Rapper Diam’s has sold millions of CDs documenting the poverty and racism blighting urban France. But fame took its toll when she was hit by depression. Now recording again, she puts her recovery down to her Muslim faith. Colin Randall, foreign correspondent, reports from Paris
As France’s best-selling rap singer, now currently touring provincial cities, Diam’s should be prowling the stage in a hoodie, looking hard as nails and firing up her young audiences with angry lyrics about hardships in the banlieue and the wickedness of the establishment.
But on her long-awaited new album, and in live performances of its material, the rhetoric against war, racism and injustice is punctuated by words that reflect an important development in her life: her decision to convert to Islam and confront prejudice by wearing a veil.
Diam’s, born Mélanie Georgiades in Cyprus to a French mother and Greek Cypriot father, is something of an enigma even by the introspective standards of French popular culture.
France’s pop music notoriously travels badly. Some rock critics say it is difficult to imagine her music making an impact outside francophone countries. But in France, she is the darling of disaffected teenagers from the lawless suburban estates and the middle-class teenagers who adopt their mannerisms and attitudes.
In 2006, she shot to fame with her album Dans Ma Bulle (In My Bubble), with its strongly worded rapping about discrimination, poverty and other social ills in France, where she has lived since she was three. It was the country’s biggest hit of the year, with more than a million copies sold, and Diam’s won an MTV Europe Music Award for best French act.
But the follow-up took three years to materialise as Diam’s, now 29, showed little appetite for capitalising on her earlier success. Indeed, she nearly cracked under the pressure of celebrity and spent months in hospital undergoing psychiatric treatment. Her battles with bouts of depression were accompanied by a constant cat-and-mouse contest with intrusive photographers.
For the whole of 2008, she was unable to write a single line. During her darker moments, she came to the conclusion that conventional medicine was not helping. And while travelling in Africa, she decided to embrace Islam, though one relative has reportedly insisted that this was not an overnight conversion but the product of more sustained reflection.
Emerging from her self-imposed seclusion, Diam’s has recently married a Muslim named Aziz and been seen with him leaving the grand mosque at Gennevilliers on the outskirts of Paris.
A French magazine published photographs of her wearing a long black foularde, or headscarf, and fans can see her in similar headwear in a video clip, posted on her blog, showing her perform at a show presented by France’s respected Institute of the Arab World.
Echoing the difficulty France has in assimilating Europe’s largest Muslim community, commentary on Diam’s’ spiritual choice has concentrated on the recent fragility of her mental state. The glossy magazine Paris Match speculated that religion had “probably helped her overcome her fears and doubts” after her struggle to cope with the trappings of superstardom.
The prominent French women’s rights group, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Submissives), criticised what it portrayed, in perhaps exaggerated fashion, as her transition from rebellious suburban rapper to subservient Muslim wife.
“With this new image, Diam’s represents submission, tradition and isolation,” Safia Labdi, the organisation’s president told the French daily newspaper Le Parisien.
“Diam’s has had a hard time. She was lost, and found herself by wearing the veil. This is something that we unfortunately see with a lot of young girls.”
From Diam’s, there has been a rare public comment: “Modern medicine was not able to heal my soul, so I turned to religion.”
Otherwise, she has chosen to remain silent apart from occasional appearances on television music programmes and in concert. She is now touring to promote her album SOS and is due to perform in the south-western city of Angoulême tonight and Bordeaux tomorrow.
Her return comes in the same month that Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens until his conversion to Islam, has begun touring again for the first time in 30 years.
Diam’s record label, EMI France, told The National that she would neither be interviewed nor answer questions by e-mail. “Yes, that is unusual for a recording artist,” a spokesman said. “But she prefers to say what she wants through the lyrics of her songs.”
To emphasise the point, EMI circulated an imaginary interview in which one of France’s leading authorities on rap, the journalist Olivier Cachin, poses questions and reproduces lines from the album as the answers.
When Mr Cachin says some of her writing suggests she has been on the “edge of an abyss”, the response from a track with an English title, I Am Somebody – declares: “Late 2007, I’m alone in my flat. My head is aching. I’m a millionaire in dollars. I feel guilty; it’s far too much for my small shoulders. Is it good to be like that, God? Have I really fulfilled my role? ... in the cause of music my fame brings me to tears.”
Mere rapping, French commentators ask, or the autobiographical musings of a troubled star? On another song, Lili, she acknowledges the reaction of some to her conversion: “I am the enemy because I am a convert and I wear the veil.”
Mr Cachin remarks that the first album track to be chosen for a single is dedicated to, and entitled, Children of the Desert. Its lyrics provide the rapper’s response, touching on her own new priorities: “I’m out of my bubble. I took time to look at the world and observe the moon. So here’s the new Diam’s, at peace with herself. But yeah man, be honest! My troubles have made me a poet. When it reached the point of them wanting to shower me in champagne, [the choice] was either to be humanitarian or try to be a billionaire.”
And to those who cannot understand her aversion to the media, she offers these lines: “I don’t want to be watched. I want people to accept that what counts is my writing, not the colour of my tracksuit ... thanks to God, I realise success is fleeting, that the press and television should serve only the cause of peace. To all those paparazzi who like to photograph my cellulite: gentlemen, go and film what is hidden from us in Africa.”
People close to Diam’s have said critics who equate her changed lifestyle with an acceptance of submissiveness would think again if they saw who “calls the shots” when she is in the company of men.
The rapper’s fans may find the most encouraging message in her album’s opening track, which takes her real name Mélanie.
“We haven’t heard from you for while.” Mr Cachin asks. “What’s been happening in your life?”
Diam’s, or Mélanie, replies: “They said I was dead, they said I had died, I promise you I’m strong. I am healed.”http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20091121/FOREIGN/711209814