At the recent Mawazine Festival in Morocco, Saeed Saeed spoke to the French rap pioneers Iam about the major Arab and African influences in their sound and image.
Mawazine Sessions: Pioneering French rap group IAM still a presence in hip-hop
They have been called the French Wu-Tang Clan.
The five-piece hip-hop collective IAM continue to remain a force in French hip-hop after having been one of the founders of the scene 25 years ago.
Like the cult American hip-hop group who mixed their gritty street tales with eastern beats and imagery, IAM’s success lies in a similar approach, with a sound and presentation owing as much to ancient Egypt as modern France.
Even some of the band members’ stage names come from historical Egyptian figures: there’s the lead rapper Akhenaton, named after the former Egyptian pharaoh. Meanwhile, the group’s two DJs Imhotep and Kheops pay tribute to an ancient polymath and king, respectively.
“I was reading a book about the history of Arab poetry,” says Akhenaton, whose real name is Philippe Fragione.
“I was amazed by its description of the poetry, which to me was basically similar to rapping. So what we are all doing is continuing that tradition. The essence of poetry and rapping is really about communication.”
With the band’s home city of Marseilles renowned for its vibrant African and Middle Eastern communities, the group quickly found a receptive audience, in part because of their socially conscious lyrics.
Their 1991 single Tam-tam de l’Afrique went on to become one of the first hits of the French hip-hop scene, a feat made even more impressive by the fact the lyrics dealt with the African slavery trade.
With the jazzy 1997 track Petit Frère, they shone a spotlight on the dangers of ghetto culture.
Their 1997 album L’ècole du micro d’argent is regarded as one the best French hip-hop albums of all time.
The rapper Shurik’n Chang-Ti, whose real name is Geoffroy Mussard, recalls that the French press initially had a hard time categorising the group.
“Well if you think about it, there were no French rap groups when we started,” he says. “People were mostly playing rock music and here we were, rapping and talking about society, Africa and Egypt.”
Akhenaton says IAM’s lyrics proved controversial in those early days: “We felt that we needed to be more open minded in France, like everywhere else in the world.
“A lot of artists at the time were scared to do that because they were obsessed with the need to appeal to everyone and we never had that concern.”
Linking all these generation-spanning themes together are evocative productions melding soul elements with Oriental instrumentations and Middle Eastern melodies.
This pure hip-hop aesthetic was lifted from the 1980s New York hip-hop scene, an era both Akhenaton and Kheops experienced when living in Brooklyn at that time.
It was through witnessing legends such as KRS-One, Run-DMC and Red Alert that the duo, inspired, returned to France and began forming IAM.
With more than one million albums sold and enjoying legendary status in their homeland, Shurik’n Chang-Ti says the local hip-hop scene remains healthy, with the internet offering a new-found stage to young French artists.
“There are many rap forms that are yet to be explored and there are many young artists out there who are writing important material,” he says.
“I think hip-hop will only improve, as the music is emotive and it is part of a growing culture that will be taken forward by a new generation.”
Akhenaton takes a more sombre view: French hip-hop is urgently needed today as an avenue for the youth to discuss the increasing right-wing sentiment in the country.
“People say we need IAM more than ever now,” he says. “I think we need other artists to stand up and discuss these issues. I never wrote from the point of view of a performer. I wrote as an artist and as a father. I never intended to please anyone.”
• Next up on Mawazine Sessions: Cigdem Aslan, the Turkish singer whose music is described as the blues of the Aegean