Learn what you Love
Nov. 26, 2022

Remembering the Algerian War through Hip-Hop

Remembering the Algerian War through Hip-Hop

Celine Mitchell explores how modern Algerian-French rappers recreate memory of the Algerian War and connect with France's youth.


Today’s special episode is by Celine Mitchell. Celine is currently a PhD candidate at The London School of Economics (LSE). She is writing a contemporary history of the French Algerian youth, through the lens of hip-hop. In particular, her work focuses on the analysis of the second and third generation’s engagement with historical, political and socio-economic themes in their music. Between her studies, Celine has worked with young people as a youth mentor and teacher. Having worked at the BBC for a short time, she is also interested in journalism and documentary filmmaking, and has been working on a few film projects alongside her thesis.

In this episode Celine explores historical memory in music, specifically how French-Algerian rappers remember the Algerian War. These popular retellings reverberate throughout modern French society as some of the country’s most popular musicians invoke the bloody conflict & express minority youth frustrations in their songs.

Celine: Hi Gary, thank you very much for having me on your podcast. In this episode, I’ll be discussing the French Algerian youth’s engagement with colonial history through hip-hop. French hip-hop emerged in the 1980s and quickly became known around the world for its strong political messages, as well its resistance to social and economic imbalances in France. In comparison to American hiphop, French hip-hop has often been characterised as being more political and cerebral. Today, France is one of the largest consumers and producers of hip-hop music in the world. And it’s Muslim rappers, especially of Algerian origin, who dominate the French hip-hop scene. So, if you look at French hip-hop radio stations, for example, like SkyRock, most of the highest viewed videos are those of French Algerian rappers. Hip-hop, all over the world, has always been a powerful channel of communication, but this is especially the case for France’s Muslim youth, who have often been marginalised in society. It is a genre of music that encapsulates their frustrations and serves as a vehicle of expression for complex questions of identity and belonging. So, some people might wonder, ‘ok why does this topic matter’? Well my thesis deals with the hip-hop music produced by French Algerians specifically, as a way of understanding the experiences of second and third generation Algerians, but also the experiences of the Muslim youth more broadly. Algerians represent the largest ethnic minority group in the country. France does not collect statistics based on race and ethnicity, but according to INED, there are between 1.1 and 2.2 million people of Algerians living in France, with Algerian estimates closer to 6 million. INSÉE also found that 4% of children born in France have an Algerian father, with this figure increasing to 10% in departments like Seine-Saint-Denis. While there are certainly discrepancies in these estimates, these figures do give us a sense of the significance and size of this community in France. My research focuses on various parts of history that French Algerian rappers have engaged with, but in this episode, I’ll just be touching on one… the colonial past. French colonisation in Algeria lasted from 1830 to 1962. Since the emergence of French hip-hop in the 1980s, the theme of colonialism, especially colonial rule in Algeria, has taken on a prominent role. In my research, I’ve found several key areas through which the colonial past has regularly been brought to life by French Algerian rappers – the first being the Algerian War of Independence. This war was one of the longest and most violent decolonisation struggles of the twentieth century. It began in 1954, and lasted eight years, until Algeria’s independence in 1962, and still very much remains a highly contentious topic in both contemporary France and Algeria. The most striking and repetitive theme dealing with the war is that torture and sexual violence. Médine is a popular French Algerian hip-hop artist who frequently discusses France’s colonial past in his music. And even though mainstream radio stations boycotting his music due to its often-controversial themes, he has over 200 million views on his music videos on YouTube. One of his most popular songs, ‘Alger Pleure’ (Algiers is Crying), was released on July 5, 2012, to celebrate Algeria’s fifty-year anniversary of independence. [Song: Medine, “Algers Pleure”] In this song, Médine makes vivid references to the violent acts of torture perpetrated by the French in the War of Independence, through imagery like the “blood-soaked djellabas [the traditional robe worn by Algerian men and women]” and “mutilated bodies”. He refers to Villa Sesini, a centre of torture in Algiers used by the French during the war, which he describes as a “factory of death”. While torture was technically prohibited by the French government, Médine emphasises its widespread use, making references to specific forms of physical and psychological torture, like the use of dog-squads, castration of Algerian men, electric torture, and ‘water torture’ – a process whereby cold water is slowly dripped onto the face of a victim tied to a wooden plank. In this song, there’s also on emphasis on sexual violence and rape, like descriptions of “uncircumcised genitals in our daughters’ bellies”. Interestingly, the methods of torture described in his song appear to be fairly aligned with historical accounts – especially if compared to, for example the autobiographical book of General Aussaresses detailing his service in Algeria. A second dominant theme that’s been explored in songs dealing with the War of Independence is the destruction of Algeria – physical, psychological and cultural. Moha La Squale is one of France’s rising rappers, with close to 700 million total views on his music videos on YouTube. His song, ‘5 Juillet 1962’, is about Algeria’s independence from France and was released in 2018. It now has a million views on YouTube. [Song: Moha La Squale “5 Juillet 1962”] Moha La Squale refers to the period of French colonisation as a genocide. He begins his song by rapping: Massacred by the thousands, we call it a genocide. Our sisters were raped. He refers to the human destruction of Algeria – like the massacres of Sétif and Guelma on the 8th May 1945, when the French colonial army killed thousands of demonstrators in what is often presented as the prologue to the Algerian War of Independence. On a side note, for much of France, 8 May is a day of annual celebration. It marks the day in 1945 that General de Gaulle announced the end of the Second World War. But for many Algerians in France, this is not a day of ‘victory’, but one of mourning and struggle. Aside from this massacre, Moha La Squale refers to executions that took place in private spaces, like the fact that people were killed in their homes and blocks. So, he builds on the idea of an all-encompassing violence, one that affected the Algerian population both in public and private spaces. Médine approaches this destruction from another angle. In one of his songs, ‘17 Octobre’, he explores the religious and cultural destruction of Algeria. He does so by tracing the Christianisation of Algeria, including mosques being transformed to churches, like the conversion of the Ketchaoua Mosque into the St Philippe Cathedral in 1800s. He also raps about the Notre-Dame d’Afrique of Algiers, a Catholic basilica built by the French in 1872. Through these references to the Christianisation of Algeria during colonial rule, Médine denounces France’s ‘civilising mission’, and its destruction of both Algerian and Islamic culture. A third key theme that comes up in songs dealing with the War of Independence is that of Algerian resistance. During the war, the FLN – or National Liberation Front – was the leading nationalist movement fighting for independence. But they were also responsible for brutal acts of violence against the French, including torture, mutilation and raids of villages inhabited by French settlers. Their acts of violence also affected Algerians and they were responsible for the killing of thousands of Algerian civilians during the war. But, the FLN have been widely celebrated by French Algerian rappers, with rapper Hooss proudly labelling himself as “100% Algerian descendant of the FLN” and Fils du Béton referring to them as “the glorious team”. Médine is one of the few rappers who has addressed the violence of the FLN in a more realistic light. In the first section of ‘Algers Pleure’, he describes the fear and panic surrounding the violence committed by the FLN, who would “cut the noses off those who refused to fight”. While he refers to them as “guarantors of a just cause with Manichean methods”, he challenges their violent acts against those who took a neutral stance in the war. Another key historical theme dealing with colonialism that French Algerian rappers have engaged with is the Paris Massacre. On October 17, 1961, the French National Police attacked a peaceful demonstration of 30,000 pro-independence Algerians in Paris, killing over two hundred people. The massacre was one of the bloodiest acts of state repression against peaceful protestors in French history and for Algerians, remains a stark reminder of the violence of the French colonial era. Deaths were caused by severe beatings and drownings, with police officers throwing bodies into the Seine. It was only in 1998, after thirty-seven years of censorship and denial, that the French government finally acknowledged the massacre. Fils du Beton is a rapper who focuses on the Paris Massacre in his song ‘17 Octobre 1961’. Throughout the song, vivid imagery is used to describe the police violence, like the imagery of “running blood” and “ the melody of cracking skulls”. He also refers to larger arenas of violence, like what he calls the “improvised concentrations camps” and the Stade Coubertin, which was used as a detention centre for Algerian demonstrators following the massacre. In Fils du Béton’s song, the racist nature of the massacre is accentuated through the use of the name ‘Marianne’ – the national personification of the French Republic since the French Revolution. Through the lyric, “Marianne smiles and stays seated”, the rapper points to Marianne embodying both the silence and the racism of the state, the media and the wider public. And there’s also this sense of ironic duplicity of her being the national embodiment of the motto ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, yet taking no action as Algerians are killed. Médine has referred extensively to the Paris Massacre in his music. In his song ‘17 Octobre’, he recounts the horrors of the massacre through a fictional character named Ahmed. As Ahmed crosses the Mediterranean, leaving Algeria for a new life in France, he is filled with hope and optimism when he hears about the FLN protest in Paris and its promises to reclaim justice and challenge the discriminatory laws in Algeria. Médine then raps about how the peaceful protest was turned into the scene of a massacre at the hands of the police, accompanied by the sound of gunshots and screams. I’ll read out some of his lyrics: And my bones break under my raincoat, My mouth shatters against the pavement, Their mouths widen with laughter as they see us, “We will see if rats know how to swim, At the bottom of the Seine, You can no longer seek revenge.” Like Fils du Beton, Medine places emphasis on the racist aspect of the massacre by including racial slurs of the time used by the French to denote Algerians. For instance, Algerians in this song are referred to as “a mound of rebel rats” and the Seine as “a pot of piss in which rats are drowned”. He also uses the imagery of dead bodies. In the closing couplet, he mentions that “Strange water lilies are floating in the water.” His description of Algerian bodies poignantly makes reference to Billie Holiday’s 1939 song ‘Strange Fruits’, in which she compares the lynched, dead bodies of African Americans to “strange fruits hanging from the trees”. So, we can almost see that the imagery he uses here draws a subtle comparison between racial violence in the 1930s’ United States and France in the 1960s. The song ends with the death of Ahmed, who is killed by the police and thrown into the water, “like waste in a garbage shoot”. One of the main trends I’ve picked up on in my work – both through engaging with oral history, but also the analysis of music – is that through discussions of historical traumas relating to the colonial experience, French Algerian hip-hop artists have voiced the ways in which this colonial legacy has impacted their identity, and for many, even contributed to their rejection of France as their true home. For example, despite being born in Paris, rapper LIM firmly emphasises his Algerian identity in his song called ‘Aléerie’. He elaborates on his identity as a “son of an immigrant” and raps: “I am married to Algeria, only God alone knows how much I love her.” On one hand, he attributes his lack of ‘Frenchness’ to his status as an immigrant; and on the other hand, he blames French colonial history for his inability to consider France his homeland. If we go back to 2005, when violent riots erupted across France, and actually became one of the largest cases of social unrest in the country since 1968. Thousands of youths took to the streets in protest – the majority of whom were of North African origin. Now, these riots were presented in the media as the culmination of the frustrations of France’s Muslim youth, but they also sparked a discussion around the extent to which France’s colonial history has contributed to and shaped contemporary anger among the Muslim youth. Some rappers have addressed this. Koma, for instance, who is part of the group Scred Connexion has touched on this issue in his song ‘Je Dors les Yeux Ouverts’ (I Sleep with my Eyes Open), which was released two years after the riots. He raps: They talk about delinquency, But forget they are the ones that created it, Like they forget about the settlers, And the period when they were murdering us. Like LIM, despite being born in France, Koma ultimately creates an opposition between collective memories of French colonial violence and being able to ‘feel’ French. I’ve interviewed a few other rappers across Marseille and Paris who have been vocal about this. Sinik for example has argued that this history has a significant effect on young people today, he calls it a “permanent denial”. And, in an interview with Jarod, he spoke about a sense of feeling uprooted because of this history. I’ll read out his exact words: “Because of the colonial past, many African young people are uprooted today. Algerians, Senegalese, Tunisians, Moroccans, who are in France, we grew up at school, we were taught that we were a second category of the population, that we were below. So we grew up with complexes. We don’t feel capable of succeeding like everyone else, we don’t necessarily feel capable of becoming doctors, of becoming, I don’t know me, astronaut. We grew up with a sense of deficiency in fact. And that’s why, we end up doing things that aren’t good, because we don’t have confidence in ourselves. We don’t think we can do good, so we do bad.” When I interviewed Freeman, who was a member of the hip-hop group IAM, one of the early pioneers of French hip-hop – I remember he was surprised when he saw me. I was wearing a headscarf. He explained that this was a moment he could never imagine, seeing a girl wearing a headscarf, doing a doctorate degree. He was visibly emotional about this, and said it was a huge source of pride for him, because of the colonial mindset he grew up with in France, that Algerians or Muslims could not succeed. Some French Algerian artists though have expressed the need to make light of their history in their music as part of a healing process. Ror rapper Néfaste, who I interviewed, he argues that making light of Algeria’s painful history is a “devoir de mémoire” (duty to remember) – especially in a climate where French Algerians are “constantly reminded of their origins and denigrated”. So, to wrap this, in January 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to establish a Memories and Truth Commission to address France’s colonial past in Algeria. But besides this commission, there have been few official attempts at reconciling with the past. And so it’s in this context that French Algerians rappers have filled the void of French official engagement with the colonial past, by carving out their own narratives, representations, and responses. And we can see that rappers feature this history in striking and emotive ways in their music, and that hip-hop is a genre of music through which second and third generation Algerian immigrants have deeply engaged with memories of the colonial past.