported Gims music without paying mind to the color of his skin.
One can dig out similar stories in the world of soccer but African experience does not pull large primetime audiences or inspire pleasant, nuanced, political reflection. While French people of color frequently appear in mainstream discourses, they are (arguably) often visible without being granted complexity, without an appreciation of the heroics of bieng present.
Gims’ biography reveals the continued, complicated relationship of black skin to the republic that Fanon spoke about in Black Skin, White Masks.
He has attained a French dream that countless migrants die to attain as they cross perilous deserts and oceans to get to Paris.
It is this memory and trajectory of finding oneself in Paris with black African skin that makes the racial antagonism in the rap music of the US complex to negotiate in Paris.
Indeed, one of the reasons why Gims found himself in Paris of the late 1980s as a child was thanks to Mobutu Sese Seko’s legendarily ruthless dictatorship. France, then, became a refuge that Gims, and other residents of Yolo, his neighborhood in Kinshasa, aspired to reach. His adopted country offered more than his home country was willing to give.
His African roots are troublesome and inconvenient, they cannot be easily deployed to challenge the West when it is Mobutu, an African ‘brother’, like many other African dictators, and their sycophants, that have pushed Africans far from home, never to return.
The voice of those who successfully cross the Atlantic is, however, often lost at sea. Or, at times the most fortunate voices arrive and shine so brightly and are lauded as exceptions – as if the brilliance of those few African voices is miraculous on a continent brimming with talent and youthful energy.
This is where rap music came in, in the 1980s, to arm the disenfranchised with voice.
In the 1980s and 1990s, hip-hop and rap took root in France, most markedly between 1986 and 1996. This is a time when two important things happened for hip hop and rap: From 1986 to at least the end of the decade, the global economy emerged from a slump and launched into a punctuated period of growth and the return of an appetite for consumption. Secondly, American music corporations grew rapidly over the decade with global record sales constantly growing in excess of 3% per year. 1 The kind of goods that were traded globally now included a growing portion of American made electronic and other manufactured merchandise. Paris and France were a fresh market for a handful of enterprising, American, music multinationals eager to promote rap and hip hop.
While rap and hip hop were the voice of the black urban experience in the United States, this was more complicated to transplant in Paris.
Thinking back to the story of Gims – how could one rearticulate American angst in France along racial lines – when oppression was dished out by fellow dark skinned men? Yes, there was a specificity that came with the oppression of being former colonial subjects who were absorbed into a socio-political structure that systematically rendered African experiences invisible – but the French state and public could not be accused of bad faith as immigration laws facilitated family reunions, taxes were gladly given in solidarity with immigrants, and ordinary French opened their homes, schools, lives, to welcome strangers. Rap would need to inhabit a space between antagonism and gratitude.
Rap, as music born out of the American urban experience, then worked to capture aspirations and struggles of a mostly Parisian, mostly male, population on the margins of Paris regardless of skin color. It was shared geography that became the primary basis of the genre’s coherence.
Today, as with other places across the world, French rap and hip-hop has matured as a market. In the decade following the 2008-9 financial crisis, a rebound in incomes restored appetite for consumption and has helped fuel new modes of producing and consuming music. Similar to the post-crisis mid 80s, the 2010s saw a new crop of American streaming companies led by Amazon, Apple and Spotify. These have expanded the multi-skin colored, spatially bound French rap genre and taken it take deeper into France and across the Francophone world. ( Global Music Streaming Subscription Market:Size and Forecast with Impact Analysis of COVID-19 (2020 – 2024) report).
Rap and hip hop have become such widely consumed genres of music in France that it’s common to read about France being the second home of rap (“la deuxième terre du rap”) in French hip-hop and rap press. In 2019, about half of the most streamed 20 artists could be classified as rappers and/or hip-hop artists, according to the national organization that monitors the music industry, SNEP (syndicat national de l’edition phonographique).
This also attests to the persistence of American popular culture’s global power. It also suggests a more profound enrooting of Americanized habitus and practice that accompany rap and hip-hop.
At the end of the 90s, it was common to talk about French rap as a challenge to the State as a new esoteric, alien, aggressive language of those unwilling to assimilate.1 That association has become more complicated as French rap ventures into bourgeois spaces. It carries American-inspired codes of dress, culinary habits, and speech that grate against French cultural tastes that are central to national imaginaries of Frenchness.
Yet, it is not only rap’s perceived distastefulness, often linked to its American ancestry, that has made its French insertion into bourgeois circles problematic. It is also the perception of its challenge to important French political values.
The latest expression of this appeared in an enduring trope of rap being intrinsically invested in an aggressive form of masculinity , now replicated in the story of Rapper Moha La Squale. Birth name Mohamed Bellahmed, he was presented as the latest incarnation of the supposed corrosive influence of rap music at the end of an eventful summer of 2020 that included a series of sexual harrassment accuations in the world of classical music : Three young women told harrowing accounts of violence and threats of barbaric physical abuse at Bellahmed’s hands.
On several media platforms, rap music’s associations to a violent masculinity were being reinforced by reports of running street fights between competing rappers’ fans, legal proceedings for physical assault against hip-hop artists and published text messages detailing rappers’ violence against women. These completed the caricature of rap a medium for aggressive forms of masculinism to expand, and a music and culture at odds with local political sensibilities.
The Geography of French Rap, Inequality and Americanization
If rap’s journey into the richer parts of the city has been accompanied by uncomfortable questions about race, cultural taste, and the cohesion of raps’ purpoted values with the political order, it has also offered some insight into an urban geography that does not make for pleasant dinner party conversation.
Weaved into rap lyrics, grafted into its music videos, tik tok clips, rap short films, and more recently, the groundbreaking TV show on the mainstream Canal+, Validé, is an elucidating urban geography of inequality/
The (in)famous banlieues of Paris and of other large French cities, notably Marseilles, appear in word and image as the sites of a sociology of Americanization through rap music and its attendant culture.
The streets of these marginal parts of the city are also depicted as almost entirely male, with very few women in sight:
The Orange Vélodrome, a stadium in Marseilles and other local football pitches, are dominated by men as they form the backdrop of Bande Organisée (roughly translated organized gang). This was one of the most streamed rap songs of the summer of 2020. In deeply coded argot, it also parcels out the city of Marseilles and attaches negative associations to the relatively well to-do areas of the city. The Vieux Porte and Canebière – older, more central parts of the city – are spoken about in the same breath as a selection of choice slurs while immigrant majority neighborhoods on the outskirts are rapped about in endearing terms revealing a sense of belonging.
It is also in these marginal spaces, that a lived experience of dead bodies, drug trafficking, absent police, the sale of stolen designer goods, illegal arms trafficking is brought to life. The “organized gang” at the center of the song boasts of holding a monopoly over the use of violence and being above the law and the state, within their “zone”.
In Première fois (first time) Imen Es, a female RnB artist, and rapper Alonzo broach domestic violence against women in a video set in nondescript surroundings, quite literally on the margins of the city, not far from a highway. Another current favorite, Uzi’s A la féte (at the Party) begins with a satellite image that zooms in on brutal, concrete architecture without a single leaf or blade of grass in sight . An expensive ferrari is incongruously parked amid what the lyrics identify as his cité (tough to translate, but it’s a close cousin to the American “the hood”). The song presents the cité as a refuge using new argot – he describes this geography as being the binks. Binks being slang for “the hood”, so to speak, with the connotation of it being home. Young men in soccer jerseys dominate much of the filmed spaces.
Similar depictions of male-dominated spaces run through other rap and hip-hop videos. In Genevilliers, in the Northern suburbs of Paris, containers of goods in transit, implicitly stolen, form the background of Mac Tyer and Ninho’s Moto.
Another video, Mecs de cités ( “hood guys”) sets itself up as an ode to the male experience of living on the margins of French cities. An overhead shot of rooftops of tall, concrete blocs gives way to street level scenes of grafitti on closed store shop fronts before hitting the sole café open for business to a male only clientèle. This then gives way to a full out, men-only shot of men in sweat pants and sweaters. A failed arrest and police chase ensue as chants of tens of mens voices break into an affirmation of their pride of belonging here and their sense of place in the cité regardless of what people may think. These spaces are spoken of as home to a “big family” of outsiders who the rest of the country only enjoys complaining about.
The geographies of French rap reveal instructive observations that go beyond social commentary on urban inequality. It portrays spaces that are heavily masculinized. It also mirrors the methodologies of this masculinization – among them an aesthetic that is vastly at odds with the social codes and other forms of economic and political discipline imposed by the vestimentary and spatial choices of middle- to upper-middle class Parisians.
This form of Americanization – through music – acts to ultimately render spatial practices and sociological realities that are often invisible in mainstream political debate and arts legible. “Americanization” through rap thus carries both discursive utility (giving voice and visibility) but also holds the potential of being politically problematic by challenging inequalities that are difficult to address otherwise.
However, given that rap music has become commercially successful, in France as elsewhere, its revolutionary potential is tempered. Yet its depictions of a masculinized urban geography at the margins presents several questions about the roots and drivers – political, sociocultural, and otherwise – of growing spatial inequality that are often left unspoken and unrepresented.
1 This period coincides with wild fluctuations in the global economy, with annual GDP growth shooting from 3.4% growth in 1986 to 4.4% in 1988. By 1990, this would drop to 2.9%, only rebounding three years later before inching upward.
See: Mucchielli, Laurent. “Le rap: tentative d’expression politique de jeunes des quartiers relégués.” Mouvements 3 (1999): 60-66; Auzanneau, Michelle. Identités africaines: le rap comme lieu d’expression. Vol. 41, no. 163-164. Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2001;Vicherat, Mathias. Pour une analyse textuelle du rap français. L’Harmattan, 2001.