11 September 2020

A history of French rap music: popular success, political deafness

In her PhD thesis, Paroma Ghose uses the lyrics of songs by French rappers between 1981 and 2012, as well as a detailed history of their origins, to write a history of the “other” in France. Rap lyrics provide a way both into their experience of being secondary citizens of a very present nation-state, and into their vision of what the Republic should become. However, despite its increasing popularity, rap has landed on largely silent ears in the political system and beyond. Perhaps, as Paroma hopes in this interview, her distillation of rappers’ message into an academic form will have some policy implications.

How did you come to choose your research topic? 

Rap is the way in which I discovered history and politics. At the age of 11, I stumbled across The Real Slim Shady by Eminem, and the rhythm and poetry (RAP) of the song took me down a journey of musical and lyrical exploration. I found within the words of rap songs a lot of narrated realities that broke my imagined image of the world, and these gave me a curiosity to delve further into how societies had come to take their current shapes. It took very little further persuasion to nudge me down the rabbit hole of historical (and historiographical) discovery. History, politics, and music thus formed a very natural nexus for my own intellectual endeavours. The opportunity to bring this to the fore within an academic context was offered to me by my supervisor, Professor Davide Rodogno. Together, we decided to hone in on France, partly because it had a lyrical discourse that was still in the early stages of academic enquiry, and partly because it was too compelling an area (literally, musically, figuratively) to not explore. This provided the ambit of my thesis.

How did you formulate your research questions and what was your methodology? 

My essential thesis questions were the following: To what extent was rap in France politicised? How far was the voice of the rapper the voice of the “other”? And to what extent was this “representative”, and what exactly did rappers represent? In order to approach the material in a more objective manner, I constructed and coded a dataset of 493 rappers in France between 1981 and 2012. I collected detailed information on twenty separate categories, including their dominant lyrical themes, their locality (or quartier) of origin, and their country of origin (where applicable). I then drew statistical information from the dataset, and combined it with literary analysis of song lyrics, as well as socio-political and cultural historiography to build my argument with a historical perspective.

What were your major findings? 

Four major findings became apparent in my thesis. First, rap in France saw great musical evolution, but significant thematic stagnation, between 1981 and 2012. I chose the word stagnation because it aptly described the static status of the reiterated thematic sentiments, as much as reflecting the tone – a sense of disbelief and exasperation – in which these ideas were often rapped. Second, rappers in France used a particularly historical vernacular (with references specific to French history and experience), which locates their art very much within the geography they inhabit. Moreover, the accusations and demands made of French society and the French State request access to a system that already exists (as for instance in IAM's song Nés sous la même étoile), rather than an outright revolution and overturning, as has tended to be the general assumption until the present. Third, the politicisation of French rap songs, and the claims that they made about their experiences, were more a reflection of reality than a trope of the musical form. And finally, despite the exponentially expanding platform of rap, its reach and its popularity, the ever-increasing volume of the music does not equate to the visible results of its message. In other words, to rephrase Gayatri Spivak’s famous query “Can the subaltern speak?”, in my thesis, I found that yes it can, and it will; but it is not really heard.

Akhenaton and Shurik’N of the seminal rap group IAM from Marseille
Akhenaton and Shurik’N of the seminal rap group IAM from Marseille performing in Geneva in late 2017. In their own words: “J’exprime mon avis, même si tout le monde s’en fiche / Je ne serais pas comme ça si j’avais vu la vie riche” (song: Nés sous la même étoile). Picture by Paroma Ghose.

Can you cite current issues on which your study of French rap helps shed a new light? 

Given rap’s own socio-political history, and that it has always been a music dependent on lyrical currency and relevance, it is a cultural form that finds itself intricately intertwined with #BlackLivesMatter, #JusticepourAdama, and other current social and political movements. In a broader sense, rap in France is particularly important when examining national identity, the discourse on belonging, and political governance on immigration, all of which are at the forefront of contemporary politics. In some ways, my thesis inadvertently became even more relevant to current topical issues over the course of my writing it than it was at its beginnings.

In view of this relevance, what are the social and political implications of your thesis? 

My research gives space and a slightly different platform to the words and ideas of rappers in France. They have already made their message loud and clear; I have simply distilled it into an academic form. My thesis helps to throw light on aspects of the experience of those of immigrant origin and/or from a less privileged socioeconomic background in France through their own words, which could have implications for policy, as much as the ongoing debates on immigration, integration, and national identity.

What are you doing now?

I am currently employed as an Information Analyst at ACAPS, a non-governmental, non-profit project housed under the Norwegian Refugee Council. I am also in the process of preparing articles for publication from my thesis. I hope, eventually, to be able to combine my academic and humanitarian interests with a musical aspect, but as this is an unconventional route, its shape and the rhythm of its political beat have yet to be defined.

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Listen also to a related podcast with Paroma:

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Paroma Ghose defended her PhD thesis in International History in June 2020. Associate Professor Amalia Ribi Forclaz presided the committee, which included Professor Davide Rodogno, thesis director, and Professor Karim Hammou, Researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and member of the Centre for Sociological and Political Research in Paris (CRESPPA).

Congratulations to Dr Ghose, who received on 11 September the Pierre du Bois Prize 2020, awarded annually for the best doctoral thesis in International History defended at the Graduate Institute.  

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Ghose, Paroma. “‛Silence… On est en France’”: A Rap History of the ‛Other’ in France (1981–2012).” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2020.

Visit also Dr Ghose’s blog (in French) >

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by AS photo studio/