Music is an artform defined by its ability to be shared, borrowed, or stolen. As a cultural powerhouse, trends set in the United States tend to find their way across the Atlantic to Europe, where they are adopted or adapted as seen fit. But the large bulk of American popular music has similarly been taken or appropriated from black Americans: jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, you name it.
This article focuses on the two black American musical genres that took hold in France the hardest during the twentieth century, jazz and hip-hop, and how they have, over time, reflected France’s own relationship to race and immigration.
“Introduced to France by African American Soldiers during World War I, the emerging popular musical genre called jazz captivated the French public,” explains William A. Shack in his book, Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars. Bandleader James Reese Europe recruited black Harlem musicians for New York’s 15th Heavy Foot Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, to play in military bands in World War I. The all-black detachment set foot in France in 1918, where Europe’s reputation preceded him. “General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, immediately ordered the band transferred to his headquarters, so it could entertain the officers from the British and French armies who were called to conferences with the general.” Thus “the Hellfighters were Pershing’s personal band for over a year,” despite the fact that any ‘fraternization’ between white and black soldiers was expressly forbidden. The Hellfighters later went on a 12-city goodwill tour throughout provincial France, where citywide crowds would gather to hear them play.
After the war, rather than return home, many of these musicians (like Mitchell’s Jazz Kings, led by drummer Louis Mitchell, one of the first success stories of the black jazz movement in Paris), settled in Montmartre. It had not yet been incorporated into the city of Paris, and was still considered “the country.” “Hot Clubs” emerged, spreading across Europe and inviting the great American jazz talents to come to France to play concerts and sell records. And beyond employment prospects, black Americans enjoyed previously unknown freedoms in France, even sometimes experiencing “a strong pro-Negro prejudice,” as Parisians associated jazz with African Americans.
“In 1919 the capital was poised for gaiety, and Parisians discovered America. French citizens of all ages looked to the horizons of the Atlantic for symbols of popular culture that fantasized a world divorced from the past.”
Every aspect of French intellectual society seemed to like jazz for one reason or another. “For a start it appeared to sound an appropriately irreverent note to people who had recently passed through hell and survived. It appealed to the rather phony “populism” of men like Jean Cocteau; its “primitive” sound and “savage” quality attracted the surrealists; and the musicians adopted it as a way of thumbing their noses at the ponderous pretensions of the Wagnerian school.” But it was important that it be played “in the Harlem style.” So black musicians came to Paris in droves, as every nightclub in town wanted a piece of the action. In addition to musicians, black performers like Josephine Baker and Bricktop became fascinating public figures for their ability to draw crowds, as well as for their ostentatious personal lives.
It wasn’t long before white French bands decided that they wanted to do what these black Americans were doing. Musicians like Paul Whiteman, the self-styled “King of Jazz,” was one such proposed challenger, whose big band concerts acted as sanitized mimicry of ragtime jazz, more appropriate for the concert hall than the hole-in-the-wall jazz club. But, Shack notes, “Whiteman’s concert came at a time of lively debate in Parisian intellectual circles among writers, music critics, and classical musicians on the cultural and aesthetic merits of this new musical sound. Some critics characterized jazz as only noise and cacophony, and dancing to it the death of intelligence; others raised the question, is it music?”
These kinds of debates led to a rule known as the 10% law in France, which limited the number of foreign musicians employed by an establishment to 10 percent of the total number of French musicians employed there. This might sound familiar to anyone familiar with current French radio law, which mandates that at least 30% (previously 40%) of songs played must be French-language. French musicians were so disturbed by the popularity of black American artists that they termed the phenomenon the “Black Peril.” In rebuttal, a “salon of French musicians was formed to popularize the works of French composers.”
But the 10% law didn’t benefit French musicians. The public had developed a certain taste, and when it was taken off the menu, they stopped coming to clubs to hear music, plunging Paris into a musical depression. By the time the Nazis invaded, France’s great jazz era was already at its end, the final straw being the persecution and systematic eradication of this “Negro-Jew” music by the Nazi regime.
In a sense, however, World War II had a lot to do with the birth of France’s next great musical love affair: hip-hop. During France’s post-war restoration, an enormous influx of immigrants from France’s colonies arrived to help rebuild the country, in return for citizenship. In the 1980s and 1990s, the children of these immigrants, many of whom were raised in France’s banlieues, began borrowing inspiration from black American rappers and hip-hop artists at the movement’s forefront.
France now has one of the largest hip-hop scenes outside of the United States, and though the genre has bled into pop in most of the world, its popularity in France is striking. On Spotify’s Top 100 tracks currently in France as of July 3, 2020, 46 tracks are songs by Francophone rappers, like Belgian-Congolese artist Damso, and Sofiane, a French rapper of Algerian descent. That’s nearly half, and doesn’t even take into account the large portion of American and British pop music also present in the rankings.
In “The Evolution of French Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture in the 1980s and 1990s,” André J.M. Prévos explains how this came about. It starts with Afrika Bambaataa, the South Bronx DJ and rapper, establishing the French branch of the Zulu Nation, a gang centered on raising Hip-Hop awareness, in the Parisian banlieues. This connection is an interesting one, as the Zulu Nation promoted ideals of Afrocentrism, a concept embraced by some black Americans despite their being generations removed from the African continent, to the French banlieusards, many of whom were immigrants or offspring of recent immigrants from places like Senegal, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast. More frequently, however, they came from North Africa: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
These young French men took quickly to the genre, with MC Solaar’s 1991 disc, Qui sème le vent récolte le tempo, and the 1989 rap anthology Rapattitudes (featuring artists like Suprême NTM, Pouppa Claudio & Ragga, and Puppa Leslie) setting the standard. Many of them studied rap in the United States, in the New York or LA hip-hop scenes, and imitated American rappers in their style and content. “Claims of ‘authenticity’ on the part of other performers also reminded listeners that the artists saw themselves as part of a tradition adopted in its entirety without dilution or ‘whitewashing,’” explains Prévos. “What they see as their central mission is a continuation of rap as a vehicle to popularize and vent the anger and the frustrations of many disadvantaged or sometimes mistreated individuals, and to defend the cause of the poorest and least socially-integrated segments of French society.”
French rap quickly emerged into its own genre, however, with content focused more on social justice and activism than the gun violence and drug culture prevalent in American “gangsta” rap. It also tackled the complex concept of colonialism in France. In the essay, “French Rap Music Going Global: IAM, They Were, We Are” by Seth Whidden, the music of the rap group IAM is used to illustrate the relationships between many of these communities and their own colonial history. IAM takes after the “Pharaoh” style of French rap, mainly based out of the Mediterranean city of Marseille, which uses the imagery and history of Egypt, one of the world’s oldest and grandest civilizations, as a backdrop against which to contextualize the disenfranchisement of young Arabs in France, a country with a much shorter history, but whose cultural grasp is no less tangible for it. “[IAM’s] insistence on Egypt affords them the opportunity to claim an African heritage without being immediately pigeon-holed into the role of the colonized and oppressed people speaking out against the French imperial power that is so often seen in Francophone discourse.”
These children of France’s colonies, many of whom know what it’s like to be told to “go back where you came from,” are now some of the wealthiest and most influential figures in mainstream French culture.
The dancer, club owner, and jazz age personality Bricktop was once quoted as saying, about jazz, “If there had been a lot of average white Americans around, they might have influenced the Parisians, but there weren’t.” This may be true, but it’s worth thinking about why they weren’t. France continues to deal with its own racial issues, but its constitution, unlike that of the U.S., unlike that of many other countries, promises freedom for all, regardless of race. It’s the reason so many black American soldiers decided to stay there instead of going home, and why so many Algerian and Senegalese and Moroccan rappers expatriated to France. New music always exists in the margins, which is why it tends to fall to people who live in those margins to make it. French culture always has, and likely always will, owe a debt to the black American voices from whom they have learned to make music an entire country can sing along to.