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Hiphop Négritude

Miles Marshall Lewis

The death of Radikal and other French hiphop magazines, due in no small part to the encroachment of 'French version' American publications, makes the possibilities of a new millennium négritude seem unlikely.

My dear ol' dad, an avid reader, regularly brought The Village Voice back to my parents' Bronx apartment every Wednesday. He'd pick it up on his way home from his downtown Manhattan gigs during the '70s and '80s. In the winter of '88, personal heroes of my private teenage universe grouped together on the 19 January cover of the Voice like a Justice League meeting: Run-DMC, MC Shan, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kool DJ Red Alert, Roxanne Shanté, Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew, Mr. Magic, and many more.

The essays inside — by writers Greg Tate, Harry Allen, Nelson George, and others — deconstructed hiphop culture in a fashion antedating the hiphop press of XXL, Rap Pages, Vibe, Ego Trip, The Source, and Blaze, which later came to prominence in the '90s. Recently, while browsing magazines at a kiosk in the neighborhood of Montparnasse, I caught MC Jean Gab'1 gracing the cover of the final issue of France's revered hiphop organ, Radikal, and that nearly 20-year-old edition of the Voice sprang to my mind.

Founded in 1996, Radikal garners the most respect of all French hiphop publications. Though predated by L'Affiche and RER, Radikal's quality level of writing and in-depth coverage of hiphop made it the top choice for discerning readers seeking critical evaluation of the culture. But this was the final issue. So I decided to initiate an investigation into the sad demise of this fine, nine-year-old rap mag.

Two years ago, The Source launched a French version of its brand into the marketplace. With Radikal in hand, bystanders brushing past on the chilly rue de Rennes, I wondered: was a French-language version of The Source yet another example of American cultural imperialism shutting out local business? Standing in front of a vacant neighborhood café, I could literally sight a busy Starbucks in the distance — shades of the same issue.

With British Esquire and Italian Vogue as proven successes (par example), why not a French Source? Partnered with Paris-based Arcadia Editions, Source founder David Mays made the bold move to corner the French market with the first international branch of a hiphop magazine — one that would interview local MCs, DJs, graf artists, and breakers as well as translate articles on the States' rap superstars from the original American edition. Since its inception, Source covers have included Lino, 113, and La Caution as well as Nas, Jay-Z, and Ludacris. Editor-in-chief David Dancre maintains a balanced mix to maximize interest from fans of homegrown rappers and the more worldwide-known Rap City staples.

"The French version of The Source started tragically," Olivier Cachin, the former editor-in-chief of Radikal, tells me. "They sold, despite a heavy marketing launch, only 14,000 copies of the first issue with [famed French hiphop trio] IAM on the cover, out of 70,000 copies printed. The Radikal issue we put out at the same time, also with IAM on the cover but with no promo at all, sold only 800 copies less than The Source."

According to Cachin, from the outset The Source has been plagued by the same financial challenges as those that have led Radikal to close its doors. French Source readership has dropped to an approximate monthly low readership of 6,500, down from the 80,000 they'd been expecting. Cachin warned me the transatlantic plug may soon be pulled. Within weeks of Cachin's tip-off, local hiphop journalist Epee Hervé confirmed for me that the French Source has joined Radikal's fate: two hiphop mags cancelled in the same season. (The Source's David Mays and David Dancre did not respond to my interview requests.)

German publisher Pop Media, the owner of Radikal, shut down its French publishing interests in the late summer, leaving its rock mag Velvet and France's beloved hiphop outlet in a lurch. Pop Media claims losses of 600,000 euros from its French venture. Though Radikal's treatment of both local and American hiphop was thorough by Parisian standards, Cachin complains, "It's a bit different, 'cause the French press doesn't have the same access to artists as the American press. US rappers tend to care less about foreign press and they have 10 minutes maximum to do photos, whereas in the US they have long photo sessions."

Repercussions related to the demise of Radikal may not be immediately apparent, but consider this. The incisive, intellectual reporting that The Village Voice devoted to hiphop back when no one else thought to treat the culture seriously had grave implications for a whole generation of young African-American writers. Hundreds of budding black music journalists graduated from college student newspaper staffs and were provided opportunities to write about the music and culture they loved by an American hiphop press that mirrored a model the Voice exemplified first.

Writers taking MCs to task for questionable lyrical content and violent antics outside of recording studios and concert halls — as well as providing critical evaluation from a much more knowledgeable standpoint than grizzled rock critics biased against rap — was arguably helpful for hiphop on a whole, aiding the culture in mapping out a plan for viable longevity that's allowed it to last over 30 years.

Many of these writers transcended the color line to write about rock music and pop culture as well, reaching outside urban publishing to post bylines in The Nation, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and the like. Other former hiphop scribes moved above and beyond music into the realm of fiction, or garnered recognition as essayists. Négritude, the French literary movement of the '30s, flowered under the heavy influence of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a French magazine, l'Étudiant Noir, that first coined the phrase in 1935, in an article written by 22-year-old Martinican poet Aimé Césaire. (Césaire was a cofounder of l'Étudiant Noir, in fact, and would also go on to start the literary journal Tropiques at 28.) The death of Radikal makes the possibilities of a new millennium négritude (young French writers of color taking cues from the modern hiphop generation writers of America) less likely.

Epee Dingong, a graduate of Paris's prestigious Centre de Formation des Journalistes, says, "The French hiphop journalism is underground. In French journalism, most people are white. I believe in the future there will be more [French versions of] Dream Hampton, Kris Ex, Touré, Danyel Smith, Bönz Malone, Lola Ogunnaike, Miles Marshall Lewis. It's just a long process. When I was at CFJ and I said I do hiphop journalism, some journalists from famous daily newspapers were really surprised and skeptical about this kind of press. They said they don't respect it or consider hiphop journalism as a form of serious journalism."

While black music writers in the US have gone on to become authors, screenwriters, TV producers, etc., in France the struggle for the legitimacy of hiphop journalism continues. And while the most recognized of French hiphop writers — Stéphanie Binet and Antoine Garnier, among others — still have lighter celebrity fanzines like Rap Mag and Rap US to sharpen their skills, the loss of the more respectable Radikal is a regrettable fatality.

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