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Debate About French Muslim Identity Plays Out In Hip-Hop


Muslims make up about 7 percent of the population in France. The majority of them live in the outer suburbs of Paris. Many French Muslims struggle with how to define themselves - by nationality, by religion? They say the strict separation of church and state there, known as laicite, doesn't help. Commentator Hisham Aidi says you can hear that frustration in the music that young French Muslims listen to. We asked him to share his thoughts for our series on Muslims in Western Europe.


HISHAM AIDI: This is Mafia K'1 Fry, a hip-hop group from Vitry-sur-Seine, just south of Paris. And this song, "Misunderstood," is about not belonging and not being accepted in France. I was born here and I'm still called an immigrant, goes one lyric. It's also a song about colonial history, ghetto-ization and the grim housing projects where these artists live. French hip-hop artists have long had an uneasy relationship with law enforcement. Rappers have been sued for verbally abusing the police, accused of setting back integration and of using incendiary language. French politicians cringe when hip-hop artists speak of ghettoes. That's a loaded term, they say - an American label and an American problem. (Foreign language spoken) raps about these ghettos and the underside of the French dream.


AIDI: But French Muslims are conflicted about what music best reflects their experience. In fact, the debate about Muslim identity in France increasingly revolves around music, with different political camps arguing that one style is more conducive to integration than another. If hip-hop fans claim their music rattles their very concepts of laicite and integration, their critics argue that French Muslims need to move beyond protest and that angry lyrics about alienation will only further isolate the community. They call for something less confrontational.


AIDI: That was the University of Gnawa, and for some French Muslim activists, this is the kind of soothing, non-threatening music that can ease Muslim youth into the cultural mainstream. The rhythms of the Gnawa Brotherhood of Morocco and their Sufi chants, especially when fused with the sounds of the accordion and the piano, convey soft, pluralistic Islam that can charm the French majority.


AIDI: But critics ask, how will trance scene (ph) and night clubs to Gnawa chants (ph) address the unemployment intention that French Muslims face? And then there is rai music, which became popular among young North Africans in the 1980s, the soundtrack of everyday life in Algeria.


AIDI: In the '90s, a number of rai artists were exiled to Paris and they too began singing about life in the French suburbs.


AIDI: This song, (foreign language spoken), "Going Far Away," is about belonging neither here nor there. Rai artists in North Africa once sang of a ship that would come and take them across the blue sea to France. Now that they've arrived, they're still waiting for their destination. In the current debate about French Muslim identity, this wrangling over music continues.


BLOCK: Hisham Aidi is the author of "Rebel Music." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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