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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 May 2007, 09:26 GMT 10:26 UK
French rapper relishes moral role
By Polly de Blank
BBC News, Angouleme, France

France's Metisses Music Festival seeks to promote social and cultural crossovers in what often feels like an ethnically divided nation.
Abd Al Malik at Musiques Metisses
Abd Al Malik wants to change the image of the troubled suburbs

The festival is under way in the city of Angouleme, in south-western France. It is showcasing international legends such as Cuban crooner Omara Portuondo and Malian guitar maestro Habib Koite.

Yet instead of prohibitively expensive tickets, most concerts are free.

With the fans dancing to everything from rumba to reggae, the festival seems to have been successful in bringing people from different backgrounds and generations together to have a good time.

Rap with a conscience

One fast-rising star performing here is Abd Al Malik, a French rapper of Congolese origin whose background and music embodies the spirit of the festival.

Abd Al Malik at Musiques Metisses
Al Malik feels enriched by his cross-cultural experience
His latest album Gibraltar has already won four awards, including the prestigious Victoire de la Musique. It's an original mix of hip-hop, slam poetry and French philosophy.

He sees Gibraltar as the symbolic meeting point of Africa and Europe. "The reason I called it Gibraltar was to use music to try and link our different cultures and people together."

He takes his early years on the streets of Strasbourg's banlieues - the poor suburbs - as a source of inspiration. He sings of child drug-dealers and young lives lost in gang wars.

Personal experience

In one track, Soldat de Plomb (Soldier of Lead), Al Malik raps I was 12 years old, pockets full of money, already seen too much blood.

Abd Al Malik is smartly dressed and poised. "That's my life, I lived all that. Everything on that disc was experienced by me or my friends and family," he says.

Albert Camus
Existentialist writer Albert Camus is among Al Malik's influences
But if you think this singer is yet another rapper getting rich by glamorising the violent lives of gangsters, you would be mistaken.

"The aesthetic should always serve a moral purpose, it's what's called artistic responsibility. The French writer Albert Camus and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre followed this idea, and I want to do the same," he says.

Not the usual response I've come to expect from a rap star. Behind these songs of petty crime and adolescent disaffection lies a moral message.

"The idea behind Gibraltar is to show that just because we lived that kind of life, we should still be seen as human beings.

"Often, people like me are stereotyped, but in reality the majority of us want to live normal lives. Most people in the banlieues are like me - they've managed to turn around their situation. There are many more positive than negative stories and I wanted them to be heard."

African roots

Al Malik is French, but he spent a few early years in Congo Brazzaville, his parents' home country. How does he reconcile the two sides of his identity?

We must be vigilant citizens, in a democracy the people have the power
Abd Al Malik

"Using the metaphor of a tree, my roots are Congolese and African and I have respect for my origins and take care of them, for example my relationship with the ancestors is very important.

"At the same time, the fruit from my tree is French and European. I am not from two cultures, but within me is diversity, and see this as a gift."

France has had more than its fair share of news about riots, intolerance and division. But Abd Al Malik's music and life tells a different story and it's going down well among his fans. When he arrives on stage in the rappers' uniform of hooded top and camouflage, the crowd screams with delight.

Literary inspiration

He takes his position as role model seriously, as is demonstrated on a track called Celine. It makes a surprising comparison between the controversial 20th-Century French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine and rappers like himself.

"Celine revolutionised literature because he was very close to real people, like us rappers today. That's generally a good thing, but there's a danger about being so close to the people; you can start to embrace all the things that are wrong with society.

"In Celine's time, anti-Semitism was rife and he fell into the trap of becoming anti-Semitic himself. Today, we rappers can sometimes do the same and say it's always the fault of others, or apologise for violence, or become misogynistic or too materialistic."

And how does he view the French elections? He does not want to speak for the black or Muslim communities, as he says the only community that counts is France as a whole.

"Politicians must do their work and we must judge in the long term. We must be vigilant citizens, in a democracy the people have the power and if we disapprove of what they do we must use our tools to show our disapproval.

"We shouldn't be excessively pessimistic or positive, but fair. The best thing you can do to make the world a better place is to improve yourself. I think in France we have all the tools available to do that."

And with those final words of wisdom, Abd Al Malik walks off to greet his attentive and ever-growing fans.

The cult of the outsider
07 Jul 06 |  Magazine

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