Aya Nakamura is a proud Black woman. Is that why she’s not ‘French enough’ for the Paris Olympics?

Aya Nakamura is a proud Black woman. Is that why she’s not ‘French enough’ for the Paris Olympics?

This article was written by Rokhaya Diallo and was originally published on The Guardian 

Since the start of her career, Aya Nakamura has faced setbacks, discrimination and harassment every step of the way. Nakamura is a music superstar. She is the most-listened-to French-speaking artist in the world, and the only woman to feature in the country’s top 20 bestselling albums of 2023. Her 2018 hit Djadja has reached almost 1bn listens on YouTube, and in 2021 her second album surpassed 1bn streams on Spotify. When she announced two concerts at the legendary Bercy arena in Paris last year, tickets sold out in 15 minutes – unprecedented for a French-speaking artist.

Yet from shows where presenters struggle to pronounce her name to public debate about the unorthodox way she uses the French language, the French-Malian singer can, it seems, never be judged solely on her music.

So when speculation appeared in the media suggesting that President Emmanuel Macron had asked Nakamura to sing at the opening ceremony for the Paris Olympics, a backlash from the far right was in some ways predictable.

Anxiety is running high about the readiness of the City of Light to host the games, manage the millions of fans expected to converge on the capital and put on a spectacular opening show that will be judged by the world. In this context, even an unconfirmed rumour gave some people the opening they craved to whip up antagonism about a Black French performer’s right to call herself French. The suggestion that Nakamura had talked to the president about performing an Edith Piaf number was greeted as an added provocation.

Far-right politicians turned the discussion into an outraged narrative about how a Black woman from the banlieues could appropriate La Vie en Rose or any of the cherished repertoire of a national treasure such as Piaf.

Éric Zemmour, who stood on a far-right ticket in the 2022 presidential elections (and has previously been convicted of racist hate speech), said he could hear only a “foreign language” in Nakamura’s songs. At a campaign rally for his Reconquête party, the mention of Nakamura’s name drew boos from Zemmour’s supporters after he contrasted her music with Mozart’s. An extreme -right faction that calls itself Les Natifs unfurled a banner on the banks of the Seine that declared: “No way Aya! This is Paris, not the Bamako market.”

Despite prominent artists as well as the Paris Olympics organising committee condemning the “racist attacks” on Nakamura, the 28-year-old seemed overwhelmed by the scale of the vitriol. Responding to her critics on X, she said: “You can be racist but not deaf … what do I really owe you?” A complaint from the International League Against Racism and Antisemitism has now triggered an investigation by the Paris prosecutor into alleged racist abuse against the singer.

This episode could be explained as just another of the controversies routinely deployed by culture warriors on the French far right to score political points. But this one feels different because the hostility to Nakamura extends well beyond the far right.

According to one poll, 73% of French people think that Nakamura does not represent “French” music, while 63% oppose the idea of her headlining at the opening ceremony. That says a lot about the inability of many French people, including many who would deny that they are in any way racist, to imagine France being represented by a person of colour.

Nakamura’s achievements are objective facts. Yet for a portion of the country that is steeped in misogynoir (both anti-Blackness and misogyny), the idea is unthinkable. They cannot countenance a Black woman embodying French identity.

When I interviewed Nakamura last year for GQ France, she told me that that she could feel the visceral “disgust” she aroused among people who are not used to seeing “girls like me” in public roles.

As happens to most women of colour, she is, despite her fame , often mistaken for other Black women. Even a petition against her appearance at the Olympics because of her alleged “vulgarity” used a picture of the American rapper Megan Thee Stallion.

Nakamura was until this year snubbed for the major awards at the Victoires de la Musiques (the French Grammys). In 2022, the award for best female artist went to Pomme, a white singer who called out institutional racism and spoke of feeling uncomfortable about her win over Nakamura, “a Black girl who doesn’t come from central Paris and who isn’t as privileged as me”.

It is not the first time that a prominent Black figure has faced a racist backlash over a role that involves representing France. In 2016, the rapper Black M was set to perform for the commemoration of the centenary of the Battle of Verdun. The show had to be cancelled, after what the mayor of Verdun called a surge of hate and racism driven by the far right. The French rapper Youssoupha was picked to write the national football team’s unofficial anthem for the European Championships in 2021. That led to a a campaign against him by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.

But beyond those who want to weaponise race for political reasons, France appears to have a problem with people of colour who become successful or who reach positions of influence. Unless they are from other countries, like Michelle Obama, they seem to elicit deep resentment – even more so if they wear their achievements with pride. Their very existence seems to be an unwelcome reminder that being French does not equate to being white, and that Black and Brown people can also embody Frenchness. Christiane Taubira, the first Black woman to become France’s justice minister, was repeatedly targeted by the most crude racial insults. Pap Ndiaye, the first Black minister of education – a short-lived career – endured an incredible surge of racism from the moment of his appointment.

Nakamura’s public persona is unapologetic, which may be why she draws such a hostile reaction in a country that tends to demand humility and gratitude from minorities. As a beauty brand ambassador, she challenges the classical image of the Parisienne, making tall and dark-skinned features mainstream instead. Almost as punishment, her words are policed and her lyrics are made fun of, read out with condescension on TV shows – as if they were not meant to be accompanied by music. It puts me in mind of attitudes that prevailed when colonial France’s mission was to “civilise savages”.

If the controversy was purely about the art, one might wonder why so many people thought they were qualified to rate her extremely popular music so negatively.

Her lyrics, which mix French with slang, English and words from other languages brought to France through immigration, are often accused of degrading the supposed purity of our language. Nakamura is neither an elected official nor a member of the Académie Française; she is not the guardian of our tongue. Indeed, it is precisely because she plays with words that she has managed the rare feat of making the French language sound danceable.

Strangely, a YouGov poll suggested that more French people would prefer DJ and producer David Guetta or the now-disbanded Daft Punk perform in the opening ceremony than Nakamura. But the vast majority of their music is recorded in English, not French. Why are we not saluting the fact that Nakamura has been writing her own lyrics since she was a teenager?

Nakamura is unique because she is an artist of colour who has succeeded on her own terms. She has not modified or disguised herself to fit in with the white bourgeois gaze; she dares to appear strong and powerful – uncommon in a country where systemic racism is still pushing minorities into invisibility. Her very existence challenges white supremacy and its central idea that people of colour should remain on the margins.

Some of us have long argued that France is unwilling to accord people of colour the status they deserve. The Nakamura controversy confirms just how deeply entrenched that refusal really is.

This article was written by Rokhaya Diallo and was originally published on The Guardian 

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