The concept of the French suburb can be divided into two spaces: the real and the imaginary. The real French suburb is the ‘ensemble des localités administrativement autonomes’ . Described as les banlieues, this space can be rich (such as Neuilly-sur-Seine which housed Nicolas Sarkozy when he was Interior Minister ) middle class or poor. It can be the site of houses and les grands ensembles. It can be home to people d’origine française or people d’origine étrangère. It is the urbanised space on the periphery of a large city. In contrast, la banlieue is a socially constructed, imaginary space which is host to a multitude of cultural, racial and spatial discriminations. A negative narrative developed by ‘les medias, les films [et] les discours politiques’, has lead to a pejorative gaze being cast towards la banlieue. It is perceived as a place of :
La discrimination scolaire, l’absence de reconnaissance et de respect, le harcèlement permanent des forces de police, le travail au faciès […] l’ennui […] des tours grises, l’état de siège mental et physique, bref, la galère.
Therefore, la banlieue has become synonym with ‘problèmes sociaux, culturels, architecturaux ou urbanistiques’ and zones of ‘non-droit’ which has fed a culture of ‘la banlieue-phobie’ . This dissertation will concentrate on the imagined space of la banlieue, not the bureaucratically official, les banlieues. This essay shall discuss to what extent rap music has helped to construct an identity that is unique to la banlieue, and how. It will question how reliable this identity might be; is it historically and culturally accurate? It will discover if rap has fuelled this negative portrayal of la banlieue and if it is instrumental in creating identities which exacerbate or exaggerate negative aspects of banlieue life. Examples will be drawn from the most commercially and critically successful rap artists.
A Banlieue Identity?
Why is there believed to be an identity unique to la banlieue? La banlieue is geographically isolated from mainstream French society; its location is like that of an island. In the Ile de France, the RER trains lines are radially laid out, creating an archipelago of suburbs, which means that each has direct access to Paris, but nowhere else . Chanteloup-de-Vignes – the cité which served as the backdrop to La Haine – was built with no access to the adjacent cité, La Noë. It was designed to be ‘surrounded by a sea of empty fields’ and a train station was only built three years after, which was incidentally burnt down on the day it was opened in 1987.
What is more, the location and architecture of the suburbs can act to trap its inhabitants within. For example, Les Courtillières in Pantin, Seine-Saint-Denis, is 1.5 kilometres of concrete encircling four hectares of land. The area is even equipped with its own schools and libraries . From the image, it can be argued that the housing complex looks like a walled city, preventing its inhabitants from leaving and outsiders from entering. In addition, the severe lack of public transport exacerbates this sentiment of ‘siège mental et physique’. A 1990 INSEE report showed that nearly 60% of Parisian suburbs did not have a train station. In fact, it is quicker to travel from Paris to Lille, a distance of 220 kilometres, than it is to travel from Paris to Clichy-Sous-Bois – a distance of 15 kilometres . Therefore, la banlieue ‘is not a city, it is not part of a city, but it is not the countryside either… [it] does not belong’ . In the words of François Maspero, ‘ce lieu est no man’s land’ . It is clear that la banlieue is a liminal space, which is neither here or there. This lack of concrete placing means that the inhabitants of la banlieue are not considered fully French because they do not live in France; they reside in an imagined space. In fact, it can be argued that la banlieue, situated in this peripheral, quasi-French territory and full of pseudo-French citizens, is the polar opposite of la France profonde; the provinces which are situated on “genuine” French territory and whose citizens fit neatly into the Republican paradigm. The concept of la banlieue is particularly difficult to grasp as it challenges ‘the hegemonic conceptions of France’s imagined geographic identity’ . Therefore, living in an imagined space, the inhabitants of the suburb are forced to imagine their own identity.
According to Lefebvre, the production of space is ‘un moyen de contrôle donc de domination et de puissance’ and this theory is clear with la banlieue. Firstly, placed on the periphery, it has been built to be separate from the dominant, central space of the city. The physical separation of the periphery and the centre creates two separate worlds, with two separate identities. Secondly, as it is not a part of this dominant space, la banlieue has been Othered and socially constructed to be different from the central space. As a response to this physical and socially constructed isolation, the inhabitants of la banlieue have transformed it into ‘the space of the imaginary’ . In this imaginary space, les banlieusards have agency and, as a result, they are able to construct their own identity. Identity allows the banlieusard to make sense of who they are in the world and gives them a sense of purpose. La banlieue space is essential to creating an identity as, according to Bachelard in La poétique de l’espace, ‘je suis l’espace où je suis’ .
The historical connection between rap and la banlieue
At the end of the 1970s, a new culture surged throughout the streets of the impoverished ghettos of New York. ‘Ces prophètes parlent en rimes et racontent sur des rythmes dansants la misère, la colère ou la joie du sous-prolétariat noir’ – according to Cachin, these “prophets” were the first rappers. A decade later and rap was transported to France, where it took root in the French version of the New York ghetto, la banlieue.
Rap is historically the linked to the identity of the marginalised persons. This is clear from its history as rap evolved, first of all, from the oral story telling tradition of West African griots, which was transported from West Africa to the Americas during slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. Rap evolved further in Jamaica with ‘toasting’ (‘un procédé de chant qui utilise un phrasé de rimes, rythmé sur du reggae’) before, via immigration, it came to New York . Here, in the impoverished ghettos, similar to other music of Black origin (gospel and the blues), rap was a form of escapism and an outlet for the suffering of the Black working class. In the New York ghetto, Cachin believes that at this time, there were only two forms of escapism – drugs and rap . In the New York ghetto, rap became directly linked to its inhabitants’ identity. In the 1970s, block parties became popular as a way of unifying the community and fighting against the social problems at the heart of the Black American population; unemployment, discrimination and poverty. The ‘Master of Ceremony’ (the MC), the equivalent of today’s rapper, was of great importance as it was he who assembled and unified the crowd and it was he who ‘assure les fonctions de porte-voix et de porte-parole, il transmet un message, provoque une prise de conscience, ravive une mémoire, diffuse une énergie’ . The MC was joined by the DJ making an essential combination as ‘les mots sont signifiants, engagés, mais leur signification est portée par le martèlement du rythme’ . Thanks to block parties, a new type of music was developed; the fusion of significant words and a beating rhythm – rap. What is more, in contrast to other musical genres, with rap, there is no need for musical equipment or a musical education – all that is required is a voice for rapping, and a voice to beatbox .
From the brief history of rap in the US given here, we can see that from rap’s genesis, its link to the identity of people living in marginalised zones is evident. In truth, rap was born from the ghetto and for the ghetto. This principle has not changed for French rap. Indeed, rap was created in the US, but it was transported to France within the decade (the first French rap song, ‘Change de beat’ by Fab 5 Freddy, was recorded in 1976 ) and unemployment, discrimination, poverty and the impoverished space of the ghetto are not issues exclusive to the US, they are transnational. Therefore, we can deduce that an identity that rap evokes is historically accurate and reflects the collective history of impoverished persons from an impoverished space.
Pre-rap identities in la banlieue
The origin of the term ‘banlieue’ first appeared in the thirteenth century as au ban meant to be ‘excluded from a group by proclamation’ and thus, the suburbs marked the space one league (roughly 5.5 kilometres) from a city’s centre . Les banlieues thus predate rap music by over six hundred years. Yet, la banlieue is a concept that developed in the 19th century and, since then, it can be argued that four major identities were established based on class, politics, race and one’s socio-economic background. This can be explained by la banlieue’s history.
In the 1840s, la haute bourgeoisie wanted to enhance Paris’ reputation as La Ville-Lumière by establishing it as the intellectual, cultural and commercial capital of Europe. Industry did not fit within this narrative and so was pushed to the peripheries of the city . This trend continued when la monarchie de Juillet transformed into Napoléon III’s Second Empire. Haussman’s renovations of Paris led to a massive dispersal of the urban poor to the periphery , ensuring the spatial isolation between the rich and the poor. Furthermore, the Third Republic oversaw the Loucher Law (1928), which led to the construction of France’s first social housing projects . With the working class of Paris all situated in one area, a strong working class identity developed which came hand in hand with a strong communist identity.
In 1964, the Parisian suburbs were reorganised in line with Loi 64-707. The departments of La Seine and Seine-et-Oise were deconstructed to form Hauts-de-Seine, Seine-Saint-Denis, Val-de-Marne, Essonne, Yvelines, and Val-d’Oise . This reorganization adhered to certain political, economic and social criteria; areas with a strong communist presence were grouped together, as were communities ‘en difficulté’ and industrial communities . In this way, communities that were most likely to vote against the right wing government were contained. The strong working class presence in Paris’ periphery (with the exception of the west, this was left “preserved” – a trend still observed today) formed a Communist heartland, nicknamed la ceinture rouge. Furthermore, at this time, there were no lycées in the northern suburbs creating a sense of ‘enfermement dans le monde ouvrier’, as the only path for the son of a worker to follow was that of his father . Therefore, it can be argued that for over one hundred years, from the foundation of la banlieue in the 1840s to its modern construction starting in 1928, la banlieue was a place of a strong working class and communist identity – this was an identity that predated rap music.
This working class and communist identity was fairly constant until the mass immigration of the 1960s added another identity – an immigrant identity. Following the Second World War, France had lost 10.6% of its male working population and so immigration was necessary to fill this void . The loss of Algeria in 1962 also saw around one million pieds noirs repatriated to France . Therefore, the period between 1955 and 1974 was nicknamed the ‘vingt glorieuses de l’immigration’ . The creation of an immigrant identity was necessary as immigrants were largely excluded from the French Republican model as plurality is considered ‘a source of balkanizing conflict and therefore as an unwelcome threat to national unity’ . From the beginning of mass immigration to France, the presence of immigrants was never considered permanent; a 1949 survey indicated that 63% of French people opposed the permanent installation of the economic immigrants . They were there simply to reconstruct France after the Second World War and to help its economic development . These immigrants, as non-désirés, were considered ‘comme extérieurs à la communauté nationale’ and so could not become part of the French nation – they were excluded culturally from France. They were also excluded spatially as many immigrants found themselves ‘regroupés dans des quartiers ou des foyers à la périphérie des villes’ . According to Blanchard and Blancel, the immigrant’s condition worsened after the economic crisis of 1973. The high unemployment and poverty rates exacerbated a ‘discours ségrégationniste’ and a ‘rejet xénophobe’ which led to immigration becoming ‘un enjeu de société majeur’ . These pseudocitizens (or ‘sans-parts’ to use Jacques Rancière’s term) found themselves bereft of the psychological attachment to French citizenship and therefore retreated back to their imaginary space where their heterogeneous identity was accepted.
Due to the consequences of the economic crisis, it can also be argued that a fourth identity was established before the days of rap – an identity which was based on one’s economic circumstances. Post 1974 came a recession and, between 1975 and 1990, France lost 1.3 million industrial jobs, which were largely concentrated around the banlieue. As a result, the inhabitants in this area were severely affected by the deindustrialization and the rate of unemployment skyrocketed which descended its inhabitants into poverty. This is a trend which has yet to buckle; the latest figures show the rate of unemployment in la banlieue is around 20%, which is double that of the rest of France, with youth unemployment topping 40% . In truth, unemployment in la banlieue can be as high as 85% .
So, if strong identities existed before rap music, then to what extent has rap forged identity in la banlieue? Given the history of la banlieue, we can argue that, given it did not yet exist, rap music did not help to forge the identity of the first generations of banlieusards. However, if that is the case, then what identity is relevant for those who were born after the 1970s, when the fourth prominent identity was established? Must those persons slot into an identity that is already present, whether that identity befits the culture and experiences of their generation or not?
The Fifth Identity
Chronologically speaking, the development of French rap music coincided with a new generation which witnessed their parent’s identities losing influence. Concerning the working class and communist identities, industry was in decline and so was the influence of the Communist Party. In 1977, the Union of the Left was broken and the Socialist Party overtook the Communist Party in the legislative elections of 1978 for the first time since 1936 . This new generation was also born in France. Unlike their Cameroonian, Moroccan or Haitian parents, they bore a hyphenated status – they were now French-Cameroonian, French-Moroccan or French-Haitian. This new generation also bore the brunt of racism due to the raise of the Front National, whose electorate was steadily growing in the 1980s . Without a doubt, a new identity was necessary to incorporate these new social developments. This identity is what this essay shall deem the banlieusard identity which unites all members of la banlieue despite one’s class, politics, race or socio-economic background. This is an identity which developed alongside rap music.
Rap reflects the transnational identity found in la banlieue. Unlike in the US, where there is ‘une frontière ethnique’ in rap (most rappers are Afro-American, with the exception of, most notably, the Beastie Boys and Eminem), ‘le dénominateur commun des rappeurs [français] n’est pas la couleur de leur peau’ . The ethnic origins of French rappers are diverse; ‘arabe, gaulois, africain, antillais ou simplement banlieusard chez nous’ . The tripartite structure of blanc, black, beur is never more evident than in the French rap scene. For example, for the release of the first edition of Rapattitudes, the first rap compilation album released in 1990, the artists chosen include Dee Nasty, a blanc ; EJM a black, whose parents came from Martinique and Cameroon, and Saliha a beur, with Italian and Arab parents . French rap strives towards ‘métissage’ (culturally, ethnically, linguistically, aesthetically and spatially) as what unites French rappers, is not the colour of their skin, but their location. Rappers are almost exclusively from la banlieue, which is why rappers have such an affiliation to their location and why they represent it so greatly. Suprême NTM state explicitly ‘nous, on se veut représentatif des gens des cités de Saint-Denis’ . On their track, ‘That’s my people’, the sample repeats the words ‘I make music for my people’ and Kool Shen has even created his own music production company named ‘IV My People’ . In addition, IAM is an acronym for ‘Invasion Arrivée de Mars’, their first album was titled ‘…De la planète Mars’ and a solo album of member Imhotep is named ‘Chroniques de Mars’; ‘Mars’ being a reference to their home town, Marseille. The attachment that one has towards the banlieue is explained by Westphal; ‘place is important when you have nothing, when you have less than others. The place where you are must be your place’ .
Given the hyphenated status of some citizens, it can be argued that this creates a kind of hegemonic Frenchness where some French citizens are deemed less French than others. Even if a person is a second or third generation immigrant, they are still not ‘Franco-Français’, that is to say, they are not one hundred per cent French. The rapper Mokobé explains this sentiment perfectly; despite the fact that ‘je suis complètement Français’ and ‘je ne connais pas les reflexes sociaux du Maroc ou du Sénégal’, his nationality is still defined by jus sanguinis and not jus soli. Yet, Mokobé believes that one of rap’s missions is to promote minority identities within French identity and support the quest for mixité;
Ce qui est important, c’est de construire une France moderne, c’est à dire qui vive dans la mixité, comme on le voit dans les concerts rap […] Moi, je veux pouvoir aller acheter ma baguette chez un boulanger franco-français, boire mon café chez les Portugais, acheter ma viande dans une boucherie algérienne, mon journal dans un bar PMU tenu par un Chinois.
As rap pushes for this mixité of the ‘France moderne’, it provides a space where the identity of the hyphenated French is not fractured, but it can be complete.
As rap deems that all ethnicities are accepted in la banlieue, a great sense of belonging is created. A person is not defined by being, for example French-Algerian or French-Senegalese; they are defined by being a banlieusard. French-Haitian rapper Kery James dedicates a song to this concept of collective identity, ‘Banlieusards’. The refrain of this song is ‘Banlieusard et fier de l’être’ emphasising the solidarity between banlieusards. The song’s video displays people from a wide range of ethnicities, but what they all have in common is their banlieue identity.
Another way in which banlieusards created their own identity is through the creation of its own language, verlan. Verlan is a form of metathesis, which places the last syllable of a word at the beginning, making the sentence ambiguous to people unfamiliar with the language . Although there is evidence of verlan in the 1100s, it became commonly used in la banlieue by young, second-generation immigrants of North African origin and was popularised by rap . Therefore, verlan became ‘a tool for forging, negotiating and expressing identities’ . As verlan was systemised in la banlieue, it is influenced by its settings. As a result, the language is also bursting with foreign vocabulary; for example, Arabic (‘wesh’, Algerian Arabic), Romani (‘oseille’) and West African languages (‘gorette’, Wolof) . Verlan serves as a symbol of linguistic, and by extension, social diversity; with verlan, ‘le français, le berbère, le kanak, le provençal pourront devenir des langues égalitaires’ . The language of la banlieue does not discriminate against alternative identities, unlike the French language which seeks to preserve its homogeneity (we think to the Toubon Law which increased the monitoring of the influence of verlan and words of foreign origin in the French language ). Therefore, those who find themselves outside the dominant identity are empowered; verlan has allowed them to create ‘notre langage à nous’ . The use of verlan in rap is constant, for example in NTM’s ‘Pose ton gun’; ‘Respecte les gens ! Pas leur genhar (argent) / Qu’ils pèsent ou non, qu’ils viennent ou non du tiéquar (quartier)’ . Due to rap’s publicising and popularising of verlan, the language has gained legitimacy. It is now used and understood in day-to-day life by French people not hailing from la banlieue. For example, Intouchables, the second highest grossing French film in history (closely behind Bienvenue les Ch’tis) , intersperses verlan (‘meuf’ and ‘keum’) and words of foreign origin (‘duronne’ and ‘oseille’) throughout the film emphasising the popularity of the language as the audience are expected to know these words’ meaning. The most popular verlan terminology is now included in the Petit Robert and it even has its own dictionary, Comment tu tchatches ! . Even in 1985, politicians were well versed in verlan. Verlan is now even used by those at the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum; when François Mitterand was asked in an interview the meaning of chébran, he replied ‘Ça veut dire « branché » […] mais c’est déjà un peu dépassé, vous auriez dû dire « câblé » […]’ .
However, rap music is criticised for exacerbating, exaggerating and even condoning the negative aspects of la banlieue’s indentity. For example, ‘Demain c’est loin’ by IAM is a nine-minute track which concentrates on la galère of la banlieue. Many themes are covered in this track, for example the lack of social mobility (‘On est là, jamais on s’en sortira, Satan nous tient avec sa fourche’), drugs (‘Haschich au kilo’) and the dire appearance of la banlieue (‘un champ de béton’) . The backing music loops the same ten-second sample, which reflects the monotony and banality of la banlieue. Its video reflects the lyrics with images of drug dealing, drug taking, prostitution, police brutality, violence and derelict buildings . However, ‘Demain c’est loin’ seems to exacerbate the negative portrayal of la banlieue as it only concentrates on the negative imagery. What is more, it does not offer any advice or explanation of how conditions may be ameliorated in la banlieue, it simply describes them, and even seems to act as a guide; referring to the fabrication of cannabis, ‘On coupe, on compresse, on découpe, on emballe, on vend’. It appears that rap music can be hypocritical as it simultaneously denounces and glorifies negative aspects.
What is more, rappers can even be perceived as a bad influence on la banlieue’s identity. Sexion d’assaut, who won groupe de l’année at the NRJ Music Awards in 2013, stated during an interview that ‘On est 100% homophobes […] C’est une déviance qui n’est pas tolérable’ . There are also claims that rap can be misogynistic; to take the example of Suprême NTM, the second half of their name means ‘Nique Ta Mère’ . For Booba’s track ‘Caramel’, the video features women provocatively dressed and provocatively dancing. His lyrics include ‘Instinct animal basique, ice pick, nice bitch’ and ‘Tu veux baiser ou pas?’ showing a negative depiction of women as sexual objects. Rappers can also condone anti-social behaviour. The ‘NTM Affair’ (14th July 1995) saw JoeyStarr and Kool Shen jailed and fined for ‘outrages à personnes détentrices de l’autorité publique’ as JoeyStarr proclaimed ‘J’encule et je pisse sur la Justice’ and encouraged the crowd to ‘nique la police’ . However, contrary to the intention of the authorities, the NTM Affair actually benefited the duo; their most recently released album went platinum and they received air play on radio stations which did not specialise in urban music. Given the commercial success and exposure that the NTM Affair afforded NTM, it thus raises another critique of rap music. Are rappers deliberately playing on the negative depictions of la banlieue and creating a hyperbolic banlieusard identity in order to gain more commercial success and exposure? It is argued that with rap ‘c’est mécanique. Le premier album, t’es énervé. Le deuxième, t’es plus conciliant. Logique : entretemps, t’as gagné deux disques d’or et tu ne vis plus les conditions de vie que tu dénonçais au début’ .
It is indisputable that from the second generation of rap onwards, rappers did gain commercial success from publicising la galère of la banlieue. However, this was not an exploitation of la banlieue. Rapping is considered an act of citizenship by a rapper; according to JoeyStarr ‘mon devoir de citoyen, je le remplis tous les jours, en écrivant mes raps’ . IAM goes even further in describing rappers as the ‘sentinelles’ who protect the inhabitants of la banlieue against exploitation and Kery James even considers himself a ‘soldat’ who fights for their justice:
[The rapper] commits himself in his discourse and becomes responsible for educating his community. He acquires the status of master, pedagogue, visionary, the true interpreter of past and future. Accordingly, thanks to hip hop cultural-aesthetic experience, audiences can recognize themselves as social groups sharing a similar identity.
This didactism formed the third wave of rap, where rappers realised that they had a duty to help alleviate the conditions in la banlieue. Rappers were becoming fully involved in the politics of la banlieue; they were imploring citizens of the suburbs to vote and setting up philanthropic associations to help combat the social issues. For instance, Kery James established ACES (Apprendre, Comprendre, Entreprendre et Servir) to encourage young banlieusards into higher education . Therefore, the didactism of rappers has even been likened to the engagement of the French intellectual .
What is more, rap’s violent, homophobic or misogynistic tendencies can be attributed to realism as ‘tout ce qu’on fait vient du côté sobre et sinistre de la réalité, c’est là où on vit’ . As rappers often refer to themselves as the ‘porte-paroles’, ‘haut-parleurs’ or even ‘journalistes’ , it is clear that rap is not exacerbating negative aspects but it is vocalising issues already present in la banlieue with the intention of bringing these issues to the attention of the wider public and the authorities.
In addition, the apparent hypocrisy in rap can be explained. Martin argues that rappers create ‘original combinations’ which allows the fusion of individualism (which allows them to be commercially successful) with humanism (which allows them to fulfill their didactic duty). Examples of rapper’s original combinations are:
Collective solidarity and individualism; defense of the exploited and aspiration to the lifestyle of the exploiters; denunciation of the ‘system’ and wish to find a place in that ‘system’; opposition to the regime and conviction that voting is a citizen’s duty .
Therefore, the message that rap is bringing to la banlieue is that your future is not determined by your past and that you can “make it”. This sentiment is clear with the latest generation of rap which showcases their success. Videos show rappers surrounded by expensive material goods such as large houses, sports cars and gold jewellery, such as in ‘Scarface’ by Booba . The video of ‘Banlieusards’ by Kery James showcases successful banlieusards (see image) . Motivational messages now feature heavily in the fifth generation of rap. For example, in Disiz’s ‘Dans Tes Rêves’:
Ne laisse jamais les autres t’écarter de ta route,
Et si tu t’envoies vers tes rêves, tu peux te cacher dans la soute,
Ne laisse jamais les autres te faire la place au doute,
Et quand tombera la pluie des rêves, profites-en au goutte-à-goutte
Therefore, the identity that modern rap music is showing banlieusards is one of success and social mobility.
La banlieue as an imagined space is the result of its geographical, cultural and racial isolation and marginalisation. As banlieusards were socially constructed to be different to the citizens of mainstream French society, they created their own identity borne out of necessity. Indeed, there were four prominent identities in la banlieue – class, communist, immigrant and poor – before the development of rap music so it cannot be argued that rap influenced the identity of the first generations of banlieusards. Yet, the birth of the second generation of immigrants, the decline of the other identities and the consequences of the economic crisis of 1973 meant that a new identity was needed. Whilst it cannot be said that it was directly from rap that this new identity was created, rap developed alongside this new identity and gave it a platform. Rap helped to legitimise this identity and legitimise la banlieue. Despite its flaws, rap’s duty to represent, glorify and ultimately improve la banlieue is evident in its didactism. The sheer popularity of rap, rap’s quest to transcend ‘la frontière éthnique’ and the wide use of verlan shows that rap is not exclusive to la banlieue. As Diam’s proclaims, ‘Je rappe pour les tess [cités], je rappe pour les pav [pavillons]’ showing that rap can also appeal to the wider French public who dream of a tolerant and multicultural society. Rap means that la banlieue is no longer a marginalised space on the periphery of a city, it is no longer ‘un magma informe, un désert […] un purgatoire circulaire, avec au centre Paris-Paradis’ , this space has legitimacy, relevancy and, above all, a concrete identity. This space is la banlieue, and its inhabitants are les banlieusards.