Originally created 11/27/05

In France, rappers social commentators for riot-hit ghettos



PARIS - The beat is infectious, the music sensual. But the words are acid, a rapped cry of wounded pride from the heart of France's ghettos.

"Whatever I do, in France's mind I will always be just a kid from the projects," raps Disiz La Peste on his new album. "I know that I fascinate people, because where I come from, succeeding is not easy, and I still bear the stigma of this environment, of my olive skin."

Three weeks of riots, arson and attacks on police ripped the cover off problems that French hip-hop artists like Disiz have been rapping and raging about for years.

Racism, despair, anger, drugs, crime, hostility against police - issues now thrust to the top of the national agenda by France's worst civil unrest in four decades - have been grist for these urban social commentators for years.

In an interview, Disiz, whose real name is Serigne M'Baye, said it is too simplistic to say that French politicians now accused of having ignored the ghettos' problems for decades need only to have listened to rap to learn that the lid was ready blow.

Instead, everyone needs to examine themselves, their prejudices and their country, he says. That includes both youths from poor suburbs who are too quick to write off their own futures, telling themselves "there is no point in fighting," and white French he says must ask themselves "Do we really accept immigrants who are French?"

"We speak in France of liberty, equality and fraternity. Liberty exists. No doubt there. Everyone can speak out. But equality and fraternity do not exist. We have to fight for them, but we have to fight together," he told The Associated Press.

Hip-hop crossed over to France from the United States in the 1980s. It quickly became a vehicle of expression for suburban youths, some of whom wove in musical and lyrical elements from their own North and West African backgrounds, and helped make France a vibrant center of hip-hop culture.

Like other French artists, rappers benefited from legislation that obliges radio stations to broadcast a certain proportion of French songs to ward off English-language dominance. As in the United States, French rappers appeal as much to white rich kids as they do to French-born children of immigrants.

French pioneers included Supreme NTM. Their song "What are we waiting for" ("Qu'est-ce qu'on attend"), from the 1995 album "Paris bombed" ("Paris sous les bombes"), seems, in light of recent riots, like an early warning sign that was ignored.

"What are we waiting for to set everything aflame? What are we waiting for to no longer follow the rules of the game?" NTM rapped. "We have nothing to lose because we had nothing to start with. I wouldn't sleep soundly if I were you. The bourgeoisie can quake, the scum are in town."

Scum. That word, used by French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy two days before the rioting erupted Oct. 27, has been much in the news lately. Sarkozy was referring to toughs and criminals who terrorize marginalized housing projects.

But his comment was taken by many youths as a blanket slur. Sarkozy's critics accused him of sparking the violence that only abated last week after President Jacques Chirac declared a state of emergency.

"Of course, the word 'scum' is used by rappers. But it all depends on who uses it," Olivier Cachin, author of "The Rap Offensive," told the daily Le Monde. "Hearing it from the lips of an interior minister is as incongruous as a rapper using a pluperfect subjunctive."

Disiz, 27, echoes the feelings of marginalization - of being caught between two worlds - expressed by many youths in the projects. Born in France to a Senegalese father and a Belgian mother, he raps on his album "the extraordinary stories of a kid from the projects" of being stuck "between two chairs."

"The idea is to re-humanize people from the suburbs and to stop always stigmatizing them as fundamentalist Muslims or delinquents," he told the AP. "It is not an illness to come from the projects and you can make something of yourself."