Banlieue, the word seems harmless enough, even pretty, when pronounced. And when looked up in a French-English dictionary it translates most commonly as “suburb.”
Into my head images pop up instantaneously of cookie cutter houses with finely manicured lawns, cars in the driveways, fences securing dogs, and the occasional kid outside hula-hooping while their younger sibling practices writing their name in sidewalk chalk.
But what if I told you that French banlieues do not look quite the same as American suburbs. Imagine this picture instead: tightly scrunched, low income apartment buildings, run-down government housing, riddled with graffiti, violence, and the more than occasional drug deal.
I will be the first to admit that the term “suburb” in English does not bring me an overwhelming sense of joy, however, I do not associate it with poor living conditions and social unrest.In fact I think of quite the opposite. So what are banlieues, really, if they are not truly suburbs? It seems that they are more or less ghettos, or areas where North African immigrants are shuttled so as not to disrupt the pristine image of the of French cities. Left on the margins, they are seldom thought of.
Colombe Brossel, a French activist for educational reform who keeps a blog spoke about her discontent for how the balieues are so often ignored in politics. She said that during this past election the word balnlieue diappeared from the French vocabulary altogether and that it “seemed to have become a dirty word that should be avoided when speaking.” She both criticizes and calls to attention the fact that nobody is willing to deal with the banlieues, even though they are in need of urgent attetntion.
Likewise in this video, a man in Lyon points out that on the map of the city, shown at a tourist point that looks over the sprawling urbanization, the banlieues are completely left out from being labeled, even though they are clearly visible from the lookout point.
While there are few people living outside of the banlieues speaking up about the conditions inside, voices from within the social confines of the benlieue not only speak about their lives, they rap about them. Paradoxically enough while politicians may be trying to muffle the cries of immigrant populations in banlieues, some of the most famous French hip-hop and rap artists have risen to both fame and popularity by reciting lyrics about the realities of their lives.
Hip-hop artists in France are most often find their roots in the Moroccan or Algerian working class population. They see their work as a means of reporting about the seldom-mentioned slums that they once called home growing up, as a way of getting their perspective out to the rest of the francophone world, since the French media often chooses to ignore them.
Since their beginnings, French hip-hop and rap have been highly controversial. From its rapid popularization in the 1990s it has been both loved by French youth and protested against by French adults. Due to its often graphic content, the music gets blamed for encouraging violent behavior.
L’espoir des Favelas, the song title of the popular French hip-hop artists of Algerian descent, Rim’K, translates to something like, hope for the slums. In his lyrics Rim’K speaks about the conditions of French Banlieues. He does not refrain from using graphic language or profanities, and while the picture he paints of the slums is not attractive, he does also pose hope that with knowledge and education, one can break free from the cycle of crime in which they were born.
A blogger from NationPresse, a blog which supports the conservative, French right-wing, does not like Rim’K, not even a single bit. He says in his post that Rim’K’s music is “racism (against whites) expressed freely on the radio in rap songs that dome intellectuals dare to call ‘music’ or ‘culture.'”
His blog post struck me as funny. How can somebody from the position of white, male privilege, write a racist blog post about the so-called racism that he feels is coming from a French-African, a group notoriously and often brutally discriminated against in French history? How can you accuse someone of being racist, when you yourself are also racist? While perhaps I could agree with the author, that violence is never a good answer and I do not really appreciate listening to violence in songs, I found his post to be highly contradictory considering that in his posts, he describes himself as favoring militant action.
Something about the French hip-hop scene seems eerily similar to the American hip-hop culture. I wonder, since hip-hop appeals first and primarily to youth, is it creating a future in which people will be more aware of the social disparities that exist in banlieues and will therefore more inclined to take action? Or, are the banlieues being glamorized in their minds, while creating even more tension and amubition for French people to call those living in the banlieues violent and dangerous?
In my opinion, the fact that music has been a platform for a marginalized group of people to share their story is pretty exciting. It is simply my hope that as hip hop and rap artists from banlieues rise to fame, that they would give back to the communities that they came from and act as a positive voice of change.
Writing this post made me reflect on the complicated history of North Africans living in France and this quote from a blogger who writes about the common misconceptions of Islam wrote this about France, which I found to be thoughtful enough to share.
“If the challenge of ‘integrating’ French Muslims appears to be a throwback to the old colonial paradox (to ‘civilize those unable to be civilized’), it is only because people have made it that way themselves by defining France’s ‘integration’ problem as a question of culture and religion rather than social immobility, housing policy and educational inequality. Discussions of the banlieues themselves can also get transformed into complaints about culture (e.g., “speaking in slang”, wearing hats backwards and the like). Until the real issues are addressed, and until we stop framing the discourse on French Muslims as a cosmic clash of religion and secularism, things will only get worse. Perhaps, in time, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”