Rapper in the bookshop

When you hear the word rap, what springs to mind? Brash young mendrip- ping with jewellery, surrounded by hot-panted hos? Mouths shouting brand names and hymns to greed? Balloons of Courvoisier, inch-thick Cuban cigars? Drugs, pointless grudges, guns pulled outside nightclubs? Da gangsta life?

It’s time you met MC Solaar, whose new album, Mach 6, was released in May. Solaar is France’s biggest-selling rapper, with more than five-million albums to his credit. A star and role model across the French-speaking world, he has been compared to the poet Verlaine, invited on to the festival jury at Cannes and praised by culture ministers.
But there’s no sign of it going to his head. He’s polite, even diffident, and doesn’t clank when he moves. He’s definitely not bling-bling. “It just wouldn’t feel right,” he says. If it’s just a pose, it’s infinitely more convincing than JLo’s “I’m still Jenny from the block.’‘

We are sitting in the bar of the Hotel Montfleuri, a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe. Solaar is drinking espresso, speaking softly. He’s excited about his sixth album and — 14 years after his first hit — still seems surprised at his success.

MC Solaar — real name Claude M’Barali — was born 35 years ago in Senegal, the son of refugees from Chad. He was just a baby when the family arrived in France, settling in the deprived north Paris suburb of St Denis. For a while Claude dreamed of being a footballer, then a translator or an investigative journalist. He studied languages before dropping out of university. Then came the big break. Rap was taking off in France, and Solaar and his friends wanted to be part of it. They hired a recording studio for a few hours, paying a few francs apiece to lay down some tracks for their own use. But someone sent Solaar’s tape to a record company — and he was on his way. “It took me to a place I’d never dreamed of,” he says.

In 1990 Solaar’s first single, Bouge De La, went to number one, followed by Caroline. His debut album, Qui Seme le Vent Recolte le Tempo, sold 500 000 copies; the second, Prose Combat, more than double that.

So what was so special about Solaar? His delivery, of course — “a bit rap, a bit spoken, a bit Gainsbourg, a bit Leonard Cohen” — but also the erudite lyrics, the intricate rhymes, the life-affirming optimism. Solaar’s big theme is the melting pot: a world where nationalities and cultures mix and enrich each other. “Viens dans les quartiers, voir le paradis [Come to where the poor people live — it’s heaven]” is how he puts it in Paradisiaque. And he writes stories — songs with a beginning, a middle and an end.

“My songs are about everything,” Solaar says. “I try to break down barriers between communities. I try to make people think. I like to speak about love, of course, but I try not to be sexist. I can’t play the macho man. And I’m pretty non-violent.”

France’s rap scene has little of the United States’s brutality, he points out. The place is just too small. If someone disses you, you don’t have to get in a jet to sort it out, just phone a friend or relative in your rival’s neighbourhood. “In the beginning there were some rivalries between areas — the north of Paris, the southern suburbs, Marseille — but it was artificial, mimicking what went on in the US. The magazines and fanzines talked it up, but basically people got on fine.”

Much of Mach 6 was recorded in Moscow, the place to go for cheap choirs and string sections. It is a more “musical” record than some of its predecessors, less reliant on Solaar’s voice. Half of the songs, he says, would even work if he kept his mouth shut. Not your average rap record, then? “You must always be a little different.”

It wasn’t just economics that sent Solaar to Moscow. He had visited the city a decade or so ago — the crime, the awful food! — and wanted to see how it had changed. And Russia has great resonance for those with roots in Africa. During the Cold War, the eastern bloc’s universities welcomed many bright sparks from the developing world. “A lot of my aunts, uncles and cousins from Chad studied over there.”

So how was Moscow the second time round? “What I liked before was the differences. The Cyrillic alphabet, the lifestyle, the intrigues, the espionage. But that’s all gone. It’s all business now. It’s become a country like any other. It’s less interesting.”

His English is good, and because he has never performed in it he has been praised for his loyalty to French culture. It isn’t entirely deserved. He’d like to record something in English, but he’s not happy with his pronunciation. “I’d have to do something deliberately clumsy, foreign.”

Does he think of himself as French? He’d been in the country for 18 years before he finally got his papers, and his music testifies to his love of Africa, a continent he has often revisited. “I don’t know what to say when people ask me that. I want to be African, but I was brought up and educated in France. I know France better than Africa. So I say I am French, born in Dakar, of Chadian origin.”

He married recently and will be a father within a few weeks. The child “will have to know something about Africa, the story of his grandparents, but he or she will be French”.

This will be the first time Solaar is not touring to promote a new album. He loves performing, but wanted to recharge his batteries.

So what’s a typical day?

“It’s been a long time since I read much fiction,” he says. “So I’m catching up on novels. I also visit a lot of ideological bookshops — anarchist, Trotskyist, labour movement. Perhaps I’ll pop into a military store; I’m fascinated by the cult of force. I’ll buy CDs, or go to a short-film festival. I’m always out seeing what’s going on. I don’t want to miss out on anything. Life is super-interesting.”

He’s still in touch with his childhood friends, St Denis’s stars that might have been. Are they jealous of his lifestyle? “They’re happy for me,” he insists. “But they tell me I’m lucky.”

And, one suspects, they also make sure he doesn’t get too big for his boots. As he says in the new album: “Every time I go too far, this is what they say, / ‘Claude MC, you know we wouldn’t lie / Ditch the bling-bling, ditch the bullshit. / That’s not what life’s about.’” — Â

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