Three months ago, just as the French presidential campaign was heating up, the rapper Kery James uploaded a track titled “Letter to the Republic” (“Lettre à la République”) explaining what he and youth in the banlieues thought of the republic’s political class, or as he described them, “Pillagers of wealth, murderers of Africans, torturers of Algerians / The colonial past is yours, you chose to link your history to ours.”
The track promptly provoked public outrage; the far-right group, Le Bloc Identitaire, tried to cancel James’ concert tour, its spokesperson calling on the rapper - a Guadeloupe-born convert - to leave France and move to a “Muslim land”….
The debate over hip hop, Europe’s dominant youth culture, stands in for a much larger debate about race, immigration and national identity. With many of the biggest stars being Muslim, the disputes over which Muslim hip hop artists are “moderate” or “radical” are also disagreements over what kind of Islam to allow into the public space. As European state officials decide what “hip hop policy” to adopt, American embassies on the continent have slowly inserted themselves into this delicate dance between European governments and their hip hop counter-publics.
Hip hop is at the heart of US embassies’ outreach to Muslim communities. Farah Pandith, the State Department’s special representative to Muslim communities, has argued that hip hop can convey a “different narrative” to counter the foreign “violent ideology” that youth are exposed to. American rap artists are invited to perform at embassies in Europe. Local artists are invited to the embassy. The US ambassador to France has sponsored hip hop conferences, inviting French rappers to his residence, including the controversial K.ommando Toxik (who, at the US embassy, performed a tribute to two boys who were killed by the French police in November 2007, an incident that triggered a wave of riots).
This debate over hip hop is playing out most poignantly in France, the country with the largest Muslim community in Europe, the second largest hip hop market in the world and a place whose traditions of laïcité (secularism) aggressively restrict expressions of religion in the public sphere.
After the French riots of 2005, French MPs called on the government to prosecute seven rap groups whose lyrics had allegedly incited youth to violence. The artists were acquitted, but the French government began investing more heavily in hip hop - at the local and national level, sponsoring concerts and funding local institutions in troubled neighbourhoods - in an effort to recognise marginalised cultures and identities, but also to foster a hip hop conducive to integration.
It’s not clear, however, what kind of hip hop best aids integration, and which rappers to invite to the Grand Palais. Successful hip hop artists rarely appreciate being held up by politicians as models of successful integration, often because government validation separates them from their base - and creates tension between rappers approved by the state and those who are not. Precisely this process is occurring in France, as seen in the interplay between Abd Al Malik and Médine.