THE AGE OF MC SOLAAR. Interview and photography Margo Berdeshevsky

The hotel lobby is elegant and ultra modern in the city of light, Paris. I learn every corner of it, as I wait. I am patient. And I wait. I have an interview with Claude M'Barali, alias MC Solaar. I will wait for the Senegalese, Dakar-born French superstar of hip hop. He appears. Relaxed. Apologetic. An iconic figure whom some would dub the rapper's Baudelaire. He is shy when I mention this. He would not presume. Then a slow smile. He is quite pleased.

Cenquieme As

Is he the sun in metaphor, or an exploding nova, or Icarus? No matter, my French girl friends are jealous. I'm potentially nervous. I'm a poet and he is a poet. That's wonderful. But what I know of his genre is spare, and tinged by my aesthetic prejudices. I'm called a lyric poet, albeit with a hard edge, and an activist spirit. I have spent the last month speaking to aficionados, to Josh Litle, at work on a first major film about hip hop around the world, The Furious Force of Rhymes, which is executive produced by famed rapper CHUCK-D of Public Enemy; to David Siller, a young hip hop scholar preparing his thesis. I have carefully translated one of Solaar's finest lyrics in order to learn this form from its inside out. I have come to the interview bearing a white rose, because when I was in Russia, poets always gave each other roses, and my translations, which I hope will please him for their poetic integrity. A copy of Fleurs du Mal, and all my bi-lingual bravado. He speaks an educated French, and Spanish, studies Russian, understands English, quite well. We speak in French.

There is a story I know of an elderly artist who is also a Zen master: a client comes to buy a drawing and is told to return in a year. The client agrees and returns in a year and is told to return in a month. A month later, he is asked to return tomorrow. The client arrives the next day and is told to wait at the door. He hears the master rattling and shuffling. Finally, after a moment, the master appears with a drawing in his hand and asks his price. "I waited a year and a month and a day for this, but it took just a moment!" "Yes, plus my entire life," replies the old one. MC Solaar is a young master, and the story pertains. I write quickly, because of the music, he tells me. It's much easier if you have the music, the rhythm, but I am fast. First, I have taken in "everything." Do you never write before the music? Ah. I used to, he admits. But when I met the music, I changed.

"The Concubine of Hemoglobin," lyrics that many judge as his masterwork on humanity, and war, he wrote in a proverbial half-an-hour. But the artist is in constant preparation. You save it up, absorb, and let it spill into the music. You know when it works and when it is false…I try to do things that have not been done … with no music, you would struggle … this word or that word? With music, it accelerates you, it forces you, and then you know when to slow down, break, begin. You know." He calls himself a journalist of the daily life. A witness for his era. He speaks to thieves, thinkers, barflies, dancers, policemen, a blind singer, his young nephews, his mother, waiters, women; he reads each day's newspaper, collects dictionaries, listens, and waits. He only writes when he is preparing an album. For "Concubine," he entered the studio with only the title in his head. In 1994 there was war in the Gulf and Bosnia and political prisoner Kim Song Man was on trial in North Korea and Amnesty International was fighting for his liberation. Solaar had been paying attention to the world, and an hour later, the lyrics were wrought.

What is your genius? It's the rhythm, he nods, and my interpretation. I know that by the eighth phrase, there has to be shock, poetry, even the excessive. My professors taught me that there must be a structure, a situation, a thesis, an antithesis, a point of view, a climax. And I become RAEL. He has watched for my response. I am an angel lawyer, he will tell me in the course of our interview. I am called RAEL, my vocation is to defend, a defending angel for a point of view. And it ends with regret, in which you realize there is something better. An Aristotelian formulation, I note. He beams. Oui. Oui. C'est ca.

I have always been against " les processus qui mènent à l'élimination." He is quoting from his "Concubine," (I have always been against the processes that lead to extinction.) Solaar began his recording career at the age of twenty, and lived first in the 'hood, but also in the non-xenophobic world. He cares about the universal that can help to teach and to penetrate perjury. He takes the precept of earliest hip hop culture to heart. It had begun with a common philosophy to recycle negative energies and create with words, with painting, which should be respectful, not destructive, and with dance. And if one had violent tendencies -- combat them with rap. But today, that has changed. Rap means what people want it to mean, he seems sorry to say. But Solaar focuses on the universalism that he learned from his professors who lived through the French student protests of 1968. All men are equal. One honors the rights of man.

In the beginning, other rappers did not quite understand MC Solaar, because he is a man who does not hide emotions. His eyes follow with the eagerness of a child who has seen a little of heaven, a lot of hell, and aims to comprehend the universe, but it will take time. He is in no hurry and he will take his time. He is an improvisor. Rap is much like jazz to him. He has never kept an agenda. It's all in his head. As a boy he never did his homework, but he speaks four languages. Solaar is a poet of the streets, a philosopher, a committed-politically-cogent, and educated being in a world of chaos. He is, like others, afraid of the world he is party to. He has done homework and soul-work on the human condition. This much, I can see. His lyrics contain all of these elements, and a climactic moment where the earth and the soul tilts; a realization of true regret, and an attempt to rise above it into some venue of hope. By midnight, we have exchanged our poetry, and read some Baudelaire - "Litany to Satan" and "Laments of an Icarus" - become poignantly apt. He has cited his love for Jacques Prevert, Leonard Cohen, Georges Brassens, Serge Gainsbourg, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. All poets, thinkers, and anti-totalitarians.

"I cannot do rap like the Americans." Other rappers, he will admit, American rappers, are afraid to say that they are afraid or that they can weep. In American rap, there are no losers, and this is a loss, he elucidates. "They are afraid to show themselves with the emotion that goes with that. They brag…but if they dared to explore 'the loser' … I understand why they don't do this in the U.S, because they see themselves as too strong." They wear their gold chains and they are violent or they are misogynist.

A title on his last album, Cinquième As is "Solaar Weeps." He cites it with pride, as though he were re-composing it before my eyes. Then, he runs through nearly all of "Concubine of Hemoglobin," from the February '94 Prose Combat, his second album which sold 800,000 copies, 100,000 in its first days. It ends with the phrase - It's so hard to say, but …I'm scared. On the disc, there is the sound of an ocean for the opening 30 seconds before he comes in very calmly with words. Now suddenly, he breaks into the staccatos of "… Balancer des rafales de balles normales et faire des victimes/ Dans les rangs des descendants d'Adam …" performed for himself, for me, as though to inspect his own poetic craft. Prose Combat was dubbed "a jazz-funk-rap adventure." Cinquieme As includes crossover lyrics in Spanish, English, French, musical lyricism, jazz riffs, and all the extra that is his inventive streak. He is known as an innovator, and would counsel the young to quit the "group" mind and to be unique. With an international career and discs available in 20 countries, even in English language markets that are normally shut to French artists, actually, he will admit that what he does is not rap.

It is "talking over." Poetically, I understand this to describe a kind of spoken word poetry, performed over the music. Oui. Oui. No, the American rappers, I don't like, ideologically. Musically, ok. But not ideologically. I'm for creativity. When I want to do rap, I can do it, I know all the styles, I learned many tricks. You take a mic and you yell and scream, you yell at women, that's rap-rap-rap.

Why is what he does not rap? Because I have no slogan. It is not demagoguery. I say don't be a victim of a musical style. Don't only repeat "mortel, mortel, mortel," (death, death, death, deadly, fatal, lethal) in every line, and yell unintelligible lyrics. Tension, hate, violence -- no. There's enough racism. Are you aware of the paradoxes? In a synagogue, are you going to yell, let's go? Excuse me, I'm international. It's always the same thing in every line: a pistol, a missile, a woman … le rap-rap-rap. In Solaar Pleure, he writes a hero's fantasy of a man who wants to combat evil. In the beginning, he had the words "the emperor is crying," in his mind. From his own melancholy at the time, he heard the drum beat. He stands up to make the sounds, a one man orchestra, suddenly, so I may hear; he scats, he plays with an onomatopoeia, he speaks out the way he composes, how he likes his rhymes to be like coals whitening in a fire. His character dies and leaves for paradise. And he cries. "I see demons, blood, and fires mixing/ I pray when I'm this terrified. Satan's lauging. Solaar's weeping …"

A complexity of thought explores everything from a chaos theory of creation to the dada-ists, the surrealists, millennial hope, the durability of comprehensible rap, the ephemeral, in art. He pauses often, as though to search his own honesty. He stands at the window holding his present, his past, his reflections, and his shadows. What I write today should have meaning in 2090. And what else can he do, or would he do? Music. That's all. I cannot be a banker, he says in all seriousness. Music, I can do that, peacefully. Hollywood? No, not all that sitting around and drinking coffee. Yes, he writes other texts that are perhaps too complex for rap, for now, that would not please his audience or his producers, but perhaps later, perhaps later, he will. A novel? Oh la la, that would take too long.

His is not a rap of exclusion, he has said, but a rap of opening, and inclusion. Not a rap that excludes women and girls. He sees no interest. When I write, it is to make myself understood. I have no desire to say we're 10, 20, 100, 100,000 but this is only ours. I wish to share with no matter whom. Someone aged 24 today has a right to know rap. Some other, a law student has a right to listen to rap. I make rap for the 94, the 91, the 16, for everyone. That is my style. Underground and popular as the metro, he has said. I am a man of openness.

Born in 1969 in Dakar, third of four children, his father is from Tchad. Yes, he would say, Africa is his nest. His mother is his personal myth. His lyrics show his notable respect for women. He has her to thank, and he says so. She followed the beautiful, the hard work for her children, 2-3 jobs, my reference is always her, wherever I am, I did nothing. My myth is the opposite of the tower of babel, the opposite of show biz. My myth is my mother.

At the age of six months he was brought to a "Banlieu" of Paris called St. Denis, the suburban enclave which has birthed so much of a disenfranchised youth today. But Solaar was blessed, or different. At twelve he was taken to live with an uncle in Cairo, registered in a French school, and stayed for nine months. His spirit began its unfolding. When he returned to France he passed his baccalauréat and began to study languages. He was born lucky, he says. His nationality is French. He has the French educational system to thank for his fine knife-edged intellectual development. He has himself to thank as well. He is a scholar. He has received the Order of Merit of Senegal; he gave it to his mother.

MC Solaar

He has returned many times, as often as possible but never for long enough -- to his African nest for its spiritual milk and its "normal life." He always returns to Paris with some word spoken that shifts his life. An approach to music and the poetic. A mission to write the truths of his roots, the slaves, and the colonized. He has returned and returned to his teachers in Indonesia, for the arts of self control, breath, interior force, spiritual and magical disciplines, and an ongoing personal quest. He is fascinated by Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Penchak Silat, the Indonesian martial art. The ancients he has met there are the real thing. A man in Java said - I can walk through a forest without making the leaves move. I remember, this is not a man in a hurry. He is a contemplative. He knows what he knows and what he does not. And he watches with the wide eyes of a child from another continent, maybe even, another realm.

I return with him to the notion of myth. Is Icarus, in fact a player in his personal mythos, flying too near the sun? Well, Yves Montand's film about Icarus is his favorite movie, but he prefers the symbol of the phoenix - fire and rebirth. Then, is Solaar the sun, or a metaphor? His own earliest "tags," scrawled upon sidewalls of Northern Paris were Soar. Then, eventually, SOLAAR, because graphically, the name spelled with a double "a" looked more balanced, and it did not sound American. Also, such a name, with its hint of power, demands that he shall not dare to be negative.

He is an icon, not John Lennon, but perhaps as loved in France. In his ancestral home, they listen to him on the radio and shout "Bravo." In the Northern suburbs of Paris, where he was formed, the young of color and disenfranchisement tag graffiti-murals of his lyrics. They rap songs as spoken word, poetic truth of the new millennia and hip hop as a rhymed radical home culture.

Prose Combat

Percy Shelley once said "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world because they create human values and the forms that shape the social order." MC Solaar, poet, fine boned hands shaping like dark birds, describes action when he speaks. His eyes are all black shine. He will not look at a camera. He is processing everything and appears to be in a conversation with that speaker inside his brain that urges him on with a certain longing for what is honest. He repeats a question, a reply, to make certain of his own meanings. And he wants wisdom. To have it and to give it. He wants time. He uses biblical metaphor and allegory so that his themes will be accepted and broadly understood.

You write in several of your lyrics about Paradise, I prepare the question. What is Paradise? Happiness, he says, simply. The sunshine I saw as a child. That all is well. I tell small stories and I place my stories in Paradise or in the biblical places, so that people can say, oh, this is true. Besides … I see Paradise. I can see it. I like things that are partially hidden. Yes, he is afraid of being a human being in these times, and of mankind's intelligence. Of war, and earthquakes, and energy, and armies. When you are a child, you know that anything can happen! Then what is it, to be human? Ah, to give hope to people, to show them that they may have a choice. I quote W.S. Merwin's small poem that claims, "On the last day of the world I would plant a tree." And what would MC Solaar do on such a day? Ah, … I would make my first prayer.

I'd go and see my little nephews, my mother, to give them hope. But I would not tell them anything. And what would he tell himself? I'd write a page to say here is what I have done, here is what we have done. But not with rage. No rage. I'd look for energy. I must think of his words in Solaar Pleure: I was never a hero, just a man of bone and water/ Now a soul lost and soaring, no more need for the pen.

And what gives Solaar his energy? It's crazy, it's vain, but I love what I do. It's perfect to be this free. To make sometimes beautiful little stories, sometimes not so beautiful, based on reality. To make love stories. … I'm called Monsieur X, she's called Mademoiselle Y… He launches into a lyric he is working on, Monsieur X has waited two years to call her, she says come, he arrives with the roses, she is kissing another, and he abandons his flowers.

Does he have particular rituals as some writers do? He pauses longer than the other times. Well, 18 h, (6 o'clock in the evening) is my best time to write. At that time, everything goes well. But it hardly ever happens. Then, there will be a certain music, or rhythm. Or I will ask for a particular music. I will write. I will look. I will write. Then I go away from it and I come back and have a little vodka, and look at it again. Then I correct, I see what I have that is beautiful and what is not so good. I don't write a lot. Only five albums. At one time, I thought that is enough, I can stop now. But no. Yes, I bought a notebook for ideas … but when I reread the notes, I could understand nothing! And also, I read books. Right now I am reading about the science of the bible, the true and the false. I'm interested in integrated science.

In his lyrics, the language is definitely a vernacular French. Once I have translated it, I feel a bit like a tagger, myself. I have dared to put my name beside another one on the wall. An artistic merging and play of word and identity has begun. I show it to Solaar. He reads it standing up, walks around the room with a fresh cigarette and my page in his hands. He smiles as slowly as a teasing sunrise. He is pleased that I have found the rhymes, the subtleties. Oui. Ca va! C'est du Hip hop! Oh, la la.

It is getting very late. I now have hours of micro cassettes to transcribe and consider. But I stay on to join him and his friends to drink vodka and politics! To pat the new baby in the belly of his old friend's young wife, they will leave shortly for her home in Vietnam because they do not wish to raise a child in the West. I listen like a welcome fly on the wall to Claude MC Solaar and his old friend, fighting about politics in low tones the way only the French can. When they have challenged each other as much as they can for one night, they laugh and embrace, and I have to go home and transcribe my exploding notes into tamer stars.

I head off into the Paris night thinking about what the young filmmaker, Josh Litle, had said to me about the poetic idiom he found in rap. And the hip hop scholar, David Siller, who said that there are evolutionary links between French poetry and French rap. How a "tag" that he saw, AC2N, meant "Assez de Haine," (Enough hate). How he can think of no other music that has touched so many people, globally. And how MC Solaar, a literate boy marginalized by his peers, found a bridge between a notion of community, rap and poetry, and entered a dialogue with the two. How it speaks for those who would otherwise have no voice. How an intellectual in a commercial medium wants to speak to children and workers and intellectuals. A very French concept, actually, of égalité. A distinction I've been quickly taught by my aficionado colleagues: hip hop is the culture while rap is the commercialization of it. MC Solaar is a commercial success and a hip hop poet. And that is a rarity.

Josh Litle compares great rapping as being structurally very similar to Jazz. Rap and Jazz share as their basis the concept of the soloist - an individual who performs a linear piece on top of a rhythm section. The art of both forms is largely in the "phrasing" (jazz term, in rap it's called "delivery" or "flow"). This is the performer's style of rhythmic delivery of ideas. In Jazz these ideas are melodic and harmonic (musical), in rap, ideas are literary (verbal). The instrumentalist is substituted with the vocalist.

In jazz, the soloist is almost always improvising or as it sometimes is referred to, as "spontaneous composition." This is not always the case in rap. Most raps are composed before the actual performance. However, many M.C.'s (rappers) can improvise raps on the spot, this is called "Freestyle."

Another significant difference is the "arrangement," the sequence of song sections, such as verse, chorus, bridge, and "harmonic progression," the series of chords that forms a song section. Jazz borrows from and builds upon European classical harmonic progression. European harmonic progression is driven by the need for dissonance (tension) to resolve (release). Rap is built on short, repetitive progressions that are more reflective of African non-harmonic (rhythmic) traditions. This, in conjunction with an oral storyteller (rapper) on top of the rhythm makes rap at least structurally more closely linked to African music than Jazz, which is more of an Afro/European musical fusion. There are some schools of thought in rap that seek the total elimination of harmony and melody, reducing the music to rhythm and words. These concepts are reflective of the general ideology of rap, which is that the WORD is king.

In terms of the relationship of rap to poetry, the main difference is rhythm. Rapper Chuck-D states that the difference between Spoken Word Poetry and Rap is that rap is interlaced with the beat (repetitive rhythm), whereas Spoken-Word is linear and alternates between rhythm and arhythmia. Another difference is that rap is often a street-level discourse, utilizing the slang and mentality of the poor and usually non-white. Most poetry comes from an educated literary tradition. In this sense, one could say that rap in content is closer to a poet like Charles Bukowski than it is to Walt Whitman.

I hold Josh Litle's analysis beside my own long hours with Solaar, bright flares, in each hand. Founded in social consciousness, this form has its own rules and regs, does not have as much time for subtlety, relies more on wordplay than on metaphor, though when the metaphors work, they can be wrenching. The idiom is different. As an example of political commitment and poetry - meeting, Solaar achieves.

As I near my flat in the heart of Paris, on a bridge named for King Louis Philippe, there are a dozen banlieu boys doing hip hop for coins, dancing on their bones, on hips and shoulders and elbows, against the city of light's night, as backdrop. And for MC Solaar, whose eagerness to save with words while still feeling the sidewalks of life - there is no horn held weakly. There is the strength of a man who can walk in a jungle without rattling leaves, and young enough to learn still more.

Interview and photo (c) 2003 Margo Berdeshevsky.