French Rapper and Poet Pushes for a New French Identity of Inclusion

“There’s really a lag between how France sees itself and what France really is.” ABD AL MALIK


Published: August 24, 2012


PARIS-IN his early life, before he left the violent projects of Strasbourg, before he was acclaimed as a rapper and a poet, Abd Al Malik was a confusion of identities — “schizophrenic,” he says. A Catholic altar boy turned Muslim proselyte, he was at once thug and scholar, dealing hashish and reading philosophy, picking pockets after Sunday Mass.
As a teenager, he lost friends to heroin, murder and suicide; rattled and angry, he sought explanations in “On the Shortness of Life,” by the Greek thinker Seneca. At 16, Mr. Malik says, he renounced crime, burned everything he had bought with “dirty money” and fell in with a rigid Muslim sect. Later he gravitated to Sufism, the mystical strain of Islam.

He was born Régis Fayette-Mikano, the French son of Congolese immigrants, constantly pulled between worlds. Now, Mr. Malik maintains, he is “one.”

“I made peace with myself,” he said.

His country is another matter, he says, still coming to terms with its ethnic and religious diversity. He is deeply, proudly French, says Mr. Malik, 37, but he has made a remarkably successful career parsing French identity in verse, deploring what he calls an over-proud society and the hypocrisy with which it treats its nonwhite sons and daughters.

Many French rappers sing about racism, identity and the plight of the “banlieues,”France’s impoverished suburbs, but few with Mr. Malik’s poise and poetry.

“There’s really a lag between how France sees itself and what France really is,” he said, speaking with the same precise syllables and crisp consonants that distinguish his music. “So long as we haven’t realized that diversity is part of French identity, at a certain point we’re telling ourselves that a Frenchman, after all, is a white man, Christian, who’s between 25 and 45. And everything that doesn’t fit that description is tossed aside.”

France is “not capable of recognizing, directly, her own children,” he said. “From my point of view, this is our country’s major problem.”

Mr. Malik’s music, like himself, is varied and direct and almost always calm, delivered in a declamatory tone, somewhere between early American rap, slam, jazz and traditional chanson française. He has worked with the former arranger for the Belgian crooner Jacques Brel, for instance, though the subjects he addresses are hardly the same.

“I was an adolescent when I saw fate take up a gun and shoot us down one by one, death by overdose, by firearm, by knife or by hanging,” he sings in “Lead Soldier.” “Of course a smile would have made us happy, just a bit of attention and perhaps it would have been different, we would have been normal children and not child soldiers.”

Mr. Malik studied philosophy in high school and college — he enjoys the Stoics, notably, he says, though his next album will be constructed around the works of Albert Camus — and he appears with some regularity in television debates and on talk shows, often among the country’s political and intellectual elite.

THOUGH he tends to grimace in photographs, he in fact smiles broadly and often, a leonine smile that tugs at the edges of his eyes. He is tall and slightly slouched and gangly, with large feet that turn out at endearingly odd angles.

Three of his four studio albums have been named “urban music” album of the year in France, and one of his books was awarded a prize for political literature in 2010. In 2008, the government named Mr. Malik a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.

His success seems to stem in large part from the diversity of his music, said Olivier Bourderionnet, an assistant professor at the University of New Orleans who has studied Mr. Malik’s work. By turns erudite and angry, his songs are able to “reach a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds,” Dr. Bourderionnet said.

Among rappers, he said, Mr. Malik uses the tropes of traditional French chanson particularly well — “The singer has to have this rapport with poetry,” Dr. Bourderionnet explained — and so appeals to segments of the population that might not otherwise favor rap.

His writing is “at once lyrical and angry, aching and suave,” Le Monde wrote this year. It is also exceptionally earnest, as is Mr. Malik, and he is sometimes accused of being slightly naïve, preaching good feelings.

“Lead Soldier,” for instance, ends with this invocation: “Long live the rainbow France, unified, unburdened of all its fears.”

Mr. Malik was born in Paris but raised in Neuhof, a neighborhood of Strasbourg. A brilliant student, he was sent to a private Catholic middle school, where he was for a time the sole black student.

He was also a pickpocket and a thief. By the age of 11 or 12, Mr. Malik recounted, he sometimes stole as much as $1,000 in a weekend, working with his friends in downtown Strasbourg. “I had a double life,” he said. “I was a good student during the day and a delinquent at night. And over vacations. And on the weekends. But for me it was normal.”

He bought jeans, watches and the latest Nike Air Max sneakers, and went out to restaurants and nightclubs, he said. He sold hashish, too, though never the heroin that killed several friends.

AT 16, his socks stuffed with drugs, Mr. Malik and a friend met a group of local men who preached to them about Islam and death. The two resolved to start anew. They gathered their drugs and everything they had bought with drug money, drove to an abandoned field, doused it all in lighter fluid and set it ablaze. They set out for a downtown mosque the next morning, asking a Hasidic Jew for directions, Mr. Malik said. The man assumed that the boys were mocking him; they insisted that they were sincere, and he pointed the way. “We came with this faith that we were going to change our lives, that it was going to be marvelous,” Mr. Malik said of Islam. “And it was marvelous.”

He fell in with the missionary Tabligh movement and for six years traveled across France to preach, sleeping on mosque floors. But he came to feel he was manipulating the people to whom he spoke, he said, and grew disenchanted with a “simplistic” Islam that deemed non-Muslims to be sinners.

Mr. Malik cited the Koran: “God says, ‘I created you different so that you might know one another.’ ”

He turned to Sufism and discovered writers who celebrated difference. “The problem was that all of the people who spoke about this were from the 11th century, the 12th century, the 16th century,” Mr. Malik said. “I cried, I spent entire nights crying, saying to myself, ‘My God, I live in the wrong era.’ ”

In eastern Morocco he found a spiritual leader who spoke in those terms, however. (A favorite proverb: “In a garden the flowers are diverse, but the water is one.”)

Sufism taught him to love France, he says, a place where he nonetheless feels a “deep” and “perverse” racism. One cannot move forward through life if he cannot “put down his sack of grievances,” Mr. Malik said, repeating a teaching.

Islam has “helped him to untangle a sort of ball of knots that he’s dragged with him since his childhood,” said his wife, the hip-hop singer Nawell Azzouz, known as Wallen. She and Mr. Malik live in Paris with two young sons.

For all his frustrations with France, he views himself as profoundly French — it is a question of language and upbringing, he says — with a responsibility to help the country come to terms with itself and to define a new French identity.

“As soon as you know who you are, you know where you’re going,” Mr. Malik said. He added later: “For me, there’s no problem there: I know who I am. So everything’s fine.”

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