MARSEILLE, France – The quiet, shifty-eyed hashish and cocaine business outside Oliviers Snack, a fast-food joint in the graffiti-smeared Oliviers neighborhood, turned loud last week with the arrival of Aziz Chamsoudini, aka Skar, a rap artist and neighborhood hero.
A couple of young shaven-head men turned up their car’s CD player so everyone on the block could hear “Bring Pressure.” It’s a track from “By All Means Necessary,” an album by Skar’s group, Government From the Zone.
“Zone” is French slang for slum and “Bring Pressure” describes gray, listless Oliviers. It also heaps all sorts of nastiness on former and current French government officials, including Nicolas Sarkozy, the minister in charge of national security who recently labeled French rioters “scum.”
On the disc, Skar pledged to do something vile to Sarkozy’s mother and then rapped on:
“Propagators of hatred
“You want to exclude us.
“I do not have anything to lose.
“We are going to put pressure.
“We’re up to make the problems explode.”
“By All Means Necessary” was released long before the riots and arson that shook France from late October until last weekend. Rap has been the burning anthem of France’s alienated North African and non-white youths for more than 15 years.
Lyrics typically describe not only the dreary landscape, low prospects and high criminal life of neighborhoods like Oliviers, but also convey ferocious disdain for the well-tailored officialdom of Paris.
All over France, rioters recently told reporters about unemployment, police abuse, bad schools and racist taunts. But French rap was there first. “No one wants to listen to us? Too bad. We only spoke the truth,” said Skar.
Around him, the beat of “Bring Pressure” grew louder and the listeners composed their own harsh lyrics and accompanied them with hip thrusts and single-finger gestures. “Sarkozy thinks he’s tough, but he can’t control anything. Look around. Do you see any cops?” Skar continued. “Sarkozy wouldn’t dare come in here.”
French commentators have alternately labeled rap an incitement to violence or an unheeded warning. “In the suburbs, vocabulary is important. And rap is often the principal moving force,” wrote Le Monde, the staid French daily. Rap “describes the customs and habits of the slums and reflects the contradictions of youth raised in a consumer society who don’t have the keys to it.”
Rappers in Marseille, France’s main Mediterranean port, dismiss accusations of incitement. “We’re like singing newspapers,” said Mohamed Soilihi, Skar’s producer. “What we say goes on whether we say it or not. So better to listen.”
Given the incident that touched off this fall’s riots – the deaths of two teenagers by accidental electrocution while they were allegedly being chased by police – the words from a 1990s cut by a group called 113 seem prescient:
“There had better not be a police blunder
“Or the town will go up.
“The ‘burbs are a time bomb.”
Skar said Marseille suffered less violence than other French cities because, despite its problems, it is more integrated. The immigrant population lives not only in the outskirts but also downtown and moves easily between districts. In addition, Marseille’s long rivalry with Paris makes its residents reluctant to follow the capital’s lead. “We think more than those people in Paris do. Why burn your neighbor’s car? When things blow here, believe me, the guys will be hitting the police station,” Skar said.
M’sa Mohamed, a black rapper from the French territory of Reunion Island who goes by the name of Boss 1, said, “The younger kids, they like tough messages. They won’t be held back. The next time, France will pretend to be shocked again, but all it has to do is listen to the music. They’ll know what’s coming.”
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