Rap au féminin: What can France’s female hip hop scene teach us about identity politics?

Ellen Davis-Walker | 25 April 2017

Dans-ma-bulle-Nouvelle-edition

Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 box office sensation La Haine has long been credited with propelling French hip hop on to the global stage. Drawing on original material by Ministère AMER, NTM and MC Solaar, the film’s soundtrack managed to capture the sonic traces of social unrest on the fringes of French society. Whilst France’s victory in the 1997 FIFA World Cup seemed to mark a momentary coming-together around the inclusive slogan ‘Black-Blanc-Beur’ (Black, White, Arab), the contentious and fractured question of national identity has continued to dominate the country’s musical and political landscape ever since. [1]

The emergence of rap au féminin (female rap) over the past decade marked a significant step in the development of multi-faceted ‘French’ identity. While anglophone female artists of the early 2000s were predominantly focused on debunking ‘the sexual and material objectification faced by women in the industry,’ [2] this article will ask how rap au féminin has offered artists the possibility to explore both what it meant to be a woman in this period, and what it meant (and still means) to be French.

By the end of 2006, Diam’s second album Dans ma bulle had sold more than any other CD in France that year (more than 800,000 copies), paving the way for a new generation of emerging rappeuses. Yet the most striking feature of Dans ma bulle  was not the gender of its composer, but rather  its ability to navigate the multiple fractures, and facets, of French identiy. In Marine, Diam penned a reconciliatory yet nonetheless damning letter to then little-known far right politician Marine Le Pen.

The album’s chart-topping track Ma France à Moi likewise simultaneously critiqued and celebrated the image of the Black-Blanc-Beur nation that was globally revered in the latter part of the 90s, with lyrics like ‘Celle qui pue le racisme mais qui fait semblant d’être ouverte.’ [3]

Diam’s decision to leave the music to industry in 2011 following her (well documented) conversion to Islam sent shock waves across the staunchly laic realms of the French media. [4] This public negotiation of her personal identity seemed to bring into sharp relief some of the more problematic dimensions of France’s secularism (and its uneasy relationship with Islam and its former North African colonies). Perhaps the most unsettling quality of Diam’s message, at least for French audiences, lay in its ability to shed light on historically maligned factions of both its past and present. This uncomfortable, transgressive quality of rap au féminin is something we see mirrored in Kerry Arkana’s 2011 track V pour vérités, wherein Arkana denounces ‘Des flics armés au racisme colonial et des principes honorables écrasés car ça ne pense qu’au dollar.’ [5]

Sianna’s 2016 track La vie va ainsi offered an equally unsettling portrait of the difficult relationshup between Frenchness and blackness — a thread woven effortlessly across her debut album Coeur de Diamant. Like Diams, Sianna uses rap as a space to problematise her ‘French’ identity, stating that: ‘Chez les çais-fran j’suis une renoi, chez les renois j’suis une française donc j’vis une vie d’métisse.’ [6]

sianna-klasmag

As France enters the final weeks of an exceptionally divisive election campaign, [7] the messages that can be gleaned from the disruption (and re-construction) of national identity feel more important than ever. Although Diam’s final single, Enfants du désert, makes for chilling listening in the wake of Marine Le Pen’s entry into the second round of elections (‘Triste pays qui compte sur les voix de Le Pen’ [8]) the energy and re-generative quality of France’s female hip hop scene must be celebrated as an important site of resistance. Rap au féminin allows artists to move beyond the problematic gendered prism of its own label, allowing for new visions of French identity and French territory (and the ever-undulating relationship between the two) to emerge. It is a genre that is free to dictate its own terms and where undoubtedly, to quote Sianna, ‘le meilleur reste à venir.’ [9]

About Ellen

My research looks at how cultural artefacts promote public engagement with colonial memory in Paris, Brussels and Beirut. Outside of 50 George Square I research the impact of transnational migration on women, edit some articles about feminism, and panic at the prospect of being asked the time in Arabic. Find out more here: https://twitter.com/E_daviswalker

Article edited by Bridget Moynihan.

English Translations and Works Cited

[1] Durand, Phillippe. Black, Blanc, Beur: Rap Music and Hip-hop Culture in the Francophone World. Scarecrow Press, 2002.

[2] Keyes, Cheryl L. Rap Music and Street Consciousness. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

[3] ‘The France that stinks of racism but pretends to be open.’

[4] Interview du 30/09/2012. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5STSqR-o-k

[5] ‘Police armed with colonial racism, and principles crushed because we think more about dollar than honour.’

[6] ‘With the Frenchies I’m a black girl, and with the blacks I’m a French girl, I live a mixed up life.’

[7]http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/03/populist-drift-french-election-campaign-170326120337530.html

[8] ‘(that) country spoken for by the Le Pen’s.’

[9] ‘the best is yet to come.’

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