France has been attracting a good deal of unenviable attention in recent years. The far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's qualification to the second round of the 2002 French presidential elections shocked the world. Racial tensions exploded in 2005 with a series of simultaneous riots across the country which led to the burning of 9,000 cars and the death of one man.
Perhaps surprisingly then, the French are reluctant to speak explicitly of France's minorities. Officially the state remains opposed to multiculturalism and is committed to the Jacobin tradition of refusing to recognize racial or religious subdivisions within France. This has some advantages, there are no dreaded tick boxes and it maintains the principle of a colour blind state. But it also presents grave problems because it makes tracking, let alone tackling, racial discrimination extremely difficult.
Although race relations are not discussed with much frankness, they are coming to dominate France's political discourse through euphemisms like jeunes (literally “youths”, referring to Black and Arab young men) and banlieue (literally “suburbs”, though bearing the same connotations as “inner city”). Newly-elected President Nicolas Sarkozy ran on a platform emphasizing “law and order” and race issues, going so far as to rather crassly propose a “Ministry of Identity and Immigration”.
A discussion of race relations which is both warmer and more constructive has been made possible, however, by that most maligned of musical forms, rap. Kamini, a rapper of Congolese origin, sang and shot his own music video, Marly-Gomont, about his upbringing in the only Black family of the tiny French rural village of the same name. A number 1 hit single in February 2007, in the video, Kamini raises the roof with village seniors while rapping that “In Marly-Gomont there's no concrete / 65 years is the average age around here / 1 tennis court, 1 basketball court / 3 kids in the village so play ain't so great.” Though the tone is humorous and tongue-in-cheek, the song also reflects on Kamini's hardships at being brought up in a sometimes bigoted monocultural environment. On local villagers he sings “Sometimes they like you / 'Hey, I don't like Arabs, I don't like Blacks, but I like you, even though you're Black'”. Though the song’s video was made on a paltry 200 euros, it has become an Internet sensation as millions of people viewed it last year through video-sharing sites like YouTube and DailyMotion. It won France's top music award in 2007.
Kamini's style is not typical of French rap. “I couldn't rap about 'bitches' and 'hos' and do that whole gangsta thing,” he says, “because it's not true. It's not my life.” It is perhaps this which makes Kamini's music so popular. There's something irresistibly funny about the absurdity of rapping about cows and pastures. More profoundly, Kamini's music addresses widespread anxieties in France by discussing race relations with a humor and candour which has been singularly lacking in mainstream discourse. Despite having been offered several major record deals, Kamini has kept his job as a psychiatric nurse. This hasn't prevented him from releasing more music, notably J'suis Blanc, relating the dramatic changes in daily life that would ensue if he were transformed into a white man.
Kamini's work has led to much-needed greater awareness of the Black experience in France. The Internet today means any person with talent and a camera can become an overnight sensation. This is significant, and not just for the added potential for more “self-made stories”. More importantly, it means that when traditional media and elites are incapable of addressing difficult issues with both frankness and goodwill, then young writers and artists are increasingly up to the task of doing so themselves.
Kamini's official ilike page: ilike.com/artist/Kamini
Kamini's wikipedia page: wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamini_(musician)