Emily In Paris Lacks Black Women Representation — In French Cinema, That’s Par For The Course

Originally published for Refinery29 on January 7th, 2022.

Over the last couple of years, streaming services have expanded their offerings of projects based in France. While Netflix’s international team has been licensing content and producing original programming in French for some time, the platform struck gold with Emily in Paris, a sanguine — or almost unbearably saccharine, depending on which side of the Atlantic ocean you ask — series which centers Lily Collins as Emily, a doe-eyed All-American girl eager to bring her Yankee sensibilities to the City of Love. A few months after EIP’s ubiquitous debut came Lupin in January 2021, a thriller series starring Omar Sy and inspired by the beloved character Arsène Lupin of books, comics, cartoon, and film — a master of disguise and thievery, nearly always portrayed as a white man. While both shows have been runaway hits, they have also been criticized for not having a balanced representation of France, specifically for lacking Black women in any major speaking roles. The reflexive irritation is understandable, as on-screen representation is a common reference point used to reflect the significance of any demographic in the narrative being told. But in French popular media, this glaring omission is actually pretty standard.In Emily in Paris, which debuted its second season last month with a new Black male lead (Lucien Laviscount as Alfie), Black women are barely seen in the background of the streets of Paris, save for an occasional view in the periphery, tucked away from view, up until a fashion show at Versailles. Even in the halls of the historic palace, the women remain as voiceless ornaments for the garish aesthetic of a queer Black male designer (portrayed by Jeremy O. Harris), using the sheer presence of their bodies and all of their twerking, voguing, and ballroom contortions in such a revered space to make his mark as an outsider in the French fashion establishment. Black femmes were used for nothing but spectacle. 

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Angélique Kidjo Is Tapping the Next Generation to Speak Truth to Power

Originally published for Rolling Stone on May 21, 2021

One day in 1992, Angélique Kidjo walked into a magazine editor’s office and found herself being introduced over the phone to one of her all-time favorite artists.

“Someone said, ‘Mrs. Kidjo, Mr. Brown wants to talk to you,’” she recalls. In stunned disbelief, she replied, “Yeah, and I’m Mother Teresa.” But it really was James Brown, the Godfather of Soul himself, asking to talk to her.

“I almost dropped the phone,” she continues. “He was speaking, and I couldn’t understand, so I started singing. He picked up the song and I would do the bassline, I would do the guitar, I would do the drums — just like, crazy stuff.”

It’s just one of a sea of stories of Kidjo meeting and collaborating with all-time greats across generations. Over the course of her three-decade long career, Kidjo, 60, has dipped into the vast well of legendary artists and performers across the black diaspora — taking inspiration from South African artist and activist Miriam Makeba, Cuban salsa icon Celia Cruz, Aretha Franklin, and many more. She has collaborated with many of the African continent’s greatest legends, from the bluesy stylings of Boubacar Traoré to Manu Dibango’s Cameroonian jazz saxophone lyricism.

After a storied career of paying her respects through endless innovation within black sonic canons, she has the distinct honor of being exalted on the level of the artists she adores, with young artists throughout the international black community often referring to her as “Ma” or grande soeur. Now, she is paying that respect forward wherever possible — including rounding out her latest album, Mother Nature, with collaborative features from emerging young artistic voices in the African continent and its diaspora, ranging from Nigerian star Burna Boy to Atlanta hip-hop duo Earthgang .

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Aya Nakamura – AYA

This album review was originally published for Pitchfork on December 4, 2020.

Since catapulting to the top of the French charts, multi-platinum Malian-born artist Aya Danioko has been given countless labels. In one breath, she is abbreviated as an Afro-pop artist, the next bundled into France’s robust and increasingly populous rap scene, teeming with talent from Paris to Marseille.

Her success has frequently been minimized as a novelty act, despite being the most listened-to contemporary French act in the world. Her international smash hit “Djadja”—from her sublime second album, 2018’s Nakamura—placed her on a feminist pedestal she was reluctant to embrace. Her detractors looked at her unflappable demeanor as a tall dark-skinned woman, churning out hit after hit in France’s cis-male dominated music industry, and pegged her as overly cocksure.

The clearest signal in the noise, however, lies in the labels she gives herself, indicating her creative essence long before she became a mainstay on Spotify. Her performing surname, Nakamura, comes from the character Hiro Nakamura of the superhero series Heroes; a warrior who, through sheer force of will, can bend space and time, transporting himself to different worlds. This has been Aya’s superpower since the days of her 2017 debut Journal Intime—playing with the universes of not just Afrobeats, but zouk, R&B, and pop to layer in her penetrating musings on life, love, and freedom.

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Reckoning With Slavery In France

Originally published for Essence Magazine.

On the June 1st taping of the weekly French late-night talk show On N’est Pas Couché (ONPC, loosely translated to “We’re Still Up” in English), French novelist and regular panelist Christine Angot stunned viewers by using the appearance of writer  Franz-Olivier Giesbert and his upcoming Nazi-era Germany novel, Le Schmock (The Schmuck) to make jarringcomments comparing the Holocaust to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and subsequent colonialism, significantly minimizing the latter:

“The purpose with the Jews during the war was to exterminate them, that is, to kill them, and that introduces a fundamental difference with black slavery where it was exactly the opposite. the idea was instead that they are in good shape, they are healthy, to be able to sell them and they are marketable.”

A cursory glance at the basic facts of the Trans- Atlantic Slave Trade quickly debunks the distorted falsehoods that Angot fabricated about the nature of chattel slavery, a centuries-long brutality with an immeasurable death toll. The additional insult to injury, however, lies in the audacity of any of the press within France – one of the pre-eminent colonizers of the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa – making distinctions in the harms that were historically imposed upon Black people, while simultaneously imposing a cultural norm of rejecting to acknowledge the nuances of race altogether.

The largest slave rebellion in history, after all, was the Haitian Revolution – a transformative insurrection against the draconian rule of French overlords, who, despite Angot’s convictions, worked slaves so hard that half died within a few years of their arrival, and very few children lived beyond a few years of their birth on the island. As opposed to improving the quality of life, it was in fact more cost-efficient to bring in new slaves, leading to the highest death rates in the Western hemisphere – the Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion estimates that over a million slaves lost their lives at the hands of the French, exclusively on the state of what was then named Saint-Domingue.

While slavery may have been formally abolished by the French Republic in 1848, the French stranglehold of colonialism remained throughout the French West Indies and expanded in Francophone Africa, utilizing barbaric tactics to stamp out any attempts at self-determination well into the 20th century, and even in tandem with the tragic events of the Holocaust. It’s a circumstance that the esteemed Martinican writer and politician Aimé Césaire takes pains to examine in his seminal text Discourse on Colonialism:

“It would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it…he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.  “

Modern-day efforts continue to show a failure to reckon with the nature of what the true harms of France’s legacy has imparted on its Black Francophonie. In 2005 there was a disastrous attempt to put into law a mandate for schools to recognize the “positive role” of colonialism in history, to huge protests from citizens in the French West Indies.  And while colonialism is formally over, the outre-meror overseas departments, remain intact, maintaining the last vestiges of France’s control of Black nations, from Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean to Reunion and Mayotte off the East African coast.

Presently, in the French National Assembly legislative building, there is a longstanding painting that is intended to celebrate the abolition of slavery in France – except the artist, Herve di Rosa, controversially applied what he insists is a race-neutral iconography but at first glance seems to draw immediate association to Sambo imagery or Tintin in the Congo: large protruding red lips placed over dark skin. In response, Mame-Fatou Niang, an Associate Professor of French Studies at Carnegie Mellon University known for documentary film Mariannes  Noires, in collaboration with colleague Julien Suaudeau, started a campaign to have the painting removed from the government building, stating that “this ‘work of art’ constitutes a humiliating and dehumanizing insult to the millions of victims of slavery and to all their descendants.” In response, di Rosa – a white man –  has dismissed this call to action as censorship of the right to freedom within the art form, no matter the context, with the National Assembly stating that they had no plans to take down the painting, irrespective of the feelings of France’s Black population domestically and throughout the outre-mer.

As part of Angot’s talking points on ONPC, she emphasized “c’est pas vrai que les traumatismes sont les meme, c’est pas vrai que les souffrance infligées aux peuples sont les mêmes. Et c’est bien pour ça qu’on doit être attentif, chaque fois, au détail, a la particularité”; it’s untrue that traumas are the same, that suffering inflicted on people are the same, and that’s why we must be attentive each time, to the details and particularities. She is absolutely correct: the specificities of our collective experiences are critical and important when exploring the impacts of our tragedies. Considering that, it’s even more unfortunate that she fails to recognize the need to apply any regard to the significance of the cumulative Black experience, especially as part and parcel of the country she calls home, before launching into an assessment riddled with inaccuracies in favor of advancing a particular narrative. If race continues to be a taboo topic in France, then history will never be confronted with the proper weight it deserves, and we will continue to be forced to untangle a web of competing myths while the reality of the Black French diaspora remains obscured.  

A Neverending Quest for Sovereignty

Originally published for VerySmartBrothas ‘ America In Black Series.

I often jokingly tell people that I grew up in a household made up of three (occasionally four, depending on what station in life my father was in at the time) distinct American dreams—one for each flag or passport represented: Comoros, Canada and the United States. My mother, my brother and I are a trinity of the resulting products of varying circumstances that led to us calling America home. Continue reading

‘Hang the Whites’: Rapper’s Hate Speech Trial Exposes the Hypocrisy of Race Relations in France

Originally published for The Root.

The music video for 34-year-old French rapper Nick Conrad’s “Pendez les Blancs” (“Hang the Whites”) opens with a jarring visual akin to the title itself: the lifeless body of a white man on a noose, while Conrad (a black man of Cameroonian descent) stands beside him lighting a cigar.

It’s a role reversal intended to make even the most unperturbed person’s pupils dilate, with lyrics to match: In the opening lines, he speaks about entering daycares to kill white babies and then hang their parents.

Throughout the rest of the nine-minute clip, Conrad leans into a macabre inversion of anti-black violence via reenactments of culturally relevant and critically acclaimed films such as Get Out and American History X—including the latter’s iconic curb stomp scene—while wordsmithing references to actual atrocities committed against the black diaspora at the hands of white supremacists. Each line intentionally evokes a new horror, superimposed with a white face—from the whippings and lynchings described with syntax akin to that of “Strange Fruit” (“hanging from trees in cosmic emptiness/these filthy fruits provide a fascinating show”) to descriptions of torturing insubordinates to subdue rebellion to the endless wars waged for profit. Halfway through the video, a Malcolm X quote is put on the screen: “The price of freedom is death.” As a coda to his final verse, Conrad declares that he is “reversing the triangular trade” via “Black History X,” cleverly tying together themes of his song and the corresponding video by making the race reversal concept and the purpose of the cinematic allusions even more overt.

Uploaded to YouTube in September, “PLB” gained the attention of French politicians and organizations, and the backlash was swift: Far-right leader Marine Le Pen declared the video an instance of “anti-white racism” and a call to hatred and murder, demanding that the transgression be rewarded with appropriate penalties on all social media platforms. France’s interior minister, Gerard Collomb, responded in kind, stating on Twitter, “I condemn without reservation these abject remarks and ignominious attacks.” LICRA, France’s largest organization intended to fight racism and anti-Semitism, put out a statement calling the video “abject and incredibly violent” and called for legal action. YouTube promptly removed the video from its platform, claiming that it “violated hate speech guidelines.” In just a few days, Nick Conrad went from being a little-known artist with under 1,000 average hits a month to the No. 1 trending topic in France.

Pursuant to the outcry, French prosecutors investigated and determined that Conrad’s artistic license violated France’s codified press laws by causing “incitement to racial discrimination, hatred, or violence on the basis of one’s origin or membership in an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group”—in this case, Caucasians. The charge is similar to one made in 2015 against Saïdou of the well-known French group ZEP for their song “Nique la France” (“Fuck France”), in which he would be charged and later absolved of targeting hate speech toward those who were “Français de souche,” or French to the root—namely, again, Caucasians.

Proceedings began this past Wednesday with Conrad and his team facing off against complainants LICRA and the far-right leaning LAGRIF (General Alliance Against Racism and for Respect for French and Christian Identity). Reports of the trial describe Conrad enumerating in detail how the concept of the video was not only informed by multiple popular cultural and historical references (which the complainants allege are not ones that French people know well), but also the reality of his life and upbringing in France: “There is so much oppression and innuendo in society on a daily basis, even in a subliminal way; there are so many things that may elude most, but we see them.”

Conrad was questioned over his reference to Malcolm X, and the complainants implied that the deceased black liberation activist was an anti-white racist and black supremacist, unlike a more peaceful Martin Luther King. In a stunning but familiar pivot, one member of LAGRIF’s counsel team maintained, “It’s all the white man’s fault. But do we talk about the Arab slave trade and the black people who sold their brothers?”

Beyond these cartoonishly incorrect readings of history, implicit in the discussion is the assumption that racism is an equal exchange of offenses as opposed to a systemic construction. All sins are not created equal, and the collective weight of the black struggle is a debt that has accumulated over time. Under the guise of “universalism,” the French community’s continued reluctance to allow their nonwhite compatriots to confront those failings in an open space has long provided cover for oppressive tactics, to the point that France has worked to ban events and gatherings targeted for black people on the grounds of racism. It’s a farce of an exercise in a country that has yet to even track any sort of race-related census, consistently putting forth a narrative that race is not even a consideration in French identity as recently as the World Cup.

The scenes and lyrics played out in Conrad’s video are indisputably graphic, but that has hardly precluded people from understanding a performer’s artistic vision before. In Childish Gambino’s video for “This Is America,” a black man is shot in the head point blank, and a church choir is gunned down; released with similar shock value intent, it received acclaim and is currently nominated for a Grammy. Contemporaries notwithstanding, the question remains: If the scenes depicted in Conrad’s video were near-facsimiles of movies that have become cultural staples, why are we so comfortable celebrating and watching these same portrayals of violence against black people without discomfort?

Despite the perpetual efforts to distance itself from systematic wrongdoing against the black community, France has still been a site of unjustifiable black deaths: 24-year-old Adama Traore’s death in police custody in 2016 has largely gone unanswered by both the government and LICRA. Meanwhile, both institutions continue to hold court over perceived offenses of reverse racism. This dynamic evidences the power imbalance that Conrad sought to flip on its head, albeit crudely. If merely the visualization of violence against white people causes panic, however visceral, it should stand to reason that the accrued toll of centuries of brutality against black people at the hands of white supremacy is immeasurable. Whether or not Conrad is found guilty during his March 19 sentencing, there is a clear failure of France’s vocal white demographic to appreciate the magnitude of that calculus.

As Conrad’s lawyers stated, “[The song] is a violent, shocking, disturbing piece of art. But history itself is violent, shocking and disturbing.”

Who Gets To Claim Their Identity In France?

Originally published for Buzzfeed News.

Atop Paris’s famous Champ de Mars gardens lies its even more prominent Eiffel Tower — a gargantuan lattice ironwork that millions of people from around the world flock to visit annually. Like all landmarks of cosmopolitan cities, the site is picturesque, nostalgic, and crowded — the hustle and bustle of citizens and visitors alike, colliding daily. About 15 yards from the main entrance, you’ll see a row of young men, largely of African descent, aiming to make as much money as they can from passersby, selling anything from mini Eiffel Towers to French flag pins. At the end of their day, some will pack up and take the Metro past the Périphérique to the banlieues; from the ritzy city center where they spend their day to the isolated, low-income suburb enclaves of mainly black and brown people who have been denied significant mobility or opportunity, the cité tower blocks in the shadows of the shimmering lights of the notoriously low-lying city.

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Black Ramadan and the Importance of Finding Community in Isolation

Originally published for VerySmartBrothas.

When I was a child, my mom would tell me stories about Ramadan in our homeland of Comoros. Some parts weren’t the most idyllic—the idea of fasting under mosquito nets without air conditioning that close to the equator is not my concept of pleasant by any stretch of the imagination.

The one part that I always envied, however, was the sense of community enshrouded in each story. The collective participation in the holy month made the air crackle just a little differently, and you could feel the nuance in every vignette. Continue reading