BREAK THE CYCLE: On Rap Video Culture, Les Grand Ensemble & SelfRepresentation

The city, as the cradle of civilization, has been recounted by an infinite number of authors throughout history, however, for centuries we knew little about it from non-institutional and peripheral perspectives. Indeed, only ‘recently’, the urban periphery has found ways to convey its stories, occupying and making use of numerous arenas.
    This short essay analyzes and discusses how rap video culture has given voice to urban outcasts, and helped them portray their surroundings in a different array of styles; highlighting the formation of a shared sensibility, and the rising potential hiding behind a visual register widely used within the French context. On the other hand, it will analyse the limits of canonical rap imageries and restraining narrative schemes, in order to contribute to the implementation of sustainable practices within the genre.

The dissertation incorporates several music videos, uploaded on YouTube since 2006, and covering a period of time spanning from 1982 to 2020. In addition, parallel to a short historical and contextual introduction to the genre, as well as to the French urban periphery, the text will make use of the analysis of several sociologists, theorists, and artists in order to substantiate the critique of the aforementioned visual material.
    Last but not least, particular attention will be given to the French context, due to the abundance of documentation and emerging platforms discussing the state of affairs of both rap video culture and urban peripheries; yet I believe that the following analysis can be extended, with due proportion and additional research, to several other countries within Europe, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy.


Henri Lefebvre point-blank begins his 1970 book The Urban Revolution as follows:

I'll begin with the following hypothesis: Society has been completely urbanized. This hypothesis implies a definition: an urban society is a society that results from a process of complete urbanization. This urbanization is virtual today but will become real in the future. 1 (Lefebvre, 1970)

Fifty years later, this is still not the case, however, most of the analysis discussed by Lefebvre in The Urban Revolution seems to be more than ever palpable today. Especially those concerning the aftermath of urbanization, where attention is drawn to the urban problematic and the intensification of violence 2, especially from a global perspective.
    Although critiquing urbanization at all scales,however, Lefebvre's analysis often evokes, by way of example, the French urban society, as well as Paris, the city par excellence in relation to the combination of urban planning, understood as a grand design for the constitution of a new order, and its repercussion on urban communities.

[Georges-Eugène Haussmann] gutted Paris according to plan, deported the proletariat to the periphery [..] cutting through the urban fabric, and inscribing straight lines throughout the city [...] a logic that is inherent in class strategy and tends to maximize this type of rational coherence, which originated with Napoleon I and the absolute state. 3 (Lefebvre, 1970)

La grande croisée 4 however, isn’t an isolated historical event at all, and going back in time, Lefevbre inscribes it within a tradition and rationality long-tied to dominant ideologies, Bonapartism in this case; a stillicide perpetuated across various regions and times, not just linked to the city, as a defined geographic entity, but instead – acknowledging the scale and complexity of urbanization processes – to the urban, a much more porous and polymorphic organism; leading to what Levebvre defines as an overall colonization of space that sees no boundary dividing cities or countries, but cutting across the urban, between a dominated periphery and a dominating center 5.
    The urban society, as formulated by Lefebvre, sees in fact, the formation of two major dichotomies: the rural-urban and the center-periphery. A clash between different geographies, running at different speeds, and defined by different logics, but still belonging to the same overarching system, state, or economy.

On the same matter 39 years later, Metahaven, questioning the state of affairs of the Pan-European identity draws attention to the expansion of advanced forms of marginality within the EU.

The French banlieues have developed something the sociologist Loïc Wacquant calls “advanced marginality” 6, a tremendously powerful condition with regard to the condition of border, or periphery. [...] Revamped (historical) city centers, meticulously styled and kept, become "global destinations'' for capital, culture, and investment, while cheaply and quickly constructed urban peripheries become ever poorer, harder to reach, and more difficult to leave. 7 Center-periphery oppositions like these are increasingly found as borders within Europe. According to the French thinker Étienne Balibar, there are “modes of inclusion and exclusion in the European sphere.” 8. Europe is a “borderland”, anything but the patchwork of peace and prosperity conforming to the EU's official brand image. 9 (Metahaven, 2009)

Keeping an eye on the French context, a case in point is the ZUS 10 (Zone Urbaine Sensible), urban and infra-urban territories outlined by the Pacte de Relance pour la Ville 11 (PRV) as priority targets for policies meant to revitalize the economy 12 and keep the country ‘safe’.
    Launched by the right-of-center Juppè government in 1996,the PRV is the product of a political campaign by Jacques Chirac aimed at fighting against the fracture sociale [social divide] and the risk of social unrest in the suburbs, that was holding hostage the State.

Le plan présenté aujourd'hui par Alain Juppé semble avoir choisi d'autres angles d'attaque: celui du renforcement de la présence de l'Etat dans les banlieues et surtout celui de l'emploi. Ainsi le pacte prévoit­il une augmentation des effectifs de police, des mesures supplémentaires contre la délinquance (avec la création, déjà critiquée, d'« unités à encadrement éducatif renforcé »), des dispositions en faveur du secteur éducatif ainsi que du logement. Afin de favoriser la mixité sociale, les règles d'attribution de HLM seraient assouplies par la suppression des plafonds de ressources et la non-application des surloyers. (Philippe Moreau, Les Echos, 1996)

The plan presented today by Alain Juppé seems to have chosen other angles of attack: that of strengthening the presence of the State in the suburbs and especially of employment. Thus, the pact aims to increase the police force, and additional measures against delinquency (with the creation, already criticized, of  juvenile detention centers.), and provisions in favor of the educational sector as well as housing. In order to promote social mix, the allocation rules for low-cost housing would be relaxed by removing income ceilings and rent surcharge.

Such intensive policing led to the expected results. Along with what Silverstein and Tetreault (2006) have called the “defacto militarization of housing projects”, the PRV is considered to have also introduced a shift in focus from solidarity between communities, to a model based on economic success with strictly defined space of intervention 13, and paved the way to a neoliberal approach based on zoning which rather than breaking down problems to their constituent parts, lumps together social issues in a box promptly defined as 'ghetto' 14.
    One of the major downsides of the census has been in fact the encouragement of forms of institutionalized segregation and discrimination 15 based on territorial stigmatization. Indeed, territories classified as ZUS were and still are easily identifiable and labeled thanks to extremely detailed maps 16 offered by the French government itself, where areas are marked street by street 17  [rue par rue] and cut off from the rest of the city with red-line boundaries 18.

When asked where they reside, many of those who work in Paris say vaguely that they live in the northern suburbs (Avery 1987: 22) rather than reveal their address in La Courneuve. 19 (Wacquant, 2008)

One of these districts is La Villeneuve 20, a residential neighborhood located in the south of Grenoble.  Designed and built between 1963 and 1983, in the 1970s it has been widely publicized as a symbol of the post-68 architecture, being one of the first attempts at creating a differentiated district integrating jobs, housing, and various services altogether. But as much as the buildings were quite correct and the urban space agreeable, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the lack of investments, and the ongoing deterioration of the estates, combined with acute economic problems, turned this 1970s utopia into a fragile ecosystem; worthy of inclusion in the Zones de Redynamisation Urbaine (ZRU). A downfall predicted by French sociologists 21 already in the 1970s.

The city is a furtive object, it seems, one that conceals itself. Far from dominating their city, the inhabitants seem to lose themselves further and further within it. The production of urban space today hardly offers the inhabitants any respite, now that it even goes so far as to reduplicate this loss of self and of “home” in the city, by closing off all prospects through the shrinking of cityscapes, economic pressure, social division, overpricing of “small” property lots, and the concentration of slum areas 22. (Medam, 1971). 23 (Augoyard, 1979)

On the other hand, the decline of La Villeneuve, together with other neighborhoods across France, has been covered by French media manufacturing an image of la banlieue as a public issue, deserving of the attention of specialists and the intervention of political decision-makers 24. Indeed, especially in the early 1990s, and just before the introduction of the PRV, a supposed Americanization of French suburbs, supported by the analysis of several journalists and scholars 25, exacerbated the national public discourse around the social divide and social impoverishment; defectively comparing the banlieues to ‘American style ghettos’, such as the Black Belt district 26  of the Southside of Chicago, and sensationalizing the issue by resorting to resembling historical cases.

Proof is the epidemic of articles with alarming and alarmist titles, such as 'Ghetto Stories', 'Long Live the Ghetto', 'These Banlieues where the Worst is Possible' 27, triggered at the beginning of the 1980s by the infamous 'rodeos' in the Minguettes neighbourhood of Venissieux (a waning industrial suburb of Lyons) and the firearm death of little Toufik Ouanès in the cité of the Quatre mille (4000) in La Courneuve in July 1983, which was suddenly accelerated and greatly amplified following the incidents in Vaulx-en-Velin in October 1990, variously described by the press as a riot', a 'revolt', an 'uprising', and even a 'veritable urban guerrilla [war]'. 28  (Wacquant, 2008)

A stigma still put forth today by several newspapers and newscasts in France, such as M6 with its TV program Zone Interdite 29 [No-go Zone](1993-present) or France 2 with Envoyé Spécial (1989-present) and its reportages on ‘les quartiers sensibles/chauds’ [agitated neighborhoods]. Despite the political and mediatic ostracism however, there is still who offers resistance. Stigmatizing media coverage in fact do not go unnoticed and often found instead the opposition of local residents accusing newspapers and broadcasters of carrying and supporting prejudicial beliefs about the grands ensembles [large-scale & high-rise housing projects].
    A case in point is exactly Envoyé Spécial, which on September 26, 2013, broadcasted a reportage entitled “La Villeneuve: le rêve brisé” 30  [the broken dream],  picturing a prejudicial and one-sided portrait of the area featuring clashes between young men and the police, teachers struggling to support their students, gun violence, and the discomfort of the elderly. A few months later, a defamation lawsuit 31 was brought by a group of residents against France 2, leading, despite the dismissal of the appeals court, to the mobilization of the local community and the production of a crowdfunded documentary 32  aiming to rebalance the image of the district; an initiative that shifted the focus from the voyeuristic and sensationalistic viewpoint of the broadcaster to one which alternatively promoted the perspective of a wide range of residents.

In a similar manner, especially in Paris, a new generation of photographers 33 and independent publishing houses 34 are encouraging the formation of a non-stereotypical imagery of the suburbs, directing the focus onto the ordinary, mundane aspects of everyday life in the banlieue, in an attempt to counter both stigmatizing discourses, and the commodification and fetishization of urban culture by politics and media.
The pictures, most often set in the streets of Parisian peripheral districts, such as Saint-Denis, Epinay-Sur-Seine, or Bondy, feature non-judgemental portraits of a wide range of residents and their daily routine 35; a multidimensional visual account of contemporary French (sub)urban society, that could potentially have the same impact photographers such as Cartier-Bresson, Koudelka, Arbus, Klein, or Meyerowitz 36  had in the narration of twentieth-century society.

Along side urban photography, however, zines like PARISREAL II (2015) by Yanis Dadoum reveal also the influence of rap video culture, as also confessed by the same photographer 37 in a recent interview:

I like some stuff from the past like the rap from the 2000s, rap videos also. The video of Mafia K'1 Fry for their track “Pour Ceux” 38 is bloody amazing. Everything is there. Those guys woke up one morning and said 'let's do a video clip'. All the kids from the blocks came out and they just filmed. Voilà. That's great. Even in the way they are dressed, those guys didn’t force anything. Didn’t play anything. 39  (Yanis Dadoum, 2015)

Indeed, photographic series such as THÉRAPIE 40 by Marvin Bonheur, to name but one, encompasses a similar iconography employed in early 2000’s French rap videos such as ”Pour Ceux”(2003) or “Les Princes De La Ville” 41 (1999) by 113; spontaneous or mildly staged portraits of the youth from the banlieues, with the cityscape as a backdrop.
Rap culture has in fact occupied a majorly influential role in the construction of visual and non-visual records of suburban and peri-urban areas, having had, and still having a privileged relationship with urban peripheries.

We are essentially reporting live from neighborhoods and communities long forgotten, and, in Atlanta, recently torn down 42. It seems as though our city and our people place no importance on our community any longer. These are the places you never visit. These are the places that hip-hop claims to care about. 43 (Pill, 2009)

In the early 1980s, when rap music began to drift away from eclosed spaces and events such as clubs and block parties 44, and gangsterism started taking roots in the culture, bringing a new spacial dimension in it, a new subgenre deeply tied to urban geographies established itself as one of the most influential styles in hip hop music: gangsta rap; a subgenre either made by or about gangsters, promoting both tales of street life and the lifestyle associated with it. And as much as rap music changed and evolved over the years, gangsta rap imagery and its recurring themes remained dominant within the rap landscape, helping to popularize the use of urban settings in rap videos, and characterizing the genre’s aptitude for the narration of urban realities.
    Ice T, for instance, who helped pioneer gangsta rap, already in the late 1980s used to interwoven his music videos 45 with images of Los Angeles, featuring both cinematic scenes worthy of a crime movie and documentary-style shots of the Californian cityscape. And similarly to Ice T, many other artists over the years – both in and out of the North American context – walked the same path; such as Nipsey Hussle in Picture Me Rollin 46 (2017), also in Los Angeles, or SCH in Interlude 47 (2020) set in Marseille; where both videos mostly avoid studio or indoor settings, preferring instead open air locations, facing local landmarks of their respective cities and neighborhoods.

But it is no coincidence that so many artists over time and across so many different countries have promoted images of their districts; as if in the face of a society that devalues and demeans them 48 one way in which they could have cope with 'dispossession' was through the passionate display of the districts to which they belonged, although impoverished, moche 49 [ugly] or dysfunctional.
    Rappers, in fact, seem to respond symbiotically to the ecosystems. A concept well-argued by Jesse Mccarthy in one of his Notes on Trap:

TRAP 50 IS THE ONLY MUSIC that sounds like what living in contemporary America feels like. It is the soundtrack of the dissocialized subject that neoliberalism made. It is the funeral music that the Reagan revolution deserves. 51  (Jesse Mccarthy, 2018)

And despite being a comment on the American society, this concept seemingly applies to many other countries and contexts where living conditions are now majorly dictated by urbanization processes, as defined by Henri Lefebvre. With rap music now potentially becoming the soundtrack of the infinitude of inner borders fragmenting the globe; the soundtrack of policies exacerbating territorial stigmatization in France; the soundtrack of the forthcoming complete urbanization.
    Indeed, rap culture today, especially through the production of visual records, assumes the task of narrating the city and its symbols, in the same way in the 19th-century poets and novelists portrayed the rise of the city as the new totalizing ground to decipher.

The symbolic dimension of the city was discovered by Victor Hugo, its paradigmatic dimension by Baudelaire, and its syntagmatic dimension by many poets who inhabited the city and wrote about their travels: romantics and minor poets, from Gérard de Nerval to Lautrémont and Rimbaud. 52 (Lefebvre, 1970)

Likewise, rap music, better than most music genres, it has been able, and it is still able – at its best – to provide a different understanding of the urban context, quite often fracturing the institutional and postcard-perfect image of the city, by reframing and observing it from unconventional perspectives.
    In this regard, Kodwo Eshun in a short essay entitled Abducted by Audio 53  analyzes how much, already in the mid-1990s, rap music grew used to morph and unsettle reality:

“So if you go back to 1992 when Cypress Hill started - if you remember, before that, you had hip hop which was very much based in an idea of reality, in an idea of representing your neighbourhood, representing your true class or true group around you- as soon as you had Cypress Hill you had that reality blending, you had reality morphing into a psychogeography, a more unreal state. The first thing you hear is the sound of inhalation, people breathing in, the sound of the hits from the bong. That kind of magnification, that idea of sound microscoping right in close to your ear, that’s what was fascinating about hip hop, and that was, immediately, when you started to realise that reality was starting to morph.” (Eshun, 1997)

An analysis to be understood not as a withdrawal of the genre, and its video culture, from its social and documentary functions, which on the contrary continued to play a major role, but rather as an enhancement of its subjectivity and its analytical potential.
    Indeed,thanks to this shift in mindset, multiple voices coexist within the genre today, and the urban context, and all the stories associated with it, can be experienced in a wide range of shades; sometimes fictionalized with cinematic features; sometimes sublimated into myths and legends; sometimes excessively glamorized 54.
    Among this different array of styles, however, fictionalization has been historically predominant, far surpassing the documentary style, which instead remained most often a prerogative of a few 55 – and which only today is seeing a resurgence thanks to a community of creators and curators, like COMPLEX (US) or YARD (FR), producing video tours of influential neighbourhoods within rap culture.
    Since the early days of the genre, in fact, especially with the rise of gangsta rap, rappers have often worked with the movie industry in the production of soundtracks or taking acting roles 56 , such as Ice-T in Colors 57 (1988) or years later Mobb Deep in In Too Deep 58 (1999). And over the years, this phenomenon has done nothing but spread, consolidating the relationship between rap music and film culture; a relationship that kept on influencing rappers’ ambitions and rap videos’ accounts on the urban experience, both in and out of the North American context.

A case in point is Gomorrah 59 (2014), an Italian crime TV series narrating the story of two young men making their ways into a Neapolitan crime-syndicate.
    Soon after its release, Scampia 60 , a suburb in the far north of Naples, and one of the locations of the TV series, gained among many European rappers a mythical dimension. European (gangsta) rap, in fact, until 10-15 years before, was feeding almost entirely on American biopics and crime movies & TV series, such as Scarface 61 (1983), Carlito's Way 62 (1993), The Sopranos 63 (1999-2007) or Get Rich or Die Tryin' 64 (2005), and other cult films about American gangbangers like Boyz n the Hood  65 (1991) and Menace II Society  66 , La Haine (1995) directed by Mathieu Kassovitz.
    When Europe's film industry eventually started producing crime drama and movies set within EU countries, such as 4 Blocks 67 (2017-2019) or Romanzo Criminale  68 (2008 -2010), the initiative had a great appeal to local rap scenes, which started leaving behind American icons and instead embrace the European ones.
    Fascinated by Gomorrah storyline and characters, several French rappers, for instance, picked Scampia as additional location for their videos, such as PNL in Le monde ou rien 69  (2015) or SCH in Gomorra 70 (2015); as if that neighborhood, however distant from their lives, and encountered only on screen, suddenly epitomized their life stories and ambitions, as much as their hometowns.

However, whilst acknowledging the usefulness and therapeutic value of using ‘ready-made’ narratives and imageries taken from films and TV series, over the years the use of movie references in rap videos, especially crime drama, has led to a stereotypification and calcification of the genre iconography, which now is flattened more and more by over-banalized images 71 like money, weapons, and drugs.
    On the contrary, less ‘cinematic’ videos, synthesizing their own imagery according to the habits and customs of each neighborhood, kept on constructing ever-evolving scenarios and expressive scenes.
    For instance, keeping an eye on Scampia, this time from a different angle, the representation of the area given by Co’ sang in Int'o Rione 72 (2006) radically differs from Paky’s depiction of the same in Boss 73 (2020); with the latter appearing to be a patchwork of scenes likely scraped from Gomorrah, while the first one, a collection of spontaneous or mildly-staged vignettes inspired by local scenes, offering an autonomous reading of the environment.
    And a similar approach can be found in several French videos today, such as N'tiekar 74 by Dinos (2020), Bienvenue à la Banane 75 by Moha La Squale (2017), or MERCÉ LA ZONE 76 by Hatik (2019), in which the video functions as a map of an internalized landscape, indexing the symbolic units underlying the experiences of the respective ‘communities’, as seen through the eyes of the artists.

Et je pense en fait qu’avec les années, le rap français est vraiment en train de prendre son identité, genre vraiment, c’est le nouvel âge d’or maintenant, je pense vraiment, donc nos codes à nous, de simplicité à nous, nos trucs à nous, sans vraiment forcément copier les autres, tu vois. 77  (Sofiane, 2017)

Actually I think that over the years, French rap is really consolidating its identity, like really. It's the new golden age now, I think, with our own codes, our own simplicity, our stuff, without necessarily copying others, you see.

Rap video culture throughout the years has taken the medium of video and transformed it so it was better suited to describe the [urban landscape] as it understood it 78 ; starting from an elementary and bi-dimensional representation of the city – as in It's Nasty 79 (1982) by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – and getting today to a multidimensional depiction of the same.
    In addition to this, what really keeps the genre interesting is the emergence of a shared sensibility towards the urban landscape and its periphery.Indeed, French rap culture 81 , probably due to the homogeneity of its markets and of suburban and peri-urban areas shown in most videos, is seeing the rise of a shared visual language and iconography, made up by elements taken from the environment; what Lefebvre may define as urban mythology 83.

A prime example are Sofiane’s videos with the hashtag #Jesuispasséchezso 84 , a video series set in several neighborhoods visited by the French rapper since 2016.

En tournée, Sofiane passe toujours une tête dans la cité du coin, une proximité qui plaît à son public. «Quand tu en viens, tu sais que c’est les clés d’une ville. Le rap s’est éloigné de sa base. Tu retrouves maintenant les rappeurs dans les clubs et moins dans les cités. Il faut vivre ce qu’on raconte. 85  (Girard, 2017)

On tour, Sofiane always passes by the local city, a proximity that appeals to his audience. "When you go visit, you know you have the keys of the city. Rap music today is distant from its base. You will now find more rappers in clubs than in the neighborhoods. [when instead] You should experience what people claim.

It all started in La Castellane 86, a neighborhood in the 15th arrondissement of Marseille, sharing a similar history to La Villeneuve. After that, the series kept on expanding, incorporating other neighborhoods across France, but almost always maintaining a certain continuity 87.
    The script, in fact, is most often the same: Modernist ensembles as a backdrop, a handful of young men behind him, tracksuits & football shirts, cross-body bags, dogs, no presence of women or other groups of residents, weed & ash, dirt bikes & wheelies, guns, kids, cash, drone shots, middle fingers, road signs, handshakes, boxers, choirs, balaclavas, flags, and occasionally cars speeding off. And this imagery keeps recurring for years now. Of course, he has no exclusive on that, many other rappers in Europe use the same iconography, however, he is using it more solidly than others, remaining consistent even when he crosses the French border to shoot videos in other European countries such as Italy 88 , Portugal 89 , Germany 90 and the Netherlands 91.
The list of locations is in fact, extremely coherent and well-curated, giving the impression that the landscape doesn’t change much, except for local landmarks; that daily routines do not change, although seen in different contexts. One homogeneous geography, made of suburbs inhabited only by loud and resentful men sharing the same lifestyle. However, as apocalyptic as it may seem, by acknowledging similarities in different urban contexts, and through a highly selective take on reality, Sofiane is able to bring the European urban periphery and its social divide into focus; and potentially speak to an audience that identifies itself with it, perhaps living in urban areas under the same or transposable conditions depicted in his videos.

“Blanc-Mesnil, Aulnay, Sevran, Bondy, La Courneuve, tous ces endroits-là, on se connaît, on est dans le même délire”. 93 (Sofiane, 2017)

Blanc-Mesnil, Aulnay, Sevran, Bondy, La Courneuve, all these places, we know each other, we are in the same delirium.

Indeed, what he calls “le même délire” is nothing but a reference to the aftermath of a mismanaged urbanization process and its impact on urban communities now living under a regime of formal and informal segregation, impoverishment, and abuse; a condition which on the other hand, has also allowed rap culture to create a sense of community, and which has granted to the genre an influential status in urban contexts; opening up a chance for the genre to become a public platform against a hegemonic conception of France's urban identity.

I think there is a “common” that grows stronger and stronger. We always have to create institutions! But creating institutions also means creating forms of cities, because an institution is not a metaphysical representation or an ideal archetype! It is among other, concrete forms that the city has to be constructed, that the metropolis can constitute the common. And it goes without saying that I am not only speaking here of buildings! There are, of course, buildings, but there is also communication — the lines, the spaces, and so forth. Creating an institution means creating a public space. [...] Because we still require a place in which this multitude will exist — not only a network through which it communicates, but also the power to decide its living conditions. This power to decide plays a role in developing a relationship between the multitude and state structures or institutions, and from a negative perspective this means an uproar; from a constructive perspective it means revolution. 95 (Negri, 2010)

However, despite the multiethnic French banlieue has become a space from which French rap culture could potentially challenge the representation of Frenchness, interrogate universalist notions of citizenship, encourage discussions on otherness, and open up a possibility of reclaiming the urban space, on the other hand, most videos seem to exist in a social vacuum where there are no actual possibilities of exchange or encounters within segments of the community, unless it's between small, demographically homogeneous circles of people.
    Indeed, Sofiane’s videos, as many others, show us the cité within an extremely narrow framework, presenting it as a self-enclosed world, in which the hyper-masculine focus on the aforementioned elements neglects the off-screen everyday life animating the suburb, reinforcing the gap between the multi-layered reality of the banlieue, and its mythological and catastrophic representation by TV programs 96 and banlieue films 97 , repeatedly converging on a narrow set of images, characters, and situations.

Les mecs ils ont l’impression que dans le 93 on marche avec des fusils à pompes, que c’est la guérilla, non! Calmez vous. On s’amuse ici, on fait des barbecues. On met 5€ et on fait un grand barbecue pour tout le monde. On fait tout, on emprunte des camions pour emmener les petits à la piscine l’été… 98  (Sofiane, 2017) 

People have the impression that in the 93 [Seine-Saint-Denis] one walks with shotguns, that it is the guerrilla,no! Calm down. We have fun here, we make barbecue. We put 5€ each and we make a big barbecue for everyone. We do everything, we borrow trucks to take the little ones to the pool in summer. 

Paradoxically, even when rap culture claims to counter conservative conceptions of the urban periphery, when it takes on the task of portraying its surroundings, that same hegemonic and catastrophic representation seems to remain in place.
    Indeed, as far as the genre drifted away from American film culture and built its own local imagery, its process of assimilating and understanding the environment seems still to rely on other dominant narratives, ending up recycling and reinforcing – in a different visual style – a deeply ingrained set of images; raising the question of whether rappers have somehow internalized pre-existing media representations, then unconsciously reproduced, or whether their hyper-masculine and universalist claims about banlieue lifestyles are to be intended as a form of legitimization, which attempts to mediate economic, social and political disenfranchisement.

What is certain is that rap video culture has developed the scale and the non-gimmicky potential to heighten public awareness around contemporary urban issues, and become a counterpart to hegemonic discourses about urban outcasts. But in order to do so,the genre needs to stop dealing with dispossession in a one-dimensional way, and break the cycle of canonical rap imageries; starting from getting away from models of exclusion and opening itself to segments of the community long disregarded and often kept outside of the frame, unless it was by accident.
    Fred Moten, quoting Manolo Callahan 99, argues that we need to learn how to renew our habits of assembly and recognize that we're part of a common project, and this is exactly the only way rap culture can sustainably evolve and have the capacity to be relevant to more than a few listeners; becoming the legitimate soundtrack of contemporary urban peripheries.

May, 2020

@Design Academy Eindhoven
The Critical Inquiry Lab

Thanks to:
Saskia van Stein, Patricia Reed & Katia Truijen
Sofia, Matilde, Tasminder, Anna, Zee, Rachel, Mimo, Michael & José
Paul, Giulio, Emiliano, Francesco, Alessandro & Agostino