France is the second largest market in the production and distribution of hip hop music, standing closely in the shadow of their American neighbours. French hip hop has found a home in the last 30 years in the working class banlieues & suburbs of Paris and other large cities, which came to prominence and then exploded in the 90s. French, black youth primarily aligned itself with the strong, masculine, unforgiving and often angry imagery of hip hop coming from overseas and the struggle of daily life it illustrated. In turn, cinema and film-making in France is a highly regarded medium. Although a fraction of the size of the states, the French cinema industry thriving and producing some of the greatest films of all time. French New Wave cinema in the 60s, gave birth to the fluid, balletic and sometimes disjointed quality in film, and not being too concerned with ‘classic Hollywood’; Bogart and Bacall were the models, not the staple. New Wave cinema in general was tired of grandiose and lavish musicals and wanted to focus on what mattered; real people with real problems. After almost 30 years of racial upheaval, unrest, riots and the fight for equality, hip hop has developed in parallel with the change in social tides.
Much like the complexity of cinema; the classic vs the new, the tried & tested vs. the experiments, hip hop leads a dual life within the French market. There is almost a direct divide between the mellow musicality of MC Solaar, where musicians take a lead from traditional French folk singers of the immediate cultural past and the more ‘aggressive, hardcore’ mode of ‘gangster’ rap.
What could be a better example of the combination of social injustice, passionate politics, monochromatic fluidity of film and harsh edges of hip hop than La Haine? Simply translated as ‘hate’ in English, La Haine follows three young men through a day in their life in the impoverished banlieues of Paris. Based on the true story of the shooting, in police custody, of a young French man who was childhood friends with the director Mattheiu Kassovitz, we follow three young men having mixed feelings about the beating, in police custody, of their friend Abdel. During a scuffle of gangs and police that are sent in to disperse gangs and to try to quash the rising sentiment of revenge and bubbling rage, a policeman loses his gun. Vinz (Vincent Cassell) finds the gun and starts to ruffle feathers by expressing his motive for revenge on a policeman if Abdel dies at the hands of the police.
The use of hip hop music and the embracing of hip hop culture is strong throughout; a memorable scene includes Zapp’s More Bounce to the Ounce, a thudding snake of funk and robotic vocals, that fits in admirably to the greyscale scenario of breakdancing, one breakdancer left in silence still spinning, as the stereo is hastily snatched and the dancers retreat the impending raid. La Haine includes the darker side of hip hop culture in its gangs; violence. Hip hop’s branch of ‘gangster’ rap is highly prominent in the film the influence of such is loud in parts and more subtle in others, one of the latter being in its reference to Scarface, in which a man from a background of poverty and a ‘commit crime only to provide money’ mentality, rises to the top and regular faces the phrase “The world is yours”; in La Haine, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Made in 1995, not long after the excess of the 80s and the mainstream explosion of Hip Hop in America, the film feels grey, sparse and almost haunted with past lives as a sort of crash from the colourful years that have just passed; most of the action taking place in abandoned hallways of tenement buildings, empty childrens’ play areas, one assumes that it isn’t safe or even fun to be a child around there anymore. Families are portrayed as units indoors, discussing money and prayer; the film pushes the economic and emotional pressure of the two throughout. Music, in this case hip hop and rap, is a pivotal device to show the cultural identification and alignment with their American counterparts, and like through the birth of American hip hop, includes the flagposts of French history and culture, most notably the scene in which the camera circles a block of buildings whilst DJ Cut Killer plays a mix of well-known American hip hop and Edith Piaf’s classic song Non, je ne regrette rien blasting out of the tower block, in a perfect woven sequence on film where only the viewer has the chance for a fleeting moment to escape the claustrophobia of unnecessary hatred and gang violence, the music literally producing the opportunity to be lifted out.
The political and social importance of rap and hip hop in La Haine is blisteringly resolute, a way of life and a sound of the crowd.
Recommended listening & watching
Oxmo Puccino, L’arme de paix, 2009
Mc Solaar, Qui sème le vent récolte le tempo, 1991
Mc Solaar, Cinquieme As, 2011
Various Artists, Le hip hop francais repose en paix, featuring the cut killer track from La Haine, 2011
La Haine, Dir. Matthieu Kassowitz, 1995
Danielle is a resolute Francophile, travelling to Paris whenever she can and has 2:1 in Film & Literature from Sheffield Hallam University.