On Our Minds: Hip Hop, Free Speech and Violence in France [Playlist]

Hisham Aidi discusses the past and present of French-Muslim music and politics

January 23, 2015

The shocking attacks in Paris earlier this month renewed a range of cultural debates about free speech and racial tolerance in France and the rest of the world. It also marked another round of questions about the relationship between hip-hop music and violence.

According to Hisham Aidi—an expert on globalization and social movements—there are two central debates around French-Muslim hip hop happening right now. The first is whether or not Cherif Kouachi—one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers and an aspiring rapper—was radicalized through hip hop. The second, and the more complex one, is about how speech itself is policed in contemporary France. Many French hip hop artists have openly denounced the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, even though they have been critical of the paper in the past. These artists see the paper as promoting hate speech and hiding behind free speech, while the French government has taken Muslim rappers to court for inciting the public and criticizing the police.

It is precisely these issues that often form the subject matter of Western European Muslim hip hop, a small sampling of which is provided below. These tracks were suggested by Aidi, with commentary by Charles Monroe-Kane.

Supreme NTM - Qu’est-ce qu’on attend?

The French-Muslim rap group hailing from Saint-Denis northeast of Paris has been taken to court repeatedly for their anti-police lyrics. This track - “Why are we waiting? [to burn the place down]” - caused quite a stir: “Bourgeoisie should tremble, the gangstas are in town / Not to party, but to burn the place down”

La rumeur - L’ombre sur la mesure

This French-Muslim rap group was sued by Sarkozy for libel for the liner notes to this album.

Deso Dogg - “Wilkommen In Meiner Welt”

Deso Dogg is a Muslim-German rapper turned jihadi. His rhymes drew attention of German authorities for inciting violence. He’s now fighting with the rebels in Syria.

Lowkey - “Terrorist?”

British-Muslim rapper and anarchist. His music explores the questions about the definition of terrorism. “What about state terrorism?” he asks.

Medine - “Don’t Panik (I’m Islamic)”

French-Algerian rapper inspired by the Black Panthers and Black Power movement in the United States. He has written several articles for Time Magazine in France, one of which, "How Much More French Can I Be,” caused a stir.

Abdul Malik - “Gibraltar”

French-Muslim rapper and Sufi spoken word artist considered “moderate” and celebrated by the French state. Considered a sellout by many in the French-Muslim hip hop scene.

Outlandish, “Callin’ U”

Danish-Muslim hip-hop/R&B trio that makes urban nasheeds. They sing about family life in a very positive and wholesome manner. They are considered pioneers of European Muslim rap and R&B. The band consists of a Danish-Moroccan, a Danish-Pakistani, and a Honduran of Cuban descent (who is also Catholic).

Kery James - Lettre à la République

Radical French-Muslim MC who raps about colonial memory and resentment against the French republic. This video has English subtitles.