Oui, Son! French Rap and the Politics of Free Speech

As France grapples with modernity and becoming a multiracial nation, the country's rappers and politicians are trying to find a way to co-exist...

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French rapper Orelsan

The French rap game ain't nothin to fuqua wit: From The New York Times:

A gentlemanly patron of the arts, Frédéric Mitterrand, France’s culture minister, seems an unlikely champion of rap. But when the French artist Orelsan called publicly for his support at the height of a months-long free-speech polemic around the rapper’s song “Sale Pute” (Dirty Whore), Mr. Mitterrand obliged.

"Orelsan expresses a lover’s spite, with terms that are not my own — I don’t speak exactly the same language — but he has every right to express it,” the minister told RTL Radio. “Rimbaud wrote things far more violent, which have become classics. I do not know if Orelsan’s songs will become classics, but, in any case, what is certain is that this is a lot of fuss over nothing.”

The minister’s support aside, the polemic has struck a heavy blow to Orelsan’s burgeoning career. Denounced by feminists and public officials of all stripes as promoting violence against women — “Well how pretty you look with a broken leg,” he raps on “Dirty Whore,” in one of its tamer phrases — the rapper has been banned from some French concert halls, and Paris’s public libraries have declined to carry his album. In response, musicians and free speech activists have been up in arms. “One wonders if our leaders understand their electors aren’t living in Tehran,” wrote Gilles Martin-Chauffier, editor in chief of the newsweekly Paris Match.

This is by no means the first time rap has fueled major controversy in France. Since its beginnings in the early 1990s, the music has often proved a flash point in debates here over free speech, tradition and race. French rappers and politicians have a rich history of bad blood, the performers testing social and legal limits with their music, the state hauling them into court: ministers and parliamentarians have brought suit against N.T.M., Ministère A.M.E.R., Sniper, Monsieur R, La Rumeur, Lunatic and several others.

But Mr. Mitterrand’s intervention last month seemed to presage a new phase in the usually hostile relationship between French rappers and politicians. Though the artists remain committed and popular provocateurs, some leaders who once called them a serious threat to French culture and public safety have begun to soften their tone. The change mirrors broader attitudinal shifts in France, a nation devoted to tradition but adapting, sometimes grudgingly, to an evolving, multiracial society.

Would anybody else be extremely uncomfortable if musicians and the government got along swimmingly?

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