by Samir Meghelli
Elements of American culture abound in France, and vice versa. But that doesn't mean we are all doomed to cultural homogenization. Take hip-hop music, for example.
There are few cultural forms more American than hip-
hop, and yet it has taken firm hold in France. Over the last three decades, France has grown to become the largest market in the world (behind only the United States) for the production and consumption of this genre. But French hip-hop is not a copy of its American precursor. On the contrary, it is a rich scene of French artists who rap in their national language (and local argot) and narrate their own unique socio-political realities.
Unbeknownst to Americans, the French were among the first to embrace hip-hop. In 1984, the world's first regularly and nationally broadcast hip-hop television show made its debut on France's largest television channel, TF1 — long before any equivalent would appear in the United States. Later, the French minister of culture Jack Lang, whose mission was to promote and cultivate "French" culture, proclaimed that "intellectually, morally and artistically," hip-hop was a movement: "Even if in the beginning it drew inspiration from America, I believe it has found its originality here in France." In a decade, hip-hop went from being a fun, foreign, American import to being recognized as a source of French cultural pride.
The story of hip-hop in France makes clear that culture — and sometimes, in particular, presumed "national cultures" — are malleable and fluid. The borders that are constructed around a set of cultural practices and mark them as truly "French" or "American" only reflect the concerns of a given moment. And although hip-hop's historical roots are undeniably American, the music is now a lingua franca that speaks as powerfully to realities in France as it does in its country of birth.
Samir Meghelli is a professor of African American studies and French at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is writing "Between New York and Paris: A Transatlantic History of Hip Hop" and is on Twitter.
This post was originally posted on the New York Times Opinion Pages on October 14, 2013 as part of the Room for Debate series "Is France Becoming Too American?"
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
by Samir Meghelli