Planet Hip Hop: How French rappers continue to raise their voices for justice and identity

The World
"Les Princes de la Ville" by 113, a French rap group.

As hip-hop turns 50 this summer, The World’s “Planet Hip Hop” series takes us to places and cultures where the sound has thrived. 

Today, France is a place where hip-hop is second only to the US in terms of popularity and influence. 

Here to help us navigate some of the ways and reasons why hip-hop has been so influential in France is Samuel Lamontagne, co-leader of the UCLA Hip Hop Initiative, and also a postdoctoral scholar in the history department.  

Marco Werman: You wanted us to start off with this band, “Cent Treize,” or 113. Why does the story start there for you?
Samuel Lamontagne: 113 is an important group, especially because they’re made of three rappers who all come from different backgrounds within the French African diaspora. Rim’K is from an Algerian background from North Africa, AP is from Guadeloupean background, so the West Indies, Caribbean, Mokobé is from a Malian background, so West Africa. So they all grew up in the same city, which is Vitry-sur Seine and they bonded over hip-hop. So in a way, they kind of exemplify the relationship between hip-hop and postcolonial youth in France, which is a great place to start. Another thing is that the album sonically moved away from American hip-hop influences by strongly blending in dance music sensibilities. And that’s because the album was produced by DJ Mehdi, who passed away and who’s a legend in French hip-hop because he revolutionized the French rap sound by bridging French rap with Daft Punk, if you will.
France was one of the earliest adopters of hip-hop after it kind of emerged from the United States. Help us understand how and why this happened.
So, when hip-hop culture arrives from the US, it quickly became a medium of expression for French racialized people to to see themselves in a way they couldn’t before, and hip-hop allowed to bring race and racial politics in the public consciousness, in the public debate in France, in a way that wasn’t possible before. So this is the power of hip-hop, you know, through music, sounds, fashion, dance. This is much more, you know, deeper meaning and dynamics going on.
As a kid of color growing up in France, I mean, how did you receive this new sound?
Yeah, well, as a Black kid, you know, growing up in France, there was no space for me to see myself in the public sphere, in the media, in the public space. And so hip-hop was the only space where I could see myself and where I could imagine and feel as a Black French person, as you know, and growing up Black in France, that was the only space where I could see myself. 
Hip-hop, we have to recognize, is very male-dominated. And in a country like France, where women celebrities actually push back on the #MeToo movement, I’m just wondering what is the role of women in French hip-hop? Are they part of various hip-hop communities? 
Women are just as essential as men in hip-hop culture and history. You know, they’ve always been present and active as participants, organizers, supporters. So from the earliest times, you know, I’m thinking of somebody like Queen Candy, for example, who in Paris had a leading role in the Paris chapter of the Zulu Nation all the way to Diam’s, or Casey or Shay. Women have always been part of the culture and their involvement is generally erased in the way that hip-hop history is being written. So we have to be better in including their contribution to the culture and to the history.
So you gave us a few names of artists there. Let’s get to the artist, Casey, a song off her 2006 album, “Chez Moi.” So, Samuel, this video was shot in the French West Indies in Martinique, why is Casey and this particular song important for you?
She’s from a Martinique background, and my family is from Guadeloupe and Martinique, so that song is special to me because she talks about Martinique, which is to this day, still under French rule. So in this song, she talks about the history and the culture of the island, her personal relationship to it, and, you know, breaks down the politics, too.
I was in France in the fall of 2005, about a month after that notorious unrest broke out in predominantly African and Muslim communities in Paris. French rappers spoke out and not only gave voice to their communities, but they were there before that upsurge in violence between cops, officials and residents of the housing projects. Help us put into context what those artists were reacting to.
I think the first thing to say is that these communities are French communities, you know, they are French people who happen to be Muslim and happened to come from an African or Caribbean background. So there are communities that live the banlieues, so, surrounding Paris, are socially marginalized neighborhoods. And so the 2005 protests were a response to state violence and abandonment. So what really sparked things off in 2005 was the death of two teenage boys from Clichy-sous-Bois who got scared and ran away from the police and tried to hide in an electrical station but got electrocuted and the cops were let off, you know, no sanctions, no nothing. So people from the neighborhood and other banlieues started revolting. The other thing, too, is that, you know, the 2005 protests are usually framed as this, like, exceptional special event, but those kinds of protests in banlieues have been happening regularly since the 1970s. And rappers, you know, were definitely speaking on those frustrations and breaking everything down from police brutality to racism’s link to colonialism, to social exclusion and formulating critiques from their experiences.
That was 2005. I’m wondering how much the social issues enter the lyrics today. Bring us up to date, what is the current scene for hip-hop in France today in 2023?
So, that’s a big question because, you know, hip-hop and rap music are now part of the mainstream in a similar way that they are in the US. So hip-hop is an integral part of French culture, and even it transformed the meaning of what it is to be French. And what I love about some of the more recent music is that they blend together influences from all over the diaspora, like rap with Afro-pop, with zouk, with soukous, with compas. Hip-hop remains a medium of solidarity and of communication within the diaspora and beyond.
Yeah, zouk from the Caribbean, soukous from Congo, compas from Haiti. It is the diaspora. Are you going to tell us about one more artist, Rsko?
The last song I chose [“Bosseur feat. Tiakola]” is just a song that I love, you know, just younger generation rappers coming up right now. And, you know, they’re really blending different sonorities together. And every year, new artists come up with new ways to keep that conversation going. And I just think this song is a good representation of that, and again, just like with 113, it’s just a good song, you know? 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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