Bling-Bling for the Bourgeoisie
By Maxime Beauregard Martin
Don’t look for Calamine to sing the praises of money and material gain in her rap lyrics. This young woman of 29 is refreshing all the usual mainstream rap themes with her feminist, anti-capitalist take on things. “C’est le boys club,” she raps in her song Mona Lise, in which she proudly asserts her queer identity.
You won’t see wads of high-denomination bills in her videoclips. Shakin’ it to the sight of a private plane? Not for her. This artist from Cap-Rouge, a suburb of Québec City, is nowadays at home in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, the neighborhood where she’s taken root since moving to Montréal. Having come out of the visual arts milieu, Calamine mocks the bling-bling culture with her pink knitted sweaters and fake fur coats.
This artist’s rise in the Québec music world has been swift. Named “Revelation of the Year” in 2021-22 by Radio-Canada, she got as far as the finals in last spring’s Francouvertes contest.
Is Québec rap more accepting of differences, then? Not necessarily, says Gagnon, who has both feet firmly planted on the ground. She’s the first to see in her musical success the transposition of the system of privileges under which our society operates.
“The first year I started to do rap, I was let in through the front door at Radio-Canada, while there were, for example, black artists who’d been making great music for 10 years and were still finding their place,” she says. “If I were in their shoes, I’d be really upset. Because I think that even today it’s more accepted for a white person to talk about feminism than it is for a black person to talk about race.”
Popular New Toy
“Rap has become everyone’s favorite new toy,” says the rapper Raccoon. Certain pop artists, like Laurence Nerbonne, have proudly adopted hip-hop influences in the last few years. And the Spotify digital music platform confirms how popular the genre is these days. Its list of the most popular songs in Québec for 2020 is dominated by Ciel by Fouki, with les Loud and Koriass. Even public broadcaster Télé-Québec is invited to the dance, by airing the La fin des faibles competition, in which Raccoon made it to the final. A lot of factors bear testimony to the “gentrification,” or mainstreaming, of rap, says this artist, 24.
“Rap began at parties in the Bronx,” he recounts. “It comes from the street, from down low, the bottom. The gentrification process started with major labels in the U.S. wanting to make money off of rap. Now that it’s become popular, there’s a willingness to make rap accessible to all. Whether we think it’s good or bad, it’s inevitable.”
Rap has taken its place as a major part of the Québec media space, at the risk of watering down the political punches that came out of the hip-hop movement at its beginnings. “Recently, I read an essay that underlined the fact that one of the first rappers invited to Tout le monde en parle was Loud,” says Calamine, referring to Loud’s 2018 appearance on the popular Sunday night Radio-Canada talk show. On the show’s website you can still read this introduction: “Long marginal in Québec, rap music wants to leave its concealment behind, and Loud is one of those who has resonated the most.”
“But that’s happening,” continues Calamine, “because rap has become comfortable for the boomers, because they can listen to a white person rapping about themes they understand, the celebration of privileges and money… A nice young man, well dressed, who says he’s good, he’s great, completely skews the side of things where we make our demands. For myself, rap should be a way of naming the injustices of our existence.”
Her first rap album, entitled Boulette Proof, was partly written during the pandemic, when she “didn’t have a cent.” Calamine now has reached a point where she can live off her music. But there’s no way she’s going to applaud her own success in future songs. “It’s just boring that it’s become that,” she says. But she’s putting some nuance into what she says on the matter. “When it’s someone who’s come out of a socio-economically poor class, it has to be a real political coup to talk about money.”
If Raccoon salutes Calamine and her feminist discourse, he doesn’t like talking about rap’s advancement in Québec. “People choose what they want to show off,” he explains. “Industry decision-makers, for example, will want to show off queer people or people of diversity who symbolize something positive in the world. But they’ll neglect a part of rap culture by ignoring, for example, singers that have a criminal record or a criminal past,” says this rapper, who has been a social worker. One exception, he notes, is Souldia – jailed for three years for possession of an illegal weapon – who sat as a judge beside Sarahmée and Koriass on the show La fin des faibles.
But the rarity of such examples testifies to a bad understanding of what rap is, says Raccoon. “It’s not all roses, all good. And it’s difficult to accept because we rarely consume a musical style that doesn’t come from the elite. It comes from the people, from the bottom. We don’t want to hear anything about a rapper who doesn’t smell right because he sold crack to a pregnant woman, even if the message contains a lot of artistic merit.”
It’s undeniable that rap artists who have seen the darker side of life attract internet users. Clips by 5sang14, Tizzo and Enima get millions of views on platforms like YouTube. For some music lovers, listening to this genre is the equivalent of endorsing a form of violence. But for Raccoon, deliberately refusing to hear more somber stories – that come out of socio-economic difficulties largely experienced by cultural communities – constitutes an admission of systemic discrimination.
“Listening to these types of artists can only improve things,” he concludes.