Rocé: “Rapping with Fanon”


[Many thanks to Francio Guadeloupe for bringing this item to our attention.] Adam Shatz’s “Rapping with Fanon” (22 January 2019) focuses on French rapper Rocé and his inspiration—Martinican writer, psychiatrist, and thinker Frantz Fanon—to produce the album Par les damné.e.s de la terre, “conceived as a musical history from the bottom up, addressed to contemporary listeners of French hip hop.” See The New York Review of Books for the full article.

On Christmas Eve 1959, the revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon went to a party at the home of his secretary, Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, in Tunis, where he was working as a spokesman for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). Fanon had invited himself over, and Manuellan could hardly say no to her boss, but she was dreading his appearance. She had been taking dictation for his study of the Algerian war of independence, A Dying Colonialism, and found him so severe, and so unfriendly, that she nicknamed him “The Sadist.” “Dance in front of Fanon?” Manuellan writes in her recent memoir, Sous la dictée de Fanon. “It wasn’t possible… But how could I tell him, ‘Stay home!’ He was going to spoil the evening for us.”

To her “great astonishment,” Fanon was the life of the party. “Smiling, truly happy, cracking jokes,” he picked up a guitar, sang West Indian songs, and chatted till the small hours with her husband about jazz and blues. Music brought out a levity, a warmth, in Fanon that Marie-Jeanne had never before noticed.

Fanon was not a musician, but he loved what he called the “charge” of words, their power to move, and not merely persuade, and he was no stranger to improvisation. In her memoir, Manuellan describes taking dictation from him: “Fanon didn’t have any paper in hand. He would walk and ‘speak’ his book as if his thought shot smoothly from his steps, from his body’s rhythm, with very rare interruptions or reprises.” Both A Dying Colonialism and his 1961 anti-colonial manifesto The Wretched of the Earth originated, in effect, as spoken word performances, with Manuellan the sole member of the audience.

In his 1959 lecture at a congress of black artists and writers in Rome, Fanon drew upon a musical example to illustrate his vision of a revolutionary culture. “On National Culture”—later published as a chapter of The Wretched of the Earth—celebrated the defiant “new humanism” of bebop, which had grown out of “the inevitable, though gradual, defeat” of segregation. Having cast off their role as entertainers for the white man, bebop musicians were shaping their own destiny as artists. In “fifty years or so,” Fanon predicted, the “type of jazz lament hiccuped by a poor, miserable ‘Negro’ will be defended by only those whites believing in a frozen image of a certain type of relationship and a certain form of negritude.” Black American jazz, with its commitment to artistic independence and innovation, was, for Fanon, an exemplary practice of cultural freedom, a model for the wretched of the earth in their efforts to invent a new, emancipated identity.

In times of revolutionary upheaval, he reminded his audience in Rome, “tradition changes meaning,” since it is “fundamentally unstable and crisscrossed by centrifugal forces.” The liberation struggle, he insisted, would not “leave intact either the form or substance of the people’s culture.”

Fanon died in 1961, less than a year before Algerian independence. His critique of cultural traditionalism was mostly ignored by the FLN leadership, which turned away from his revolutionary modernism. But Fanon’s vision of a revolutionary culture received a spellbinding tribute in Algiers in the summer of 1969, when Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, the free jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp, the Beat poet Ted Joans, the Black Panthers, and representatives of various national liberation movements arrived for the Pan-African Festival—the Woodstock of the Third World. “We are still black and we have come back. Nous sommes revenus,” Shepp declared from the stage, in a performance with a group of Tuareg Berber musicians. “Jazz is an African power! Jazz is an African music!”

It lasted ten days; nothing of its ambition or scale was ever repeated. [. . .]

The movement has received a fabulous musical tribute from the French rapper known as Rocé, an anthology of twenty-four tracks, recorded between 1969 and 1988, with the explicitly Fanonian title, Par les damné.e.s de la terre, “by the wretched of the earth.” Anyone who has listened to its nearly eighty minutes will find it hard to imagine that anyone could ever have asked whether the subaltern can speak, a question famously posed by the literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. These “voices of struggle,” as the subtitle calls them, speak (and sing) with radiant, unpretentious, unstoppable eloquence—and with a seductive confidence that, whatever setbacks they encounter, history is on their side. They remind us that Third World liberation wasn’t simply a cause; it was a romance. Yet Rocé’s purpose isn’t to rekindle a love affair, much less to mourn its passing. Par les damné.e.s de la terre is conceived as a musical history from the bottom up, addressed to contemporary listeners of French hip hop who, in his view, have been deprived of knowledge of their cultural heritage.

Rocé, who is forty-one, has been a passionate reader of Fanon since he discovered Black Skin, White Masks as a teenager. Fanon’s 1952 study of racism in France captured the feelings of alienation that he’d experienced as a young man of color in Paris. (Rocé’s mother is from Algeria’s small black community.) He was equally struck by The Wretched of the Earth, whose depiction of a colonized world “cut in two” by “the barracks and the police stations” reminded him of Paris and its banlieues: “The banlieues in France are managed today like the former colonies, with the symbolic barriers of the police. But because of the universalism of the left here, we’re supposed to pretend that race doesn’t exist.” French hip-hop—in large part the creation of young men and women from black and Arab families—helped break the wall of silence and denial around the problem of race in France.

Par les damné.e.s de la terre, which doubles as a history of French rap’s hidden ancestry, is an album teeming with words. Reciting his poem “Il est des nuits” (“There are nights”), Léon-Gontran Damas, one of the founders of the Négritude movement, evokes with grave, sonorous beauty, “the nameless nights, the moonless nights” of his days in Paris as a poor student from French Guiana. (As Amiri Baraka remarked, Damas wrote “literally poems to be sung.”) [. . .] For all its insurrectionary fervor, most of the music he selected is more lyrical than didactic. Rocé’s understanding of “independence” has less to do with the liberation of territory than the liberation of the imagination.

To listen to this anthology is to be struck by the sheer variety of genres through which the Francophone “wretched of the earth” expressed their rebellious energies: Berber songs of exile, rock, folk, free jazz, reggae, Afro-pop, even—in the singer-songwriter Pierre Akendengue’s lilting “Le trottoir d’en face,” a flâneur’s diary of street life in Gabon—an African gloss on the French chanson tradition of Piaf, Brassens, and Brel. [. . .]

Please read the full article at

[Photo above by Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos: Performers with portraits of Ahmed Sekou-Toure, Leader of the Democratic Party of Guinea, Pan-African Festival, Algiers, 1969.]

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