Learning French through rap

Text & Photos: Nikita Guerrieri

 

I have always thought that learning a language only made sense if it meant discovering the culture(s) attached to it at the same time, and music seems to be an important mean to do so.

 

I was introduced to English through music, via Marshall Matters LP2: Eminem’s album released in 2013. Not only did my interest for these tracks make my ears used to many thought-through English expressions, but it also represented a window to the life of a man who once was part of the American lower class. Unconsciously, it conditioned the way I learned English. I instantly connected the language to some of the people speaking it and to their experience. English became a way, a precious tool, to connect with people from other countries and share about living standards (in order to reconsider ours). A couple of years later, I could not be happier with how I fell in love with English, because it meant truly getting to know countries we sometimes only fancy for superficial reasons.

 

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France might be subject to this kind of ‘blind love’. That is why I would love to present you today a song that might show you another side of the French culture while pleasing your French beginner’s ears with some well-chosen words.

 

This is a song from the rapper Fianso. In French slang, it is very common, and it was even more common for the previous generation, to use what we call verlan. It means distinguishing the syllables of a word and saying them backwards. Fianso’s name is constructed that way: his birth name is Sofiane, So-Fiane, and it became Fian-So. He is from Saint-Denis, a French city in the same region as Paris, mostly an underprivileged suburb. In the past few years Fian-So became a true idol and a ‘big brother’ figure for a large part of the French youth as well as a proven enlightened business man when it came to the French ‘rap game’. He created Le Cercle, an event where he regularly invites young and not very known rappers to a cypher. The cypher is then shared on his social media platforms: it gets the participating rappers a lot of visibility and good publicity. He has also been organizing free hip-hop festivals in lots of suburbs during the summer.

 

For a while, I was following this rapper from a far, knowing he was becoming an important figure of the hip-hop landscape but clearly not a specialist of his work. But then a friend of mine made me listen to the song Bois d’argent (it is the name of a very expensive perfume by Christian Dior), and it was a turning-point for me. For starters, the song has to be listened while watching the video of him performing at the Skyrock radio station, because the song is only one long verse and he is living it 100%. For more than 4 minutes straight, he delivers a long monologue sometimes diatribe-like about the hopelessness of life and the impossible reconciliation between the rich and the poor, generations of immigrants and French government.

 

Here are some of the lyrics you might want to remember. I would like to say that the analysis of these lyrics as well as their translation are highly subjective and imperfect.

 

“N’attends ni lumière ni Messie ni chevaux ailés, quand le doigt montre la lune l’imbécile regarde la télé. (…)
(Don’t hope for no light, no Messiah or no winged horses, when the finger points the moon the moron looks at the TV)

 

(…) Alors il lève les yeux au ciel mais des basfonds c’est comme chercher la lune dans un lustre et les étoiles dans son plafond “
(So he looks up to the sky, but from the underworlds it’s like looking for the moon in a chandelier and for the stars in the ceiling)

 

In this extract, Fianso begins by stating a moral: it is hopeless to wait for a savior, or a magic way out of a shitty (social) situation. Here, he does not say that no source of salvation exists (God for example), but he says that it is hopeless for us to reach for it because we can’t even manage to identify it properly. We are chasing ‘fake hopes’.

 

“Don’t hope for no light, no Messiah or no winged horses, when the finger points the moon the moron looks at the TV”

 

For example, we are so entangled in our social realities, that we are unable to appreciate the purity and the superiority of the moon. Here, the moon could represent the ultimate human goal: Truth, the elevation above futile human matters, peace. But it seems like it is not even a matter of will anymore, even when we think we are reaching for it, we only end up reaching for a pale cheap copy of it (a chandelier). Do the social, political structures block our aim for the Truth? When saying “from the underworlds” (“des bas-fonds”), Fianso seems to say that the place you come from can potentially confine you and make it more difficult for you to actually attain the moon. In my view, it is an accurate depiction of the French society and its structural social inequalities.

 

I can’t help but relating this extract to Plato’s allegory of the cave (The Republic, books…). Briefly (and roughly): in this allegory, Plato talks about people that have always been imprisoned in a cave, tied up so that they can’t do anything but look at the wall in front of them. Behind them is a fire projecting on the wall the shadows of the few rare persons/animals walking through the cavern behind the prisoners. Those shadows are the only perception they have of reality, for them they are true entities. It is their reality, and it is potentially created, manipulated by the people behind them.

 

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But one day one of the prisoners is freed. He gets out of the cavern and sees the things of the world as they truly are for the first time. He realizes that shadows are only a pale reproduction of the true objects. The most important thing is, he sees the sun and understands that its light is the reason he is able to see everything around him: the sun is the truth, compared to the fire inside of the cavern. The ex-prisoner comes back into the cavern to tell his former fellow-prisoners about his discovery of the fraud, but in the end, they don’t believe him and think he is mad for thinking something else than the shadows which exist.

 

For Plato, in this allegory, the ex-prisoner represents the figure of the philosopher, eager to teach the population about the true nature of things, to help people realize they are in fact imprisoned and being fooled. To my mind, in the extract I chose from Fianso’s song, the rapper would embody this ex-prisoner/philosopher realizing no matter how hard he tries to make people see the greatness of the moon, they will ultimately only see and trust their TV, the shadows of the dancing flames behind them in the cave. And even if they want to reach something higher, they will only reach the ceiling (last thing blocking them from getting out of the cave). Here the “bas fonds” (which I roughly translated to “underworlds”) could somehow be linked to the cave in the allegory.

 

(…)

 

“Frère le pardon s’est noyé une soirée d’octobre 61“
(Brother, forgiveness drowned one evening of October 1961).

 

During the 50’s, in response to a long history of colonization and exploitation of their lands, the National Liberation Front, an Algerian revolutionary organization, attacked the French government. This lead to the imposition of a curfew on the Algerian population living in France. On October 17th 1961 in Paris, a lot of Algerian people manifested to protest against the curfew. The police repression was enormous: hundreds of Algerians got wounded and a lot of them died, pushed into the Seine river from the bridges. By saying “le pardon s’est noyé” (“Forgiveness drowned”), Fianso clearly makes a link to this event. It is only in 2012 that French President François Hollande said that, on behalf of the French Republic, he was acknowledging the “bloody repression” of this night against “Algerians manifesting for their right to independence”. If you are interested in this subject, I advise you to watch the video of the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel on that matter (La rafle et le massacre du 17 octobre 1961 à Paris).

 

What I understand from Fianso’s words is that all these years of silence about this night created an impassable gulf between French people from Algerian backgrounds and the French government. More generally, it is a good introduction to how difficult it is to define the ‘French’ identity. Related to the theme of the song, this implied example shows again that hope (in this case for a united country) is foolish.

 

There are so many other rappers that will introduce you to the ambiguity of French culture with powerful songs. Here are some you won’t want to miss if you liked Bois d’argent and Fianso:

 

Andre by Guizmo: this guy will blow your mind with incredible alliterations and assonances in this almost 8 minutes long melancholic song.

• Petit Prince by Sadek: in this song, the rapper transposes the character of St Exupery’s little prince in his neighborhood. As a big brother, he tells him about our society’s reality, and the choice some kids have to make between following laws that are not good for them, and making their own at their own risks.

Jeune du 18 by Hugo Tsr: with always accurate and graphic comparisons, Hugo will tell you about what it means to be a youngster in the 18th arrondissement of Paris.

 

 

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