Page 44



by Margo Berdeshevsky (article, photos & translations)

... Et brûlé par l'amour du beau, Je n'aurai pas l'honneur sublime De donner mon nom à l'abîme Qui me servira de tombeau. — Charles Baudelaire 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. Is he the sun in metaphor, or an exploding nova, or Icarus? No matter, my French girlfriends 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 86

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 bilingual 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 ça. 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 soulwork 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

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