THE RAP ON FRENCH RIOTS
must be 50's fault
Throughout coverage of the French rioting, I've noted that reporters and commentators alike have frequently made mention of how these mostly youth of color outside Paris are cloaked (literally and figuratively) in signifiers that we've come to associate with young, urban anger. Columnist David Brooks at the NY Times finally just comes out and says it: they're copping gangsta rap styles and poses.
I always find it interesting when commentators who don't otherwise drop hip-hop metaphors or allusions in their writing suddenly try to slip on some shell-toes and pose as b-boy intellectuals. Brooks is little different - in this op-ed piece that ran in today's Times, he tries suggest that riotous youth in France have learned their gestures and 'tudes from the global hegemony of American gangsta rap. Here's what he has to say:
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- (with gratitude to the blog, Unpublished Digest)
Gangsta, in French
November 10, 2005
By DAVID BROOKS
After 9/11, everyone knew there was going to be a debate about the future of Islam. We just didn't know the debate would be between Osama bin Laden and Tupac Shakur.
Yet those seem to be the lifestyle alternatives that are really on offer for poor young Muslim men in places like France, Britain and maybe even the world beyond. A few highly alienated and fanatical young men commit themselves to the radical Islam of bin Laden. But most find their self-respect by embracing the poses and worldview of American hip-hop and gangsta rap.
One of the striking things about the scenes from France is how thoroughly the rioters have assimilated hip-hop and rap culture. It's not only that they use the same hand gestures as American rappers, wear the same clothes and necklaces, play the same video games, and sit with the same sorts of car stereos at full blast. It's that they seem to have adopted the same poses of exaggerated manhood, the same attitudes about women, money and the police. They seem to have replicated the same sort of gang culture, the same romantic visions of gunslinging drug dealers.
In a globalized age it's perhaps inevitable that the culture of resistance gets globalized, too. What we are seeing is what Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago calls a universal culture of the wretched of the earth. The images, modes and attitudes of hip-hop and gangsta rap are so powerful they are having a hegemonic effect across the globe.
American ghetto life, at least as portrayed in rap videos, now defines for the young, poor and disaffected what it means to be oppressed. Gangsta resistance is the most compelling model for how to rebel against that oppression. If you want to stand up and fight The Man, the Notorious B.I.G. shows the way.
This is a reminder that for all the talk about American cultural hegemony, American countercultural hegemony has always been more powerful. America's rebellious countercultural heroes exert more influence around the world than the clean establishment images from Disney and McDonald's. This is our final insult to the anti-Americans; we define how to be anti-American, and the foreigners who attack us are reduced to borrowing our own clichés.
When rap first came to France, American rappers dominated the scene, but now the suburban immigrant neighborhoods have produced their own stars in their own language. French rap lyrics today are like the American gangsta lyrics of about five or 10 years ago, when it was more common to fantasize about cop killings and gang rape.
Most of the lyrics can't be reprinted in this newspaper, but you can get a sense of them from, say, a snippet from a song from Bitter Ministry: "Another woman takes her beating./This time she's called Brigitte./She's the wife of a cop. " Or this from Mr. R's celebrated album "PolitiKment IncorreKt": "France is a bitch. ... Don't forget to [deleted] her to exhaustion. You have to treat her like a whore, man! ... My niggers and my Arabs, our playground is the street with the most guns!"
The French gangsta pose is familiar. It is built around the image of the strong, violent hypermacho male, who loudly asserts his dominance and demands respect. The gangsta is a brave, countercultural criminal. He has nothing but rage for the institutions of society: the state and the schools. He shows his own cruel strength by dominating women. It is perhaps no accident that until the riots, the biggest story coming out of these neighborhoods was the rise of astonishing and horrific gang rapes.
In other words, what we are seeing in France will be familiar to anyone who watched gangsta culture rise in this country. You take a population of young men who are oppressed by racism and who face limited opportunities, and you present them with a culture that encourages them to become exactly the sort of people the bigots think they are - and you call this proud self-assertion and empowerment. You take men who are already suspected by the police because of their color, and you romanticize and encourage criminality so they will be really despised and mistreated. You tell them to defy oppression by embracing self-destruction.
In America, at least, gangsta rap is sort of a game. The gangsta fan ends up in college or law school. But in France, the barriers to ascent are higher. The prejudice is more impermeable, and the labor markets are more rigid. There really is no escape.
I could waste my morning rebutting practically every single argument Brooks puts forth here, but there are just a few that need to be said.
First and foremost, Brooks possesses a profoundly distorted view of what gangsta rap is about these days, choosing to focus on a very limited set of recycled stereotypes (note to Brooks: rhyming about cop killings and gang rapes was never "common" in gangsta rap, not even during NWA's heyday.) His choice to highlight a few verses from different French rap groups is particularly disingenuous. Cultural forms have such a diverse range of expressions that there's no way you can reduce a community of voices into a single line or two. As a political pundit, you'd think Brooks would know better - he'd never argue that the views of the late Strom Thurmond could be said to represent the entire American political establishment.
Plus, never mind that the age of the gangsta as urban rebel was 15 years ago. It's one thing to espouse attitudes that go against social convention and civility; it's something else entirely to advocate for insurrection. Hell, half these rappers probably think a Moltov Cocktail is something you make with Grey Goose.
Whatever is happening in France is not about youth of color trying to live out gangsta fantasies. It's is about anger, frustration, a sense of "we don't give a fuck" misanthropy fueled by social conditions. Brooks even acknowledges this in his column so it's quite confusing why he's even basing an argument that gangsta rap is some how framing the expressions of this rage (and he flirts dangerously close to suggesting that gangsta rap is actually fueling the situation, which is as ludicrous as claiming that soccer is at the root of European football riots.
Gangsta rap here is another red herring. Neither "Islamic fundamentalism" nor imported gangsterism is remotely adequate to address why the suburbs outside of Paris are burning. All Brooks succeeds in doing is to whip the flames of hysteria around the specter of Black masculinity - truly, that fear and paranoia is what America exports as successfully as any cultural product. Let's just put it this way: if French youth had never gotten a taste for hip-hop and instead were bumping Edith Piaf tapes, would the riots still be in full-swing? Oui, of course they would.