After he called France "FranSSe" in one of his songs and cursed Napoleon and de Gaulle, Monsieur R, a popular French rapper, was accused of anti-white racism and may have to stand trial. "If everything here were fine and dandy," he says, "we'd be writing only sweet love songs."
More than 200 members of France's legislature, mostly from right-wing parties, asked Justice Minister Pascal Clement last week to investigate the possibility of initiating judicial proceedings against seven rap artists and bands. The charge: explicit lyrics of racism "against whites" that call for "hatred of France." Following the recent riots, the French government is continuing to look for those guilty of stirring things up in the suburbs, and the rapper who is drawing most of the heat is Richard Makela, 30, better known as Monsieur R.
Monsieur R has been in open confrontation with the authorities since the summer, long before the riots erupted. His fourth album, "Politically Incorrect," which was released in March, incurred the wrath of elected officials. In August, a member of parliament from the governing UMP party, Francois Grosdidier, approached the justice minister and called his attention to Monsieur R's song entitled "FranSSe" - an intentional distortion of the world "France" and a clear allusion to the Nazi SS.
In the song, Monsieur R attacks the republic and its historical heroes: "France is a slut, don't forget to fuck her until you completely squeeze her; bro, you need to treat her like a whore, and I piss on Napolean and on General de Gaulle." Grosdidier's party colleague, Daniel Mach, was not content with an appeal to the justice minister; he filed a legal complaint against Monsieur R over "FranSSe"; the case is scheduled to be heard in February.
Monsieur R today represents the bad boy of French rap, a status that could put him in jail for three years. He refuses to get excited. "Once again, they're trying to find a scapegoat because of the burning suburbs," he declared, and announced that he plans to defend his innocence in court.
When you meet him, Monsieur R seems like a completely different type from American rap stars. He is not muscular like 50 Cent, not a fancy dresser like Puff Daddy, not white like Eminem. Monsieur R is a short and slightly chubby black guy, sloppily dressed, without any trace of the giant gold chains and heavy jewelry typical of rap stars. Surrounded by members of the Menage a Trois band (they do not budge from his side, as if sheltering him with their bodies), he is relaxed during the interview - as though the public storm does not touch him.
It was not easy to arrange an interview. During the past two weeks, since publication of the initiative by members of parliament against the black singers, the 30-year-old musician has become the main spokesman for French rap. It is only 10 A.M., but the meeting with Haaretz is already his second interview of the morning, and he has a long media day ahead of him: the weekly Nouvelle Observateur, Channel 3, the parliament channel, the BBC and a newspaper from Denmark. Last week, he granted interviews to almost all the large daily newspapers in France. The question of where to place the limit on free speech extended beyond the borders of France and has now caught the interest of all of Europe. It is just like the uproar that swept America over 10 years ago, when the rapper Ice-T's band, Body Count, released the song Cop Killer.
Makela is not in a hurry to respond to questions. He chooses his words carefully and answers at length. It is important to him, he says, for people to understand him and his rapper colleagues, and for people not to rush to judge them as punks or criminals.
"What the politicians don't understand is that music and songs are the only weapon we have to change reality. We don't have a better way to protest, and I want to believe that I am living in a democratic country where freedom of speech and artistic expression are basic rights."
Second-class citizensMention of the accusations against him and his colleagues - that they are the ones who stoked the fires in the suburbs - infuriates Monsieur R: "It's not our fault that the percentage of unemployed in the suburbs is over 40 percent. It isn't rap music that slams the telephone down on job-seekers with university degrees only because their name is Mohammed or because they are not white. During the riots in my neighborhood, lots of cars were torched, including some belonging to my friends and relatives. I also went down to the street and tried to calm things, to chill the atmosphere, but it was impossible.
"A moment comes when people say to themselves that there is a limit to everything," he continues. "It's not only that two children died of electrocution because the police were chasing after them as if they were dangerous criminals. [The two tried to escape a police inspection - R.C.] The youngsters in the suburbs hear politicians referring to them as "a rabble of hooligans" [the controversial expression of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy - R.C.]. That's what fired up the people; they heard the interior minister promise that he would clean up the suburbs like you clean the walls of an old building. Excuse me, do you mean that the people here are dirt?
"Added to all this is the scornful attitude the police have had for years. It's not just the humiliation of body searches; it's also in the perception. Just by the way they look at you, they give you the feeling that you are a second-class citizen, even if you were born here. Children are stopped for inspection five times, just on the way from their home to the metro! And I'm talking of a walking distance of less than 10 minutes."
Two weeks ago, he says, the police stopped him for inspection at the entrance to Paris. "Why? Just because we were three blacks in a new car. When they didn't find what they were looking for - that is, drugs or a problem with the car's registration - they began to interrogate us: Where we were going? Why? What work do we do? Where do we live? and other questions of the sort. And that's what really drives me crazy, the fact that today in France the police logic is simple: A young black who is driving a fancy car must be a drug dealer. Here, if you're black or Arab, it doesn't matter if you have money or a good job, you'll remain black or Arab your whole life."
This is not the first time that rappers have been portrayed as public enemies. In the U.S., it's already old hat. "Rap is not the problem; it's the mirror we hold up to the state. We sing because we're hurting, because there's police brutality here, there's neglect here, there's unemployment here, because the state doesn't give a shit about us. Everyone asks why the rappers curse all the time in their songs. It's really a good question. I can promise you that if everything were fine and dandy here, then we would indeed be writing only sweet love songs."
The "glorious" education systemRichard Makela's parents settled in Belgium in 1972 after leaving Zaire, a former Belgian colony that became the Democratic Republic of Congo. Richard was born three years later as a Belgian citizen in a poor family. When he was nine, his parents decided to return to the Congo, where he spent four years. During this period, three more sisters were born; now there were nine children. They had a hard time adjusting, and the father's salary was not sufficient to support the family. Makela arrived in France at age 14. The family's hardships forced him to separate from his parents and move in with his eldest sister in the Parisian suburb of Gennevillier.
During the same year, 1989, France celebrated the 200th anniversary of its revolution. "France specializes in memorial days," Makela told Le Figaro this week, "but we can't celebrate the abolition of slavery or the end of colonialism and completely ignore the periods that preceded them as if they had never occurred." Two years later, his mother died and his three little sisters joined him and his sister, hoping for a better future.
The young Makela attended school less and less frequently, until he finally dropped out at the beginning of high school "in order to move ahead with real life," in his words. "I'll tell you something about the glorious French school system," he says scornfully. "At the end of middle school, the students meet with the educational counselor who is supposed to help them decide which high school to choose. I was 14 then, with a grade average of 15 [out of 20, a high average - R.C.]. I'll never forget this. Do you know what she suggested to me? To learn electronics or electricity at a vocational high school. I had friends with a 10 or 11 average, but with skin color much lighter than mine, who received offers to move on to an academic high school."
Disappointed by this attitude, he decided that school was not for him. During the same period, he discovered rap music and began to write lyrics. Rap, in his view, is the only music that enables one to rebel against the establishment and conventions, and this explains why young people understand and identify with it.
Blaming France's problems on rap is, to put it mildly, dubious. "If they are violent, it's because they live in a very violent environment. We can't expect them to be angels," says Olivier Cachin, a 43-year old journalist and writer who has lived and breathed rap for over 25 years. He has just returned from court, where he testified as an expert for the defense in the appeal the state submitted against the acquittal of the rap band Sniper.
Cachin, a white man who fell in love with rap when he was in high school, is a lean and energetic person whose book "The Rap Attack" was published over 10 years ago and is still selling well. He understands the timing of the politicians' demand to investigate the rappers, but does not disguise his astonishment: It turns out that besides Monsieur R and one other band, 113, the rest of the names listed as targets for police investigation are bands that broke up years ago.
Cachin loses his cool when he hears politicians blaming the rappers for inciting the suburbs. "It's only natural for those who blamed the riots on the phenomenon of polygamy not to forget to add rappers to the mix. If the rappers really are guilty of something, it is of speaking the truth and of holding a mirror up to the satiated and white French society. To censor them is like killing the messenger who bears the bad tidings. Unfortunately, the politicians are experts in searching for the coins only under the streetlight. It would be worthwhile, for a change, to conduct a real dialogue with the suburbs in order to expose what is hurting them. This would be good for all of us."
Where is the boundary of free speech?"The boundary is when fascist groups call for killing communities on an ethnic basis. It happened in the past; we know that they are serious in their intentions, are capable of this in terms of means and, therefore, the danger is clear and present. Unlike them, rap music represents a weak population that is trying to defend itself from violence directed toward it, and not the opposite. The rappers curse the police? It's interesting why this really is. In France, police aggression in the harsh suburbs has been an open secret for years. In any case, I don't believe that art can lead to violence. It's like arguing that we should prohibit porno films because they encourage sexual violence against women, or horror films because they encourage serial murderers."
Fighting racismTo understand the angry social rap of Monsieur R, you need to understand the wider story of French rap, whose popularity in France is second only to that of rap in the United States. Alongside MC Solaar or K'Maro, who are considered commercial, others like La Rumeur, N.T.M., Ministere Amer, Sniper or Monsieur R are considered political artists in every way. Unlike the former, who make catchy and light music, the political rappers find in music a platform for protesting against social injustice and racism. However, they refuse to enter the public arena or become spokesmen for their communities for the simple reason that they would like to remain pop stars.
Even among the political rappers, it seems that Monsieur R is especially active. In 1998, he founded the organization "To Know to Say No," which aims to fight racism and the extreme right in France. In the framework of this organization, he recruited his rapper friends for a concert tour in southern France, in regions where Jean-Marie Le Pen's party enjoys traditional support. A year earlier, his first album, "At the Start," coined the saying: "Officially, against the National Front."
"Politically Incorrect" was born after more than two years of work and was influenced by a visit he made to New York in 2002. In an interview with the Le Monde newspaper, he said that when he arrived in the U.S., the immigration officials did not believe that he was really Belgian and suspected that his passport was forged. "They asked me to sing the anthem and I didn't know a single word, not even the tune." He ultimately managed to get out of this predicament when he sang the French anthem, "La Marseillaise," as an alternative. But he was surprised to discover in New York "a place where colored people hold the types of jobs we don?t even dare to dream of in France."
When he returned home, he realized that it was an emergency situation. "It's a bomb that will explode in our faces one day and I don't want us to arrive at that." In an attempt to prevent the explosion, he initiated an association named "The Obligation to Remember" with one of the leaders of the far-left Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) party, Olivier Besancenot.
"France has a profound obligation toward all those it exiled, humiliated and expelled throughout history," he says. Only when France learns to accept its past and understands that the country's wealth is in its multiculturalism, then will it really be able to serve as a social model."
The goal of "The Obligation to Remember," he says, is to bring the various communities in France closer together. "We must not fall into the trap of "the equation of suffering." The Jews suffered during the period of the Holocaust and the blacks suffered during the period of slavery.
There is no scale on which to rank who suffered more. We simply have to be attentive to everyone's pain. I'm going to say something that might seem extreme to you, but I feel that somehow the color of our skin has become a label that catalogs us as less valuable, a bit like the yellow patch of the Jews during the Holocaust. This is also the reason why I say in the controversial song FranSSe the line about "my brother Muslims and my brother Jews." In my view, it doesn't matter what religion you are, what's important is that you are a human being."
He stubbornly fends off all attempts to clarify whether he is a person of faith. "Religion is one of the only things I keep to myself. An artist doesn't need to be identified with a particular religion because he will immediately be cataloged as a spokesman. I want to hope that I represent all of humanity, Jews, Muslims, blacks, even Chinese."
An additional project he is beginning to promote these days, together with his politician friend Besancenot and with the black soccer players Patrick Vieira and Lilian Thuram, ahead of the 2007 elections, is called "Vote - or Shut Up." Makela points to the fact that a very large population exists in the suburbs that does not exercise its right to vote and explains that he was taken by the idea after hearing about a similar initiative by artists in the United States.
"I hope there will be an earthquake here in two years because now there is not a single person representing us in parliament," he says. "I am not speaking of skin color, but about someone who grew up in the suburbs, who knows what really goes on here and cares. I'm fed up with all of the politicians who make a visit here before the elections and then disappear until the next time."
He says that there are today in France four million blacks and six million Muslims, "which is a lot of people." (The national institute for research and statistics, EESNI, does not have data on this because official policy prohibits conducting research on a religious or ethnic basis in France. Nonetheless, it seems that the number of Muslims in France indeed ranges between five and six million, about half of whom have French citizenship and the right to vote. There is no way to arrive at a numerical assessment of blacks in France.)
"We're talking about nearly 20 percent of the population!" he continues. "Most of them don't go to vote because they don?t believe that anything can change. We tell them: Are you fed up with the situation? Go to the ballot box. Don't just complain that the situation stinks. Give the politicians a reason to run after your votes."
Anti-white racismGrosdidier, 44, is a member of the ruling right-wing party (UMP) and a representative of the Moselle district in parliament. The youthful-looking legislator took upon himself the role of leading the battle of politicians against "anti-white" racism, as he calls it. In his frequent media interviews, he comes across as an energetic parliamentarian and an uncompromising fighter. He becomes angry when he is charged with exploiting the opportunity to reap quick political profit at the expense of the rap singers.
"The moment my young son told me about Monsieur R's song last August, I quickly turned to the justice minister with an unequivocal demand to open an investigation into the matter," he said recently, adding a stinging remark directed at the media: "It's not my fault that no one wants to hear bad news during the vacation period."
Monsieur R's main contention - that his protest is aimed at the government and not the French - does not make much of an impression on Grosdidier: "To the best of my knowledge, France is still a democracy and the government is elected by the people, so if we curse the government, then we are also attacking the public," he says in a telephone interview. "Even worse, when he sings about pissing on General de Gaulle, who represents the war against the Nazis and was the one who put an end to colonialism, then this implies that France is worse than Nazi Germany. In my view, this is anti-white and anti-French racism, plain and simple."
Can you understand his pain?"I have a lot of respect for rap; it's a style that combines speech and music in a unique way. I also understand the need to use harsh words to describe a painful life and social distress. If it were only this, so be it. The red line is crossed in my view when rap stops being art and begins to incite to violence and racism. Take for example the forces of law and order. Policemen also have families, wives and children. How do they feel when they hear these songs? We cannot permit them to become a target for murder threats."
Grosdidier does not intend to allow the rappers to evade judgment. He argues that it would be a gross mistake to apply a different standard here. "If we allow ourselves compromises in the war on racism," he warns, "the legitimacy of the fight will be lost." The rappers are making use of a double-edged sword and it will end up hurting them. The only one who will benefit from the dispute between them and the authorities is the extreme right, which knows how to exploit this to increase its strength."
He is experienced enough to know that the chances of winning a deterrent court sentence are low, but this does not stop him. After collecting the signatures of over 200 members of parliament and senators to support the fight, he is now waiting for a response from the Justice Ministry. If it turns out that current legislation lacks sufficient power, he plans to lead a procedure of expedited legislation.
"Anti-white racism will not be allowed; I will not permit art to be exploited for evil. Racism remains racism, even if you sing it."
Monsieur R lives today in the small city of Combs-la-Ville in the province of Seine et Marne, east of Paris, where he and his domestic partner are raising their two daughters, four and two and a half. Thanks to rap, he says, his eyes were opened. He began to read newspapers, to watch the news, to take an interest in history and geography. With a baseball cap placed backward on his head, and jeans that are several sizes too large, he looks more like a pleasant high school kid than a public enemy.
Although he could allow himself to move to a more affluent area, he prefers to remain close to his roots and to live in the "cites," as the tough and crowded immigrant neighborhoods on the outskirts of the major cities are called.
"Here I feel most comfortable, here is where my friends and most of my family are. [Two of his sisters live in Belgium and his father settled in Holland years ago.] A true rapper needs to know what he?s singing about, to live the reality he is writing about. Here, in the cites, I get my inspiration."
Cachin is not surprised to hear that Monsieur R chooses to continue to live in the suburbs. "The key word of the political rappers is authenticity. It's obvious that most of them could buy a big home in Paris or in a more affluent neighborhood. But if there begins to be a contradiction between what he sings and his lifestyle, then his credibility is called into question. You can't be a protest singer and drive a Porsche."
Like many, Makela heard about the anti-Muslim remarks of Alain Finkielkraut in an interview with Haaretz about three weeks ago. The interview made waves in France and led the philosopher to make a public apology, saying that his words were misunderstood. "It's a shame that an educated man who represents a minority in France causes communities to clash with one another instead of helping each other. It's important to me for the Israeli public to know that not everyone in France who criticizes the policies of the Sharon government is necessarily an anti-Semite, and it hurts me when I hear about suicide attacks in Israel. When this happens, I immediately think about my children, like any other father in the world.
"I have a lot of Muslim friends and I can assure you that 99 percent of the young generation does not hate Jews, if only for the simple reason that they have other problems on their minds and simply don't have time for that. I don't deny that there is a small minority that is influenced by all sorts of racist groups, but show me a country in the world where there is not a handful of crazy extremists. Even in Israel, among the Jews, [a Jew] murdered prime minister Yitzhak Rabin because he wanted to make peace. It would be a serious mistake to import the Middle East conflict to France. I severely condemn this and it's important for me that you realize that this is really a negligible minority."
Enemies of the stateDominique Tricaud, 50, is Monsieur R's attorney and specializes in defending French rap stars. He has a long client list, including nearly all of the artists who have been charged in court in recent years. In his office this week in southern Paris, he does not seem particularly worried about the lawsuit filed against his client. "In recent years, the punishment is usually a fine or suspended sentence," he says to explain his serenity. "In any case, I still haven't received a copy of the indictment, so it is too early to talk about a line of defense. In the press, it was reported that he is being charged with offending public morality. If this is correct, the honorable member of parliament [Daniel Mach - R.C.] who filed the suit would do well to reread the law code, because this article was abolished at the beginning of the last century."
Tricaud, like any attorney, prefers to stick to the dry facts and finds a precedent in the Baudelaire case: "In 1946, the court decided to acquit the author Charles Baudelaire, who was convicted of offending public morality in the 19th century because of his book "The Flowers of Evil." Since then, the law recognizes the freedom of artistic expression and makes clear that words, even if they are very blatant, must be judged symbolically, with an overall view of the considerations that motivated the artist, rather than by their simple meaning."
You would not hesitate to defend any artist in the name of freedom of artistic expression?
"My limits are clear" he says. "After all, we're not talking here about an extremist group with a racist doctrine, which attacks another weak minority. We're dealing with a group that is at the bottom of the social ladder and is protesting, albeit blatantly, against the one they believe to be guilty - the state. The rappers sing against France in the general sense of the word, as a public entity that is responsible for their situation, and not against a particular community or religion. Moreover, they did not invent the wheel - greater and more famous ones, like Johnny Holiday, did this in the past without a reaction from the state. The defense becomes legitimate in my view when the tables are turned and the weak becomes the target and is unable to defend himself."
Despite the fact that the problem of the suburbs is currently on the political agenda, Monsieur R does not believe his struggle will bear fruit in the near future. "I truly want to believe that it will be good here for my children, but I fear that there will need to be another episode of riots before something changes here. It all depends on the will of the government. Just as they reduced the level of crime, it is possible to lower unemployment in the suburbs and create real integration that works. The current model of French society is bankrupt, and we need to adopt new ideas like affirmative action, quotas, and real equality of opportunity. The moment they let us in the door in the places that are now blocked to us, we will be able to prove ourselves worthy. But, in the name of God, just give us a chance. What kills me is that we are still talking about social integration of children who are already the second and third generation of immigrants, 100 percent French citizens, who have no other home."
These are definitely not words we would have expected to hear from someone described recently by elected officials as "a racist against white Frenchmen" and "an inciter to hatred." When I pose this contradiction to him, Monsieur R suggests that I listen to his songs to the end, and not just the chorus. In the song that stirred all the fuss, "FranSSe," he does say that France is a slut, but also: "I went straight from the bench at school to the defendant's bench, and I don't feel at home here, so I don't care about anything." He may slam Napolean and de Gaulle, but in the same breath, he sings: "Don't forget bro that here is home, so they need to include us. When I talk about France, I'm not talking about the French, I'm talking about the leaders who only want to exploit us all the time." Summarizing the story as he sees it, Monsieur R says, "When Georges Brassens or Jacques Brel sang against the state, everyone applauded because they were part of the French cultural heritage. When it involves young blacks, the road to the courthouse is much shorter."
Run-ins with the lawThe lyrics of rappers have already landed many of them in court, usually as a result of complaints filed by the police, justice minister or extreme right-wing movements. In the early 1990s, it was the band Ministere Amer that called for killing policemen in its song "Sacrifice the Chicken" [chicken (poulet) means "cop" in French slang - R.C.]. The five members of the band were able to get out of this with a fine of a several thousand euros.
In 1996, the band N.T.M. was convicted of offending a public authority and received an extraordinary sentence of three months in prison and a six-month suspension from public appearances. The sentence was delivered after the band roused the audience to chant "fuck the police" at one of its performances. This particular performance took place in a city ruled at the time by Le Pen's National Front party, a fact that certainly added fuel to the fire of the performance. The relatively harsh sentence was later overturned in an appeal.
On the other hand, the bands Sniper and La Rumeur were acquitted in court in recent years. But the state prosecutor refused to accept the verdicts and appealed their acquittal. A ruling on their case is expected to be handed down in the coming weeks, and this will certainly affect the climate leading up to Monsieur R's trial. Olivier Cachin, like attorney Tricaud, explains the state's behavior in this matter as deterrent. "The state is trying to wear us down in legal battles that cost them a fortune in order to deter them and try to "educate" them. In my opinion, and I'm not the only one making this argument, it is a policy dictated from the highest levels." In his assessment, there have been nearly 20 trials on this matter just in the past decade.