From a dark underground radio booth in the Parisian suburbs, a young man who called himself DJ Dee Nasty mixed records and broadcast a new sound. It was unlike anything France in 1982 had heard before: spoken music, not sung, with a hard, fast beat. It was urban poetry. The new sound was called rap, and Dee Nasty had discovered it in America and brought it back with him to Europe. Alone in that dark booth with his partner Lionel D, he spun records and mixed beats late into the night, and the new sound emanated out through the airwaves and into radios all over Paris.
Because le rap was an American import, the first French rappers tried to rap in English or to translate English lyrics into French. When this didn’t seem to work, they began to rap in their native language, and rap finally took off. It expanded to become part of a hip hop culture that combines five components: break dancing, DJing, rapping, MCing, and graffiti. Hip hop culture became particularly popular in the banlieues, or suburbs, of Paris and Marseille.
Since then, rap has become the music of the racaille—literally, rabble—that populate the often impoverished and opportunity-scarce banlieues. The term banlieusards instantly connotes the most marginalized members of French society: the working-class native French, along with immigrants, many of whom are from North Africa. The increase of these foreign-born residents in France has been paralleled by amplified tensions between immigrants and the French government. The stratification of the cities, heightened by increased immigration, has exploded violently in past years in banlieue riots all over France.
Hip hop culture, then, has become the mouthpiece through which these marginalized people, overwhelmingly young and male, express their opinions and feelings. Hip-hop artists, many of whom are first generation immigrants, demand to be recognized as a legitimate part of the new multiethnic French society, to be accepted as both French and “other.” Admittedly, like in the U. S., some French rap is highly commercialized—complete with multimillion-dollar record deals, bling, and tough gangsta lyrics about sex and violence. However, also as in the U.S., French rap can be more socially conscious, more political, and less plugged into the dominant hip hop industry. Though often poetic, French rap does not mince its words: lyrics from the album Art de Rue (Street Art) say bluntly, “va te faire enculer si ca te gene mon bruit” (go fuck yourself if my noise bothers you); the group Bams makes a call to arms by chanting, “formons notre société dans la société” (we make [our own] society in society).
Today, France is one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of rap, second only to the U.S. So while hip hop is the language of the oppressed, it is also being consumed and funded by mass French media. It seems that two opposing factions of French society—the banlieusards who want power on one hand, and those who have it and want to keep it on the other—are both using hip hop to suit their own cultural needs. For the former group, it is certainly a liberating force, giving a political and social voice to those who would not otherwise have it. For the dominant (white) culture, however, seeing angry youths using the visual and verbal vocabulary of American rap (something instantly familiar and constantly available through TV and other media), renders hip-hop culture, and those who use it, less threatening. The costumes and words of these artists are so Americanized and commercialized as to make them less real and immediate than they would otherwise be. To see and hear a rap song on MTV, but not in person, is a way of maintaining a critical distance that allows the audience to keep the reality of its uncomfortable message comfortably at bay.
The Gospel Alternative
The music known today as gospel evolved from 17th century African hymns adapted by American slaves. After emancipation, the spirituals, anthems, and jubilees associated with plantation life moved away from their marking characteristics of simple harmonies, repetitive lines, and religious themes in favor of more elaborate ‘gospel’ music. While the musical form has evolved over time, the songs traditionally reflect the history of African American religious life, as both pre and post-emancipation, the Southern church constituted one of the only institutions in which justice and freedom existed for many slaves or former slaves.
The first prominent gospel performance group was the Fisk Jubilee Singers from the historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The Fisk Jubilee Singers provided performances for white audiences who desired to hear authentic African-American music, rather than the degrading imitations found in contemporary minstrelsy shows. Fisk’s gospel group chose to include the word ‘Jubilee’ in their name specifically to distinguish themselves from this minstrelsy tradition, which featured white performers in blackface. The group was so popular that after two years of performances, they raised enough money to build the first permanent building on the Fisk campus—Jubilee Hall.
The term ‘gospel’ music gained prominence after World War II, when Thomas A. Dorsey published religious music including the song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Dorsey went on to establish a music publishing company, Dorsey House of Music, and market his songs and the songs of other composers to black churches across the United States. Dorsey insisted that his style of music should be termed ‘gospel’ in order to distance the style from the religious music of slavery. The music of Dorsey and other composers after World War II was a mélange of slavery-era hymnodies, the call and response style popular in many black churches before 1900, and the popular jazz-style of music of Dorsey’s time. Most 21st century gospel music has remained vocally similar to gospel choirs of this era, which featured a soloist as a “caller” and the general body of the choir as the “response.” Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” - the only gospel track in history that achieved one million in record sales- typifies Dorsey’s vision of gospel music. In recent years, some choirs abandon this stereotypical style, and choose to include a range of musical influences such as black urban pop or white Christian Music.
The emergence of gospel choirs in France began with the presence of African American Marines in the country following World War II. Large French audiences attended sold out concerts for performances from the Golden Gate Quartet, Mahalia Jackson, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, among others. Like their jazz predecessors, some African American gospel performers, including Liz Mac Comb and John Littleton, made Paris their home. Throughout the years, Gospel has retained a presence in France, and a large number of gospel and religion-inspired choirs exist in France today. Groups such as Gospel Dream, New Gospel Family, Gospel Pour 100 Voix, Les Chérubins de Sarcelles, and Freedom Opéra Gospel, entertain mostly white French audiences. In general, Gospel concertgoers in France, and Paris especially, primarily show interest in gospel standards such as “Oh Happy Day,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “This Little Light of Mine.” The popular groups such as Gospel Dream and New Gospel Family are successful largely because they perform this set repertoire of the “classics.”
The performers of gospel music today are mostly black immigrants from African or West Indian nations or colonies: as of March 2007, Gospel Dream does not have a single American member. The performers themselves admit to their inability to understand the individual words that they sing, yet the group’s website continues to advertise that the singers are from Africa, the Antilles, and the United States. While the presence of French-African immigrants and their unique spiritual and musical influences could potentially cause the growth and evolvement of gospel as a genre, in general French gospel performers instead choose to conform to Dorsey-esque American standards. By not only appropriating a foreign music style, but actually imitating black Americans in performance, Gospel music in France today contains certain elements of the minstrel show which the Fisk Jubilee Singers rejected. Some immigrant performers and artists of hip hop music, originally an American form, are able to bridge the gap in a France that is so culturally segregated between ‘native’ French and the ‘other.’ Gospel music, however, takes a form that aestheticizes immigrants by having them appear as a direct link to the black Americans who they mimic.