Hip hop didn't spark the riots in Paris, says Caspar Melville; it merely predicted them
There is nothing quite so comforting as a bad-bad explanation of a social phenomenon. All you do is take two things you don't like and and suggest that one causes the other. Thus, in the aftermath of France's riots, it seemed many French politicians knew exactly who to blame. One hundred and fifty three deputies and 49 senators backed a petition by Gaullist deputy François Grosdidier asking the justice minister to press charges against seven acts – singers Smala, Fabe and Salif and the rap groups Lunatic, 113, Ministere Amer and Monsieur R. The petition wants them charged with inciting racism and anti-Semitism, and inflaming, if not actually causing, the rioting.
The confrontational lyrical content of this rap and soul, was, according to Grosdidier, "one of the factors that led to the violence in the suburbs". "When people hear this all day long it is no surprise" he added, "that they then see red as soon as they walk past policemen or simply people who are different from them." The hip-hop bloggers, pundits, and young newspaper reporters born in the hip hop age have responded in their turn. Rap, they say, does not cause but merely expresses the outrage and frustration of its environment: though it may be crude and aggressive it articulates the real concerns of a forgotten community, and has been doing so for some time. The lyrics of 90s gangsta rappers Supreme NTM (Nique Ta Mère) now read like a prediction: "What is it, what is it/ You're waiting for to start the fire?/ The years go by, but all is still the same/ Which makes me ask, how much longer can it last?"
The defenders of rap are of course correct. For the French right to try to blame a type of music for causing rioting repeats the worst kind of simple-minded causality spouted more than 15 years ago in America by Tipper Gore, the Rev Calvin Butts and all those up in arms about NWA's 'Fuck tha Police' or, later Ice T's 'Cop Killer'. They rest on the most banal idea about how media works. This is the notion of the 'hypodermic model' – the song is imagined to contain a message, much like a drug, which is injected into the listener causing them to do a certain thing. If the song says kill they go and kill. But culture just doesn't work like this.
French rap has indeed been talking about rising inequality, the frustration of the banlieue, police corruption and the impermeability of French society for immigrants and their children for more than a decade. It's just that the French political elite didn't care to listen. Even when Mathieu Kassovitz put the whole thing on celluloid with his international hit film La Haine over 10 years ago, no one seemed inclined to do anything about it. What the rappers had been saying was a glimpse of the bleeding obvious. So why did it come as such a surprise to the French establishment?
These riots had very little to do with rap or race, though plenty to do with racism. Above all they were about being French. Gallic hip hop first went global in the early 90s through MC Solaar. Solaar, whose parents know him as Claude, was charming, chic, intellectual, sympathetic. Beautifully turned out in sweater and shades. In short, he was French. And so are all the rappers Grosdidier wants to have up on charges, and most of the rioting youths. It is because they are French that they burn cars. Organised political direct action in pursuit of justice, powered by righteous anger, is as French as pastis, not an alien import as the Grosdidiers would like to believe.
Under all is a delicious and rather French, irony. Why is French rap so big, so influential and audible in France? Because France, long anxious about the encroachment of Anglo-American values embedded in the Trojan horse of English, operates a strict cultural protectionism across its whole media output. There are quotas which set aside considerable screen time for domestic films, and similarly strict rules to ensure sufficient French language pop music on the radio. The main beneficiary of this has been French rap.
The French language, whose subtle malleability makes it ideal for the precipitous multi-layered word play of rappers, you could argue, is being refreshed, updated, internationalised and broadcast to the world through French rap. French rap is in no small part a creation of the French-for-the-French Gallic nationalists. And now they want to prosecute it for telling them the truth about the divided state of their own country. Meanwhile back at the banlieues car burning has returned to its 'normal', pre-riots level of around 60 a day.