Breaking the Museum Case: The Art of Abd al Malik

Madeleine Byrne explores the work of the French rapper and author.
By    April 12, 2019

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Madeleine Byrne has the hookup on annual passes to the Louvre.

When rapper and author Abd al Malik saw the 19th-century painting that inspired his “Jeune Noir à l’épée” project, its impact was intense and immediate. The canvas by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes from 1850 shows a black adolescent fighter, his torso nude in the Classical style, a sword held close to his face as if it were a mic.

Such warriors feature in the 19

Decibel Peak // Stroke of Genius (f...
Decibel Peak // Stroke of Genius (feat. Picasso Rock)
th century Orientalist tradition. But something about the defiant look on the youth’s face struck the rapper born Régis Fayette-Mikano with such force, that he later likened it to a “revelation.”

“Of utmost importance is (the Black figure’s) individuality, and how – within that – we see the universal,” Abd al Malik said during an interview with La grande librairie in March. Black figures in 19th century French painting frequently exist to demonstrate something about the white subject, their “humanity,” wealth or social status. Here, the youth is alone.

“Behind him are flames, fire, but what strikes me is the serenity of this young man; he has a sword, he is warrior-like …I see blue, black and red,” Abd al Malik said referring to the famous slogan used to celebrate the mixed origins of the victorious French World Cup football team in 1998 and then one decade later.  

More than anything else, Abd al Malik saw something of himself and his childhood growing up in the Neuhof projects in Strasbourg, eastern France. “When I was younger, reading was an act of resistance that helped me believe growing up in the projects wouldn’t kill me – despite all the messages around me telling me that to commit armed robbery was cool, or to be a drug dealer was cool (it’s not cool),” he said in the same interview.

“I remember asking myself all kinds of questions about this; about how there might be space for the good and evil and how in literature this needs to be coherent. I see all this here, in the painting, so with all that in mind, I picked up my pen and started to write.”

Abd al Malik’s career started with the 90’s rap group, New African Poets (N.A.P). Five solo albums have followed since, alongside books inspired by famous French writers (Camus, Baudelaire, Glissant) political writing on the “banlieues” – the poor neighbourhoods circling France’s major cities – and an autobiography, May Allah Bless France (2005). The new project builds on these foundations. “(The painting) told a story embedded in the world of poverty and concrete I’d known all my life,” he develops on the Musée d’Orsay site. “It felt natural for me to be inspired to write (the story) of a young Black man, recently out of jail, in the projects,” he says.

Abd al Malik’s poem begins with a play on the words for museum – “we dream of museums, but not being museumified” – noting that the projects where he was raised speak in Ancient Greek. This allows for some witty word-play (kebabs in France are called “un sandwich grec”) via the listing of ingredients, which includes rap’s favorite female body part, and a reference to the  painter Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s not all clever word-play, however. Urgency and tension come through just as strongly, with Abd al Malik expertly evoking the emotional cost and price paid for survival in an environment marked by neglect.     

When completing the final draft for this piece I contacted some friends in Paris, with sound rap knowledge, to hear their take on Abd al Malik: the response was not glowing. One said that Malik was “controversial” the way he’d moved on from his roots in hardcore street rap with N.A.P — a “really interesting group” — to albums destined for the mainstream, adding that he’d traded rap for Islam. Malik, alongside each of his six siblings raised by a Catholic Congolese singer mother, is a Muslim convert.

Another noted how Abd al Malik quit N.A.P to pursue music that appealed to mainstream TV shows that had shown zero interest in his work until then, thus jettisoning all previous credibility he’d built up over the years as a conscious MC. Now, Abd al Malik could be classed in the same category as the Belgian megastar Stromae, the man said, or Grand Corps Malade (neither is a compliment).

There’s no doubt that much of Abd al Malik’s post-N.A.P output is more melodic and some of it is overly sentimental, either in a musical or lyrical sense. “Jeune Nor à l’épée” is far removed from the bare bones production of his earlier work, even if Malik maintains an almost sarcastic tone throughout, against the repeated single-note of a classic rap beat, which is reinforced by the gruff tones of former N.A.P associate Mattéo Falkone on the hook.  

“My homeland is literature,” Abd al Malik said in a 2012 interview with Europe1. “My homeland is language.” Exposure to literature and having teachers who saw some value in him, he says, changed his life. One of his principal goals, as he shared in the March interview, is to create work that would play the same role for a “child Abd al Malik” growing up today in similar circumstances. Making connections between French literature and rap is not unique to Malik — see the highly poetic rap of MC Solaar, or Les sages poètes de la rue from the ‘90s — but few other MCs take the importance of literature and a desire to locate himself within its Pantheon as seriously as he does.

The Puvis de Chavanne painting of the nameless Black youth contains multiple mysteries (the fires in the background) and is considered “modern” because of its expressive brushwork. Abd al Malik seems to have picked up on this experimental, risk-taking aspect of the work, riffing on it as if it were a piece of music. On the Musée d’Orsay site — where the book and a dance performance form part of the museum’s “The Black Model from Géricault to Matisse” exhibition opening later this month — he likens the painting to hip-hop to make claims for its hybrid universality. The painting, he writes, evokes not only the unknown model’s story, but also his own and all those “born in Europe whose roots lie in the ancestral African continent.”

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