May Allah Bless France! is an autobiographical film by Abd Al Malik, a French rapper of Congolese origin, and will be screened on April 12 at NYU as part of the Black Experience in French Cinema festival. In 2015, we met with the artist and spokesperson for underprivileged populations.
France-Amérique: May Allah Bless France! is the adaptation of your autobiographical novel published in 2007. Why did you decide to make it into a movie?
Abd Al Malik: I have a deep conviction that the leading novelists of the 19th and 20th centuries would be filmmakers if they were around today. Images have an undeniable power, and so adapting my novel for the cinema was a way to reach more people, and especially those who would not have heard of my book. I wanted to make the literary into the cinematic, and the book and the movie formed an effective whole.
In one of the first scenes in the movie, a character declares: “We love France, but it doesn’t love us.” Did you suffer from this lack of consideration while you were growing up in Neuhof, a project in the suburbs of Strasbourg?
This is not just an individual feeling, but rather a collective experience. In France, we are living in a two-tier society. When I was growing up, my friends and I often felt we were second-class French citizens. You regularly hear beautiful speeches, but we live a life of double standards on a daily basis. Personally, I was lucky. But it is unacceptable, in a country as powerful and wealthy as France, that young people are reduced to hoping they will be lucky. This is not enough. The French Republic is a symbolic mother figure who should be caring for all her children, especially the most fragile. While at school, I met brilliant teachers who told me I was good-looking and intelligent, and I believed them. But other children were told they were neither good-looking nor intelligent, and that they were not French. I am not trying to say everything is negative, but collectively our attitude has to change.
Culture has played a major role in your life, and you are quick to quote the works of figures from Seneca to Hugo. How do you think all young French people can share this love of literature, regardless of their social and geographical situations?
Education and culture have to be our priorities. Today in the projects, teachers are unable to work and instead find themselves policing overcrowded classes. But the conditions are totally different in wealthier areas. If we are to encourage a love of literature, we have to help teachers. I have six siblings; no one has chosen the same path, and mine could certainly be described as surprising. But this is not normal; what happened to me should be a possibility for everyone.
What message are you sending to young people who think that, no matter what they do, the dice are loaded, and that coming from underprivileged neighborhoods means success is impossible?
My first message to them is that they are right to think the dice are loaded. This is a sad reality. But before that, I want to send a message to politicians and the media, the same people who talk about ghettoization and apartheid. Who is responsible for these phenomena? You cannot feed this beast morning and night and then feign surprise when it bites you. France has great potential, but unfortunately its leaders are irresponsible. I am also sending a message to today’s youth. In terms of groups of people, there is an undeniable form of determinism. But as individuals, we can change things. We can act!
In your books and in the movie, you insist on the role of Sufism in your personal construction. And you also promote republican values. What is your reply to those who believe that Islam and the French Republic are incompatible?
My reply is that this opinion is completely wrong. The truth is that Islam, just like Judaism and Christianity, is first and foremost a spiritual experience based on love, peace, respect, and the acceptance of others and their differences. It is also something very intimate! We are lucky to live in a country like France, where everyone is free to believe in God or not. In society we all exist as French citizens, so why would Islam be incompatible with the French Republic? The republican values are enough, and the French Republic is there to ensure there is a harmony between these differences.
You explain that “people in the projects have been colonized and deresponsibilized,” and that “everything has been decided for them.” You also encourage them to “take control of their lives and trust the people who help them.” In real terms, what can be done to improve the situation of poor neighborhoods?
Education, education, education. We need to stop the pointless initiatives and sticking-plaster solutions we are all so accustomed to. All children of the French Republic should have access to the same quality of education. That would really change things! Social diversity is another positive goal. But we have to do away with flowery speeches and act!
Interview published in the April 2015 issue of France-Amérique