Black, Blanc, Beur: Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture in the Francophone World. Edited by Alain Philippe Durand. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002. [xviii, ?50 p. ISBN 0-8108-4431-1. $49.50 (hbk.); ISBN 0-8108-4430-1. $24.50 (pbk.).] Illustrations, index.
On his scooter, Roger Chamberland was crossing Quebec's bridge, as he did every evening on his way back home from the university. Suddenly, he had a flat. He fell and died in a coma a few days later. Chamberland's contribution to this collection of essays on Francophone rap music was his last one, but not his least. By helping to bring Quebec's rap music a little more to the fore, he was able to attain one of his academic goals, a goal shared by all contributors to Black, Blanc, Beur: to relate "the emergence and growing notoriety of rap music and hip-hop culture in France and the rest of the Francophone world" (p. xiii), as the book's editor, Alain-Philippe Durand, simply puts it. "But why did a book as important as this take so long," asks Adam Krims in his foreword to the book (p. vii)? "Never mind," he answers; the book approaches rap in a refreshing way: "Far from the shopworn notion of hip-hop as quintessential urban guerrilla practice, the [ten] essays collected here allow for subtle mappings of the intertwined structures of urban form, cultural production, class, and ethnicity" (p. viii). Another contributor, Andre J. M. Prevos (1948-2002), author of the first essay, died just before the publication of the book, and it is dedicatecl to his memory.
Of course, academics studying hip-hop culture have mostly focused on the American scene. But this situation is gradually changing, as demonstrated by recent studies by Tony Mitchell, Andy Bennett, or Krims himself: Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop outside the. USA, ed. Tony Mitchell (Middletown, OT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001); Andy Bennell, "Hip hop am Main: the Localization of Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture" (Media, Culture, and Society 21.1 : 77-91); Adam Krims, Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). This collection is the first book in English devoted entirely to Francophone rap, and as such aims at filling an important gap. But does it? In many respects, yes, even though some essays just skim over the subject-an almost unavoidable characteristic of such collections-without really addressing some of the fundamental questions related to the construction of cultural identities, or even to the musical mechanisms underlying rap in a Francophone context.
For example, while Prevos's opening chapter, "Two Decades of Rap in France: Emergence, Developments, Prospects," offers a rather thorough survey of the development of rap in France-with a long enumeration of the most important French rap artists, complemented by a useful discography (pp. 20-21)-the effort is potentially not that telling for most English-speaking readers who might know only a little about France's social context and contemporary history. Indeed, the chapter only briefly describes the French banlieues, "these popular suburban areas of French cities" (p. 3), often referred to by local Parisians as the ale. True, we get an idea of how the youth groups living in the banlieues are organized (pp. 3-4), but very little about the political and economic factors that have led to the emergence of such tense, isolated, concrete-block areas in the first place. Similarly, while we find some revealing discussion concerning rap groups from Southern France, and especially Marseilles (pp. 12-13), not much is said about the condition of Arab immigrants in the area since the Algerian war, and the difficult relationship they have with either French locals or the returning French-Algerian immigrants. Only in an editor's note to the last essay do we find a reference to pieds-noirs, those "French nationals who settled and remained in the former French colonies of North Africa, especially Algeria, until these countries gained their independence in the 1960s" (p. 135, n. 4).
To Prevos's credit, this opening chapter is not about the history of France. But we do get the impression that it was not written with an Anglophone readership in mind, a problem that could have been easily remedied by adding an introductory chapter on the social conditions of French youth since the 1970s, a gap that perhaps Durand's too short introduction could otherwise have filled (pp. xiii-xvii). But again, Prevos's chapter is worth a read, if only for its description of the large range of styles and cultures, not only revealing the unsuspected richness of France's hip-hop scene but also the not so well-known influence that some French musicians had on early New York-based American hip-hop artists (pp. 1-3).
In fact, the most interesting descriptions and arguments put forward in the book are to be found in chapters exploring in more specific ways some of the avenues initially opened by Prevos, either by focusing on particular geographical areas and styles-Marseilles (chap. 2), gangsta rap (chap. 4), Gabon (chap. 9), Quebec (chap. 10)-or by describing parallel practices, such as graffiti (chap. 7) and dance (chap. 8). It is in these essays, informed by (in this case, pertinent) poslcolonial, poststructuralist, or renewed musicological approaches, where the real value of this book resides. Consequently, I will now concentrate on two of these essays, one because of its musicological interest, the other because it reveals the subtle ambivalence that characterizes not only French rap, but hip-hop culture worldwide.
In "Musical Dimensions and Ways of Expressing Identity in French Rap: The Groups from Marseilles," Jean-Marie Jacono introduces us to IAM, one of Marseilles' most influential rap groups, and attempts, as the essay's title suggests, to link musicological observations to expressions of identity: "I will seek," Jacono writes, "to establish the existence of a Marseilles style in French rap based on music," because, "The study of the musical dimensions of IAM and of the relationship between text and music is of great significance and fully justifies a musicological approach" (p. 22). After an introductory section on IAM (pp. 23-25), Jacono begins his musicological analysis by discussing the interaction of musical and linguistic items, such as sound excerpts, samples, accent, and flow. Since "the oppositions and contrasts of this city deprived of urban homogeneity can be found in the very diversity of subjects," Jacono draws a homology between this diversity and IAM's "musical structure in which the variety of themes is highlighted by two alternating types of titles: songs and inserts" (p. 26), where inserts consist of nonmusical excerpts, "small snatches, generally very funny and full of coinages [that] create a pause, but also restart the listening process" (p. 26). Jacono finds an analogous meaningful contrasting relation between the rappers' language and parole since "the language used is 'standard' French", while "tbe contrasting effects that reveal the Marseilles identity are conveyed by declamation" (p. 26). Diversity is, of course, also illustrated by the use of samples "from very different kinds of music and sources" (p. 27), including excerpts of film music and diverse sound effects. Consequently, just as Marseilles "binds together its inhabitants beyond the cultures of their countries of origin[, t]hrough its rap music, IAM unifies musical sources that could not meet elsewhere" (p. 28).
Anthropologist Paul A. Silverstein's chapter on "French Gangsta Raj) and the Critique of State Capitalism" is clearly the best essay offered by the collection. In a well-structured and nicely written argument, supported by strong bibliographic references and a detailed critical apparatus (note 6 on page 60 provides a long, refined definition of gangsta rap), this central essay really captures the ethos of French rap, and of gangsta rap in particular. Silverstein first identifies some of the key issues surrounding the emergence of gangsta rap in French society, where he sees "a profound ambivalence both in the French state's projects for integrating ... its immigrant, minority, and poorer populations, as well as in the popular cultural response to such attempts, nolahly in the ever-burgeoning 'hip-hop' culture." he then explains a situation that could be easily applied to most so-called "developed" societies throughout the world:
While the state, in alliance with multinational corporations, has encouraged the expansion of new-liberal economic policies of commercialism and consumerism throughout its internal peripheries, it has nonetheless sought to regulate and contain the discourse and practices engendered by such expansionism. . . . Likewise, hip hop formations themselves, while enunciating an explicit critique of both state interventionism and the global market, have directly benefited from both. (p. 47)
More specilically, "French 'gangsta rap,' while utilizing the expressive styles ... of 'hatred' from the 'system,' clearly also embraces the rapacious possibilities enabled by the nco-liberal mode of accumulation" (p. 48). The remainder of the essay convincingly demonstrates this thesis by analyzing a wide range of political (French "Neo-Liberalism," pp. 48-52), economical ("Guerilla (Capitalism," pp. 52-54), and geogmphical ("Local Citizenship," pp. 54-58) issues. In a final statement, Silverstein brilliantly summarizes what should have been the central argument of the whole book, developing Krims's earlier remark about the necessity of approaching rap not solely as a culture of resistance: "French gangsta rap artists exist ambivalently within a capitalist system they despise yet on which they depend for both the distribution of their message and for their financial well being, lor their ability to escape the cite physically while still remaining attached to it ideologically" (p. 58).
Much could be said about other contributions, such as Anne-Marie Green's short, but instructive description of youth reception of rap music in France (chap. 6), or the aforementioned chapters on graffiti and dance. Still, like its title, Black, Blanc Beur, refers to the combination of African, white, and Arab cultural elements charactenxing both the music and the expression of the French hip-hop complex identity, so the wide range of relevant approaches used in most of the essays, as well as the variety of issues discussed by their authors are worth, I think, an attentive reading-although the reader should look into it only alter becoming familiar with some aspects of contemporary French society.