Disrupting Whiteness: Why French Rap Was Ignored at the French Music Awards

“Some might call this racist — not the French.”
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At the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards, the Recording Academy and its committee of voters once again faltered in their attempt to posture as a fair and impartial institution. The lazy, blanket award for Latin music—the Best Latin Rock, Urban, or Alternative Album—failed to find a Latin winner, instead, going to a Flamenco pop record from Spain. For the eighth consecutive year, the racial catchall, the Best Urban Contemporary Album, reared its tokenist head; while Tyler, The Creator’s pop classic was willfully miscast as a rap album.

But while rap produced by people of color was at least considered at the GRAMMYs, in France, hip-hop’s second-largest market, Les Victoires de la Musique (France’s version of the GRAMMYs) decided to suppress the achievements of rap unreservedly. When the Victoires’ board of voters unveiled their selections in January, gone were the racial typecast “World” and “Urban” awards, and in their place, a refined list of only eight categories.

Of the five Album of the Year nominations, three came from chanson française, a native pop genre with little imprint on contemporary culture. None of the nominees spawned a popular single, and only one managed to sell over 50,000 copies. They were, however, united by a common bond, as albums created by white men. The two remaining spaces were reserved for palatable French rap; Nekfeu’s Les étoiles vagabondes and Lomepal’s Jeannine, both of which were acclaimed and sold copiously. They, too, were united by the same common thread: white men raised middle-class in the center of Paris.

If the Victoires were an accurate representation of the French music scene, you’d be forgiven for thinking that people of color do not make music in France. In actuality, rappers of African origin, raised as a social minority in quasi-apartheid, conversely represent the largest financial entity in the French music market today. They also fundamentally disrupt French whiteness.

The first-week sales of PNL’s widely praised album, Deux Frères, were higher than the year-long sales of any of the nominated non-rap albums. The brotherly duo, whose No. 1 album achieved Triple Platinum status within three months, also amassed 18 Gold, six Platinum, and a Diamond single in 2019. Their undeniable contributions to the French musical economy were rewarded with a perfunctory nomination for an audiovisual award.

The Victoires’ mandate is to recognize the achievements of French music. Yet, there were no more prominent musical achievements in 2019 than those of French rap. PNL’s independent success typified an exceptional year that saw French rap sit atop the album chart for 31 weeks, while Parisian rappers sold more albums than any other city in the world. Nevertheless, PNL did not feature among the nominations for Album of the Year, nor in the three selections for Male Artist of the Year.

Likewise, Ninho, whose album Destin topped the album charts twice in 2019, achieving Triple Platinum status and securing two No. 1 singles, was also conspicuous by his absence in the Artist of the Year category. This snub came despite the 23-year-old of Congolese origin collecting an astonishing 26 Gold, five Platinum, and three Diamond singles. Only Lomepal’s melange of rap and chanson française was selected to represent hip-hop.

In 2019, French rappers released 12 Gold, six Platinum, five Multi-Platinum, and one Diamond album. Even so, there was no place for rap in the category of Album Revelation or Song of the Year—this despite French rappers releasing 70 Gold and 17 Platinum songs in 2019, and featuring on 15 of the 19 No. 1 singles, including the year’s most successful song, PNL’s “Au DD.” There was also no place for French rap in the “Concert” category; despite Gims packing 72,000 people into the national stadium, Soprano’s performing two sold-out shows to over 100,000 spectators in Marseille, or Ninho’s 25-date nationwide tour.

In previous years, an appeasing award for the music of black origin existed by several euphemisms or disinterested catchalls, like the award for the Best Rap/Ragga/Hip-Hop/R&B Album. These prizes habitually went to artists deemed not to be too confrontational to whiteness or white rappers. But, this is when domestic rap was little more than a safe subculture, incapable of challenging the status quo of mythical France. One, like the migrants who produced it, that could be pushed aside in favor of something more demonstrably French.

The president of the Victoires, Romain Vivien, revealed that the genre awards were removed as not to marginalize artists, pointing to PNL’s previous refusal to participate on account of being limited to the “Rap” category. The decision, however, did not result in a broadening of the margins to include France’s most prominent musical genre, but a complete whitewashing of the ceremony. Vivien explained by stating that many “diversity artists” passed the first round of voting, but not the second, where the “sympathy of the voters goes to less targeted genres, artists who sell between 400,000 and a million copies of their albums, or those who have made themselves known outside of music.”

The achievements of these “less targeted genres” ultimately lies in their connection to a romanticized white France. The inference that white artists whose commercially underwhelming efforts—when compared to people of color who have arisen from poverty—deserve more sympathy is inherently paranoiac. When you consider Ninho’s Destin sold 373,000 copies in 2019 and PNL’s Deux Frères 397,000, mere units under the supposed 400,000 “sympathy” margin, it’s far more unscrupulous.

Artists like PNL and Ninho, who overcame marginalization to establish themselves as the most commercially viable artists in France, are not deserving of being rewarded for their accomplishments because a singer like Philippe Katerine, according to Vivien, is “very present in cinema... and appreciated by the professionals who have seen him evolve.”

The Victoires de la Musique, like the GRAMMYs, is but a glorified spectacle of what its voters wish its country to be. Successful people of color do not suit that agenda. Trivializing their accomplishments is an attempt to ignore the reality that France’s migrants, who it has ghettoized and despised for decades, have rendered its passé musical genres obsolete.

Some might call this racist—not the French.

In an endeavor to find a permanent solution for any criticism of racism, the French state removed the word race itself from the constitution in 2018. Now, there is no such thing as race, only French. Professedly based on the desire to demonstrate race being nothing more than a social construct, in practice, it is the beau idéal defense for any claim of exclusion or discrimination.

The genocidal bookkeeping of the Third Reich persuaded France to not compile statistics on race and religion following World War II. Accordingly, there are no figures to account for the overwhelming number of people of color living below the poverty line. There is no data to highlight the widespread employment and housing discrimination suffered by those only considered to be French on paper. Nor can we pinpoint the number of migrant lives lost to police brutality each year. Racism is a genuine reality for millions of people in France, but it cannot be discussed, due to an opposing plan to pretend race doesn’t exist.

The French social model preaches multiculturalism while only making space for one culture. Migrants from its former colonial empire who wish to settle in France must abide by this hyphenated identity and leave their language, culture, and religion in their stolen homeland. The idea of forcing an identity upon people whose ancestors you had previously forced an identity upon, seems insensitive. In practice, impelling secularism is a tenet of France’s own, civil religion.

The Victoires demonstrates that to be French means to be white. The millions of second-generation migrants in France are seen by many, not as a contribution to a great universalist paradigm, but as a replacement threatening to vanquish the white population. This crisis of French whiteness is ubiquitous, and politicians espousing these beliefs are widely supported in national elections. An estimated 25 percent of France believes they are living amid white genocide, a figure that rises substantially among those who identify as gilets jaunes, a social movement currently battling the government for reforms.

As such, non-white French rap is inimical to those who believe they are being systematically replaced by unrelenting Muslim birthrates and heartsick refugees. As France’s music scene has been turned on its head by its migrants, the country is forced to face the truth that its segregated communities are not only empowered but fundamentally changing the face of France. The government-run Victoires de la Musique is buoyed by this fear and has chosen to implement a system that instead promotes the unpigmented version of a France it wishes to see.

In addition to fanning the fears of impending white genocide, French rap also confronts the very notion of what it is to be French, by radically reforming the French language. Since the 1600s and the birth of the Académie Française, the French language has been actively policed by the almost 400-year-old academy. Preventing the language from fluid advancement is of paramount importance to the French identity, a linguistic ideology that is an active instrument of its white supremacy

The French language is taught to be a language of progress while resisting progression itself. It’s said to be the language of intelligence, yet not truly understood by most of its native speakers. It’s instructed as a language of belonging while excluding anyone who cannot master it with a pleasing accent. Speaking French alone will not guarantee integration, and it will never make you French.

In the country’s banlieues, where hip-hop was born and thrives, another tongue flourishes, an anti-language drawn from the creative reappropriation of French, suffused with Arabic and Romani. This argot fashions its own social space and has been widely legitimized by its use in rap, granting speakers its own unique identity—an identity that confronts a system of prejudice through its very existence. This lexicon, deemed harmful to French whiteness, is now being co-opted by millions of middle-class white teens indulging in non-white French rap.

In 2016, the French National Commission on Human Rights reported that 50 percent of the country believed Islam to be a menace to the national identity. Last year, the National Front’s Marine le Pen—whose platform is to “save French civilization” from migrants—won the country’s European election vote. Le Pen, the runner up in the last presidential election, will rechallenge unpopular leader Emmanual Macron in 2022.

The sight of two proud Muslim brothers sitting on top of the Eiffel Tower, while paying no heed to linguistic requisites nor intolerance towards them, is the epitome of cultural dissent. Such a symbolic declaration by a group who refuses to talk to or acknowledge the French press, defiantly challenges the country’s rampant Islamophobia. French rap loyalists may lament the loss of the genre’s overt politicism, but in its unprecedented presence, it has never been more political.

France is a country of gross paradoxes, tirelessly celebrating its universalist revolution 230 years ago while refusing to acknowledge that it embraced Nazism 80 years ago. Little is made of the Algerian soldiers who, then considered to be French, fought to remove white French Nazis from power during WWII. This fact, like Algerians producing the most popularly consumed music in 2019, France wishes to forget.

PNL and other successful Franco-Algerian rappers are a potent reminder that France didn’t bury Algerian pride—not through 132 years of occupation, nor when its police murdered and threw the bodies of Algerian protesters into the Seine in 1961. Likewise, Congolese rappers like Ninho succeeding in France while white working-class French people are unable to profit economically from their racial loyalty to wealthy whites are victories achieved in contempt of a legacy of enslavement and enduring exclusion. Victories that were never supposed to happen.

Less the celebration of French accomplishments, the Victoires de la Musique is a vain attempt at reinforcing the shaky boundaries of a false French identity. The shameful pursuit of rewarding undeserving white men is not only reserved for its music awards, however. The César awards—the French equivalent of the Oscars—recently announced that exiled child rapist Roman Polanski leads their nominations this year, ahead of Ladj Ly’s Oscar-nominated Les Misérables.

One award ceremony at a time, France’s white crisis will ultimately be its undoing. The longer the Victoires de la Musique ignore the accomplishments of its rappers of color, the more they encourage a generation of disenfranchised adolescents to share their grievances with an invested young France, increasingly disinterested in their parochial award show.

French rap’s rise to cultural significance poses more of a problem than it does a financial opportunity to a country consumed with its own identity. Rather than capitalize on an infinitely profitable commodity, France is engaged in a futile attempt to shelter its population from the success of its unwanted migrants. French rap’s achievements are manifold, but its victories are not for France, they are victories despite France. To quote PNL: “We’re not like them, we piss on the throne and leave with the money.

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