French hip-hop's unique history has shaped urban culture, and now it's making sure that the youth of the country's long-neglected housing estates can join the Yellow Vest movement.

“The rage of the people, I see it every Saturday,” start the lyrics of D1ST1’s song, Gilets Jaunes. 

In a video released earlier this year that garnered millions of views on social media, Jimmy, lead artists in D1ST1, is seen traversing barricades amidst the fog of tear gas. 

The Gilets Jaune, or Yellow Vests, along with barricades and tear gas have become the hallmarks of the protest movement that has gripped France for the last year. 

“I use rap to help people join the Yellow Vest movement, I use simple words that speak to everyone, and everyone ends up in the music,” Jimmy tells TRT World

He might be rapping about France's social ills today, but in his childhood, you could find him skipping school in the Saint-Cyprien district of Toulouse. 

“Even people who did not like rap told me they liked this piece,” he says of the Gilets Jaunes song. Since then, Jimmy, as he likes to be called, has gone on to make other songs about the Yellow Vest movement.  His latest commemorates the first anniversary.

D1ST1’s song on the Gilets Jaunes
D1ST1’s song on the Gilets Jaunes (Screenshot via YouTube)

Jimmy is 29-years-old, and his lyrics implore both the young and old to join the movement in the face of what he describes as a media “boycott” and attempts by authorities “to forbid us to protest”. 

“It only takes a few yellow vests until, little by little, We move, we mobilise, France gets organised,” he raps. 

And little by little, at its height, the Yellow Vest movement brought out hundreds of thousands to the streets.

Hip-hop as resistance

Crucially, hip-hop is a means of galvanising marginalised people in the French housing estates, or banlieues, and creating a political context in which to produce music that speaks to their frustrations.

When the Yellow Vest movement erupted in November of last year, shaking Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, many at the time described it as the murmurs of a mainly rural, white population.

“People, however, need to remember that one of the founders of the Yellow Vest movement was Priscillia Ludosky, who is a black woman, she was a leading founder way before the movement started on the ground," says Rokhaya Diallo a writer and filmmaker based in Paris. 

The 34-year-old Ludosky started an online petition on May 28, 2018, calling for: "Lower taxes on essential goods, the implementation of the citizens' initiative referendum, lower pensions and salaries of senior officials and elected officials.”

Ludosky’s petition far from strictly reflecting the complaints of white ruralites also struck a note with French urban-dwellers.

D.Ace "Tensions Sociales" or Social Tensions is a freestyle on the Gilet Jaune movement. (YouTube screenshot)

As the Yellow Vest movement gained pace, other artists joined in to lend their creative touch to the protest. 

Hip-hop artist D. Ace’s video Social Tensions is a freestyle on the Yellow Vest movement and reflects many of the themes of the original Ludosky petition. The video has garnered over nine million views to date.

D. Ace waxes lyrical, saying: “You tax us more than we win, If you could, you'd take our soul as long as you're there, We work more to win less, change is not now.” 

The chorus of “Let me put my yellow vest” to “defend my ideas” opens the path to allow young people to channel their discontent into actively joining the broader movement. 

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development puts youth unemployment in France at more than 20 percent, in the banlieues, it is more than 24 percent, a stubbornly high number that consecutive governments have failed to improve.

While the Yellow Vest protests have never been a monolithic movement with a set hierarchy, their appeal cuts across the social spectrum, exposing the rural and urban divide in France, but also showing the movement’s inclusivity.

In her book Beyond Subculture: Pop, Youth and Identity in a Postcolonial World, Rupa Huq describes the role hip-hop plays as a means of political and social mobilisation in France and as a “powerful counter-balance to the centralising and integrationist French nation-state”.

France was an early adopter of the Black American art form of hip-hop and today is the second-largest market after the US. While inspired by the music from across the Atlantic, it has also rebelled against US domination.

Mainstream French hip-hop, unlike its American counterpart, still has a strong protest culture, an identity born out of frustration in the suburbs of France that are buckling under the weight of inequality, racism and other unresolved social tensions.

"Hip hop has always been at the heart of the social awareness in France," says Diallo to TRT World, adding that "the first mainstream hip-hop show in France was aired in 1984,” mainly used as a tool by young people to express themselves. 

“Hip-hop is still at the core of expressing social issues in France, in particular for those from impoverished neighbourhoods to express themselves, to tell their truth and to defy state institutions.”

A French police officer standing at a housing estate in Grigny.
A French police officer standing at a housing estate in Grigny. (AFP)

Awakening French society to the banlieues

Police violence, discrimination and deprivation scar the suburbs of France, mainly inhabited by immigrants and the children of immigrants from Arab and African origin.

French politicians in the past have described the inhabitants as “scum” and “thugs” which has inflamed mistrust of the central state. 

As French society became increasingly shocked by police brutality which left hundreds of Yellow Vest protestors with appalling injuries and more than 15 demonstrators losing an eye as well as several fatalities - the people living in the banlieues saw something more familiar. 

"The issue that is shared by the people of the banlieues and the yellow vests is police brutality," says Diallo. "[It] has shed light on police violence that was not really understood by the larger population in France." 

Hip-hop artist Bilar quickly grasped this sense of awakening.

“My music is addressed to that portion of the people who have opened their eyes,” Bilar says to TRT World.

“Our leaders and our political system serve only as a smokescreen to hide the oligarchy behind power, real power is hidden, and lobbyists have more impact than the voters.”

Bilar, his music stage name, has written several songs, garnering hundreds of thousands of views tackling the deep social undercurrents of the Yellow Vest movement.

The three acts, "Government", "Democracy" and the "The work of the Black" produced over the last year on the back of the Yellow Vest movement are a pointed and scathing critique on the “hypocrisy in which we live” and notions of the “deep state” that he believes stifle the voice of his generation.

“Left or right it’s a false fight,” Bilar says of France’s political system. “The reality is the base is against the top. It’s just we, the people, we indignantly, collectively, with the yellow vest as a common symbol.”

Cover of hip-hop artist Bila.
Cover of hip-hop artist Bila. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Bilar and others interviewed for this article recognise the difficulty the Yellow Vest movement faces in remaining a cogent force in the midst of competing, sometimes contradictory demands. 

The movement’s decentralised nature is both a strength and a weakness.

Many still agree on at least some points, not least the rising inequality of opportunity in France which indiscriminately afflicts those further down the social ladder.

“The wealth inequality and the political mismanagement of the community...has never been so visible. The absence of economic and political sovereignty has never been so visible,” says Bilar - an indicator of some of the trends in other developed nations where there is an increasing rejection of globalisation.

"The social system in France is being transformed and erased by Emmanuel Macron, and that affects both the rural and urban areas of France," says Diallo. 

Rap as a medium has become an essential connecting point giving the banlieues a connection with the broader Yellow Vest movement, and the French government is aware of that fact.

The restless dynamism provided by the French hip-hop scene is one that aims to reimagine France as a multi-ethnic inclusive state in the face of the cultural assimilationist tendencies of the country. 

The state, though, may not have caught up yet with the country’s youth.

Taha Bouhafs, 22, a Parisian at the forefront of the Yellow Vest movement says: “Often the reaction of the state and politicians to hip-hop music is contempt, rejection and sometimes censorship.” 

Source: TRT World