Nick Conrad
Screenshot: Le Parisien (YouTube)

The music video for 34-year-old French rapper Nick Conrad’s “Pendez les Blancs” (“Hang the Whites”) opens with a jarring visual akin to the title itself: the lifeless body of a white man on a noose, while Conrad (a black man of Cameroonian descent) stands beside him lighting a cigar.

It’s a role reversal intended to make even the most unperturbed person’s pupils dilate, with lyrics to match: In the opening lines, he speaks about entering daycares to kill white babies and then hang their parents.

Throughout the rest of the nine-minute clip, Conrad leans into a macabre inversion of anti-black violence via reenactments of culturally relevant and critically acclaimed films such as Get Out and American History X—including the latter’s iconic curb stomp scene—while wordsmithing references to actual atrocities committed against the black diaspora at the hands of white supremacists. Each line intentionally evokes a new horror, superimposed with a white face—from the whippings and lynchings described with syntax akin to that of “Strange Fruit” (“hanging from trees in cosmic emptiness/these filthy fruits provide a fascinating show”) to descriptions of torturing insubordinates to subdue rebellion to the endless wars waged for profit. Halfway through the video, a Malcolm X quote is put on the screen: “The price of freedom is death.” As a coda to his final verse, Conrad declares that he is “reversing the triangular trade” via “Black History X,” cleverly tying together themes of his song and the corresponding video by making the race reversal concept and the purpose of the cinematic allusions even more overt.

Uploaded to YouTube in September, “PLB” gained the attention of French politicians and organizations, and the backlash was swift: Far-right leader Marine Le Pen declared the video an instance of “anti-white racism” and a call to hatred and murder, demanding that the transgression be rewarded with appropriate penalties on all social media platforms. France’s interior minister, Gerard Collomb, responded in kind, stating on Twitter, “I condemn without reservation these abject remarks and ignominious attacks.” LICRA, France’s largest organization intended to fight racism and anti-Semitism, put out a statement calling the video “abject and incredibly violent” and called for legal action. YouTube promptly removed the video from its platform, claiming that it “violated hate speech guidelines.” In just a few days, Nick Conrad went from being a little-known artist with under 1,000 average hits a month to the No. 1 trending topic in France.

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Pursuant to the outcry, French prosecutors investigated and determined that Conrad’s artistic license violated France’s codified press laws by causing “incitement to racial discrimination, hatred, or violence on the basis of one’s origin or membership in an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group”—in this case, Caucasians. The charge is similar to one made in 2015 against Saïdou of the well-known French group ZEP for their song “Nique la France” (“Fuck France”), in which he would be charged and later absolved of targeting hate speech toward those who were “Français de souche,” or French to the root—namely, again, Caucasians.

Proceedings began this past Wednesday with Conrad and his team facing off against complainants LICRA and the far-right leaning LAGRIF (General Alliance Against Racism and for Respect for French and Christian Identity). Reports of the trial describe Conrad enumerating in detail how the concept of the video was not only informed by multiple popular cultural and historical references (which the complainants allege are not ones that French people know well), but also the reality of his life and upbringing in France: “There is so much oppression and innuendo in society on a daily basis, even in a subliminal way; there are so many things that may elude most, but we see them.”

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Conrad was questioned over his reference to Malcolm X, and the complainants implied that the deceased black liberation activist was an anti-white racist and black supremacist, unlike a more peaceful Martin Luther King. In a stunning but familiar pivot, one member of LAGRIF’s counsel team maintained, “It’s all the white man’s fault. But do we talk about the Arab slave trade and the black people who sold their brothers?”

Beyond these cartoonishly incorrect readings of history, implicit in the discussion is the assumption that racism is an equal exchange of offenses as opposed to a systemic construction. All sins are not created equal, and the collective weight of the black struggle is a debt that has accumulated over time. Under the guise of “universalism,” the French community’s continued reluctance to allow their nonwhite compatriots to confront those failings in an open space has long provided cover for oppressive tactics, to the point that France has worked to ban events and gatherings targeted for black people on the grounds of racism. It’s a farce of an exercise in a country that has yet to even track any sort of race-related census, consistently putting forth a narrative that race is not even a consideration in French identity as recently as the World Cup.

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The scenes and lyrics played out in Conrad’s video are indisputably graphic, but that has hardly precluded people from understanding a performer’s artistic vision before. In Childish Gambino’s video for “This Is America,” a black man is shot in the head point blank, and a church choir is gunned down; released with similar shock value intent, it received acclaim and is currently nominated for a Grammy. Contemporaries notwithstanding, the question remains: If the scenes depicted in Conrad’s video were near-facsimiles of movies that have become cultural staples, why are we so comfortable celebrating and watching these same portrayals of violence against black people without discomfort?

Despite the perpetual efforts to distance itself from systematic wrongdoing against the black community, France has still been a site of unjustifiable black deaths: 24-year-old Adama Traore’s death in police custody in 2016 has largely gone unanswered by both the government and LICRA. Meanwhile, both institutions continue to hold court over perceived offenses of reverse racism. This dynamic evidences the power imbalance that Conrad sought to flip on its head, albeit crudely. If merely the visualization of violence against white people causes panic, however visceral, it should stand to reason that the accrued toll of centuries of brutality against black people at the hands of white supremacy is immeasurable. Whether or not Conrad is found guilty during his March 19 sentencing, there is a clear failure of France’s vocal white demographic to appreciate the magnitude of that calculus.

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As Conrad’s lawyers stated, “[The song] is a violent, shocking, disturbing piece of art. But history itself is violent, shocking and disturbing.”