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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 November 2005, 09:44 GMT
French rappers' prophecies come true
By Hugh Schofield

"What is it, what is it you're waiting for to start the fire? / The years go by, but everything is still the same / Which makes me ask, how much longer can it last?"

French rapper Joey Starr
Joey Starr: Rap lyrics proved prescient

The words are from the 1995 song They Don't Understand, by one of France's best-known rap singers, Joey Starr of the group NTM.

He was far from alone in providing a grim prophecy of the events of the last three weeks.

Take these lines from the song In Front Of The Police, by the group 113:

"There had better not be a police blunder, or the town will go up / The city's a time-bomb / From the police chief to the guy on the street - they're all hated."

Or this from Don't Try To Understand, by Fonky Family:

"The state is screwing us / Well you know, we are going to defend ourselves / Don't try to understand."

Or this - uncannily accurate - from Alpha 5.20: "Clichy-sous-Bois, it's gangsta gangsta / And Aulnay-sous-Bois, it's gangsta gangsta."

Ghetto culture

The violence began on 27 October after the accidental deaths of two teenagers - in Clichy-sous-Bois.

Rap and hip-hop have been part of France's immigrant youth scene for so long that many of the original artists - like Joey Starr, MC Solaar and the group IAM - are now regarded as respected old-timers.

Clichy-sous-Bois: Car burnt in riots
Clichy-sous-Bois: Violence exposed despair in the Paris suburbs
The new stars are men and women in their 20s - almost all of black African or Arab origin - such as Disiz La Peste, Diam's, Monsieur R, and the groups La Rumeur and Sniper.

Like the pioneers who featured 10 years ago in the hit film La Haine, their work continues to cast a revealing light on life in the citÚs and the conditions which helped provoked the sudden outpouring of violence three weeks ago.

Song after song dwells on the same themes of hopelessness, rejection by France, police harassment and the rage that follows.

Disiz La Peste, a 27-year-old of mixed Senegalese and French parentage whose real name is Serigne M'Baye, has just released his third album, entitled The Extraordinary Stories Of A Youth In The Banlieue.

The chorus of the title song goes: "For France it matters nothing what I do / In its mind I will always be / Just a youth from the banlieue".

"Few people in France have a normal attitude towards us. People are either fascinated or they are frightened. There are two worlds crashing against each other. People have a problem with us, and we do with them," he said in a recent interview.

Shock factor

It is undeniable that some of the lyrics of French rap songs - as in America - are shocking to the conservative-minded.

In Brigitte - Cop's Wife, Ministere A.M.E.R indulges in a pornographic fantasy which will not be to most tastes.

First of all France must learn to say sorry - for history, for the colonies, because there is no equality of opportunity
Rapper Disiz La Peste

Other groups including Sniper and La Rumeur have been taken to court - unsuccessfully - for provocative lyrics.

And the rapper Monsieur R - whose real name is Richard Makela - was criticised for a recent song called FranSSe, in which he described France as a "chick ... treat her like a whore!"

But most French rap songs show a deep urge to articulate what would otherwise go unexpressed in words, and - whatever your feelings about the genre - many do so with invention.

The French language, with its repeated end of word inflections, is widely recognised as lending itself to rap, and even masters of the form in the US have been complimentary.

Today many French rappers are saying that if only their words had been listened to, the suburban violence might never have occurred.

"Instead of sleeping in the national assembly, government ministers should have listened to our albums. It's the youth of France talking," said Rim-K of 113.

Plea for calm

Some, such as Disiz La Peste, have called openly for an end to the rioting.

"Burning cars and schools - it only harms ourselves because it's happening in front of our own homes," he said.

"And we risk turning the working people, the poor of our neighbourhoods against us - because not unnaturally they are going to be afraid," La Peste said.

Maybe because of his mixed background, he takes an unusually balanced view of the trouble and of how to end it.

"First of all France must learn to say sorry - for history, for the colonies, because there is no equality of opportunity, because we can't get into nightclubs, because there are none of us on television or in the national assembly.

"But the youth must also learn to say thank you. It may be shocking for them - but in France at least people can still demonstrate and speak out," said La Peste.

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