An article about French rap music and an accompanying photo caption Nov. 24 incorrectly described the Indian Ocean island Reunion as a French territory. Reunion is a political unit known as an overseas department and is considered part of France proper. (Published 12/1/2005)
The quiet, shifty-eyed hashish and cocaine business outside Oliviers Snack, a fast-food joint in the graffiti-smeared Oliviers neighborhood, turned loud last week with the arrival of Aziz Chamsoudini, aka Skar, a rap artist and neighborhood hero.
A couple of young shaven-head men turned up their car's CD player so that everyone on the block could hear "Bring Pressure." It's a track from "By All Means Necessary," an album by Skar's group, Government From the Zone.
"Zone" is French slang for slum and "Bring Pressure" describes gray, listless Oliviers. It also heaps all sorts of nastiness on former and current French government officials, including Nicolas Sarkozy, the minister in charge of national security who recently labeled French rioters "scum."
On the disc, Skar pledged to do something vile to Sarkozy's mother and then rapped on:
Propagators of hatred
You want to exclude us.
I do not have anything to lose.
We are going to put pressure.
We're up to make the problems explode.
"By All Means Necessary" was released long before the riots and arson that shook France from late October until last weekend. Like many French rap albums, it was prophetic. Rap has been the burning anthem of France's alienated North African and non-white youths for more than 15 years.
Lyrics typically describe not only the dreary landscape, low prospects and high criminal life of neighborhoods like Oliviers, but also convey ferocious disdain for the well-tailored officialdom of Paris.
All around France, rioters recently told reporters about unemployment, police abuse, bad schools and racist taunts. But French rap was there first. "No one wants to listen to us? Too bad. We only spoke the truth," said Skar.
Around him, the beat of "Bring Pressure" grew louder and the listeners composed their own harsh lyrics and accompanied them with hip thrusts and single-finger gestures. "Sarkozy thinks he's tough, but he can't control anything. Look around. Do you see any cops?" Skar continued. "Sarkozy wouldn't dare come in here."
French commentators have alternately labeled rap an incitement to violence or an unheeded warning in the wilderness. "In the suburbs, vocabulary is important. And rap is often the principal moving force," wrote Le Monde, the staid French daily. Rap "describes the customs and habits of the slums and reflects the contradictions of youth raised in a consumer society who don't have the keys to it."
Rappers here in Marseille, France's main Mediterranean port, dismiss accusations of incitement. "We're like singing newspapers," said Mohamed Soilihi, Skar's producer. "What we say goes on whether we say it or not. So better to listen."
French rap grew out of late 1980s New York hip-hop, with music videos as the delivery vehicle. High-rise Oliviers, with its glut of New York Yankees caps set among white Arab robes and fast-food eateries serving burgers and kebabs, seems suspended between the Bronx and Algiers.
Some of the French rappeurs imitated their American counterparts by migrating away from ghetto social concerns toward macho posturing and glorification of rough sex, pimps and gangsta life. But many still chronicle the down-and-out atmosphere of out-of-the-way suburban minority enclaves. Take these lyrics from the 1995 song by Supreme NTM, one of France's best known hip-hop groups:
What is it, what is it
You're waiting for to start the fire?
The years go by, but all is still the same
Which makes me ask, how much longer can it last?
Given the incident that touched off this fall's riots -- the deaths of two teenagers by accidental electrocution while they were allegedly being chased by police -- the words from a 1990s cut by a group called 113 seem prescient:
There had better not be a police blunder
Or the town will go up.
The 'burbs are a time bomb.
In Oliviers, crime, drugs and politics blend as easily as hashish and tobacco in the joints that were being rolled for midday highs. The drug dealers rationalize their trade as a necessary livelihood and an in-your-face challenge to authority. They are proud to operate so openly. One waved a smoldering stick of hashish under a reporter's nose. "Smell the quality? Moroccan!" he boasted.
"These guys want to dress right, to go to discos, to do what everybody else does. This is the sure way for them to get it. It's a job. Even the cops know," said Skar.
The young men's outlook differs entirely from their parents, who, in the words of one cocaine vendor, "worked until their backs broke for nothing and were happy to do it."
"We don't think like that," said Skar. "We don't take Algeria or Comoros as our point of reference. We compare ourselves to white France."
Skar is a slightly built singer with a round face and almond eyes. He wears diamonds in his left ear. He arrived in France with his immigrant parents when he was 8, he said, flunked high school and entered a "second chance" academy run by the government.
He dropped out, worked odd jobs at construction sites and finally, with friends, formed the North Neighborhood Collection, six rap groups that pool money and produce records. They market the discs store to store. Distributors that operate as monopolies steal their music and don't pay, they claim.
Skar said Marseille suffered less violence than other French cities because, despite its problems, it is more integrated. The immigrant population lives not only in the outskirts but also downtown and moves easily between districts. In addition, Marseille's long rivalry with Paris makes its residents reluctant to follow the capital's lead. "We think more than those people in Paris do. Why burn your neighbor's car? When things blow here, believe me, the guys will be hitting the police station," Skar said.
RPZ, another Marseille rapper, said his city's rap output differs from Paris's because it occasionally puts in a word for social peace. "Paris is much harsher" and "goes for the commercial shock value. You know, calling France a whore and all that. Here, we actually believe in peace," said RPZ, whose real name is Samir Menouar.
He's a skinny Algerian-born man of 23 who admits to two loves: rap and the Olympique de Marseille soccer team. "Rap is my food. OM, my everything," he said.
At the Lyrical Lab, a recording studio near downtown Marseille, RPZ and buddies who go by the names Wawa, Stoof, DJ Lord M and DJ PM were viewing their latest video, passing around spliffs and beer and mocking Jean-Marie Le Pen, the anti-immigration far-right politician. "He deals in cliche. Arabs, Islam, crime. It's like a cartoon," said RPZ.
The video called "Without This Leading to Crime," though set among the trashy industrial sections of Marseille, sounded like a message from the National Council of Churches:
Think how to act in a human way
Never mind the prayers
Or who you pray to.
Religion doesn't mean war.
Like Skar, RPZ immigrated with his parents from Oran, Algeria, where he remembers gangs of youths fighting one another with slingshots. In France, he bounced from school to school. He ran away from home at 13, he said, walked and hitched around the country, exasperated social workers with his belief that the roustabout life was the best education, learned truck driving, gave it up and turned to rap.
These days he sleeps in the studio. "Don't be fooled by the calm here," he advised. "We may seem young, but there are younger ones, and they know about guns and they don't think like us, just like we don't think like our parents," he said.
M'sa Mohamed, a black rapper from the French territory of Reunion Island who goes by the name of Boss 1, was also pessimistic. "In Marseille, since everyone knows everyone, there was a reluctance to go out burning," he said. "Our rap reflects that. We try to educate as well as describe. The politicians could have used us, but they aren't clever enough. Imagine Sarkozy at a rap concert."
"No matter," he continued. "The younger kids, they like tough messages. They won't be held back. The next time, France will pretend to be shocked again, but all it has to do is listen to the music. They'll know what's coming."