David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and author who brought us Bobos, Patio Man, and other armchair sociological formulations, is at it again. In today's column, Brooks takes his shtick overseas and into the realm of pop music with a denunciation of "French gangsta rap." Citing the prevalence of hip-hop culture among "the rioters"—"poor young Muslim men" from Parisian banlieues and other French slums—Brooks goes on to to spin a theory of global gangsta rap hegemony.
It's not only that [the rioters] use the same hand gestures as American rappers, wear the same clothes and necklaces, play the same video games, and sit with the same sorts of car stereos at full blast. It's that they seem to have adopted the same poses of exaggerated manhood, the same attitudes about women, money and the police. They seem to have replicated the same sort of gang culture, the same romantic visions of gunslinging drug dealers… The images, modes and attitudes of hip-hop and gangsta rap are so powerful they are having a hegemonic effect across the globe.
The result, Brooks says, is a battle for the hearts and minds of Muslim youth "between Osama bin Laden and Tupac Shakur."
That anachronistic reference to Shakur isn't the only thing in the piece that gives off a musty stench. Brooks' entire rant is shopworn: He tut-tuts French rappers for having "nothing but rage for the institutions of society," infers a link between rap and "horrific gang rapes," and declares, in a breathtakingly doofy attempt to kick a little lingo, "if you want to stand up and fight The Man, the Notorious B.I.G. shows the way."
If you feel like you've read this before, it's because you have. Way back in the late 1980s and early '90s, when Bill Bennett was at war with Ice-T and Time Warner—and Bill Clinton was triangulating his way through his first presidential campaign by dissing Sister Souljah—the op-ed pages were full of anti-rap fulminations. But Brooks is undismayed. It's tempting to imagine that Brooks actually wrote this article back in early '90s, when he was a lowly book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal. Picture Brooks, in the heady weeks after the Los Angeles riots, frustrated that he couldn't shoehorn his gangsta-rap riff into a piece on Andrew Morton's Princess Diana biography. It's been sitting in a desk drawer ever since, just waiting for some inner-city unrest to come along. Et voilà.
To be fair, Brooks is tromping into territory that has befuddled even hardened music critics. For at least a dozen years, the French hip-hop scene has been the world's most vibrant outside of the United States, yet it has been almost completely ignored by the American music press. And while rock critics have championed British grime, Brazilian baile funk *, and other foreign hip-hop offshoots, they've completely missed the boat on IAM, Suprême NTM, Arsenik, TTC, Saïan Supa Crew, and dozens of other French MCs, who, in addition to voicing the disaffection of the French underclass, happen to be masters of the form—rappers of amazing skill, style, and wit.
On a certain level, it's hard to blame Anglophone critics. Your junior-high être et avoir won't get you very far with the torrents of slang that fill French rap. Even most French-speakers find it hard to follow along. Many MCs deliver whole songs in Verlan, the ingenious, dizzying slang in which words are reversed or recombined, turning arabe (arab) into rabza, bourré (drunk) into rébou, bête (stupid) into teubé, and so on. (Verlan is itself an example of the form: Verlan= l'envers, "the reverse.") It's not surprising that France, the nation that enshrines conversational grandiloquence as a civic virtue right up there with fraternité, would take to the most blabbermouthed genre in music history. France's chanson tradition is famous for emphasizing lyrics—the complete works of George Brassens and Charles Trenet are for sale in the poetry section of bookstores, right alongside Baudelaire and Rimbaud—and rappers are widely viewed as heirs to the chansonniers. The French Ministry of Culture, stodgy arbiters of all that is Truly French, has already given one of its top music prizes to Marseilles firebrands IAM, largely because of the poetic skills of its lead rapper, Akhenaton.
It's safe to assume that David Brooks hasn't spent a whole lot of quality iPod time with the new Disiz La Peste album. Which is fine. But it might have made sense to do at least a little listening to French rap—or least some more thorough Web-trawling—before writing a treatise on hand gestures, hegemony, and "gangsta resistance." When Brooks starts citing lyrics, things get dodgy quickly. Midway through Brooks' piece we find the following paragraphs:
When rap first came to France, American rappers dominated the scene, but now the suburban immigrant neighborhoods have produced their own stars in their own language. French rap lyrics today are like the American gangsta lyrics of about five or 10 years ago, when it was more common to fantasize about cop killings and gang rape.
Most of the lyrics can't be reprinted in this newspaper, but you can get a sense of them from, say, a snippet from a song from Bitter Ministry: "Another woman takes her beating./ This time she's called Brigitte./ She's the wife of a cop." Or this from Mr. R's celebrated album "PolitiKment IncorreKt": "France is a bitch. ... Don't forget to [deleted] her to exhaustion. You have to treat her like a whore, man! ... My niggers and my Arabs, our playground is the street with the most guns!"
Problem: Brooks' first example of "French rap lyrics today" is, well, 13 years old. The song in question, "Brigitte (Femme de Flic)" appeared on the 1992 album Pourquoi Tant de Haine, by the long-defunct duo Ministère A.M.E.R. (The group's rappers, Passi and Stormy Bugsy, have gone on to successful solo careers.) Moreover, Brooks' research seems to consist of reading two articles in conservative-identified American periodicals. I suspect that Brooks' source is Theodore Dalrymple's article, "The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris," which appeared in the Autumn 2002 edition of the City Journal. Dalrymple provides the exact translation that Brooks cites as "Bitter Minstry's … best-known lyric"—though the lyric is not so well-known that (based on a Google search) anyone else appears to have ever translated it into English.