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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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 …"
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
and photo (c) 2003 Margo Berdeshevsky.