“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)

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor is a Lon­don based writer whose Interests are based primar­ily on music and art and also the philo­sophies and polit­ics that accom­pany them. In addi­tion she has an Msc in psy­cho­logy, has worked as a ther­ap­ist, and paints abstract art pieces.

About Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor
Kate Taylor is a London based writer whose Interests are based primarily on music and art and also the philosophies and politics that accompany them. In addition she has an Msc in psychology, has worked as a therapist, and paints abstract art pieces.