French rapper Diam's is no stranger to controversy: at the forefront of France's hip-hop scene, she lyrically confronts issues like classism, racism, and politics. However, recent headlines focus not on her music, but on her decision to convert to Islam.
I first heard Diam's years ago, from a solo song that appeared on a friend's mix cd. (I didn't find out what the song was actually called until...well, right now when I was looking for it on YouTube.) Her breakout single "DJ" topped the charts in France, and ushered in an illustrious career.
Clearly, Diam's spits hot fire.
The world Diam's creates within her music videos reflects a vibrant, multicultural France - truly one nation united under a hip-hop groove. In addition to that, her style is "ladies first" - her videos show men and women on equal ground, whether at a party scene, or checking out their ideal guys, which happens in her video for "Jeune Demoiselle."
This hasn't changed after she dropped her most recent album - check out "Paroles" (English lyrics in the YouTube sidebar):
However, what has changed is her involvement with religion and her public life. Writing for Bitch magazine, Mandy Van Deven explains:
Unable to handle the constant public scrutiny she faced as a controversial celebrity, Diam's retreated from the limelight in 2008 to go on a personal introspective journey. That journey led her to Islam, a faith to which she has now converted saying, "Modern medicine was not able to heal my soul, so I turned to religion."
Given France's current hostility to observant Muslims (particularly Muslim women), it probably should come as no surprise that French feminists have been quite vocally intolerant of Diam's decision. Safia Labdi, president of Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Submissives), told Le Parisien, "With this new image, Diam's represents submission, tradition and isolation. She was lost, and found herself by wearing the veil. This is something that we unfortunately see with a lot of young girls."
Van Deven rightfully notes two big issues with Labdi's statement - one, acting as if the twenty-nine year old Diam's decisions can be chalked up to the whims of youth, rather than a deep introspective period, and two, that Islam automatically equates with subservience. Shortly after her announcement, Diam's released her new album, SOS, and she's essentially the same emcee. (I am also wondering if the ubiquitous presence of her hood in her newer videos is an artful and subtle deference to the path she follows.)
However, some outlets are taking Diam's submission to Islam as a score against her former feminist stance. Axel Veiel's article for Qantara triumphantly proclaims "The Rebel Submits to Islam" and says "adieu to feminism!" Viel argues that Diam has changed her tune, citing the following lyrics as proof:
Diam's struggle is no longer for freedom and equal rights, but rather for traditional gender roles. "Because no one can change these roles," she assured in her song "Asphaltrose". If her husband was a Kalashnikov, she sings, she would gladly be the shoulder supporting him.
But Viel also reveals that Diam actually converted to Islam in 2000, two years before her debut, and was influenced by Islam while she created her songs celebrating women and feminist principles. In addition, the song I referenced above, "Jeune Demoiselle" has similar lyrics of being loved and cared for by a man. The "no one can change these roles" line is worth looking into, but feminism and the desire to support a loving partner are not mutually exclusive, nor does it seem the politically conscious Diam's would suddenly reverse her belief system. After all, there are feminist Muslimahs.
It is unclear what end influence Diam's journey will have on her religious presentation and music - currently, she has declined to speak to most press outlets, referring only to her faith. However, if Diam's is using the hijab to draw awareness to the growing intolerance for Islam in France, perhaps we could see her embrace of religious symbols as a logical extension of her activism.