By Hisham Aidi, AlJazeera
On January 1, the French rapper Medine uploaded his latest track “Don’t Laik”. Surrounded by youth from the banlieues, he sounds off against secularism, taking swipes at Nietszche and the neo-conservative journalist Caroline Fouret, a former staffer at Charlie Hebdo. His harshest words are directed at the French system of laicite, which bans headscarves in public institutions and burqas in all public spaces.
About a week later – just after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, Medine was back in the news again, this time explaining his lyrics, noting that when he rapped about crucifying “les laicards” and chopping down the “tree of their secularism” – he was actually presenting a “caricature” of secularism; that version which looks down upon the religiously observant. His critique of laicite, he said, was very much in the spirit of Charlie Hebdo.
Hip hop in France – and in Western Europe more broadly – has come under scrutiny in the last few weeks. Prominent French artists – Youssoupha, Diam’s, Kool Shen, Maitre Gims, Oxmo Puccino – have denounced the attacks in no uncertain terms, some even composing impromptu tracks in honour of the victims.
Called for explanations
But hip hop artists have also been called upon to explain the reasons for youth alienation, and the relationship between hip hop and extremism. The fact that Cherif Kouachi, the younger brother, was at one point an aspiring rapper, featured in a television documentary, where he is up on stage, cap backwards, rapping and dancing, has counterterrorism experts again asking if youth are radicalised through rap.
In light of Kouachi’s interests, a music journalist recently asked Bushido, a prominent German rapper, to explain why “rap and jihadis apparently get along very well”.
Europe’s “hip hop wars” have historically had little to do with theology or religious extremism. The cat-and-mouse game between rap artists and state officials around the limits of free speech has tended to be about lyrics involving police brutality and racism.
One of the earliest successful attempts to penalise a rap group for their rhymes was in 1995, when the Paris-based group, Supreme NTM performed their song about the police at a concert, and allegedly urged the crowd to shout “Nique la Police!” (“F**k the Police!”) at the security officers in the arena.
The group was found guilty of “verbally abusing” the police. Other incidents would follow, with rap artists being sued and censored for their lyrics about the police.
Racial and social injustice
Rap artists have explored questions of racial and social injustice, while exposing the intricacies and inconsistencies of France’s hate speech laws. Rap artists have long taken issue with Charlie Hebdo’s portrayals of blacks and Muslims, and would often deliberately juxtapose themselves against the publication, asking why the French government doesn’t harass Charlie Hebdo, the way it does rap artists.