I spent the second half of last year living in France and was surprised by the prevalence of Arabic identity within French pop culture. In France, Arabs from northern African are known as “Maghrebs.” IAM is one of the first and most prominent Maghrébin hip-hop bands in France and its front man, Akhenaton is also a popular solo artist. In France, Maghrebs experience a strong amount of social and political prejudice. An incredibly conservative political party, Front National (FN), campaigns almost solely on the platform that Maghrébins do not belong in France and should be expelled from the country as they are not a part of French identity. IAM uses their music to fight against FN. An example of this can be heard in their contribution to the song “Contre les Lois Racistes” (Against the Racist Laws), which focused on raising youth consciousness to rally against unjust immigration laws.
Maghrébin hip-hop has emerged in recent decades as a way for French Maghrébin youth to vocalize their discontent and engrain themselves within France’s growing music industry as a permanent part of popular culture. IAM raps about African and Arabic identity in its music, with particular allusion to ancient Egypt. The group emerged in the late 80′s and is known for mixing French beats and lyrics with Middle Eastern and Egyptian influence. Even their stage names are of Egyptian origin; Akhenaton and Kheops both chose stage names that allude to pharaohs. By referencing ancient Egypt and referring to themselves as pharaohs, IAM assert connections to the contemporary Arab world in an indirect way. If their music were more outright with their references to Middle Eastern origins, white French conservatives might associate it with Islamic Fundamentalism’s grip over North African diasporatic communities living in France and try and censor it.
Often, when someone of Arabic origin immigrates to France, they are encouraged, if not forced, to forget their cultural roots and assimilate into the French culture. IAM helped to reinvigorate the large but culturally silent Maghrébin population within France. The group’s music is both politically charged and defiant; it subverts notions of racial superiority by suggesting that a multiracial alliance can combat “old” French politics.
In recent years, their connection with Maghrébin culture and Middle Eastern identity has become more pronounced. Now, they project a specifically Middle Eastern and Maghrébin image in order to try and make the Islamic and Arabic subculture in France a permanent part of national identity. This is a theme that Akhenaton has carried into his solo career. He posesses many different cultural identities (from Italy, living in France, practicing Islam and of Middle Eastern descent) and unites these identities through the universal language of hip-hop. These connections and this effort can be particularly seen on the cover of his solo album Meteque et Mat. The album shows an Italian man with a Pharaoh chess piece, in front of the background of an Islamic design around his name and an Arab and Italian looking house.
I thought that this group was a great example of the way Middle Eastern hip-hop not only acts as an ambassador for Arabic identity and culture, but has the ability to transform the way Arabs are represented across pop culture.