'May Allah Bless France!' Tells The Story Of France's Hip-Hop Gatekeepers Rapper Abd Al Malik, who grew up in the depressed suburbs of France, has turned his story into a soaring film memoir.
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'May Allah Bless France!' Tells The Story Of France's Hip-Hop Gatekeepers

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'May Allah Bless France!' Tells The Story Of France's Hip-Hop Gatekeepers

'May Allah Bless France!' Tells The Story Of France's Hip-Hop Gatekeepers

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I want you to think back to the '90s, to movies like "Boyz N The Hood" or "Menace II Society." For this next story, imagine one of those movies shot in black-and-white with prayer beads and scenes from a mosque. Oh, and imagine it all in French.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAY ALLAH BLESS FRANCE!")

CORNISH: That's the recipe for the new film, "May Allah Bless France!" It comes out in the U.S. next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAY ALLAH BLESS FRANCE!")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing French).

CORNISH: And the man behind the camera is also the character at the heart of the film. His name is Abd Al Malik, and he's kind of a big deal in France. He's a best-selling rapper, a poet, an acclaimed author, and now, a filmmaker. We sat down to talk with him at his film company's office in Paris.

ABD AL MALIK: (Speaking French).

CORNISH: Al Malik is a slim and youthful 40 in his upturned baseball cap and zebra-striped hooded sweatshirt. He was born to Congolese Catholic parents, but he's an observant Muslim. And he says "May Allah Bless France" isn't just a hip-hop film.

AL MALIK: (Through interpreter) My movie isn't just a visual exercise. It's deeply political. It has political value because it can be useful for the community.

CORNISH: His community is in the depressed suburbs of France. The film opens with a montage of black and brown faces against the tower blocks of the city of Strasbourg. Cut to images of SWAT teams breaking down doors in the neighborhood and wrestling with suspects under arrest.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAY ALLAH BLESS FRANCE!")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, speaking French).

CORNISH: These are the same communities that have been under scrutiny since the attacks at Charlie Hebdo earlier this year. It's where so many of France's millions of Muslims live. And like the communities they mirror in the U.S., hip-hop is the soundtrack.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIN SOLDIER")

AL MALIK: (Singing French).

CORNISH: On this song, "Tin Soldier," Abd Al Malik recounts the violence he saw as a young man. "I'd seen death by overdose, firearm, blade or rope," he raps. "A smile and some attention may have made a difference. We'd have been normal - not child soldiers."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIN SOLDIER")

AL MALIK: (Singing French).

CORNISH: It's this song that helped make him a star in France nearly 10 years ago, when he says the music needed a dose of reality.

AL MALIK: (Through interpreter) There are a lot misperceptions about urban culture and hip-hop, so as a rapper, I wanted to bring some truth to this from the voice of someone who knows reality. And I wanted to do the same with Islam.

CORNISH: If you're going understand the French Muslim experience, you have to listen to hip-hop, says Hisham Aidi. He's written about Muslim youth culture in his book, "Rebel Music."

HISHAM AIDI: France is the second-biggest market for hip-hop in the world, outside the U.S. Some of the leading hip-hop artists in France are Muslim - either the children of immigrants or converts. So Muslim artists are really the gatekeepers of hip-hop culture in France. And Abd Al Malik was one of the pioneers.

CORNISH: "May Allah Bless France" is the story of how Al Malik reached that point. It begins on the streets of Strasbourg, as a teenaged Abd Al Malik is shown swaggering across the street on his way to school, thinking out loud, spitting rhymes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAY ALLAH BLESS FRANCE!")

AL MALIK: (Speaking French).

CORNISH: "My library, my books, are my only bling bling," he raps. In that scene is a good example of what he brings to the music, says Hisham Aidi.

AIDI: He's one cerebral rapper. This is a man who said that French hip-hop artists are the children of Public Enemy and Jacques Derrida.

CORNISH: Those are some parents.

AIDI: (Laughter) Those are some parents, right.

CORNISH: But while that complicated mix of hip-hop and postmodern philosophy was swirling in Al Malik's mind, violence and gunfire were all around him. The film shows drug deals, funerals and police raids.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAY ALLAH BLESS FRANCE!")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, speaking French).

AL MALIK: (Through interpreter) In the (speaking French), or the suburbs, things can quickly turn to tragedy because of what these kids are exposed to every day. I mean, I've seen people die with my own eyes because they think they're invincible. They think that they're Scarface in their own movie, and they're dying from drugs, heroin and just living a dangerous lifestyle.

CORNISH: Abd Al Malik got pulled into that toxic mix as a teenager. He says at the heart of the problem is the fact that he and his friends didn't feel French. There's this one scene early in the movie. Al Malik and his friends have been arrested for throwing stones at the cops. His uncle bails them out. But he's not just angry about the crime. He warns them about knowing their place.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAY ALLAH BLESS FRANCE!")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking French).

AL MALIK: (Through interpreter) In the film when the uncle says, we love this country, but this country doesn't love us - that's really the problem. Symbolically, the French Republic is the mother of all citizens. And as a mother it should love all of its children with the same amount of love, and maybe even a little bit more for those who are fragile, for the weaker ones from the suburbs.

CORNISH: Abd Al Malik says education helped him become stronger, and the title song from his film "May Allah Bless France" makes that point.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABD AL MALIK SONG)

AL MALIK: (Singing French).

The song is about the fact that extremism feeds on ignorance, and the solution really lies within education.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABD AL MALIK SONG)

AL MALIK: (Singing French).

AL MALIK: (Through interpreter) We have to teach religion in schools. There's a lot of talk, but children don't really have access to knowledge. If they really knew what Islam was about, they wouldn't be fooled by any radical preacher who tells them that Islam is X, Y or Z. They would know better.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing French).

CORNISH: But some young Muslim rap fans dismiss him. They say Abdul Malik, he's been co-opted by the French government. It doesn't help that in 2008, he was named a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the minister of culture. But Al Malik says what his critics don't understand is that French ideals and Muslim ideals are the same.

AL MALIK: (Through interpreter) The values of the French Republic - freedom, equality and fraternity - those are the values that you can find in Islam. The problem is not the values, it's communication.

CORNISH: Since the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, he's pushed even harder on this message, trying to educate both his community and the French establishment on what it means to meet in the middle. But when I asked him what he sees as the high point of his artistic life so far, he paused.

AL MALIK: (Through interpreter) I'm not sure how to answer that kind of question because I look ahead and I hope the best is yet to come. But one thing I'm very proud of is that I'm a kid from the bottom of the bottom of the heap. I'm the kid that everybody told, you won't be able to study, you won't be able to write, you won't be able to make music and you won't be famous. And I've done all of those things. I have more films in the works and I hope there's plenty more to come. And that's the most important thing - that nothing is set in stone and that nothing is predetermined.

CORNISH: Abd Al Malik's first film, "May Allah Bless France," comes out in the U.S. next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABD AL MALIK SONG)

AL MALIK: (Singing French).

CORNISH: You can hear more from our series, Muslim Artists Now, at npr.org.

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