Where hip-hop culture and Arabic calligraphy collide
Discover an exciting and flourishing global sub-culture of Muslim fusion and creative expression. Jonathan Wilson examines what he terms “calligraff bléd’art: wildstyle hip-hop Arabesque Franglais fusion-chic”.
Last week I flew to the French city of Marseille on the Mediterranean coast. I was met there by Ezzedine Ghlamallah, a newly found kindred spirit since our paths crossed at the 9th World Islamic Economic Forum in London last year. I was looking forward to taking in the picturesque setting of his home city, eating some great food, and chewing the fat over Islamic finance, art, football, pétanque and hip-hop.
Marseille is France’s second-largest city, and research suggests that roughly a third of its inhabitants are Muslim. In 2012 the BBC and National Geographic reported that Marseille is on track to becoming the first majority-Muslim city in Western Europe. It’s also the driving force and origin of the French hip-hop phenomenon.
Bilad: Arabic for homeland, or country of origin
Blédard: North African French slang derived from the Arabic word bilad. It’s a pejorative term used in the same way as FOB (fresh off the boat) or “Freshie”, referring to immigrants who stand out for not having integrated properly into the cultural practices or mindset of their new country of residence.
Bléd’art: a play on the term blédard referring to artwork that celebrates the fusion of North African and Muslim culture with popular hip hop culture.
Bomb: to bomb, or to hit, is graffiti-speak for painting as many surfaces as possible in an area.
Calligraff / calligraffiti: a portmanteau word that combines calligraphy and graffiti. It’s a term for Islamic calligraphy written in a hip-hop graffiti style.
Franglais: A form of French using many words and idioms borrowed from English
Hip-hop: More than merely a genre of music, hip-hop is an artistic form of self-expression, social commentary, philosophy and lifestyle originating from an urban marginalised sub-culture among African Americans and Latinos in the South Bronx, Harlem, and New York City during the 1970s. The cornerstones of traditional hip-hop culture rest on four creative elements: deejaying (mixing, sampling and scratching records), emceeing (rapping), breaking or B-boying (break-dancing), and bombing (graffiti art). (Read more in one of my research papers.)
Wildstyle: a highly stylised, complicated and intricate form of graffiti characterised by interwoven and overlapping letters and shapes, which is often hard to read.
France is one of those places that remains an enigma to me, as a Scottish Muslim guy from Manchester. Yes, the French are our neighbours; I spent years studying the language; I have French and North African friends around me in London. Yet I’m reminded of so many areas of notable difference between our countries. Here are three:
Muslim ethnic experience: In the UK, most Muslims hail from the Indian sub-continent. France’s Muslims tend to be North African, and they bring their own cultural practices and interpretations of Islam, which can be seen in their daily practices. (A proper explanation of these points would warrant an article in itself!)
Muslim lifestyle experience: The wider societal interpretations and mindset concerning debates on integration, pluralism and multiculturalism stand in stark contrast between the UK and France. In the UK, halal is being used as a way for British Muslims not only to serve their own needs, but also to reach out to the wider community and integrate. In France, however, halal is seen as a barrier to Muslims integrating and, even worse, viewed by some with suspicion – as a hegemonic and proselytising tactic. Also, wearing the hijab is tough in France, especially if the wearer wants to study or have a professional career. There’s nothing near that opposition in the UK. At my university in London, for example, we have loads of hijabis and even the odd niqabi.
Link with Arabic: North African Muslims in France have Arabic as their language, whereas Muslims in the UK often don’t. This means that, in France, Arabic isn’t just revered and confined to worship in the same way as the UK, but it’s also used on a day-to-day basis informally, for instance in argot or music.
These three things for me are why hip-hop has become the zeitgeist for Muslim youth – especially so in France and North Africa. The urban experience, social pressures and exclusion, and of course the artistic beauty, rhyme and rhythm are present in both Islamic culture and hip-hop.
Driving through a sprawling Marseille, you see graffiti everywhere – on buildings, signs and even rock faces. (Check out the gallery below for some graffiti in France.) This expression is an indication of the mood of French ethnic and Muslim minorities. It reminds me of the New York scene of the 1980s. If you want a blast from the past, watch these two films: Wild Style and The Warriors.
With such acceptance of halal in the UK, where restaurants, global fast food chains and supermarkets are seeing recession-bucking profits, I wonder: have British Muslims gone all white-collar? We have entrepreneurs who’ve taken over pubs and turned them into alcohol-free sheesha and smoothie bars with stages for emcees and poets, like D’Gaf. We’ve had a booming Halal Food Festival with TV celebrity chefs participating. Calligraffiti appears on framed canvases, which take pride of place inside the home of cultured young Muslims. Does this context change the meaning of the work by artists like eL Seed and others?
In US society, hip-hop has firmly crossed-over into the mainstream, even becoming part of the establishment in some places. You can see rappers as guest lecturers for university courses, as entrepreneurs interviewed for business news, and even as political backup clout for Obama.
In France and North Africa hip-hop is, in comparison, still underground, gritty and keeping it real – just like the American east coast hip-hop of the 90s, before it became a marketing tool to sell movies (with more soundtrack sales than box office takings).
So in some ways the French and Maghrebi music scene feels much to me like it’s in a time warp. I get the same vibe as I did when I was attending school and university back in the 90s. The music is a raw expression that reflects the continued injustice of how ethnic minorities and Muslims are treated and viewed in the region.
But having said that, calligraffiti is wildstyle taken to the next level. It’s old skool, new school, and even pre-old skool, because it’s rooted in preserving the traditions and rules of traditional Islamic calligraphy. And that is why Muslim artists are being invited to take the world by storm, with a different form of pacifist bombing where the spraycan is mightier.
Take eL Seed, a French artist I spoke with in a recent interview. He and his work embody bléd’art, the spirit of hip-hop expression borne out of struggle. This illustrates how being a blédard can be used in a hip and much more tongue-in-cheek way. In many ways we see a tale of two different urban experiences: eL Seed’s vibe contrasts the free spirit of Amenakin, championing the movement of flourishing halal fashion and commerce, where she too has brought chic into being a blédard.
Both have done so to the extent that the mainstream world isn’t watching out of only curiosity because it’s considered strange or even exotic. It’s also a wild fusion of style, with a dual-cool that brings together the best of the East and the West, or what I’d rather refer to here as the West and the rest, so that we don’t forget the significance of Africa in all of this.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ezzedine Ghlamallah for showing me around Marseille, introducing me to Maghrebi slang, and taking part in a series of interviews on the road and in brasseries. Also, I’d like to give shout outs and props to Mohammed Ali, Qasim Arif, Ruh Al-Alam, and Weeno.
Catch eL Seed and Amenakin later this month with a host of other performers, speakers and vendors at the Pearl Daisy Asia Tour 2014 in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
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