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Abd Al Malik is a French hip-hop artist whose potent lyrics and poised rapping have made him into a brooding poster boy for contemporary, multicultural France. After a succession of self-written studio albums – three of which were named urban music album of the year in France – Malik, 38, has turned his talents to interpreting the work of one of the French language’s finest wordsmiths: Albert Camus.
Malik’s new show, L’Art et la Révolte, a mixture of hip-hop, rap, slam poetry, dance and video installation, was inspired by his reading of Camus’ essay “Betwixt and Between”, which was first published in Algiers in 1937. This week, Malik will bring it to the stage of Paris’s venerable Théâtre du Châtelet, where Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau once staged their ballet Parade.
Although the timing is impeccable – this year is the centenary of Camus’s birth – Malik is no newcomer to the work of the Nobel Prize-winning author. He first read essays by Camus as a 13-year-old growing up in a depressed housing project in Neuhof on the outskirts of Strasbourg.
“I’d just started with my first rap group [New African Poet, founded in 1988 with his elder brother Bilal and his cousin Aissa] and I began reading my way through Camus,” he says. “It was as though he was saying to me, ‘So you want to be an artist? This is how it happens and here’s what you shouldn’t forget.’”
Sitting on a leather sofa in a corner of a café in Pigalle, not far from his recording studio, Malik pours himself a cup of tea. Every question is greeted by a short pause as he weighs his words before replying.
“When I was growing up in my neighbourhood, early on I discovered that speaking up had an impact,” he says. “The one who knew how to express himself had a kind of power. So you had to be careful about what you said. I understood that early on.”
Just as Camus frequently mined his impoverished upbringing in the Belcourt district of Algiers, Malik’s lyrics dig into the gritty reality of growing up on the margins of society. “I was the kind of kid who had a little notebook and jotted down what went on around him,” he says.
His father, a Congolese official who had lost his job in Paris, walked out and left his mother to bring up Malik and his six siblings alone. Days in Neuhof were spent studying philosophy and French literature; at night he dealt hashish and committed petty crimes. In “Les Autres”, he raps: “I was a thief and before going to steal I prayed. I asked God to stop me from being caught. I asked him to make it a good catch, That by the end of (the night), I’d have cash spilling out my pockets.” The song ends on a contrite note: “And I tell you Mister, I tell you Mister, When I think about all that, Mister, I cry, I cry.”
Religion has been a constant in Malik’s life. He was a Catholic altar boy before he embraced Islam and left crime behind; at the same time, he changed his name, from Régis Fayette-Mikano. As a practising Sufi, he takes care to say his five daily prayers and studies the Koran.
Malik credits his faith with making him become someone “serious” and “responsible”: he is now married with two children. It is of a piece with his music, which eschews vulgarity and the invocation of violence for poetic wordplay and trenchant social commentary.
He is part of a generation of socially engaged rappers in France that includes Oxmo Puccino (a Mali-born hip-hop artist from Paris) and Axiom (a French hip-hop artist of Moroccan origin from Lille), who were inspired by the example of the African-American collective Zulu Nation. The Zulu movement was introduced to impoverished French suburbs in the early 1980s by Afrika Bambaataa, a DJ from New York’s Bronx who used hip-hop as a way of drawing angry kids out of gangs.
“For me, hip-hop is a universal tradition that sprung up in the Bronx but can also be linked to the tradition of the griots in western Africa and the troubadours of Europe,” says Malik. “It’s just a modern emanation of a tradition that has existed for a very long time.”
Another link with the past is Malik’s fruitful collaboration with Gérard Jouannest, who worked with Jacques Brel as a pianist and arranger. They first teamed up on Malik’s second solo album Gibraltar (2006) and have worked together on his subsequent albums. Malik has also sung a duet with Jouannest’s wife, the legendary Left Bank chanteuse Juliette Gréco. “I like to assert my French identity,” he says. “There is a French state of mind that is quite unique and is not at all the same as an Anglo-Saxon state of mind.”
Questioned about the much-discussed “Made in France” campaign by industry minister Arnaud Montebourg to get more French people to buy domestically made goods, Malik laughs and says, “You have him sitting right in front of you.”
This question of identity is one Malik is particularly focused on. “It’s important that people understand that someone called Abd Al Malik, black of skin, hailing from the projects and a practising Muslim, can be totally French and love his country,” he says. “I’m not a special case. There are a lot of frustrated French people living in the projects at the moment. If we ignore their frustration and hatred – which is being stoked by the media and politicians – then perhaps it will all end very badly.”
Apart from his music, Malik is also a writer, and he won the Edgar Faure prize for political literature in 2010 for his novel La Guerre des Banlieues N’aura Pas Lieu (The War of the Suburbs Will Not Take Place).
This year, he published a new novel L’Islam au Secours de la République (Islam to the Rescue of the Republic) which imagines what might happen when a cleaning woman discovers a candidate for the French presidency praying as a Muslim. “Despite the fact that this man is French down to the bone, people’s perception of him immediately changes,” says Malik.
It brings him back to Camus and his most famous novel, The Stranger, in which the protagonist Meursault is not judged so much for killing an Arab but because he doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral.
“We judge him for not showing any emotion but, in fact, that’s all on the surface; we don’t know what’s going on inside him,” Malik says. “What interests me is distinguishing between what’s on the surface and what’s going on inside a human being.”