PNL and ‘European Others’
How France’s most successful rappers set about countering Europe's hegemonic narratives.
Offering a unique listening and cinematic experience, the latest album – Deux frères (Two brothers) – of the French rap duo, PNL, urges us to think differently about socio-political issues like poverty, Roma and Islam within the EU.
Two days before PNL released their latest album on April 5, the French online newspaper Mediapart was already talking about “the PNL phenomenon”. On the evening of the release date, Paris saw the rap duo PNL and their supporters occupy the famous Avenue des Champs-Elysées with an exclusive open air concert. This was a few hours after a series of attempts from the Eiffel Tower to deny the persistent rumour that the concert would take place at the tower.
PNL consists of the brothers Tarik Andrieu alias Ademo and Nabil Andrieu alias N.O.S who come from Les Tarterêts, a high-rise district in the Parisian southern suburb of Corbeil-Essonnes which has become a symbol of France’s social problems thanks to constant media coverage. Through their cinematically and poetically unique artistic work, the two have become not only prominent French artists since their debut in June 2015, but also inspirational for (rap) artists all over continental Europe, especially in the German-speaking countries.
Referring to Deux frères, the German daily Die Welt already claimed in April that “the rap album of the year is coming from France”. Selling more than 200.000 times their latest album (Double platinum) within 5 weeks, this success did not pass unnoticed in the UK either. The British Guardian predicted on the Deux frères release date that “[i]f anyone from the French music scene is going to crack the code to anglophone markets, it will be PNL”.
The historian Fatima El-Tayeb and the political scientist Hisham Aidi claim that rap is one of the four elements of hip hop culture – the other three being beatmaking, graffiti, and breakdancing. Even though the two analysed the topic separately from each other, their research outcomes chime from a socio-political perspective: hip hop in general, and rap especially, is one of the few cultural means allowing ‘othered’ communities (migrants and/or minorities) in Europe to discuss their lives in a manner that is free from the patronizing cliches of the mainstream discourse.
According to Aidi, rap “is the realm where Muslim diaspora consciousness and identity politics are most poignantly being debated and expressed”. With respect to France, he adds that the founder of the influential French far right Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, considers rap to be “a dangerous musical genre” precisely in the sense that it confirms for him the “great replacement” conspiracy theory of the far right French author Renaud Camus, who claims that the ‘French people’ will be soon outgrown by France’s Islamic ‘non-European’ population.
Focusing on the German hip hop culture of the 90s, El-Tayeb summarises the same point as follows: “[h]ip [h]op represents the central means of articulation for ‘ethnic [o]utsiders’ in contemporary Germany.” In addition to what Aidi has noticed about French rap, Fatima El-Tayeb suggests that “[h]ip [h]op also fosters a dialogue among minorities, a necessary prerequisite for a concerted reaction to the Europe-wide boom of racist and xenophobic movements”.
On the one hand, PNL stands out sound-aesthetically from other rap artists through their choice of atmospheric and often sentimental instrumentals. On the other hand, they are innovative, in terms of flows signifying the rap technique in hip hop culture, in their use of technical voice tools – especially the vocoder. Through these means, they are constantly crossing boundaries between music genres. Released on June 22, 2018, the first single A l’ammonique (Ammoniacal love) from Deux frères could also pass as a traditional French chanson for similar reasons.
Another important aspect in the artistic work of PNL is its cinematic nature. Their short films disguised in video-clips released in the course of their 2016 album Dans la légende (On the path to becoming legends) are telling in this regard. Instead of short non-contiguous video-clips, Ademo and N.O.S have visualised their music through four short films, each lasting around 17 minutes, in which a drug-dealing related drama happens in one of the ‘problematic’ Parisian suburbs (banlieues) being portrayed. Once again, PNL have crossed an artistic boundary. This time, the boundary between music and film.
The lyrics of Ademo and N.O.S are unique as well. In Deux frères, their metaphorical language is in line with their previous work; simple and diverse – for example stairwells of HLMs (French social housing), Disney’s Jungle Book figures like Mowgli, and Japanese animations. The postcolonial philosopher Homi K. Bhaba uses the stairwells metaphor in order to illustrate the cultural hybridity characterizing Europe’s ‘othered’ populations, which he defines as an inconvenient in-between-space creating the potential for subversive acts.
As a result of the combination of their music and video-clips, an international audience can feel the PNL vibe even if they do not speak French. In the only PNL article based on an encounter with the two brothers in 2016, the journalist Atossa Abrahamian of the US cultural magazin the Fader highlighted this accessibility .
However, their lyrics can seem cryptic at the same time: without being acquainted with the lived experiences of ‘othered’ populations in Europe, one can easily get the impression of an arbitrary succession of metaphors. However, this way of addressing socio-political marginalisation in France, and how it impacts the brothers’ marginalised souls within the European Union, seems to have their pan-European audience relating directly and emotionally to their inner life.
PNL’s counter-hegemonic narrative could never impose itself like this on the EU level without this interplay of different artistic components, sure enough paired with their huge success.
Released on April 15, 2016, PNL devoted a catchy refrain in their second single Da (from their album Dans la légende ) to the precarious living conditions of ‘others’ in France. The line goes as follows: “it hurts to see my comrades at the bottom [of society].” In the song A l’ammonique, this feeling of disempowerment is most succinctly expressed: “this world is suffering and I am feeling this pain / they [marginalised communities] are in the dark but I still see them.”
In Deux frères, Ademo and N.O.S sensitise their audience to the commonly-shared experience of socio-political marginalisation of France’s ‘non-European’ populations.
And this feeling of the disempowerment of ‘othered’ minorities is discursively enacted all over Europe, not without socio-political consequences. From this perspective, the urban segregation of Paris (poor ‘non-European’ periphery vs. rich ‘European’ centre) can be seen as a manifestation of a more in-depth European postcolonial problem. These discursive dynamics are present in Germany, where Turkish people are affected in a similar way, but also among the Albanian diaspora in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. In Hungary and other post-communist countries of the EU, it is the Roma population who are targeted, although it should be highlighted that Roma also live throughout western Europe at the margins of society. Of course, this list is far from being exhaustive in terms of ‘othered’ populations in Europe.
The postcolonial issue becomes increasingly tangible the closer one looks at the play on stereotypes that occurs in these discourses. On the one hand, these stereotypes are often Islamophobic, like the assumption that Muslim misogyny is ‘caused by their pathological culture’, a set of prejudices present in France but also in other EU states. On the other hand, the ‘othered’ population often is essentialised in ‘toxically masculine’ terms: less intelligent, physically violent, and criminal – and dealing drugs for example. Fatima El-Tayeb embraces the scope of this EU-wide phenomenon with the term ‘European Others’: the ‘othered’ are ‘non-white’ Europeans – those not coming from a thorough Christian socialisation.
Drug trafficking is a major theme in PNL’s music world – though less accentuated in their latest release than in their previous work. “Conditioned to sit on a chair at a stairwell entry [of an HLM] / [Then] jailed: dreams shattering harder than any chair could,” are two lines of the same-named third video-clip from the Deux frères album released on this year’s May 3. Whereas the first line describes drug-dealing local procedures in the suburbs of Paris, the second line is a self-critical reflection of the harsh consequences of this activity.
The omnipresence of the drug business in PNL’s artistic work becomes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it reinforces the EU-wide stereotype of the dangerous drug-dealing male “European Other” through recycling this discourse. On the other hand, Ademo and N.O.S consistently used “the chair at the HLM stairwell entry” as a pars pro toto for drug trafficking throughout the Deux frères album. It often can be interpreted in the following way: being forced to do things one does not want to do in order to create for oneself the freedom to do the things one wants to do.
To put it differently, it is common for “European Others” to work in underpaid jobs and exploitative industries that they cannot reconcile with their consciences. But socio-political constraints give them no other choice than to pursue this work. In two songs from their album Deux frères, PNL suggested that they have reinvested all the drugs-related incomes into music. The two songs in question are Au DD, their second video-clip of Deux frères released on this year’s March, 22, and the already mentioned song Deux frères.
Islam is a central theme in PNL’s discography, but this aspect is factored out when the media cover their music for a broader audience. The French public radio France Culture already devoting 3 programs to PNL in 2019 (more than 1,5 hour playtime) mentioned for example only that Ademo and N.O.S are practising Muslims, excluding Islam as one of their major artistic influences. In the song Chang from the latest album, Islamic references are numerous – ranging from “be thankful to God, you owe everything to Him” to “my angel on the right side [signifying good deeds] has nothing to note” to “I am not leading a life according to Din [a term with multiple significations; in this context it can mean life in compliance with Islamic principles] but I am always trying to become a better person”. In times when Islamophobic far-right political discourses are being adopted by centre parties all over Europe, ignoring the centrality of Islamic elements of two of France’s most important artists when addressing their work for a wider public is a conspicuous omission.
A more subtle element in PNL’s musique is the use of Romani references. As shown in the French rap podcast NoFun of this year’s April 12, Romani musique has a crucial influence on the work of Ademo and N.O.S. According to the rap journalist Nico Pellion, invited to the podcast, the guitar samples of the song Au DD of Deux frères and the song Luz de Luna of Dans la légende stem from Romani-Andalusian flamenco. Pellion even maintains that the two brothers borrowed the Romani-Andalusian concept of duende, signifying the transformation of one’s most intimate sufferings into art, for their refrain in Au DD. These artistic credits given to Europe’s biggest and most silenced minority are another achievement for PNL’s unique ability to become mainstream artists in Europe without compromising their counter-hegemonic narrative. Meanwhile, PNL is an abbreviation for Peace and Lové, the latter meaning money in Romani.
Beyond Europe’s francophone borders, people are catching on to the PNL counter-hegemonic vibe, continuing to fulfil Hisham Aidi’s and Fatima El-Tayeb’s hypotheses regarding the empowering potential of hip hop for “European Others”. The artistic work of Ademo and N.O.S attests to the fact that the marginalisation of ‘othered’ populations within the EU member states is a commonly shared reality, while their subversive narrative exposes a less laudable EU commonality: colonialism and its aftershocks in the current socio-political scene across Europe.
As the marginalisation of the EU’s most silenced minorities have shown, human rights and human dignity are frequently not respected within the EU, even though politicians from Europe use these two cornerstones of European universalism as its ‘unique selling point’ in the international arena.
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