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Rap on Trial: The Political and Legal Battles Over Jo le Phéno and Nick Conrad’s Music Videos

Le rap au prétoire : luttes politico-judiciaires autour de deux clips (Jo le Phéno et Nick Conrad)
Emmanuelle Carinos Vasquez
Traduction de Delaina Haslam
Cet article est une traduction de :
Le rap au prétoire : luttes politico-judiciaires autour de deux clips (Jo le Phéno et Nick Conrad) [fr]


Par l’ethnographie de deux procès, celui du rappeur Jo le Phéno, mis en examen pour son titre « Bavure », et celui de Nick Conrad pour « PLB », cet article analyse le rôle de l’institution judiciaire dans la construction sociale du genre rap. Alors que les commentaires récents de spécialistes du droit insistent sur l’idée d’un « bouclier juridique » octroyé au rap, les deux artistes sont condamnés en première instance. L’article propose donc d’élucider le paradoxe d’une jurisprudence apparemment protectrice et de condamnations encore fréquentes. L’analyse comparée des deux affaires permet d’identifier des « prises » par lesquelles l’institution judiciaire définit l’accès des titres incriminés au statut d’œuvre d’art et à la parole engagée légitime et légale en s’appuyant sur des interactions, catégories et représentations traversées de rapports sociaux de pouvoir (âge, classe, sexe, race). Les audiences, envisagées comme espaces de violence symbolique, permettent de documenter une dynamique commune aux deux procès : le retournement – par le tribunal – de la revendication – par les artistes – de la frontalité et l’ancrage dans un vécu réel comme choix artistiques en tant que prises pour l’illégitimation des œuvres et des prévenus. Ces derniers sont alors catégorisés via des assignations minorisantes qui les éloignent du statut d’artiste pourtant reconnu dans les jurisprudences. À travers ces deux cas, on voit comment l’institution judiciaire construit l’« (il)légitimité paradoxale » du rap, identifiée par Karim Hammou à l’orée des années 2010 (2012, 2016) : genre artistique qui n’est ni complètement légitimé, ni complètement illégitime, mais qui est particularisé comme minoritaire, ambivalence expliquant la coexistence de jurisprudences protectrices et de condamnations.

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Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Image from Jo le Phéno's music video, “Bavure 3.0”. On line:​watch?v=VXwDx6xjSso

1The criminalization of rap in France has been examined within social science, from rappers in the mid-1990s (Hammou 2012; Laroche 2015) to the political issue of constructing the figure of an “ideal culprit” (Sonnette 2012) in the context of a “revolt without a mouthpiece, as was the case at the end of 2005” (Sonnette 2013: 535). In the United States, a recent book has shown that no other genre of music has been subject to such judicial review, briefly outlining a comparison with heavy metal and country music (Dennis & Nielson 2019: 85-93). Running contrary to the idea of criminalization, French texts in the legal and literary fields concerning case law relating to rap argue that it benefits from a “legal shield.” The expression is borrowed from Anna Arzoumanov (2019), who claims, following Nathalie Drouin (2016), that rap has benefited from “favourable case law that makes it a particularly well-protected category.” The idea put forward, and which we find again used by the various actors of the legal system (lawyers, public prosecutors, judges), is that rap is “by nature brutal, provocative, vulgar, or even violent because it is a reflection of a disillusioned and outraged generation” (OrelSan trial, Versailles Court of Appeal, 18 Feb. 2016) “which cultivates and appropriates the abuse, coarseness, and violence of words by making them rhyme” to “express the desolation and pain of living in the suburbs for young people” (Sniper trial, Rouen Court of Appeal, 14 Dec. 2005). This defining feature of rap, it is argued, guarantees it greater legal protection: rap can push the limits of freedom of expression as set out in law on account of its style.

2Yet in 2017 and 2019, two rappers were convicted in the first instance in the 17th chamber of the Judicial Court of Paris (media law) for a track put out as a video on the YouTube platform. The first, Jo le Phéno, was sentenced for direct criminal incitement, and for “insulting a public administration” (in this case, the police) following the posting of his “Bavure” (“blunder,” referring to police errors) video in a case brought by a police officers’ union (the Syndicat des cadres de la sécurité intérieure, SCSI). He had shot a video in a neighbourhood of the 20th arrondissement of Paris, and interspersed these images with footage of real police operations.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Screen grab from the “Bavure” video, showing the rapper with fist raised in front of a mural paying homage to Lamine Dieng.

3The second, Nick Conrad (NC), was fined and given a suspended sentence for “inciting crime” for “Pendez Les Blancs” (PLB, “Hang the Whites”) by the Alliance générale contre le racisme et pour le respect de l’identité française et chrétienne (General Alliance against Racism and for Respect for French and Christian Identity; AGRIF) and the Ligue internationale contre le racisme et l’antisémitisme (International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism; LICRA). The video is subtitled in English, and includes scenes from American films that deal with racism such as American History X.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Left: Image from “PLB”; right: screen grab of a scene from American History X.

4If rap music has, according to legal commentary, special protection granted by the case law cited above, how can these convictions be explained? In an attempt to answer this question, the use of ethnography of court hearings and “the real-life depth these bring allows us to understand the development of a sentence” (Israël, 1999: 394), paying particular attention to interactions between different legal professionals and those being tried. These observations test the idea of a “legal shield” by taking processes of artistic and political illegitimisation of artists and their works into account. Throughout the article, using face-to-face interactions between actors and micro-processes of categorization, plus rhetorical use of analogy with other social figures, I will try to capture these operations as they occurred during each hearing.

Table 1. Chronology of Jo le Phéno trial

Jo le Phéno trial

17/08/2016: “Bavure” video posted on Jo le Phéno’s Facebook page.

15/09/2016: Complaint lodged by two police unions (Alternative CFDT and SCSI-CFDT).

16/09/2016: Complaint lodged by B. Cazeneuve, interior minister.

22/02/2017: le Phéno trial postponed days after the arrest of Théodore Luhaka in Aulnay-sous-Bois left him unable to work for sixty days.

11/04/2017: Posting of “Bavure 2.0.”

27/09/2017: Second postponement of trial on afternoon following the end of the trial for the burning of a car during a demonstration on the Quai de Valmy.

27/10/2017: Hearing at Paris TGI (Tribunal de grande instance, Regional Court).

8/12/2017: Deliberation: le Phéno is fined several thousand euros.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

Screen grab of press release which appeared on the SCSI-CFDT site, 12 April 2017.

5First, the hearing will be studied from the point of view of the interactions between the actors in the trial, which are marked by the expression of power relations: the defendants are distinguished here, set apart from the figure of the politically engaged artist. Then I will examine articulations of political and artistic (de)legitimation by the various actors of the trial relating to the testimonial and realist aspects of the works in question. Finally, I will analyse labels which serve to give minority-group status (Chassain et al., 2016) in the practical work of categorization of the defendants, and the way that these contribute to their artistic and political illegitimisation by means of a criminalizing effect.

Box 1. Methodology
- Observation of the hearings (half a day each);
- Two interviews with the artists as part of a participant observation within the specialized press;
- Interviews or informal discussions with five lawyers who have pleaded in the 17
th chamber (including counsel for le Phéno and Conrad);
- A review of the main media articles and public interventions by politicians on the subject as well as press releases on the websites and social networks of the plaintiffs.

1. The Hearing as Space of Symbolic Violence

  • 1 Bourdieu cites the 1959 Sauvageot survey, but, regarding the low recruitment of judges from working (...)
  • 2 I use the term “designated” for the first occurrence because these are designations produced by the (...)

6Bourdieu (1986) theorizes the legal space as one of symbolic violence because of the gap between the competences and habitus of professionals, who overwhelmingly belong to the dominant classes1, and those of litigants. Sociology has shown how the law can constitute a space for the reproduction of not only class inequality (Herpin 1977; Gautron & Retière 2013) but also of other orders beyond “class reductionism” (Hajjat et al. 2019: 133). This is shown, for example, in the use of gendered representations of family roles in the “couples’ courts” (Collectif 11 2013; Coquard et al. 2015); and in the reproduction of ethno-racial inequalities in the handling of offences against law enforcement officers (Jobard & Névanan 2007). At the two hearings observed, the legal professionals2 were for the most part designated white and older than the defendants. Yet the latter are two men who are designated as black. One, Jo le Phéno, is working class, Parisian, unemployed, aged 23; the other, Nick Conrad, is 36, lives in Noisy-le-Grand—a commune in the eastern suburbs of Paris—and the son of a Cameroonian diplomat, recently fired from his job as a receptionist at a luxury Parisian hotel. In both cases the defendants are, in their own way, far from the typical social morphology within the profession of judge. This heterogeneity with those who judge is perceptible during trials. The hearing itself constitutes a site for the expression of the social power relations at work in this gap that lead to the distinction of the defendants.

1.1. Jo le Phéno: Paternalism and Infantilization at the Intersection of the Social Relationship of Race, Age, and Class

7The ethnography conducted aims to test one of the contributions of the sociology of law according to which judicial processes are by nature “inherently normative and not exclusively legal” (Vuattoux 2014: 130). Judgements are not thereby produced by a purely formal and mechanical application of the law, but involve the definition of a “context” to be taken into account and a series of practical categorizations of the defendants and the facts in view of a certain idea of justice. The treatment of the accused is not carried out in isolation from their social identities and from those of the judges.

  • 3 Since the Act of 7 July 2016, freedom of creation has been enshrined in French law, but is entirely (...)

8France does not have a chamber dedicated to artistic freedom3, and so the two videos are judged in the 17th chamber, which is dedicated to media law. The lawyers with whom I spoke referred to the “elitism” of the chamber, which “likes to make beautiful, clean judgements.” According to them, its relative slowness contrasts with the expeditious and “draft” nature of immediate trials. It seems to particularly manifest the “ideology” of neutrality inherent in law (Bourdieu 1986: 15). However, in the le Phéno trial, several of the actors—the prosecutor and the police officers responsible for surveillance—moved sharply away from these professional standards. Indeed, the plaintiffs’ lawyers increased their use of infantilizing expressions and tones (“a perfect and instructive example, Mr N.”) and euphemism, a stylistic device of irony par excellence: “Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the artist, the talent that lies behind Mr Jo le Phéno,” the Commissioner’s lawyer said with a sneer. There is mocking laughter in the room on several occasions, especially when le Phéno asks what “péripatéticienne” (antiquated term for prostitute, streetwalker) means. The SCSI lawyer asks him how he got the money to buy the shirt he is wearing, he replies that it was a gift, which raises more laughter. These perceptible disparities in the court’s attitude point to the idea of an infantilization of the defendant, an adult, during the hearing. In its non-ironic form, infantilization also serves the defence, in its sense of de-accountability. “He was in a hurry to have his video, because he is a child, why would we not believe him?” (Mr Harir, lawyer for le Phéno, defendant). Throughout the trial, both the defence and the plaintiffs played the stereotypes to their advantage. We can see here, through the figure of the child, the way in which production of a sentence is based on the young age of the defendant, but also on his social class and supposed cultural and economic resources. While there is no explicit reference over the course of the le Phéno trial to identify the specific effect of race on interactions, it is not insignificant, given the links between colonialism and infantilization (Fanon 1952), that he is a young man who is the son of Congolese immigrants.

9According to Bourdieu, the legal profession operates a necessary professional neutralization: in the case of judges, this functions in an “ascetic and aristocratic” habitus specific to a duty of function and duty of confidentiality (Bourdieu 1986: 9). This “discretion”, which aims to preserve the institution’s impartial image, is the subject of an explicit, deontological professional obligation4. Yet the prosecutor interjects angrily on two occasions:

“The assessor reads a comment on YouTube: ‘Cops are screwing up and reaping violence.’ He then compares the ‘cops’ to Nazis, rappers to the resistance and says ‘before it was the Jews, now it is the blacks and the Arabs.’
Assessor: What do you have to say about these comments?
Le Phéno: Some of them are a bit abusive...
sharply: You’re going to distance yourself from them, then?
And without letting le Phéno answer, he gets up and shouts in the middle of the court: WHY DID YOU RETWEET IT THEN?
Le Phéno: I retweeted that? Retweeting is not writing… I must’ve said something after.
still shouting: OH YEAH THEN YOU WROTE, WHAT, PEACE AND LOVE? You’re advertising on Twitter with this kind of hate speech!”

10The prosecutor, in his role of defending the interests of the state, bypassed the usual polite tone of the 17th chamber and at times adopted an attitude which suggested an adult/child relationship during the interactions between himself and the accused. Interactions between judges and those being tried are informed by social relations which are not the only reason for the asymmetry of knowledge inherent in this relationship (such as unequal mastery of codes and legal vocabulary). The infantilization, perceptible in this divergence from the prescribed customs of the court, has the effect of depriving those being tried of the status of responsible artist benefiting fully from the 1881 Freedom of Expression Act. This is not only a result of the young age of the defendant, it is the product of several intersecting social relations of domination: here pertaining to class and race (Crenshaw 1991; Mazouz 2015).

1.2. Nick Conrad: Paternalism, Respectability, and Racialization

Table 2. Chronology of the trial of Nick Conrad

Nick Conrad trial

17/09/2018: “PLB” video posted on YouTube.

22/09/2018: Dieudonné comments on the sharing of the video.

22 and 23/09/2018: First reactions to video on social media. NC thanks Dieudonné publicly via Twitter.

26/09/2018: LICRA and the Organisation de lutte contre le racisme antiblanc (organization for the battle against antiwhite racism, OLRA, which was created the same year, 16/01/2018, then renamed “Léa”) notify the public prosecutor. Inquiry opened by the public prosecutor’s office in Paris for public incitement to the commission of a crime or misdemeanour.

28/09/2018: Hearing of the rapper by the Police judiciaire (judicial police, PJ).

9/01/2019: Hearing, Paris TGI.

19/03/2019: Verdict: imposition of a suspended 5,000-euro fine.

24/05/2019: New public reaction to “Doux Pays” [sweet country] video, in particular by the minister of the interior and the minister of culture. Video flagged by interior minister for “apologizing for crimes of voluntary and life-threatening violence.”

4/10/2019: The court dismisses the second attempt to condemn NC. Résistance républicaine and AGRIF continue proceedings (dropped 25/06/2021, possible appeal February 2022).

8/01/2020: Appeal trial (first action) postponed to November on account of lawyer strike.

24/06/2021: Appeal trial (hearing).

23/06/2021: Nick Conrad acquitted on appeal owing to a procedural error.

  • 5 On African Americans’ use of a “white voice,” see: A. Brice, “White Voice and Hearing When as a Dif (...)
  • 6 Broadcast of 30 May 2019 on Radio Campus Paris for the Vrai Rap Français programme. Participant obs (...)

11For Nick Conrad, the court’s attitude is significantly different. There is no irritation apparent on the part of the police officers or the prosecutor. First, it is not the same judges or plaintiffs—or even the same place, the Paris TGI (Tribunal de grande instance, Regional Court) having been partially moved to the Porte de Clichy. Second, he is older, on the one hand; and, on the other, he appears to conduct himself in accordance with the prevailing standards of respectability. Several press articles mention his clothing, a grey suit: the difference between his attire at the hearing and his attire in his videos is highlighted in both trials by the defence lawyer. In court, the expressions, voice, and tone5 adopted by Conrad contrast with those he uses in an interview for a specialized media outlet6. He answers the judge’s questions using legitimate cultural references and makes sure he emphasizes the professional nature of what he does. He uses the lexical field of cinema, referring to “short film,” “subtitles,” “Super 16 film,” and hiring cars and recruiting technicians. The lexical field of the artistic professions—of disciplines other than rap—is much more present than in le Phéno’s speech. As for the prosecutor, if he considers Conrad to exceed the limits set out in the 1881 law, as is the case in the le Phéno trial, he does not display any outbursts. Rather he displays a distanced impartiality, a moderation that is perceptible through to his tone, and the modal qualifiers employed (“my impressions,” “it seems to me”), and his use of litotes (“I am not convinced”); he claims to be “nuanced” and “hopes the defendant has understood,” arguing that “the public prosecutor condemns words, not people.” From the point of view of the prosecutors, while le Phéno is treated as a child who needs to be reprimanded, Conrad is treated as an aspiring artist who has made a mistake.

12However, the prosecutor’s paternalism is expressed in a more surreptitious manner in his display of benevolence: his manner is balanced, explaining the artist “did not realize the impact of his song.” He says he expects the defendant to dispel “all the ambiguity […] yet although he understands his strong feelings, [he] is not convinced that people understand how he wishes to understand.” The reference to “strong feelings” suggests irrationality in the defendant’s words, a lack of control of means and ends, from which he sets himself apart by presenting himself precisely as the guarantor of order and of calm rationality.

13As for the AGRIF lawyer, Mr Triomphe, he made several remarks to the defendant which were explicitly infantilizing: “No one recalls that Mr Nick Conrad’s father himself was horrified by the clip … evidence that he has some authority even over a big boy of 35” (my emphasis). In addition, he refuses to call him by his civil (Cameroonian) name, as is the usual practice, explaining that his artist name “is more convenient.” So age is not the only social relationship that drives the gap in the treatment of defendants: racialization by use of name can also play a part. This gap is explicitly emphasized in the terms of social relations of race by the counsel for Conrad, who begins his defence speech by noting that his client is the only black person in court: “I think that must be weird,” she adds, leaving a degree of implication in her argument.

14Whether we consider the prosecutor’s approach here, the anger of the prosecutor in the le Phéno trial, or the addresses to the defendant in both cases, these different standpoints indicate a distinction made concerning rappers in the court space, which takes the form of an infantilization in which social relationships of age, race, and class get mixed up. This does not take the same form in the cases of le Phéno and Conrad: not only is the latter older, but he also displays a form of cultural respectability through his use of historical, cinematographic, and political references, and an artistic professionalism atypical of the rap genre. Here, through the study of face-to-face interactions at hearings, we see a distancing of the two defendants regarding the figure of the disembodied person on trial, considered in strict compliance with the neutralization rules of the court. This has the effect of distancing them, more or less directly, from the status of artist and hence of not being considered as such.

2. Testimony or Work of Art? Expressions of Political and Artistic (De)Legitimation in the Courtroom

  • 7 Court of Cassation, 31 May 1949.

15In the trials of hip hop groups Sniper (2003-2005) and La Rumeur (2002-2010), Mr Tricaud, lawyer for the artists, referred to the legal rehabilitation of Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil7 by the Court of Cassation in 1949, which distinguished the “realist interpretation” and the “symbolic meaning” of the work. According to the Court, the first judges focused only on the initial reading, rather than on the symbolic interpretation which implies not taking words expressed within an artistic framework at face value. For the cases we are interested in, the politically engaged, realist, and passionate character of the two works is obvious. Yet the sentences use these properties to justify a realist interpretation, hence their condemnation. They give credit, depending on the actors, to the articulation of political and artistic (de)legitimation in the courtroom.

2.1. The Ambiguous Effects of the Testimonial Dimension of a Work

  • 8 Article which considers committing an infringement/offence on the basis of sex, skin colour, religi (...)

16A central element in the criminalization of the two artists is the opportunity it offers for political debate. Indeed, the plaintiffs have systematically employed political justification for their actions: defending the interests of police officers who are the “most monitored” profession with the “hardest mission,” particularly “in the context of terrorism” in the case of the police union; the fight against racism for LICRA, in this case aiming to make whites “a group that can be protected by article 132-768”; and for AGRIF the desire to “reverse laws made to protect only minorities” and the “fight against anti-Christian and anti-French racism that is fought by no one.” Indeed, media law trials are one of the political courses of action preferred by AGRIF, which was previously a plaintiff in 2003 against Sniper, and in 2011 against ZEP, on similar themes. As for the two artists, they claim to denounce a social reality: police “blunders” on the one hand and historical and current racism against blacks on the other. This politicization of the debate reduces the space devoted to questions of artistic legitimization of works or of the genre they are part of—unlike, for example, the trials of the chansonniers in the nineteenth century, in which the court was used to defend the literary legitimacy of the song genre (Sapiro 2011: 90).

17One of the challenges of the trial then becomes determining not whether it is a work of art or not, but whether the “context” in which it takes place is one of police violence or violence against the police in the case of le Phéno; or of anti-black racism or an increase in racism against the majority group as advocated by AGRIF in the case of Conrad. In both cases, their comments are repeatedly justified by the fact that the accused are directly concerned with what they are denouncing. Thus, the court asks le Phéno whether he himself was a victim of “blunders,” and he responds immediately and confidently, giving examples from his personal life. Conversely, the legitimacy of the political message of his video is questioned by the police union lawyer, who refers to the fact that he no longer lives in the 20th arrondissement: “At the end of the day you’re not a spokesman who is immersed in the Amandiers district. Living in [**], you are calmer”; to which le Phéno immediately responds: “You’re wrong I was stopped [by the police] just below where I live and it was very aggressive.” However, an excerpt from the trial shows how this association of creative work with testimony has ambiguous effects:

“Judge: Have you been a victim of police violence?
Le Phéno: Since I was really small. Being stopped constantly, excessive violence such as from batons, abuse, a bit of everything.
– How many times has that happened to you?
– It must’ve happened five to ten times since birth. Since I was 8 or 9 years old. Sometimes, they try to push as far as they can. A week before the sentence, I was stopped. The police officer said: “I don’t give a damn about my job, what I want is to push you so you commit an offence, then I’ll beat the hell out of you.”
– Did you make a complaint?
(There is laughter from the side of the room where le Phéno’s supporters sit.)
– Why did you not make a complaint?
– Because I have already seen people who’ve had even worse things happen, and that has never worked. A friend of mine, a police officer licked his ear and put his hand in his pants to see if it had had an effect. Shocking things like that!
– You still want to say something though?
– Yes.
– Why talk about it in general terms when it primarily concerns you?
– No, it doesn’t primarily concern me, there are far worse cases than mine.”

18The testimonial dimension, in both senses of the word—narrative as “witness” to external facts and to personal experience—,while required by several actors in the court for political denunciation to be legitimate, is also a means, on the one hand, of removing the defendant from the artistic field (the judge suggests that the “right” reaction would be to make a complaint rather than write a song) and, on the other hand, of denying the relevance of making a general statement by being the person “primarily concern[ed]”—an expression about which there seems to be a misunderstanding between judge and defendant.

  • 9 “What prompted me to write this song is life in general, I wanted to explain my suffering […] the h (...)

19Concerning Nick Conrad, he began his questioning by insisting that it was his story9, and in particular, that “PLB” was inspired by a real incident of racism in his work. This clarification is commented on in the LICRA lawyer’s closing argument, who then wonders if she is on the right side of the bar. Given that she is opposing, to an even greater extent than the AGRIF (which was founded by a former National Front politician), a man who claims to bear witness to racial discrimination and who claims to support an anti-racist cause, it is crucial for her to emphasize the specificity of her anti-racist positioning and militant legitimacy: “I don’t have his film culture, but I know the story of crimes against black people,” she says at the beginning of her closing argument. She attempts, in turn, to illegitimise the defendant’s anti-racist political stance because it is anchored only in art. To which Conrad replies that he does not “present [himself] as an activist but as an artist.”

20The position of the prosecutor is the most revealing of the court’s construction of the incompatibility between artistic legitimacy (hence a claim to the right to exaggerate), fiction (hence symbolic interpretation), and political legitimacy based on testimony. His first objection to the rapper is that he refers to events which are “neither contemporary nor European,” that is, events which have nothing to do with him, whereas Conrad bases the political legitimacy of his remarks on the very fact that he is concerned with the events he alludes to. The latter replies that it is a “common history,” mentioning the impact of the “past on the present,” and the fact that the United States influences Western, particularly French, history. In a further point, Conrad adds that he “counts on the fact it’d be too much” [i.e., on the exaggerated nature of his lyrics], while specifying that extreme things such as “feeding black babies to alligators have happened.” But this ambiguous claim between testimony and exaggeration allows the prosecutor to conclude that there is no distanciation between what the rapper says and what the defendant thinks, precisely because the rapper evokes violence that has existed in history to respond to violence suffered in reality: “He says himself that he is talking about personal experience.” This is the paradox that runs through both trials: the claim of personal experience is demanded by judges and defended by artists to legitimize political language at the same time as it serves as a basis for denying the argument of artistic distanciation. For Conrad, the fact that his work is inspired by his personal experience is a way of justifying it without doing a complete shift from artist to activist, from song to tract. For the prosecutor, this is first-degree proof of the truth in his words and of the impossibility of a symbolic interpretation.

  • 10 For example, Mr Harir refers to Mathieu Kassovitz, who by his own admission has never been a victim (...)

21It seems as though for the court the political legitimacy of these artists could only take the form of immersed testimony, and not that of an abstract universalist humanism—which is closely linked to whiteness (Kebabza 2006)—which would denounce according to a principle of justice detached from the local (Claverie 1994) and would bring the artistic works into a debate of general interest. This requirement of the immersed witness (to justify the words used by what has been seen or experienced) is not, in principle, a necessary condition for (most) artistic political engagement10; on the other hand, what is observed in the two hearings is that it gives the judges a standpoint from which to refuse the idea of distanciation, thus contributing to the artistic illegitimisation of the videos. The paradox is that, in both cases (and more broadly in a certain proportion of the rap genre), the idea of immersed testimony is also echoed on the artists’ side by a unique aesthetic choice: realist, and opting for an intense, confessional style. These characteristics are then mobilized to justify the court’s “realist interpretation.”

2.2. Realism: An Aesthetic Resource or the Basis for Artistic Illegitimisation

22In both trials, the defendants and the defence tend to maintain both the idea of distanciation, of a lack of direct incentives, and of an aesthetic that draws its strength from realism and a confessional style. To create his video, le Phéno edited documentary images showing police actions. In one of them, the Commissioner of the 20th arrondissement is clearly identifiable: he is a plaintiff alongside the union and the interior minister. Another identifiable video, highlighted by one of the judges, is that of a police car burned in Paris during a demonstration in 2016, a case whose trial ended on the morning of le Phéno’s first summons. The hearing would finally take place the following month, this time by request of the defence lawyer and not the plaintiffs as was the case in February 2017, during the “Theo case,” during which several police officers were accused of rape during a police check. This first delay was denounced by Mr Harir as a strategy for obtaining a more favourable context for the police when it came to the judgement. The realist anchorage of the video, like its apparent testimonial dimension, thus means that one of the struggles that plays out during the hearing approaches the question of its fictionality. This question centres on whether reality is situated on the side of the video or on that of its critics: Is “Bavure” a politically engaged video or one that is defamatory and/or offensive? The artistic shield of “symbolic interpretation” is more difficult to brandish owing to the realist claim and the importance paid to determining the context, including during the proceedings (police violence versus violence against the police).

  • 11 Acronyms are common in French rap. This is probably influenced—in addition to new voice techniques— (...)

23Nick Conrad’s case is different again. The aesthetic choice he makes to express his political message consists of an inversion, using in particular excerpts from famous films—screened at the hearing at the request of his lawyer (Get Out, American History X): the victims are white, the persecutors black. His video is located in his city, Noisy-le-Grand. The prosecutor sees this transposition as nonsensical, since the facts to which he refers in the lyrics are in the past; he notes that the actors do not have costumes, that they wear current clothes. To all the formal arguments put forward by the artist to signal the fictitious dimension of his work despite the reality of the facts to which he refers (the inclusion of credits, subtitles, a false registration plate, references to known cinematographic works), the prosecutor and one of the judges argue the impossibility of understanding the message other than at face value, owing to the “direct nature of the provocation” and the “brutality of the words that call to be taken literally.” Similarly, the counsel for LICRA emphasized the role of repeated imperatives in the chorus, with the acronym11 “PLB” indicating “a willingness to make it a slogan.” The prosecutor also pointed to the absence of “metaphor” and “pictorial symbols.”

  • 12 Interview given to Abcdr du son, 13 March 2020.

24On this point (the issue of pictorial language), it is illuminating to consider the debates during the trial of le Phéno on the meaning of the words he uses. On several occasions, prosecutors and judges take his words in the real rather than figurative sense, so much so that, distraught at his opening lyrics being taken literally, “I piss on the law and the Commissioner’s mother” (that he will comment on in an interview as “a way to say fuck you”12), he later replies that the term volaille (poultry) refers to an animal—and not the police—that is stuffed on certain occasions, which angers the prosecutor. He explains in the interview: “You take us literally, so I’ll do the same.”

  • 13 “I wish I hadn’t had to make ‘Bavure.’ Didn’t have to denounce things. If everything was going well (...)

25To sum up, for Conrad, the brutality of the reversal, which according to the judges, the plaintiffs’ lawyers, and the prosecutor prevents a symbolic interpretation, is what gives the work its educational and aesthetic effectiveness. He points out that the emotion that “you felt [watching the video] shows that when I’m affected as a black person, it’s less shocking than when it’s someone else.” He says repeatedly that his intention was to “make people [implying people who do not suffer racism] understand” the “horror” and “stupidity” of it. For le Phéno, combining his words with real images of routine police checks (or in “Bavure 2.0,” which was broadcast during the hearing, of policing at demonstrations) is an aesthetic choice, and one that corresponds to his vision of realist art that is very of the moment13. But this association contributes to the judges’ interpretation of the video as the presentation of a police institution that is inherently violent, rather than only so when one-off “fuck ups” occur: “So for you, policing is violence?”, asks one of them aggressively; and the Commissioner’s lawyer says: “The scenes included in the video are not violent scenes but scenes of routine police questioning. Do these constitute unlawful violence for you?” To which le Phéno responds positively. This, they argue, justifies the accusation of insulting a public institution: it is the police as an institution that is targeted, not the “mistakes” which it, too, is supposed to condemn.

26The ambivalence of the trials therefore lies in the fact that the aspects of the works in question that serve as a basis for their artistic illegitimisation by a section of the court are at the same time claimed by the artists as aesthetic choices. What happens in the courtroom, therefore, in the le Phéno and Conrad cases is akin to the form of misunderstanding studied by Karim Hammou based on the notion of difference in Guillaumin, namely the “two-way co-occurrence (we are different from you AND we are different from what you say we are)” (Guillaumin 1992: 96). In his analysis of the treatment of rap on television and of the connection to the banlieues, he summarizes his demonstration with the following formulation: “For the majority, rappers respond from the suburbs. For the minorities, rappers respond for or thanks to the suburbs” (Hammou 2009: 184). At the heart of the relationship between the minorities and the majority, the same association can have different meanings. Here, for rappers, the realistic, confessional aesthetic and the anchoring of the work in a lived reality are aesthetic and political resources. On the side of the plaintiffs, the prosecutor and the judges, they are proof that it is not possible to interpret the videos symbolically; they serve as a basis for their artistic illegitimisation. Rather than artist status, rappers are then given the status of social figures of the “dangerous new classes,” of an “inner enemy” (Rigouste 2009), who comprise youth that is male, working class, and from an immigrant background.

3. Marginalizing Rhetorical Labels

27Kendall Thomas points out how the “figures and examples used in judicial decisions are as central to its semantic content as the explicit propositional claims that are delivered as the conclusions of the argumentation” (quoted in Butler 1997: 172). From this point of view, we can analyse court hearings sociologically through the categories and representations mobilized to designate, describe, and label the rappers but also their intended audience. In addition to the reduction to testimony, the artistic illegitimisation of the work passes, by the associations of its creator, through an “imputation of essence” (Katz 1975), to non-artistic and even criminalized social figures.

3.1. A Stereotypical Audience

28Yvan Leclerc stresses the role played by typification of the supposed audience of 19th-century novels at the trials Flaubert and Baudelaire: fiction—reserved for a male elite “immunized by good taste”—becomes dangerous when it is accessible to the underclass and women (Leclerc 1991: 98). The social relations of power therefore intervene in the trials of artistic works in the form of social typification of an audience deprived of critical skills and capacity for distanciation. In his thesis, Marie Sonnette emphasized the role of “disqualifying a working-class audience” (2013: 537) in legal, media, and political labelling of critical rappers. The same disqualification can be seen in the two hearings.

29From the outset of the questioning, one judge asks Nick Conrad “whether those who watch the video are cultivated enough to understand.” The defendant defuses the potential characterization of his audience by replying that “France is a cultivated country. If I know, why not others.” He contrasts his audience’s supposed lack of education and culture with a flattering national stereotype which implies their capacity for distanciation (from the words in his video, for example) as being equally distributed between citizens. Conrad also evinced a respect for “France” several times during the hearing, which his lawyer emphasized as an important point. Proof of respect for the French nation acts as a pledge, of good faith, alleviating the suspicion of radical danger, and placing his rhetoric in an internal criticism of institutions that claim to bestow “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Elsewhere Conrad evokes the French motto inscribed at the entrance of the court to support his case during the hearing. This pledge aims to distinguish him from the racialized stereotype of the rapper who is critical of the nation, which was primarily transmitted from the mid-2000s (Hammou 2012: 255). He attempts to show, several times, confronted with judges who accuse his video of inciting part of the population to violence, that it is aimed at everyone (“we are all human… I wanted to show that racial hatred is stupid, both for white and black.”)

30For le Phéno, the disqualification of his supposed audience is first of all informed by the social relationship of age: thus the Commissioner’s lawyer ends his closing argument with a serious tone: “People like you… many young people… we cannot play with those who admire us.” But the theme of suggestible youth is soon supplemented by a specification, namely its lack of culture and inclination to violence, citing internet commentary as evidence by pointing out misspellings (including the following: “When I listen to Jo le Phéno, I want to set fire to a police station,” the age of the person who wrote this comment is not given). In both cases, the court’s implicit or explicit reasoning sometimes relies on the stereotype of an audience that is more conducive to “realistic interpretation,” informed by social relationships of age, class, and race.

3.2. The Rhetorical Labelling of Artist as Criminalized Figure

31The “categorization of those who are judged” is, according to Liora Israël—applying to his sociology of law the Goffmanian concept of framing of the individual (Goffman 1974)—the crux of the issue of the court of law and of the practical work of the judge, rather than the “attribution of fault” itself (Israël 1999: 416). In the trials we are interested in, how and by which effects of labelling and associations with images and figures, does categorization of the accused occur?

The Offender

  • 14 Although this definition is fluid given that it concerns an “emic” category without unanimous chara (...)
  • 15 Selling drugs illegally.

32The imaginary of lower-class illegalism and petty crime is a topos of rap: le Phéno, more precisely, is part of a trend that is sometimes called “street rap14.” During the trial, part of the court thus displaces an imaginary that is used in an artistic context to reality. Regarding one of the lyrics of “Bavure,” one lawyer comments that: “‘To smoke’ is a term we hear often from the mouths of delinquents.” As testimony above all of the issue of financing, with infantilizing shaming on the part of the judges: “She works, at least” (talking about the sister of the defendant); “Don’t you feel guilty about your videos being funded by a refuse collector?” (referring to a friend who helps finance his videos), a clear sign of the slippage from law into morality, which is not only on the part of the prosecutor. Le Phéno perceives something implied in these questions. He tells me, agitated, as he’s leaving the court: “They totally wanted me to say that I sling15!” The displacement of the judgement of the work to its creator is clearly identifiable here: in the supposed “immorality” of the financing and, consequently, of the artist, who is not without a link to the assignment of rap to the “suburbs” (Hammou 2012, 2015) and therefore to the “lower-class illegalism” (Foucault 1973) involved in its representations.

33Another process by which le Phéno is continually associated with the figure of the delinquent are the frequent reminders of the trial of the Quai de Valmy (in which demonstrators were condemned for setting fire to a police car) and of Viry-Châtillon (condemnation for violence and arson attacks against the police in 2016). It is as though le Phéno were “contaminated” by the characteristics he has in common with the “Viry-Châtillon youths,” by the fact that the media coverage of the Quai de Valmy case was recently judged upon by the same tribunal, and by the insertion of footage of the burnt police car in his video. The social properties of the artist, the analogy between fiction and reality, and the formal properties of the work combine in the categorization of the defendant, and serve as a basis on which to produce the sentence. Insofar as the video portrays the police as victims of violence, this allows the plaintiffs’ lawyers to associate the artist who wrote “Bavure” and those he represents not with “victims of police abuse,” but with the “new dangerous classes” (Beaud & Pialoux 2003; Kokoreff 2006: 524), that is to say, with people capable of reprisals, whom it would be legitimate to repress in the name of law and order. The preterition employed by the prosecutor is highly significant in this regard: “I’m not saying that you’re responsible, but two days ago there was a fire at some police officer housing. The idea of cause and effect, of words to actions, does this not make you think?” Thus by “imputation of essence,” le Phéno is associated with the spectre of violence. The plaintiffs, judges, and prosecutor perform a reversal of the accusation of violence. This reversal has a rhetorical efficiency from the point of view of the video’s detractors: pointing out the danger in le Phéno and of those he represents distorts the violence he otherwise denounces. François Cusset sees a wielding of power in this consisting in the “rhetorical inversion of violence inflicted to violence avoided” (Cusset 2018: 8). In le Phéno’s case, the reversal concerns those who commit violence towards the police, whom are essentially brought together here in the racialized figure of the “juvenile delinquent.”

  • 16 Butler studies a similar case in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative:a black person (...)

34Regarding this inversion of danger and responsibility via another type of reasoning and representations, the prosecutor of Nick Conrad’s trial has a revealing argument: he says that “PLB” should effectively be condemned because it could be misunderstood and incite racial hatred, not towards white people, but towards black people. The proof of this: the threatening letters received by the rapper’s family. In other words, arguing on the basis of the notion of public order, responsibility for the increase in racist attacks following the video lies with the video itself, according to the prosecutor. The argumentation attests to the difficulty of considering a black man only as a victim, and this is the case even when the actions cited relate to negrophobia16. Concerning the attribution of this danger to the figure of the delinquent, it seems that Conrad’s age, and the fact that he situates his rap less within the imaginary of lower-class illegalism distances him from this. However, during his closing arguments, the AGRIF lawyer twice highlights a legal precedent that is also referred to during the ZEP trial, and which has nothing to do with Conrad, that of the rape of a young girl at Ivry, Paris:

“Anti-racism is not only made for minorities, it must serve the visible majority, this is AGRIF’s raison d’être. [...] This young girl is told: “You are white, you eat pork, you’re going to be raped”! The Ivry court has not published this case, through fear of political misrepresentation. Do you realize?!”

  • 17 On the racialization of gang rape at the point when the suburbs and immigration were put on the age (...)

35Mr Triomphe bases his closing arguments on a political strategy of recognition of anti-white racism, a pillar of AGRIF’s legal activism. Through highlighting this example, he constructs a continuity between those accused of rape and the defendant, racializing the sexual crime via a reference to the “minorities” responsible, compared with a “majority” that is a victim defined by whiteness and the non-practice of a dietary interdiction peculiar to the Muslim and Jewish religions17. Saying nothing against “PLB” under the pretext that the artist who wrote is from an ethno-racial minority is a return, via this parallel reproduction, to the Ivry injustice. He attributes this risk to the influence of a “discourse we’ve heard for twenty years in our country: that of Houria Bouteldja, Saïd Bouamama and of “Mr Fassin in pseudo-sociological academic jargon,” that of the existence of state racism. Although the two objectives can get confused, emphasis is therefore, more than the recognition of anti-white racism, on contesting the idea of the institutional nature of racism via the evocation of racist incidents by ethno-racial minorities. The figure of the delinquent serves here to associate Conrad with these minorities towards whom the state is too lax, and to criticize the idea of institutional racism at the same time.

The Terrorist

  • 18 However, this was not the first time that a link between rap and terrorism had been made in the pub (...)

36More extreme than the figure of the delinquent, but based on the same inversion of the denunciation of violence, that of the terrorist is significant. The word and its derivatives are cited seven times during the first hearing: Five times by the accusers and twice by le Phéno in response to these accusations. One of the lawyers of the plaintiffs makes an explicit comparison between “Bavure” and Jihad preachers. Concerning the word “war” in the track, he says that it reminds him of the “discourse of certain communities which, while claiming to be someone who does not scare easily, gathers certain people in housing estates who think that the solution is to radicalize and make war.” The audience on the side of supporters of le Phéno make gestures of disapproval at this point. In a context of the increased legislative criminalization of speech that has been characterized as terrorist since France’s 2015 attacks, this association appears as a convenient legal resource for the plaintiffs and prosecutor18.

37It is less present—and this is also because “PLB” is not about the police—but the figure of the terrorist still surfaces in the speech of the prosecutor and of Mr Scemama (LICRA), who adopt a similar stance during the hearing, offering a guarantee of a “middle ground,” using Mohammed Merah’s example when commenting on the lyrics “I go into nurseries I kill white babies.” The prosecutor states: “You say that this is too much to be true, but people have indeed gone into schools to kill children,” to which Nick Conrad replies that he used the example of children not because of that but because they embody “something pure,” and that if he wished to do this he wouldn’t say so in a song. Despite this attempt by the artist to argue that such a confessional message is symbolic in nature, his lawyer, Mr Apelbaum, in response to his colleagues’ suggestion of terrorist speech, chooses instead to evoke one of Conrad’s tracks in which he denounces the Bataclan attacks, while emphasizing his client’s adhesion to France. One strategy of the defence indeed consists of challenging the criminalized figures with whom the defendants are associated: Mr Harir makes an association with a child rather than with a dangerous delinquent, and both make an association with the good citizen denouncing injustice in the name of principles recognized by the court itself rather than with an apologist for terrorism. Meanwhile this contributes, paradoxically, to reaffirming their existence at the hearing.

The Stigma of the Suggestion of Antisemitism

38More than to the figures of delinquent and terrorist, Nick Conrad is compared to two “polemicists” who have been the subject of politico-judicial criminalization. Kémi Séba and Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala are cited in both hearings. Many other figures could have been alluded to based on the analogy of the (over-)legalization of the incitement to racial hatred: Zemmour, Le Pen, Soral, etc. How can this choice be explained when there is no mention of either in the artists’ works or interviews? Dieudonné and Kémi Séba were convicted for anti-Semitism; yet there are no anti-Semitic messages cited during the trials studied. I distinguish here between explicit accusation and the stigma of suggestion in order to specify the mechanism at work: the criminalization of the defendants is implicit, it works by means of their association with these figures condemned for anti-Semitic statements in an apparently arbitrary manner since it does not hinge on any facts qualified as such during the hearing.

  • 19 “Party of the Indigènes de la République”: an anti-colonial party criticized for anti-Semitism espe (...)

39As for terrorism, the defence attempts to weaken their client’s associations to criminalized figures. For le Phéno, the comparison to Dieudonné incites protest in the room, to which the prosecutor responds angrily. His lawyer specifies in his closing remarks that his client is a Christian, the idea being that the suggestion of anti-Semitism, born out of the parallel with the “polemicist,” would have less force if Islam were pushed aside (“he’s not even Muslim.”) Nick Conrad’s lawyer stresses that his “client is not a fan of Dieudonné, he’s not PIR19” alluding to the evidence of a flawed character made up of the associations produced by the plaintiffs and the prosecutor.

  • 20 During the investigation, police officers deliberately searched for the terms “Nick Conrad Kémi Seb (...)

40However, while no link was established, including in the police inquiry20, between Conrad and Kémi Séba, the triggering role of Dieudonné is taken particularly seriously by Mr Apelbaum and Mr Scemama. Indeed, the case began after Dieudonné shared “PLB” on social networks, commenting that he “shouldn’t fall into traps of racial hate which only serve the interests of Zionism”—a comment that Conrad shared, under the pretext of carrying out his promotional strategy with no mention of the legal convictions of the comedian. While these comments are an open criticism of the video, taking up certain interpretations of the accusation of (“racial hate”), it is the surveillance of which Dieudonné is subject to which explains that “PLB” reaches public visibility. Mr Apelbaum therefore uses the M’Bala M’Bala case law, which justifies the condemnation of the comedian, to show how his client is different. Conrad does not replicate the discourse of his songs either in his life or in his interviews.

  • 21 In the context of another project, Keyhani et al. (2019: 137) emphasize that the “informational” ca (...)

41While these comments reduce the arbitrary nature of the reference to Dieudonné in one of the hearings, it is still the case that the association of the two rappers with these condemned figures in particular illustrates a racist mechanism at work: the construction of a stigma of suggestion of anti-Semitism among certain ethno-racial minorities. Rather than an explicit accusation, it is done in a manner so as to let a suggestion of criminality hang over the defendants: as well as wanting to “make war” with the police, or wanting to “hang the whites,” the implication is that they are anti-Semitic. An explicit accusation of anti-Semitism has itself long existed in attempts at criminalizing rap: it was expressed in 2006 in the proposed Grosdidier law which was aimed at the freedom of expression of rappers. In this instance, anti-Semitism was depicted not as racism towards a minority group21, but “as a consequence of ‘anti-white and anti-occidental racism’ […] the creators of the law going as far as to define Jews as ‘super-whites’ in what they describe as an ideology that ‘racializes the class struggle’ attributed to artists” (Carinos 2020). Following such reasoning, for the case of Nick Conrad accused of racism towards “whites” as a group, the suggestion of anti-Semitism plays a specific role in reinforcing the plaintiffs’ arguments.

42More than what they do, it is what they are—hence the choice of the term “stigma”—that counts towards the implicit criminalization of the defendants, via the comparison to Kémi Séba and Dieudonné.

43How should we interpret these implicit or explicit labels that arise in hearings? Kamel Boukir analyses the role of “stereotyped identity fictions” (Chassain et al. 2016: 17) using his personal and ethnographic experience. He shows how a whole class of people “immigrant guys from the banlieues,” are reduced to “types,” by being systematically linked to a history of immigration and the suburbs. What he calls an “injunction against republican institutions” (Boukir 2016) is found in France in the form of associations with figures which embody certain stigmatized criminal representations of the male urban working-class youth from immigrant families, to which the rappers are compared. The labelling associated with stigmatization is characteristic of the condition of minorities (Chassain et al. 2016 :7). We see here how the law constructs rap, via its interpreters, as a marginalized genre. In answer to these marginalizing labels given to rappers, defence lawyers tend to use a strategy that is consistent with likening their client to artist figures who have become part of “heritage” (Brassens, Kassovitz). This contentious attempt (Carinos 2020) by the defence at linking defendants to legitimate artists helps to define an implicit figure of an artist “of the majority” according to the law, from which rappers are in fact excluded. This otherness is constructed, again implicitly, by the fact that positive figures used to construct the artistic and political legitimacy of the defendant are systematically older white men, or initiatives which refer to a form of cultural legitimacy (exposition in a museum of photography denouncing police violence) which is a sign, in parallel, of a latent cultural illegitimacy of rap.


44We have seen different ways in which the law produces symbolic violence between the court and rappers (1) on a practical level, effecting a reduction of their work and their political speech to testimony, and illegitimising them as politically engaged artists (2.1), at the same time as it takes away the “judicial benefit” of distanciation, imagery, and figurative artistic properties which reconfigure the perception of limits of freedom of expression (2.2). We have then seen how the court stigmatizes the supposed audience (3.1), postulating an “inequality of intelligences” according to the social affiliations (Rancière 2007 quoted by Sonnette 2013: 339) of the listeners as well as of the defendants via the mobilization of stereotypes linked to racialized illegalisms. The defendants are suspected of criminal associations linked to their social properties (ranging from advocating terrorism to anti-Semitism), contributing to their negative categorization in court (3.2), despite attempts by the defence to bring them closer to the figure of the majority artist.

45The method deployed here aims to link the sociology of law to that of the social relations of power and to methodically document how the latter imbue legal decisions. In the case of rap in France, this helps to show how seemingly protective case law, recognizing the artistic legitimacy of the genre, can coexist with processes of illegitimisation and of criminal condemnation, highlighting the law’s construction of rap as a marginal genre.

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Le Monde, “Pendez les Blancs : le rappeur Nick Conrad condamné pour provocation au crime”, 19 March 2019:

Brice Anne (2018). White Voice and Hearing Whiteness as a Difference, Not the Standard”. Berkeley News:

L’Obs, “Théo agressé par des policiers à Aulnay : ‘Je ne peux plus faire de sport’”, 26 October 2017:

Franceinfo, “Quatre choses à savoir sur Nick Conrad (…)”, 20 May 2019:

Genius, PLB”:

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1 Bourdieu cites the 1959 Sauvageot survey, but, regarding the low recruitment of judges from working-class backgrounds, this finding was only slightly nuanced in the 2010s (see Demoli & Willemez 2019: 3).

2 I use the term “designated” for the first occurrence because these are designations produced by the eye of the ethnographer—rather than by systematic self-identification—which is problematic: there may be a contradiction in “defending a constructivist, anti-naturalistic theory of reality” and using substantialist categories produced by a regard that is “filled with essentialism” (Dunezat 2015: 2)—categories which are nonetheless useful in documenting ethno-racial or sexual inequalities. Since issues of ethno-racial identity are important to both trials, their use, although not perfect, is warranted.

3 Since the Act of 7 July 2016, freedom of creation has been enshrined in French law, but is entirely subject to the 1881 freedom of expression Act.

4 Source:

5 On African Americans’ use of a “white voice,” see: A. Brice, “White Voice and Hearing When as a Difference, Not the Standard,” Berkeley News.

6 Broadcast of 30 May 2019 on Radio Campus Paris for the Vrai Rap Français programme. Participant observation in the specialized press documents the justifications given to accused works in a framework where the creators are considered artists and are ordered to express themselves as such.

7 Court of Cassation, 31 May 1949.

8 Article which considers committing an infringement/offence on the basis of sex, skin colour, religion, etc. to be an aggravating circumstance.

9 “What prompted me to write this song is life in general, I wanted to explain my suffering […] the history which I inevitably inherit, whether we like it or not.”

10 For example, Mr Harir refers to Mathieu Kassovitz, who by his own admission has never been a victim or a direct witness of police violence but whose work denounces it.

11 Acronyms are common in French rap. This is probably influenced—in addition to new voice techniques—by social media writing practices: “#PLMV”, UMLA, “MQTB”, “VNTM”, etc. the year of release of “PLB” (2018).

12 Interview given to Abcdr du son, 13 March 2020.

13 “I wish I hadn’t had to make ‘Bavure.’ Didn’t have to denounce things. If everything was going well… but I am someone who writes with the times, with my life, with what is happening.” (ibid.)

14 Although this definition is fluid given that it concerns an “emic” category without unanimous characterizations.

15 Selling drugs illegally.

16 Butler studies a similar case in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative:a black person is always and only endangering, but never endangered” (1997: 59); and earlier, in her analysis of the Rodney King trial (1993: 16).

17 On the racialization of gang rape at the point when the suburbs and immigration were put on the agenda in the 2000s as an “instance of production of whiteness,” see Cosquer (2016).

18 However, this was not the first time that a link between rap and terrorism had been made in the public sphere: in 2005, government questions were already going in this direction (Hammou 2012: 255-256).

19 “Party of the Indigènes de la République”: an anti-colonial party criticized for anti-Semitism especially by the Mouvement contre le Racisme et pour l’Amitié entre les Peuples (MRAP) in 2015, but who until today has not been the subject of any legal condemnation.

20 During the investigation, police officers deliberately searched for the terms “Nick Conrad Kémi Seba,” to find out if there was a link. But the only occurrence they identified was when a journalist compared the pan-African positions of Conrad and K. Séba. The defence emphasized that these could pertain to other figures cited by the defendant (Malcolm X, for example); the LICRA lawyer for his part underlined a common vocabulary between K. Séba and Nick Conrad.

21 In the context of another project, Keyhani et al. (2019: 137) emphasize that the “informational” categories used to analyse the legal files of racism claims “imperfectly reflect relationships between minorities and majorities;” the victims of anti-Jewish crimes appearing under the category “French-white.”

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1
Crédits Image from Jo le Phéno's music video, “Bavure 3.0”. On line:​watch?v=VXwDx6xjSso
Fichier image/jpeg, 169k
Titre Fig. 2
Légende Screen grab from the “Bavure” video, showing the rapper with fist raised in front of a mural paying homage to Lamine Dieng.
Fichier image/jpeg, 53k
Titre Fig. 3
Légende Left: Image from “PLB”; right: screen grab of a scene from American History X.
Fichier image/png, 448k
Titre Fig. 4
Légende Screen grab of press release which appeared on the SCSI-CFDT site, 12 April 2017.
Fichier image/png, 100k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Emmanuelle Carinos Vasquez, « Rap on Trial: The Political and Legal Battles Over Jo le Phéno and Nick Conrad’s Music Videos »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 10 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2022, consulté le 28 septembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Emmanuelle Carinos Vasquez

Doctorante en sociologie, CRESPPA, Université Paris 8

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