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Musicians under fire in France and Ethiopia

Article published on the 2008-06-19 Latest update 2008-06-19 12:30 TU

Hamé after trialPhoto: Daniel Brown

Hamé after trial
Photo: Daniel Brown

For the last six years one of France's leading underground rap groups, La Rumeur, has been locked in a legal battle against current French President Nicolas Sarkozy. On 3 June, the fourth trial took place, pitting one of the band members, Hamé, against the Ministry of the Interior. World Tracks covered the court case.

Hamé and defence lawyer Dominique TricaudPhoto: Daniel Brown

Hamé and defence lawyer Dominique Tricaud
Photo: Daniel Brown

This week’s World Tracks focuses on censorship and attacks against musicians. We first hear from Tiken Jah Fakoly, the Ivorian who won an award in 2008 for his defence of freedom of speech.

It was bequeathed by Freemuse, the Danish-based association which, for the past decade, has monitored human rights abuses against musicians, including censorship.

Characteristically, Fakoly dedicated his award and some of the prize money to Moussa Kaka, the RFI journalist imprisoned for the past nine months in his native Niger.

It was awarded to the reggaeman as a result, says the NGO, of his tireless work for freedom of musical expression in West Africa. The idol of millions of Africans, especially the youth, Fakoly has been banned, censored and exiled after he denounced political corruption in his native Côte d’Ivoire. In his songs, he also condemns the French legacy of colonialism in Africa.

This legacy also reverberated into France in early June. That’s when a trial of one of France’s most popular underground rap-bands, La  Rumeur, debated over subjects like the massacre in Paris of over 400 French Algerians who, on 17 October 1961, were killed after peacefully demonstrating against the war.

For the past six years La  Rumeur rapper Mohammed Bourokba, better known as Hamé, has been prosecuted by the French government for defamation against the national police. It followed an article he published in a fanzine that he and La Rumeur published to accompany their debut album L’Ombre sur la Mesure. In it, Hamé states that France’s Interior Minister will never report on the "hundreds of our brothers, who were killed by the police without the assassins ever being worried".

To corroborate his claim, Hamé invited several expert witnesses for his defence. One, rap specialist Gregory Protche, insisted that La Rumeur and Hamé are perpetuating an old tradition of anti-establishment music. These include such revered figures as Georges Brassens and Léo Ferré. And all La Rumeur is doing is taking this tradition into the rough ghettoes where they come from.

32-year-old Hamé is a rare mixture of street savvy and sophistication. The son of an illiterate farmer from Algeria, he survived the impoverished suburban ghettoes called "cité" here and is currently studying for his doctorate at New York University. His 227 line article in the La Rumeur fanzine was a dense critique of French society and the police force that according to Amnesty international is one of the most notorious in Europe.

After the four-hour trial on June 3 he remained defiant: "Our arguments have a true legitimacy," he said, "They should be heard and understood. I wrote the article three years before the explosion in the cite ghettoes in 2005."

"Nowadays, this kind of police violence is becoming commonplace. And it’s getting more and more worrying. In the last week, there were three murders – there’s a feeling of impunity on the ground. The people responsible for this violence remain untroubled."

The singer continued: "The debate during this trial went to the heart of the matter. All that I wrote in that fanzine six years ago has been amplified nowadays. And we did our best to add testimonies that support my analysis."

"When a policeman kills, he must be tried. If he abuses his authority, he must be punished. And the same justice must be used to chastise him, in the same way as any citizen. This is the very cement of our society. It’s just so obvious."

For defence lawyer Dominique Tricaud, the court hearing in Versailles was fundamentally different to court cases in 2003, 2004 and 2006: "It’s become a trial of the police," he stated outside the courtroom. "The accuracy of what Hamé wrote six years ago has been underscored by the 2005 rioting. So he cannot be indicted. All that he wrote has been proven right on the ground."

The veteran lawyer remains untroubled about the persistance of the government. "I’m optimistic that he will again be discharged. It’s been a political trial from the start. It’s not my fault if the signature at the bottom of the complaint is that of Nicolas Sarkozy. Unfortunately for him, however, every time politics enters a courtroom, justice triumphs".

The trial is finally set to end on 23 September when the French court will give its decision. One thing seems certain: win or lose, the finances of Hamé and La Rumeur have been stretched to the limit by a defence that has so far cost them 20,000 euros. And the French system is such that it will be extremely difficult for them to recuperate that from the Sarkozy government.

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