Rocé’s idea of gathering 24 francophone tracks that focus notions of labor, anti-colonial sentiment and struggles for emancipation between 1969 and 1988 confirms his reputation as an informed and engaged rapper. The result is a compilation entitled Par les damné.e.s de la terre (By the Damned of the Earth).
It references a book by Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist from Martinique who settled in Algeria as a result of his political convictions (he later became a source of inspiration for the Black Panthers). In Rocé’s compilation, the tracks shout, sing and proclaim their messages. Their lyrics retain their strength and each piece gives off a sense of modern musicality, finding roots in Benin through to the United States, and all the way to Guadeloupe. One effect of the project was to put the artist on to somewhat forgotten personalities such as the Beninese comedian, director and author Alred Panou or the American singer Dane Belany. In his discovery of free jazz culture and the relationship between African and African-American artists, Rocé returns to a particular format: that of curating a disc around a wider research project. It was released on November 2nd.
On the birth of the project
“Between 2004 and 2005, at a flea market in Clignancourt, my friend Aurélien introduced me to two tracks. We hung out regularly to listen to music but this time he showed me Colette Magny, a French artist who was engaged in the workers’ struggle. This was followed by Alfred Panou and his track “I am a savage,” on which he is accompanied by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Both pieces had a tone that felt less like singing and more like proclamation; like poetry over music, slam or, in a certain sense, rap. They both dated back to the early 70’s. Another point of similarity between them was their groove: the drums and the bass, the soulful dimension, the jazz. It seemed to reinvent popular French songs like the ones that Renaud plays on his accordion and Brassens on his guitar. I was raised on African-American music from Marvin Gaye to Michael Jackson and I could see the similarities. From there, I figured maybe there was some way to find other pieces in that same register and do something with them. Finally, in 2015, I organized myself alongside my label and we were able to truly frame the project.”
On the title
“The project focuses on giving a voice to the “damned.” They speak, testifying to their stories, rather than others speaking in their place. The project’s title is a nod to Frantz Fanon and to his story – that of someone from Martinique leaving France to settle in Algeria for political reasons. Interestingly, through hindsight, we can see that this story represents ideas of fraternity, of choices, of struggles and forks in the road.”
On the meetings
“I began looking for Alfred Panou. At the time he was still working at Images cinema somewhere in the 5th arrondissement (neighborhood) of Paris. Since then, he has returned to live in Benin but we have remained friends and we often talk about his projects and how to organize them. I also met Dane Belany, who lives in France now. I am in contact with the French poet Lena Lesca and the pioneering slam artist Joby Bernabé whom I hope to meet soon.
Creating these links helps me to understand their life and, as an artist myself, it makes me feel that we have shared a common path. Unfortunately, many of the artists we used on the record have now died. For example, Manno Charlemagne, a devoted Haitian musician and singer, who left us shortly before the project was finalized.”
On the choice of dates and the ratio of African-American artists to African ones
“The initial reasonings were all about style. As a rapper, the soulful sounds that have been sampled by the Wu Tang Clan, Nas and Jay-Z have always spoken to me. In France, we were well-aware of the Yé-yé movement (Yeah! Yeah!), in which waves of French artists in the 60’s and 70’s began to copy Americans, from Dick Rivers to Johnny Hallyday. But we were less familiar with the complex roots of this mimicry (African-American sounds having drawn inspiration from Africa itself once upon a time). Interestingly, when the Art Ensemble of Chicago considered making African music, it came very naturally to their collaborator Alfred Panou, who was Beninese. This same sense can be heard in the music of the American artist Dane Belany. Although the idea of Africa is romanticized from time to time, here it had been placed at center stage. Some of the artists changed their name, converted to Islam or even played at pan-African festivals in Algiers (one example being Archie Shepp). Fundamentally, France exists at a kind of crossroads. Africa is here in France, in Paris, in the diasporas and also at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea. But we don’t look at it.”
On free jazz
“I discovered free jazz around 2005, before releasing the album Identité en crescendo (Identity in Crescendo) with Archie Shepp. At first, I found it inaccessible and hard to understand. But Olé by Pharoah Sanders and Blase by Archie Shepp gave me a way in. Not to mention the book “Free jazz, black power” by Philippe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli that returns to the political history of the genre, making use of interviews with practitioners. It’s about live music, music in action, music that accompanied struggles, including the fight of the Black Panthers. Later, when we began recording it, we changed its original purpose. But it is interesting to look into that history.”
On the continuation of the project
“I wanted to release the disc and explain the uniqueness of the project – there won’t be a sequel. Each song represents an adventure; we had to meet each family, ask for authorizations from each label in different countries and all that requires a lot of time and energy. After a project launches, it is difficult to stop the research; it could last indefinitely and there is no end in sight. But, indeed, the idea is that it continues to live on anyway.”
Rocé, Par les damnées de la terre : des voix de lutte 1969 – 1988 (Hors Cadre)