Parisian Africa

Younger generations of artists, many immigrants of African origin, are reconfiguring the arts in France on their own terms.

Image: Bob Jagendorf, via Flickr CC.

Paris has always been renowned for its culture and support of the arts. Yet, as France has grown into an ever more pluralistic society, the traditional image of what constitutes art in France must evolve as well. Younger generations of artists, many immigrants of African origin, are now reconfiguring the arts in France on their own terms. Their artistic production embodies experiences of travel and adaptation via the integration of the cultures and traditions of their respective countries of origins along with aesthetic and quotidian experiences that reflect daily life in France. Particularly in the realm of music and film, the blending of African tradition with French popular culture and youth genres has fostered a vibrant arts scene that, while initially seen as of/from the margins of both society and the arts scene, is actually renewing ‘mainstream’ culture in dramatic ways. You just have to scan the pop music featured in Hinda Talhaoui’s Paris is a Continent Series on AIAC. One proponent of this new artistic vision is Alain Kasanda (Apkass), a Franco-Congolese musician, spoken word artist, and founder of the O’rigines Foundation and the Ghett’Out Francophone Film Festival. I interviewed Alain at the Trinity College International Hip-Hop Festival held in Hartford, Connecticut, in March this year.

The interplay of jazz, drums, and hip-hop (or spoken word) all claim origins in Africa. What has the reception to such an artistic approach been in Congo as well as in France?

I would respond to that question by speaking of the way in which my music has evolved. I have listened to hip-hop since 1991, and I started to make hip-hop in 1997. I was born and raised in Kinshasa; I arrived in France when I was eleven years old. This is very important to my artistic trajectory. I discovered hip-hop upon arriving in France. In Congo, I would most often listen to what my parents listened to, frequently the Congolese rumba: Tabu Ley, OK Jazz, Franco, Zaiko… All of those groups fashioned my childhood and my imagination. Since we didn’t have television, I had little to no access to Western images. In any case, in Congo there were only two channels at the time: the state television of Congo and the national channel of Congo-Brazzaville. We were less subject to the barrage of Western images than we are now, with hundreds of satellite channels available in the Congo. Between the state channels, the private channels, and international stations, it’s an onslaught of information and imagery that descends upon the Congolese population.

It was after my arrival in France that I discovered hip-hop. As an adolescent, I started to make my own music and the groups that most influenced me were typically French rap crews, such as les Sages Poètes de la Rue and Démocrates D. At that time, French hip-hop was barely discernible from American hip-hop, in that it was about blending jazz influences with a break beat. It’s along those lines that I joined the movement. At the beginning, my writing output was a reproduction of what I was hearing. As I grew up and matured, I became interested in black African poetry; I discovered David Diop. My approach towards writing evolved from there. Little by little, I liberated myself from the obligation of rhyming, in order to instead explore meaning through prose, to be freer in my writing and to try to capture depth rather than simply form.

My approach towards music has followed a similar path, shaped by encounters. I discovered an artist whose musical approach greatly influenced me: Gil Scott-Heron. His first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, is voice-percussion. It shocked me to listen to it… That manner of embarking upon music, as a vessel of many influences, truly touched me. When I started to create my own album, I started spending time with musicians, some of whom I shared a stage with, a number of whom were from Mali.

I did a lot of things in Paris, like putting on film showings and writing workshops. One time, following a workshop, I shared a stage with two kora players. They were Malian. It was as if lightning struck. We simply did a spoken word hour; I recited my texts a cappella and they accompanied me on the kora. I told myself how magnificent this was, that this must be integrated into the album. So it’s through maturing, the things I was able to discover through literature and a sort of researched music, as well as human encounters such as that with the Malian musicians that I began to incorporate everything into my music. I also made a place for things that pleased me, such as 1970’s soul, jazz, but also African music — the n’goni, the kora, the calabasse, and the congas, which I particularly love.

But as to why I chose to include all of those instruments in my first album? To begin with, because it’s beautiful. It’s not fair to say that because it’s African it will be put in, but rather because it’s magnificent, that it brings true musical color. It equally has to do with re-engaging with the cultural patrimony of one’s place of origin, where I come from. I identify in equal measure to Congo or Mali as I do with any African country. I have a pan-Africanist vision of things. I don’t simply look at what happens in Congo, but I also see what can inspire me from what happens next door. The kora isn’t really an instrument of Central Africa, but rather of West Africa. It’s the same with the n’goni. I integrated them into my music. You can see a little of the path that led me to exit the canon of French hip-hop in order to transform, adapt, and integrate it to my personality and my vision of music, which has also evolved over time:

Hip-hop is well-established in France, since the days of artists like MC Solaar and Assassin, among others. In your opinion, how has the landscape of hip-hop changed in France as well as in Africa in recent decades?

I can only speak to my own experience and the way in which I have integrated that history and how it has evolved within me. I began listening to hip-hop in 1991, and the groups that were popular at that moment such as NTM, MC Solaar, IAM… Being eleven or twelve years old at the time, I absorbed from these groups a kind of integrity at the level of research, a form of social and political consciousness that is less pronounced than in what is produced today. They were nevertheless ‘mainstream,’ the only groups that were truly visible. At the time, the Internet didn’t exist and it was much more difficult to reach the wider public. The groups that persisted did so through traditional means: record labels, radio, television, singles, albums… They had a very directed production scheme, very different from what happens today. That has its good and its bad.

In any case, I find that the advantage of that time is a very marked social and political awareness. You can find it again today, as there are always artists that are politically and socially engaged, but I have more a sensation that trends towards an impoverishment of musical research in French rap today. There is an impulse to want to exit one’s social class rather than a desire to transform the discourse on class in French society. That’s a bit of what I decry: that behind a discourse, one that could actually be a dialogue on social vindication, one finds instead the aspiration to emerge from one’s own social condition rather than to put into question the established order. The artists  remain in the order of describing the quotidian. They never go very far in real criticism of the system in which we live, the hypocrisy of racism “à la française,” and the model of integration in which you see grave fissures, notably in the realm of political discourse. This is what disappoints me somewhat with regards to what is happening today.

And also, there is the base and there is the form! A musical form that speaks to me, nevertheless. When you listen to IAM, when you listen to certain groups of the time — even MC Solaar — you are in fact listening to Bob James, you’re listening to James Brown. That kind of education interests me as well. I came to soul through friends who initiated me, certainly, but also because in buying a record, in buying Main Ingredient by Pete Rock & CL Smooth, I recognized that they were sampling Curtis Mansfield, or someone else. Little by little, you open your ear to other music. Once you arrive there, and once you start to want to make music yourself, you know then where to trace back the source from soul. It’s in that sense that, even at the level of musical research, I recognize myself far less in what is made today, in the sense that there is no longer that recognition of melody by the sample, for example. You find expanders, sounds that are a bit monotone and binary, and much poorer. I feel that there has been an impoverishment of sound, because the artists drift more towards electro than toward a sound that is more warm and organic, as in the beginning of the 1990’s.

Really, I’m a bit more ‘old school.’ I stayed in that time. Even in American rap, which has evolved quite a lot as well. I’m talking about the Chronic and all of that, and I prefer even so what was made in 1995, like Group Home, Gang Starr… That’s what I like to listen to. For me, the date limit on American rap, the moment when I felt a sort of turn, was the middle of the 2000’s. Or even farther. There was Black Star, Mos Def, there was Mos Def’s solo, and after that the Soulquarians where the decline began, where things were not being made in collaboration anymore. At the beginning of the 2000’s, there was yet a hope for a renewal in hip-hop. You came back to the source of the 1970’s with the Soulquarians, Like Water for Chocolate, Erykah Badu, The Roots… There was truly a will and a desire, even in the clothing look, to come back to an era — the 70’s — and a looking back to the sounds that they clearly invoked. After, we came back to things that were more ‘dead,’ less warm, less organic in sound. It’s a bit of what I deplore.

In the next album that I am in the middle of creating, that I set in that time in Paris, I search for the inverse. We started from sampling in order to reinterpret everything for musicians, and so that there would be that evolution of music, not just something that falls on four measures, or two measures on loop for four minutes. And so you see the evolution that I see in French rap.

You’ve established film festivals such as Ghett’Out in the United States, which offers an innovative view on the Francophone world. I would like to know more about your organization “O’rigines”.

I started the O’rigins Association in 2003. At the time, I was studying studying cultural communication, so I decided to start this association to organize seminars in various places. I started in a Senegalese bar in Paris in le Marais, le Djoko, organizing monthly screenings of documentaries, the “Cultural rendez-vous of Djoko.” We would screen a film followed by a debate with an author who presented his book, addressing the same topic as the film. The intention was to link the film to the literary world. It could be poetry, essays… many things. We did that for some six months, under rather difficult conditions. We’d play the VHS through a video projector! Gradually, we gathered more resources, and I moved to larger rooms. In 2006 I went into a partnership with a movie theatre in Saint-Michel. We could start showing short films in 35mm print, in real film. These were the “Tell me a short” evenings to link poetry and short films. The common point between the two is that they are short forms, they must tell things on very few pages, in a very short time. Each evening had a theme. I screened four films a night. Each short film was preceded by the recitation of a poem that addressed the same topic as the film, but without talking about the film itself. After making a selection of films, I called slammers from Paris, mostly friends. They watched the films and let them be inspired to write a poem. On those evenings, there would then be the reading of the poem and screening of the film, after which the director joined the poet to discuss among themselves and with the public. The goal of the association was to try and create social ties through art, and specifically through film.

This year I organized for the first time the Ghett’Out Film Festival. It’s a pun — “leaving the ghettos” — but also a nod to a song by Gil Scott-Heron, “Get Out of the Ghetto Blues” off the ‘Free Will’ album. The idea is straight-forward: to show independent French films, made by filmmakers working at the margin of the French system of production and distribution. Basically, these are people who have interesting discourses and a styles, but not necessarily the means of production and distribution needed to reach the public they should reach. Let me give an example. French filmmaker Sylvain Georges. He made a beautiful film, Qu’ils reposent en révolte (May They Rest in Revolt). From 2007 to 2010, he followed migrants, mostly Afghans and Eritreans, who try to reach England from Calais.

He has followed several people in an equal relationship between filmmaker and subject. He didn’t just arrive on the scene as a cameraman. He has mostly ‘constructed’ political figures. There is no compassionate report, where they’ll say “those poor migrants …”. We see men and women with a history, products of political situations, who leave a country because of war, or because the social and economic conditions are not good. When they arrive in France, the only answer they’re given is one of repression, the populist and safety talk of Sarkozy… This is a film with a strong social and political vision, but also a film that remains poetic. He films them in the environment they find themselves in: among twigs, trees, the sea, birds. There is also no voice-off. There are only these situations, which the filmmaker shows one after the other. The viewer himself is brought to think and understand the distress the people are forced to live with, and how they survive.

The essence of the festival was to present these kinds of movies, both feature films and short films. Soufiane Adel’s short films for example. He made a fictionalized trilogy about his family. He tells a story, introspectively, but through fiction. All characters in his films are family members: his father, his mother, his sisters. They all tell stories. Kamel s’est suicidé six fois, son père est mort tells the story of an old man who dies in palliative care, late at night, and how his grandchildren improvise a Muslim funeral rite. They begin to pray in the room. His son arrives too late; his father is already dead. That is all the film tells, with very few words. It lasts nine minutes. It’s beautiful.

So it’s about bringing these films, which don’t get the public in France they deserve, to an audience of film buffs and students in the United States. Since programming a film doesn’t necessarily guarantee an audience to come watch it, the idea was to also organize on the sides of the festival itself. There have been meetings at universities, with filmmakers and students and teachers interested in the topics covered in the films. The meetings focused mainly on two issues. The first question is: what does it mean to be an independent filmmaker today? In terms of financial constraint, but also in terms of intellectual freedom. In other words, what is the price of freedom? And also what does freedom mean? The second question is: why choose to be a filmmaker, why choose to explore those themes? It was about creating a framework in which the filmmakers could express themselves around those issues, far removed from French cinema. I also wanted to establish a link with the tradition of the American counter-culture, which I’m not all too familiar with, but one of its filmmakers had a big influence on me…

This is also somehow my undertaking, because when I look at French cinema, when I watch French television, in no way do I recognize the society I see in the subways or on the street. Blacks, Arabs, Chinese, the other, all are discarded; on TV and film, France is portrayed as very white and very bourgeois. This issue of representation is crucial, because it comes with a language of alienation. Representation is really important and this is what the festival films show: France as I see it. Where one sees all the social parts, which are generally sidelined in France’s image but also often attacked in the political discourse: the working classes, the immigrants … And who are mostly objects rather than subjects in the public space. They only become subjects in front of the camera of people from their midst. Thus we get to see their history from a different angle and with much more empathy. Without forgetting the form, the poetry, which is also important. It’s not about having a revengeful discourse that dismisses beauty. It’s about the search for beauty while addressing issues that are never addressed. That was the aim of the festival, which is in line with my musical interest: how to express hard things, but through beauty and form. In hip hop and in the cinema, that is what interests me.

Further Reading

The skeleton in the closet

The novelist Nadifa Mohamed complicates Britain’s troubled, racist legal history through the personal tale of one otherwise insignificant person, a Somali immigrant to Cardiff in Wales.

Life to the sound of gunfire

Nigerians fleeing extremist violence at home take refuge across the border in Niger among an already fragile population. Together they proceed to carve out a way to live better lives for now.

Democraticizing money

Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.