All the Words Past the Margins: Hip Hop Culture in the French Republic
France is a fascinating location to study placement and proximity. Above, at Versailles, one is visually compelled to understand physical place in a nation where the King considered his regime to be the center of the universe, where invitations to court at his lavish estate were so highly demanded that the overnight quarters were standing room only, despite their non-horizontal and rat-infested qualities.
“In other words, French rappers use the medium of hip hop to speak truth to power…”
Such self-importance is both admirable and abhorrent, creating a rubber band relationship of tension and drawing near or pulling away from its intended consequences and unintended effects. Despite being so close to the throne, so proximate, vermin and other indicators of distance offered a more social type of GPS to visiting courtiers. While they could certainly estimate higher status than peasants, the emblematic Frenchness of the Dauphin remained unmistakably out of reach.
The photo header above with Louis XIV’s boating lakes in the background may not make evident who, in this frame, is the anthropologist, the expatriate, the cultural insider, the European, the American, the tourist, whether such distinctions are collapsible, whether they matter (have power), and at what, ultimately, they are looking, to what they caste importance. Depending on who is doing the framing, or mapping, the attraction may be the lakes, the opulent palace, something else just next to it,
“Jay-Z refers to the palace in “Sweet” (2007): “I can walk down the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, and be so satisfied when I look myself in the eyes.” His satisfaction suggests not only favorable recognition of self, but also connects such self-affirmation to the opulence and legitimacy of Versailles; and, he’s not even French.”
or something perhaps so distant from what has been identified as the main attraction, that the sight is marginal. Additionally, depending on proximity to another’s place, the ethnographer herself might be centered or marginal, independent of particular, precise points of views, or frames. Yes, France is a fascinating place to study placement and proximity.
Anytime you think you know where you are at the Château de Versailles, in Paris, or in France, physically or socially, you find that you aren’t quite correct. Garden mazes, labyrinthine public transportation, and unnameable misreadings or rereadings of location indicate that you still have more traveling to do in order to get where you thought you were, your presumable destination, or place of rest. You keep moving. Once I met an event promoter during my fieldwork, who didn’t know how to recontact me, but knew that we would see each other out again at some event. Quite the nomad, by the time he came to France he had already lived several places, and spoke multiple languages. “Nous qui bouge,” he said, of course we would run into each other, we who move.
It is into this shifting conversation that my dissertation on French hip hop culture, enters the fray. An anthropological investigation of how the African-American cultural export of hip hop inspires French citizens of immigrant descent to communicate, my dissertation is based on my fieldwork in France since 2002. French rappers insist on speaking from shifting locations, both physical and social, within the French republic. In other words, French rappers use the medium of hip hop to speak truth to power, to draw near and pull away from a tacit understanding of Frenchness, on this page symbolically reduced to the Château de Versailles. Jay-Z refers to the palace in “Sweet” (2007): “I can walk down the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, and be so satisfied when I look myself in the eyes.” His satisfaction suggests not only favorable recognition of self, but also connects that recognition to the opulence and legitimacy of Versailles; and, he’s not even French. How do such symbols of legitimacy and citizenship influence or obfuscate those within the Republic who are invested in French identity?
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