Thursday, December 27, 2007

Marseille's Rap

Interesting article about the rap scene in Marseille. My own interest in Marseille was inspired by French rap group IAM, who I wrote about in an essay published in Tony Mitchell's edited volume, Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA (Wesleyan UP, 2002). Great resources on Marseille include issue #13 of Mediterraneans/Méditerranéennes (Spring 2002) and the policiers novels of Jean-Claude Izzo, his "Marseille trilogy," recently translated into English, and mentioned below.

As the article makes clear, there really is a difference between the sort of rap music that one hears in the rest of France, which is all "hardcore," and that of Marseille. The one thing that bothers me about this article is less what it says about rap in Marseille than what it implies about rap elsewhere in France. If marseillais rap "helps keep the peace" in Marseille, does that mean that rap is "responsible" for violence occurring in banlieues and cités elsewhere in France? The claim by French parliamentarians that the 2005 riots/uprising were caused by rappers was absurd. (They didn't "file suit," as Kimmelman states, but petitioned the Justice Minister.)

The article is informative, nonetheless. It's worth signing up for free online access to the New York Times in order to get access to the original article, where you can listen to several songs by the artists referred to. If you click on the Keny Arkana link below, you can also find some free downloads that are well worth listening to.

New York Times, December 19, 2007
In Marseille, Rap Helps Keep the Peace
By Michael Kimmelman

MARSEILLE, France — The other day, a dozen or so teenage rappers in baggy jeans and hoodies gathered outside a community arts center called Le Mille-Pattes in Noailles, a poor immigrant neighborhood here, hard by the Old Port.

One of this city’s most successful hip-hop artists, M’Roumbaba Saïd, who calls himself Soprano, lately wrote a track called “Melancholic Anonymous”: “I can’t help it, expressing my feelings, my melancholy in my lyrics,” he rapped. “I can laugh at my sadness. It helps.”

When the slums outside Paris and Toulouse exploded last month, repeating the violence that erupted two years ago, here in Marseille, France’s second-largest city, all remained calm. Back in July, in one of this city’s impoverished northern neighborhoods, a 14-year-old boy named Nelson Lobry-Gazelle was killed by a police car. Four hundred people demonstrated peacefully, so the incident barely made headlines. As it happens, it was also a police car’s killing two teenagers in Villiers-le-Bel, a destitute suburb about 10 miles north of Paris, that sparked the trouble that broke out across France in November. A bus-burning here in October 2006 was considered an isolated incident and failed to ignite a local chain reaction.

The Marseillais have plenty of explanations for this disparity, aside from the obvious one that the poor areas here aren’t segregated on the city outskirts, as they are in Paris — but it is hip-hop, as much a source of local pride as the town’s soccer team, that turns out to be a lens through which to examine why this city didn’t burn.

Melancholy is the word often used to describe the local rap style: melancholy as a reflective state of mind. In contrast to the city’s sun-and-sea context, melancholy actually suits lots of its culture. A Marseille novelist, Jean-Claude Izzo, who died just a few years ago, became famous in France for writing grim, pessimistic detective stories. Robert Guédiguian, also from Marseille, is a filmmaker whose reputation is based on dark movies.

Rappers in Marseille, some of the most original and distinctive ones anyway, compose sad odes to their local neighborhoods and hymns to the whole melting-pot city. The sound of Paris hip-hop, slicker and more aggressive, adopts much from American gangsta rap, as Marseille hip-hop does too, but Marseille boasts a groovier style. It mixes in blues, flamenco, Jamaican ragga.

The number that a decade or more ago helped fixed IAM, the Marseille group, on the French charts, borrows from George Benson to lay down a mellow beat. "Belsunce Breakdown," about one of the city’s downtown neighborhoods, by Bouga, a rapper from there, begins with a hypnotic piano riff, jazzily syncopated — a little Steve Reich crossed with 50 Cent.

Here the basic interconnectedness of all modern music expresses a local truth about the city’s cultural identity. An ancient, gritty seaport, Marseille flaunts its history as an immigrant magnet. Its population of 820,000 includes 200,000 Muslims, 80,000 North African Jews, 80,000 Armenians. One of the largest immigrant groups is made up of Muslims from the Comoro Islands, near Madagascar. Three of the four musicians in PSY4 de la Rime, Soprano’s band, are Comorians who grew up in the northern part of Marseille where Mr. Lobry-Gazelle died. The fourth member of the band, DJ Sya Styles (of Moroccan background, born Rachid Aït Baar), like many of the teenagers at Le Mille-Pattes, comes from Noailles.

Marseille lyrics can be full of rage but they’re not violent, the way those of certain Parisian bands are. Two years ago 152 conservatives in the French Parliament brought suit against seven rap groups, but notably none from Marseille, for fostering hatred and racism against whites and for what one politician called “anti-French ” sentiments.

PSY4, by contrast, wrote a rap not long ago called “Justicier”: “I know all the cops are not that bad, but why do you always ask me for my ID? To your violence I prefer responding with my lyrics. Can’t we have a proper dialogue?”

The other evening PSY4 occupied a recording studio in Grottes Loubières, just northeast of the city. During a break the members talked about the way rappers help one another here, and about how success comes not from landing studio contracts but from earning respect, ground up.

“Rap’s not a business here, the way it is in Paris,” DJ Sya Styles said. “It’s not like Paris, where the suburbs are just concrete. Here you first have to prove yourself in the neighborhoods.”

Stéphane Gallard put it another way: “Paris is more hard-core.” He is the quiet, suave young man in charge of music programming for the nonprofit Radio Grenouille, the city’s most popular hip-hop station. “The fact that hip-hop artists sell their music on their own blocks contributes to their identifying with Marseille, and this explains why there’s no car burning,” he said. “Different communities in Marseille are still quite separate, there’s racism here, but it’s a city in which you have the freedom to move among communities if you choose.”

It’s also true that this city has a contrarian streak going back at least 2,000 years, to when it backed Pompey over Caesar. You might say Marseillais rappers reflect the tradition of “pays,” or local communities, to which their inhabitants maintain more powerful loyalties than to France. At the same time, it’s a place proud of its old Corsican and French-Italian mob heritage (a popular downtown clothing store was named for a famous mob boss), and the prevalence of drug dealers and North African gangs does partly explain why there’s relative calm in destitute areas: Calm is maintained for the sake of their businesses.

Unemployment nears 40 percent in those same parts of town among those 18 to 25; it’s 13 percent citywide, much more than the national average of 8 percent. So clearly job opportunities alone, or their lack, don’t account for the absence of urban violence recently.

It helps that an old, Mediterranean-style civic patronage system doles out favors to earn loyalty and keep the peace. And, as everybody says, unlike Paris, where immigrant poor occupy huge concrete blocks cut off from the city center, Marseille has its neighborhoods, like Noailles, that are smack in the middle of town, while the hard-pressed quarters to the north are linked to the center by cheap public transport and remain inside city limits. So residents feel that they belong to Marseille, because they do, and in turn they feel that Marseille belongs to them.

Out of these communities, where musicians have their own version of a patronage system, the hip-hop scene has emerged — besides PSY4 de la Rime, IAM and Bouga, others, like Keny Arkana, FAF Larage, Fonky Family, DJ Rebel and Prodige Namor, have made it big here.

“Marseille rap never integrated violence the way Paris did,” Philippe Fragione told me. He’s Akhenaton, the leader of IAM. He, like other older musicians here, supports younger Marseille rappers. It was his studio in Grottes Loubières that PSY4 was using. Marseille rap is “more socially conscious,” Mr. Fragione added. “That’s because there is a real sense of community.”

I stopped in the waterfront office of Paul Colombani, the deputy director of the redevelopment program Euroméditerranée. With more than $5 billion in public and private investments, it plans, by 2012, to turn some 2.5 miles of downtown into office towers, mixed-income apartments, museums and esplanades. Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and other archistars have signed on. Outside the porthole office window, the Danielle Casanova, an enormous white ferry, waited to carry passengers to Algeria. Passengers coming back often bring knockoff goods that merchants hawk on sidewalks. “Les jeunes errants,” as migrant street children, some as young as 12, are called, hide in boats, then head for Noailles when they land. A few have become aspiring rappers through community cultural centers like Le Mille-Patte.

Mr. Colombani noticed my gaze. “That will be moved out of this area,” he said about the ferry. He meant to L’Estaque, far to the north, “easier for customs,” he explained. Luxury cruise ships will dock here instead.

Marseille can surely use the money, but hardly at the cost of undoing the social chemistry that has kept the peace and fostered, among other things, the city’s musical life. At Le Mille-Patte those dozen or so young rappers outside were a typical Marseille mix: first-, second- or third-generation immigrants from Algeria, Morocco, the Comoro Islands, Eastern Europe, Argentina.

Habib was a skinny 18-year-old with a doleful face and a band called Urban Revolution. “We all get along because we share music,” he explained. Le Mille-Patte had first encouraged him to rap as a young boy: “I didn’t know what to do with my days, so this place was very important.”

Bacariane, a slightly older rapper wearing a New York Yankees cap, its brim pressed down over his eyes, piped in: “This is a rough neighborhood, but there’s not violence here without meaning, like in Paris. I lived there for a while,” he said, meaning in the isolated suburbs outside the capital. He paused to consider the difference. “Here there is a culture of respect,” he said. “We’re all Marseillais.”

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