French Muslim Rappers Pay Tribute to Their Religious Culture, and Assert Their French Identity

[ 0 ] March 31, 2014

Unknownby AMBER WATSON for ISLAMiCommentary on MARCH 31, 2014:

Ni violeur ni terroriste, c’est pour les ghettos qui montrent par l’exemple, les banlieues qui s’accrochent à la rampe
Ni violeur ni terroriste, c’est pour les Hommes et les djinns, les hijabs et les jeans, Aboubakr et Médine
–—  Médine (feat Aboubakr) “Ni violeur ni terroriste,” 11 Septembre (album)

Médine, a Muslim artist in France, raps in 2004’s Ni Violeur Ni Terroriste (Neither Rapist Nor Terrorist) that his song is for the ghettos, as well as for the djinns and the hijabs. He uses Islamic references to djinns, which are spiritual creatures in Islam as well as the hijabs, a reference to the headscarves worn by women of the Islamic faith.

Since the early 2000s, there has been a rapid increase in the use of Islamic language by French Muslim rap artists. Many use their songs to address issues of social, political, and economic inequalities, as well as the dynamics of colliding cultures. Médine sings about discrimination against Muslims in the airports and on public transportation as well as their lives in les banlieues (ghettos). (The banlieues, housing in the suburbs of large French cities, were built in the 1960s and 70s to house factory workers and their families. Today they are heavily populated by immigrants; many of lower socio-economic status.)

Benjamin Hebblethwaite, Professor of Hatian Creole and French at the University of Florida, came to Duke this February to expand on this phenomenon at an event called “Rap and Islam in France.” He started the discussion by noting that lexical borrowings in the urban French language are created in the core of immigration, where the “internationalization of the language” occurs. 

Non-religious Arabic words such as bled meaning “country” and bezel meaning “a lot,” also used in this music, are becoming increasingly known to the French youth outside of the Arab immigration niche. In fact, little by little, these words are beginning to be used in verlan, the French slang that is a popular mode of communication amongst the youth.

Many studies have explored the relationship of music to religion, but more often than not they examine the lyrics within hymns and gospels; the type of song one would normally think of when they hear the words “religion” and “music” put together.

Increasingly in today’s generation, rap acts as a “magnet for immigrant populations” all over the world, explained Hebblethwaite. Since Muslim immigrants are one of the largest immigrant populations in Europe, immigration, religion, and rap have melded together.

“Preserving Arabic-Islamic culture within French rap lyrics reflects a ‘bicultural hybridization’ in which traditional values converge with occidental ones,” Hebblethwaite said as he described the way that Muslim rappers assert their French identity while also paying tribute to their religious culture. In this way, they are neither fully accepting the mainstream French culture nor the culture of their Arabic-speaking parents.

As he delved into the nitty-gritty of the lyrics themselves, Hebblethwaite showed how artists such as Médine, Bakar, Kery James, and K-Rhyme Le Roi (below), use both their personal narratives and their religion to create a “layperson Islam” effect. Instead of using the normative scholarly approach to Islam, they relay a message that can be heard by those from all walks of life. Other rappers he mentioned included Niro, Mister You, Kaotik, Booba, Soprano, Kamelancien, and Lunatic.

Throughout his research, Hebblethwaite has discovered a growing list of Arabic/Islamic words and phrases that are beginning to penetrate the greater public sphere in France via these Muslim rap artists. The rap genre in France has become extremely popular in the past decade amongst the general French youth population.

“Islam has worked to transcend racial boundaries significantly more than European culture,” Hebblethwaite said, and is continuing to do so by fighting Islamophobia and disseminating a new “European Islam,” using rap as its newest mechanism.

This new hybrid Islamic-French identity challenges the idea that there can only be a laique or secular France; youth in French society are redefining the image of their national culture.

Ellen McLarney, Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature and Culture at Duke observes that “sociological research shows that people assimilate better in the long run when they have ethnic and kin based networks that they can to rely on,” arguing that ethnic enclaves provide immigrants with a support system that help them with the process of assimilation in the long run.

Hebblethwaite agrees. “Multiculturalism is there [in France] to stay.”

WATCH

Dernier MC by Kery James:

Qibla by K-Rhyme Le Roi:

Come Bak by BAKAR 

Amber Watson is a junior at Duke University majoring in International Comparative Studies and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, with a minor in French. 

This article was made possible (in part) by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by the Duke Islamic Studies Center — in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies — aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and Muslim communities. See www.islamicommentary.org/about and www.tirnscholars.org/about for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s). 

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