By Kelly Jean Cogswell
When it comes to American culture, you need comic strip words in big, fat letters like POW! and BLAM! for what we do to other people, or our own for that matter.
In France, half of the top hip-hop videos of last Sunday were American, including one P.Diddy, two Snoop Doggs and Miss Fergie Fergalicious singing about how hot she was, but not promiscuous. I went to a "queer" film festival later in the day where the name was not only American, but half the films.
This is a little more complicated, though, than McDonald's supplanting little cafes with mass-produced frites. It's a testimony to the strength of identity politics in the U.S.
In the case of rap, it has given --mostly men-- a short-cut to a Black identity, especially in France, and Cuba and other centers of the African Diaspora.
The musical genre itself has an accessible tradition of defiance, social commentary, and failing that, rage. Then there's the style, all the doo rags, baggy pants, Sean Jean jackets, and the bling. Wearing it all together is like wrapping yourself in a flag. You don't have to keep the beat.
I was on the subway the other day with a young black gansta wannabee pacing up and down the platform, and scaring all the rainbow of nice bourgeois Parisians, even though if you looked twice you could tell the baggy pants and doo-rag were a costume on him, a kind of carapace.
Maybe that extravagant shell is enough in a place like France which is so conformist that even its nonconformists conform to a particular mode. In France, they say the impetus for it isn't so much to erase people, endorse racism, or homophobia, but to preserve the republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity that are supposed to put everybody on the same ground as everyone else, neither higher or lower.
Frankly, most of us could get behind that idea. The failure of it has emerged as a main theme of French rappers who use this quintessentially black American form to assert their Frenchness and take on the myth.
I wasn't exactly taking notes Sunday when I stopped to watch the video countdown, but I was struck by one from a North African rapper rhyming about how even if he left the place, he was born here, the cité was his, and France would always be his home. It was too sweet for me with sun shining, green grass growing, and a beautiful brown woman getting black and brown men to shake hands, but nevertheless he was claiming space.
Another video had some white-looking guy getting incensed about a hip-hop song playing with the idea of France profound or the real France of the countryside. The song is playing on one radio and he turns it off, then it's coming from a car below and he leaves his apartment to go downstairs and turn it off there. After that, someone walks by with it playing on his headphones, which he grabs and smashes.
Then it's on a little radio that the women turn off when he approaches, but after a split second of silence, the women themselves begin singing. Then it's playing again in the taxi. And so on and so on. The "listeners," white and black and brown, finally sing, if I understood correctly, that they were the real France profound and that the bottom line was respect.
Some gay people turn to the U.S., too. The French assaulted American academics with Lacan and Derrida, and we return the favor with Judith Butler and "queer" studies. After seeing a couple of shows this week at the queer film festival I wasn't sure the French had come out ahead.
If you can set aside (try to) the homophobia and misogyny, and endorsement of random violence, what hip-hop offers is a mode of defiance, pride, a built-in attitude that encourages the disempowered to take on the powerful. It may not lead anywhere in the long run, but it's readymade, and anyone can tap into it.
All French people get with "queer" is some uprooted English word, apparently conveying the vague idea that there could be liberation and equality on the margins of society.
Some of the films in the "queer" festival were powerful (Black Nations, Queer Nations). Most were not. They were almost all old, and taken together, positively dusty. Worse, everything I like about the word got lost in the cultural translation.
Like with hip-hop, "queer" carries with it, or used to, flamboyance, shock value, energy, defiance, even joy, because it was rooted in a homo-identity like dyke or fag or drag queens that we built in the streets, risking our necks sometimes to be ourselves.
Queer was not a department of study in a university, an area of research, a retrospective. Look forward, or not at all.
Visit Kelly Sans Culotte at http://kellyatlarge.blogspot.com.