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17 November 2005

Prophets of Clichy -- how the Rappers knew years ago and tried to tell everyone, but Chirac was asleep, deaf and blind

French Rappers Ministere Amer
Hamed Daye, Oliver Cachin, Doc Gynéco, Stomy Bugsy
avec Fred pour un Planète Rap spécial Ministère Amer.

Wednesday 16 November 2005

French rappers' prophecies
come true

By Hugh Schofield

What is it, what is it you're waiting for
to start the fire?
The years go by, but everything
is still the same

Which makes me ask,
how much longer can it last?

The words are from the 1995 song "They Don't Understand," by one of France's best-known rap singers, Joey Starr of the group NTM.

He was far from alone in providing a grim prophecy of the events of the last three weeks.

Take these lines from the song "In Front Of The Police," by the group 113:

There had better not be a police blunder,
or the town will go up

The city's a time-bomb
From the police chief to the guy on the street
they're all hated.

Or this from "Don't Try To Understand," by Fonky Family:

The state is screwing us
Well you know, we are going to defend ourselves
Don't try to understand.

Or this -- uncannily accurate -- from Alpha 5.20:

Clichy-sous-Bois, it's gangsta gangsta
And Aulnay-sous-Bois, it's gangsta gangsta.

Ghetto culture

The violence began on 27 October [2005] after the accidental deaths of two teenagers -- in Clichy-sous-Bois.

Rap and hip-hop have been part of France's immigrant youth scene for so long that many of the original artists -- like Joey Starr, MC Solaar and the group IAM -- are now regarded as respected old-timers.

Clichy-sous-Bois: Car burnt in riots
Clichy-sous-Bois: Violence exposed despair in the Paris suburbs

The new stars are men and women in their 20s -- almost all of black African or Arab origin -- such as Disiz La Peste, Diam's, Monsieur R, and the groups La Rumeur and Sniper.

Like the pioneers who featured 10 years ago in the hit film "La Haine," their work continues to cast a revealing light on life in the cités and the conditions which helped provoked the sudden outpouring of violence three weeks ago.

Song after song dwells on the same themes of hopelessness, rejection by France, police harassment and the rage that follows.

Disiz La Peste, a 27-year-old of mixed Senegalese and French parentage whose real name is Serigne M'Baye, has just released his third album, entitled "The Extraordinary Stories Of A Youth In The Banlieue."

The chorus of the title song goes:

For France it matters nothing what I do
In its mind I will always be
Just a youth from the banlieue.

"Few people in France have a normal attitude towards us. People are either fascinated or they are frightened. There are two worlds crashing against each other. People have a problem with us, and we do with them," he said in a recent interview.

Shock factor

It is undeniable that some of the lyrics of French rap songs -- as in America -- are shocking to the conservative-minded.

In "Brigitte - Cop's Wife," Ministere A.M.E.R indulges in a pornographic fantasy which will not be to most tastes.

[VLEEPTRON MEDIA COMPLAINT: Hey! Speak for yourself! Stop making generalizations! Where can I download "Brigette"?]

"First of all France must learn to say sorry --
for history, for the colonies,
because there is no equality of opportunity."

-- Rapper Disiz La Peste

Other groups including Sniper and La Rumeur have been taken to court -- unsuccessfully -- for provocative lyrics.

And the rapper Monsieur R -- whose real name is Richard Makela -- was criticised for a recent song called "FranSSe," in which he described France as a "chick ... treat her like a whore!"

But most French rap songs show a deep urge to articulate what would otherwise go unexpressed in words, and -- whatever your feelings about the genre -- many do so with invention.

The French language, with its repeated end-of-word inflections, is widely recognised as lending itself to rap, and even masters of the form in the US have been complimentary.

Today many French rappers are saying that if only their words had been listened to, the suburban violence might never have occurred.

"Instead of sleeping in the National Assembly, government ministers should have listened to our albums. It's the youth of France talking," said Rim-K of 113.

Plea for calm

Some, such as Disiz La Peste, have called openly for an end to the rioting.

"Burning cars and schools -- it only harms ourselves because it's happening in front of our own homes," he said.

"And we risk turning the working people, the poor of our neighbourhoods against us -- because not unnaturally they are going to be afraid," La Peste said.

Maybe because of his mixed background, he takes an unusually balanced view of the trouble and of how to end it.

"First of all France must learn to say sorry -- for history, for the colonies, because there is no equality of opportunity, because we can't get into nightclubs, because there are none of us on television or in the national assembly.

"But the youth must also learn to say thank you. It may be shocking for them - but in France at least people can still demonstrate and speak out," said La Peste.


Clichy-sous-Bois, the Paris suburb where the riots and fires first broke out, has always been a neighborhood that offers an important virtue: Cheap Rent.

Americans once knew Clichy-sous-Bois (Clichy-under-the-Woods) very well, and maybe still do. Without a penny to his name, the American writer Henry Miller, went straight to Clichy.


In 1930 he moved to France. In Paris he become a familiar sight with his olive-green overcoat, wide-brimmed grey felt hat, and protruding bottom lip. Miller was penniless, but he met Alfred Perlés, an Austrian writer, who paid his rent and his cafe bills. Also Anaïs Nin, who entered his life in 1931, supported him. In the fall of his second year in Paris Miller wrote:

"I have no money, no resources, no hopes.
I am the happiest man alive."


"Quiet Days in Clichy" by Henry Miller (1956)

from the Inside Flap:

This tender and nostalgic work dates from the same period as Tropic of Cancer (1934). It is a celebration of love, art, and the Bohemian life at a time when the world was simpler and slower, and Miller an obscure, penniless young writer in Paris. Whether discussing the early days of his long friendship with Alfred Perles or his escapades at the Club Melody brothel, in Quiet Days in Clichy Miller describes a period that would shape his entire life and oeuvre.

"There is nothing like Henry Miller when he gets rolling.... One has to take the English language back to Marlowe and Shakespeare before encountering a wealth of imagery equal in intensity.... Nobody has ever written in just this way before, nobody may ever write in this style so well again. A time and a place have come to focus in a writer's voice.... [Miller is] a wildwater of prose, a cataract, a volcano, a torrent, an earthquake...a writer finally like a great athlete, a phenomenon of an avatar of literary energy."

--Norman Mailer

"That Henry Miller is a great artist, a great American artist, and perhaps the last one we can be proud of -- that he is one of the last of our literary giants who rose up during that marvelous period from 1890 to the 1940s--there is no doubt in my mind."

--Maxwell Geismar

"The only imaginative prose writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past."

--George Orwell

"American literature today begins and ends with the meaning of what Miller has done."

--Lawrence Durrell

Henry Miller was born in December 1891 in New York City. He spent most of his life in Brooklyn, Paris, and Big Sur, California, where he died in June 1980. Widely acknowledged as one of the most influential writers in American literature, he gained fame with Tropic of Cancer, which was banned in the United States until 1961. His other works include Tropic of Capricorn, Black Spring, Under the Roofs of Paris, the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus), and Crazy Cock.


(first paragraph of)

Quiet Days in Clichy

by Henry Miller (1891 - 1980)

Copyright © 1956 by the Olympia Press
Copyright © 1965 by Grove Press, Inc.

As I write, night is falling and people are going to dinner. It's been a gray day, such as one often sees in Paris. Walking around the block to air my thoughts, I couldn't help but think of the tremendous contrast between the two cities (New York and Paris). It is the same hour, the same sort of day, and yet even the word gray, which brought about the association, has little in common with that gris which, to the ears of a Frenchman, is capable of evoking a world of thought and feeling. Long ago, walking the streets of Paris, studying the watercolors on exhibit in the shop windows, I was aware of the singular absence of what is known as Payne's gray. I mention it because Paris, as everyone knows, is pre-eminently a gray city. I mention it because, in the realm of watercolor, American painters use this made-to-order gray excessively and obsessively. In France, the range of grays is seemingly infinite; here the very effect of gray is lost.


Brigitte (femme de flic)
Brigitte (the cop's wife)

À tous ceux à qui les mots font horreur, ceux à qui juste en rappant on peut faire peur, ceux que les fantasmes dérangent, comme ce triste sire qui nous écrit:

"À gerber

Ce texte est une insulte à la dignité de la personne humaine et relève de la psychopathologie.
[...]Je me moque éperdument d'être fiché réac ou catho : ayant toujours été considéré comme un dangereux gauchiste par les gens de droite et comme un facho par les gens de gauche, je me sens très à l'aise avec moi-même"

Dormez sur vos deux oreilles, braves gens à l'aise avec vous même, vous ne lirez plus ici les aventures imaginaires de Brigitte femme de flic.

Restez bien assis dans votre réalité et ne manquez pas chaque soir vos infos avec vos viols, tueries, banlieues sordides, assassinats, sang qui coule en Algérie... il n'y a pas "insulte à la dignité", non, non... juste la vie, votre vie qui se reflète dans votre petit écran, vous allez pouvoir dormir tranquille, et la conscience en paix!... sûrement... Brigitte aussi mais même pas dans vos rêves.


Anonymous patfromch said...

Ah, now they are looking into rap culture to find answers from groups like NTM. Wanna know what NTM stands for ? Nique ta mère. Wanna know what it means ? I ain't telling ya..But they have a lot that reminds me of 2 Live Crew (= Posers)
Anyway, I'll talk to mon homie Griot next week to see what he can do about the song and le rap français. There must be a good equivalent of Public Enemy with words of wisdom and truth somewhere.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

yeah yeah, it's hard enough figuring out what le stylo du ma tante means.

the french rappers never said they had answers. but it seems YEARS AGO they were asking the right QUESTIONS!

I got the smutty lyrics for Brigitte le femme du Flic on this post and another.

Anonymous patfromch said...

You got the lyrics, I just got the song..

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

does it rock? got an mp3 ?

i heard some Hebrew rap from Israel once on a local college radio station. that was odd.

there's a movie about Arab teenagers in Haifa or Tel Aviv that seems to be very much like Israel's version of La Haine. Pretty good flick, saw it on one of our Artsy Fartsy Cinema cable channels, either IFC or Sundance. Trying to get the name of it again.

Anonymous patfromch said...

Not bad. I would not listen to this kind of music all day. Quite funky. The guy is rapping pretty fast, he's using a lot of slang and a LOT of dirty words. I thought I heard a Hendrix sample in there, but can't quite detect the song right now.
(Note: the same group contributed to the soundtrack of "La Haine") Not my cup of tea, but if the kids must express themselves that way, it's fine with me

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

my favorite coffeeshop in Amsterdam is in the middle of the urban campus of the University of Amsterdam, and it's all Tekno/Industrial. And Loud. Also not my cuppa tea, but I acknowledged it as my Continuing Musical Education.


George and Ira Gershwin -- you better watch out!


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