“Lately I’ve been confused with the boxes, because to me, they only breed conflict” (Akala, Find no Enemy)
It has taken many years for hip hop to move forward. It has meant that many ‘black’ artists, who are presumed to be the main proponents of rap have, at least on the surface, appeared to have been accepted on a grander scale, moving on to higher levels, topping the charts, headlining massive venues, winning awards. But an article published in the Guardian on 22nd April 2020, by Michael Olivier, questions just how open this acceptance really is. In his piece the focus is on the politics surrounding the genre of hip hop in France. It looks at the contrast between the achievements of rap artists there, and the disparity between that and the recognition they receive. And through this we can extrapolate further to other countries and cultures across the board, where struggles, stereotypes, and prejudices have emerged in different forms and the ways.
Dave, the recent UK Mercury music award winner, with his hip hop album Psychodrama, has stated, that despite his success in the UK, maybe things haven’t changed as much as we would like to think. The outer shine does not always reflect the inner workings within both the industry and the community: “Black is beautiful… Black is working twice as hard”.
Hip hop in France is huge. It is one of the biggest sellers and most popular genres outside the US, making it the second largest market for rap in the world. I fell in love with French hip hop when I first heard Mc Solaar and saw him live in 2003. Yet, as the Guardian article highlights, success and output do not always correlate. While in England Dave was the biggest selling rap artist in 2019 and went gold, the numbers he shifted would not have even warranted him a place in the top 10 in France. In 2019 French rappers comprised 16 of the 19 number one singles in the charts, and topped the album charts for 31 weeks. Yet in March at the Victoires de la Musique, the French equivalent of the Brits, shockingly no French black or Arab rappers were nominated in the artist, album, or song category.
Whether or not these discriminatory practices are conscious, it is clear that they may well have seeped into the political culture. While in the US successful rap tends to be highly consumerised and commercial, in France the music is vociferously political and observant of social life and social issues. Paris especially is fairly ghettoised, with mainly blacks and Arabs inhabiting large equivalents of council estates on the outskirts of the city, keeping poverty and unrest as hidden as possible. The music originating from these areas, likewise, are being suppressed. Michael Olivier points out that days after the awards ceremony the industry governing body said “fan support for urban music must not eclipse the performance of other genres”. One artist manager retorted that it was not shocking, “its always been here… We work on the fringes”. In 2020, the Urban award category was even removed, literally removing a voice for the voiceless, the very thing hip hop is predicated on.
Institutional Racism is defined as “Racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions” (Websters). It is not conscious discrimination but from a cumulative effect of subconscious Racism. French society clearly has to address this from the top down where it then filters down all the way to the street culture.
What this Institutional Racism may have done is reinforce the stereotypical Americanised type of rap that we see on our televisions, and hear on our radio stations at the exclusion of the political conscious hip hop that is akin to spoken word poetry, and challenges the system directly. Unfortunately, institutional Racism that means this style of hip hop is not always heard. Feminism, in the 1970s had a catchphrase that ‘The personal is the political’. In essence it means that whatever we choose to do has an impact on greater society. One quote reinforces this: “In hip hop, as elsewhere, the personal is always the political… How you choose to represent that space… Matters”. Artists have more power over people than they may even realise, especially the young, and a certain responsibility comes with that. Rap has a crude reputation, the bling, the money, the ‘bitches and ho’s’, the drugs. Those artists that appropriate that world, well, “everything they do is stereotypical”. Akala sees these rappers who follow this ethos as self harming: “is black music all about tits and ass? ”. These rappers who ‘self abuse’, in doing so, become the music industries plaything.
Ben Efficial, in his song Love and Hate, also follows Akala’s ethos and negative feelings about stereotypical rap. He hates that they only talk about chains and whips, blazing spliffs, making it big. They “give hip hop a bad name”. It makes the genre appear violent, angry, and superficial when there is so much talent and wonderful lyricism hidden away.
However, despite the stereotypical rap that saturates us on the TV and radio, Tupac, who was seen as bringing gang culture to the scene made an interesting observation. “I have not brought violence to you. I have not brought ‘thug life’. I diagnosed it”. Ironically though it was the explicit violence within the rap culture that jumped from the studio out onto the street and killed him.
Racism also has appeared within the genre itself. Look at Eminem and the battle he had as a white rapper, commonly called a whigger. It was assumed that all rap artists had to be black. Billboard magazine also called him a product of institutional Racism (Billboard 7/2/20). In the Guardian an article appeared called ‘Understanding White rappers burden’ (8/10/18). Racism does not only direct itself one way. It is multifaceted. Eminem and this issue is also full of contradictions. On the one hand his earlier work especially was criticised for harbouring racist lyrics and of course this is unacceptable. But it is Eminem himself who has stated that, “Sometimes I feel like rap music is almost the key to stopping racism”.
Perhaps this is a recognition of the greater diversity in terms of background and ethnicity that is becoming more and more prevalent. In the UK the scene is far from homogeneous. Lowkey is half Iraqi, Akala describes himself as part black Caribbean, part white Scottish: “whatever that means’. Logic, “Black with Irish”, Mic Righteous is Iranian, we have Devlin, Professor Green, to name just a few. This is hip hop opening up. And the truth be known, there is no such thing as purity within race. The labels of pure ‘black’ or pure ‘white’ do not exist. This is why Damien Marley, in his collaboration with Nas, called his album ‘Distant relatives’. Colour, race, ethnicity, we are all under one planet, one sun. The system is not so broken that it has no chance to heal.
So despite the situation in France, and many other countries, there still remains hope, Jay Z has said that rap has been a path between cultures, and that “hip hop gave a generation a common ground that didn’t require either race to lose anything, everyone gained”. And while it remains questionable that everyone has gained, there is still time. Because recognition of the problem, that of both direct racism, and institutional racism, is starting to be voiced louder and louder. We can only hope that the message is heard. In the words of Tupac, “it ain’t about black and white because we’re human” (Ghetto Gospel)
There is much that the French governing bodies that officiate music awards and promotion need to address. As the Guardian article says, they have made an almost explicit call for less promotion and celebration of “the most successful French popular music of all time”. Additionally, between the artists, there is no place for racism within the genre itself. All backgrounds should be welcome to have a voice, after all hip hop originated as a voice for the voiceless. It would be so sad to quash that ethos. Additionally, more conscious hip hop needs to be allowed to have a larger stage. The politicised, the social commentators, and those who question the system, have to emerge from the shadows. The image of hip hop needs to include the incredible lyricism that these street poets generate, along with mainstream rap. Akala tries to inspire black rappers not to be used by the system that gives a negative impression of their culture. They are worth more than that. In Vibe magazine in 1995 Tupac said “if we really are saying rap is an art form, then we really need to be more responsible for our lyrics “. Akala hopes one day for that to happen, to look in the mirror and ‘Find no Enemy’.
The situation in France, flagged up in the Guardian is just one instance and example of the complex issues of race, racism, direct discrimination, and unconscious discrimination. The best day within music will be when these political issues block hip hop no more, where the culture is free to produce, create, listen to and just appreciate what is a wonderful diverse genre:
“Hip hop is the people… Moving to a freer way of thinking, openness” (Erika Badu)