Respectez-nous as we Feminize the Rapped Rhyme: Women Rappers and Gender Empowerment in French Hip-Hop

By Scooter Pégram



French women have long been in a subordinate position as compared to men, and females are underrepresented in nearly every sector in France (including in pop culture). Moreover, this sort of gender discrimination is even worse for women of color in France, as they are nearly invisible aside from the menial service jobs that they usually occupy. Owing to their lack of a voice in France, one of the only outlets available for women of color to express their frustration, communicate with one another, or uplift themselves is the medium of hip-hop music. This paper introduces readers to the subject of female-led resistance to gender inequality in France via the contemporary medium of French-language hip-hop. This paper analyses lyrical educational empowerment by women in French “rap” by discussing a few examples of this ever-evolving thematic concept of positive resistance via the rhyme as we briefly deconstruct a few popular songs released by the four major female rap artists in France over the past 20 years.



French women, Female rappers, Female empowerment, Women of color in France, Hip-hop education, Racism in France, Music as protest, French hip-hop, Lyrical resistance, Rap as protest


This is for the ladies, pour les ladies.

Pour les ladies je demande du respect, quoi qu’on en dise.

This is for the ladies, for the ladies.

For the ladies I demand respect, whatever they say about it.[1]

-Lady Laistee, “For the Ladies



The most recognizable national icon of France is that of Marianne. No matter where one goes in the country, it is hard to miss see the image of Marianne because she is represented on postage stamps, money, and she appears on all official government documents. Additionally, Marianne has long been featured as the subject of statues, illustrated on paintings, and shown in every imaginable way. No matter how the iconic image is described, she is always depicted as a defiant and strong woman who symbolizes the strength and revolutionary resilience of the République française. However, despite the enduring presence of the radical allegoric female figure that Marianne represents, French women have been in a subordinate position as compared to men for centuries, and they remain underrepresented in nearly every sector of the country. A recent report published by the World Economic Forum places France in the 57th position internationally in terms of gender equality, which ranks it in second to last place in Western Europe. When the data are further broken down by specific category, the findings are even worse. In terms of women’s economic opportunity, France ranks 64th internationally. In terms of equality for legislators/senior management positions, the country ranks 61st globally. Even worse, if one were to look at statistics in regard to wage equality for similar work, the country finds itself in the 134th position. Although the French government routinely adopts legislation to equalize the playing field in terms of gender equity and issues, numerical findings like these illustrate a different reality for women in the country.

Despite the fact that females remain in a subordinate position in France when compared to men, they find ways to challenge sexism that extend beyond the more traditional way of protesting in the streets. Over the past century and far beyond, women in France have expressed their frustrations by using the very French tradition of resisting authority and educating the masses via the written word. In other words, the old adage that suggests a “pen” being something that is “mightier than a sword” carries merit. Female authors, such as Simone de Beauvoir, Colette, and George Sand, used literature and the written word in order to discuss various discriminatory morals and codes facing women, and this type of educational and pedagogical approach has continued as subsequent generations of feminist writers take up the cause. Although once limited to women of an elevated social status, in recent decades Francophone women authors of color (e.g., Maryse Condé, Assia Djebar) have also employed this literary resistance strategy within their narratives as they highlighted various issues relating to gender while focusing on subjects pertinent to their unique cultural experience.

Adolescents and young women from visible minority groups are also increasingly turning to this old French style of protest, but with a small twist: Instead of writing, they are rapping their rhymes in hip-hop songs. Thus, the more contemporary medium of rap music is used as a pedagogical tool to educate and inform, and young women of color are the motivators of this movement because they do not feel that their needs are being discussed by women’s rights groups or politicians in France. In other words, as traditional feminist organizations in France continue to fail when it comes to addressing issues affecting young females from visible minority groups, the use of rap as a weapon of pride and defiance becomes more important. In other words, this new form of rapped résistance is occurring due to a non-response from Women’s Rights groups in France to concentrate on issues that pertain to the unique needs of young females of color. Duchen (11) discusses his when she states that French feminist organizations “have the reputation of paying more attention to theory than to practical questions.” Owing to this narrow approach furthered by more established feminist organizations, those issues relating to females living in disadvantaged communities are nearly non-existent in the national discourse. Moreover, young women of color are also made invisible by the official policy of State secularism that does not acknowledge gender as a defining national statistic in France. Because these two paradigms marginalize females from visible minority groups, hip-hop is an effective manner in which to bring their issues to the masses.

Although hip-hop culture in France and elsewhere has been dominated by males since its embryonic stage, French women of color have left their own distinct marks on the genre. In terms of content, female rappers tend to focus their attention more on education, immigration, social issues, gender inequality, and quality of life themes in their songs. Moreover, women artists usually give little to no lyrical emphasis on street violence and the type of male posturing/positioning that one often associates with hip-hop music (Rose, “The Hip-Hop Wars”). However, despite this softer thematic approach than the images promoted amongst male rappers, the record industry in France has not always been kind to females. For example, as is often the case in mainstream American hip-hop, rap lyrics in general often portray women ambiguously, usually in oppressive, sexist, or negative ways.

This often-misogynistic portrait motivates the representations put forth by female artists and separates their thematic approaches from males as they shape the genre of hip-hop to fit their unique needs in hip-hop music in the United States and in France. Thus, the goal of many women rappers is to inform listeners about humanistic themes that affect females, and to discuss how social discrepancies in regard to gender affect society at large. This very subject of résistance is worthy of our attention and analysis. Thus, after a brief overview of the origins of hip-hop in the United States and France, as well as a discussion on issues as they relate to females of color in the latter country, we introduce and examine a few songs that have a mission to educate listeners on topics concerning women of color by the four most popular female French rap artists over the past two decades. In doing so, we illustrate how this quartet of rappeuses lyriques also acts as hip-hop philosophers who use the public platform of the microphone as a pedagogical tool in which to discuss divisive subjects that minimize or ignore the role of ethnocultural women in France.


Race, Space, and Hip-hop Philosophy

Researchers such as Prévos, Forman, Chang, and Rose (The Hip-Hop Wars) have long argued that the base rubric of hip-hop music is formed by the rapper’s spatial and social construct. Famous rapper-activist Chuck D of the group Public Enemy once echoed that sentiment when he labeled rap lyrics as being “Black America’s CNN.” This was the case because early American hip-hop educated listeners about the numerous social, racial, and economic realities and discrepancies that were occurring in minority neighborhoods in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. Forman (78) builds upon this sentiment when he argues that a rapper’s location, or “place” serves as a “lens of sorts that mediates one’s perspective on social relations,” and that it “offers familiarity” that provides artists with a certain “perspective” in which to evaluate their spatiality. This concept of speaking truth to power as a way to educate people is constant throughout early American hip-hop culture, as the movement was founded on the fours principles of using rap music as a non-traditional pedagogical tool (i.e., “peace, love, unity, and having fun”). Early rappers in New York composed lyrics in ways that would bring to life issues that others in more elevated societal positions were afraid to discuss (Chang; Rose, “Black Noise,” “The Hip-Hop Wars”). Thus, the MC who spoke into the microphone had to “drop science” (i.e., teach) the audience how to consume the given message. In this way, hip-hop has much in common with the African narrative tradition of the village griot, a person whose job as the village librarian of sorts was/is to educate citizens about their history and culture. Early hip-hop artists in the United States have continued this legacy of “griot education” in regard to their lyrics.

The origins of the entire hip-hop movement can be traced to rhythms popular in Jamaica during the 1960s and 1970s. During those decades, the Jamaican musical style known as dancehall served as the primary motivator for the birth of hip-hop in the United States. Dancehall was created by youths from “the Yard” (socioeconomically marginalized areas) of cities like Kingston. Dancehall arrived to New York City via immigration, and it was there that younger Jamaicans, street gangs, melded with other individuals with direct immigrant origins in the Bronx and produced a sound mixed with African-American soul and R&B that would soon be called “rap.” Popular street DJs such as Kool Herc, Africa Bambaata, and Grandmaster Flash pioneered this new musical genre in 1970s New York City, and from this nascent stage of street parties, a larger hip-hop movement that consisted of four elements was born. In its embryonic period in the United States, hip-hop culture and the vocal art of rapping were viewed as effective ways in which to discuss topics facing people of color living in what was referred to as the “inner city” (Hebdige; Rose, “The Hip-Hop Wars”). For example, in 1982 a song by Grandmaster Flash’s entitled “The Message” was one of the first tracks to teach listeners about a myriad of negative social issues emanating from the ‘hood. Perhaps, the most well-known artist to juxtapose hip-hop with pedagogy was (and remains) the artist known as KRS-One, a rapper whose very name is broken down as “Knowledge reigns supreme over nearly everything.” Each of his albums is rooted in subjects involving social justice, and many of his tracks deconstructed controversial subjects such as misogyny, gang violence, drug use, educational deficiencies, and so forth. KRS-One is not the only artist to be labeled as a “Hip-Hop Philosopher,” but he is one of the originators of the concept and his popularity remains intact.

Although song lyrics that address similar themes are not limited to hip-hop and have been present in all musical genres for decades (e.g., the protest music of the 1950s, punk rockers in the 1970s-forward, “World” artists from developing countries), rappers were the loudest in terms of effectively defining and mass marketing themselves as “teachers” and “philosophers” with educational messages. However, this sort of pedagogical approach in rap music did not last beyond the early 1990s. The same record companies that once promoted a more positive and socially based thesis in hip-hop lyrics changed course and started favoring and embracing a more aggressive-style in the mid-1990s that came to be known as “Gangsta Rap.” Instead of discussing social issues faced by African-Americans and others in marginalized communities, the focus shifted in terms of reacting to one’s subordinate status by lyrically promoting violence and deviant behavior. Gangsta Rap became a financial success for hip-hop record labels, and a more conscious style music is yet to return to the broad commercially supported acclaim that rap music enjoyed in its early years. Although a socially based hip-hop lives on, it exists without much major support from the record industry.

The use of rap music as pedagogy is also gaining traction among American educators, as it is increasingly seen as being an effective teaching method in classrooms. Tobias argues that because hip-hop music represents a social and cultural practice, the genre critically expresses and socially considers a variety of important subjects that are necessary curricular topics in schools, especially where students of color form the majority of students. Lesson plans that use examples from hip-hop songs that feature themes such as one’s representation, agency, place, space, and identity are all valuable ways to understand and teach issues that otherwise may not be discussed in official school curricula. Further elaborating on this subject, Tobias (22) maintains that the use of hip-hop in education enacts and increases critical pedagogy in classrooms, as it provides opportunities for “students to consider themselves and their community in terms of who they are and collectively.” Despite this, American hip-hop remains an industry that promotes misogyny and sexual exclusion as profit and the French model differs little from this trope.


Racism, Margins, and Misogyny

In terms of academic investigations on subjects relating to racism and misogyny in France, research on those topics is not easily accessible. Officially, the country is secular and “colorblind.” This means, even a minor census or academic study, that might examine an issue as it affects one’s race or gender will not be sanctioned by federal Ministries or statisticians, and they are generally discouraged or non-existent (Bleich; Fleming). Fleming argues that the French government has abdicated its responsibility for dealing with racism in terms of official policy. Additionally, Fleming further states that “French ‘anti-racism’ has not succeeded in changing racist attitudes towards France’s ethnocultural communities. For example, instead of formulating anti-racist policies and collecting anti-discrimination statistics, the country “contents itself with anti-racist discourse and magical thinking.”[2] In short: From a federal government point of view, it is better for France not to revisit colonialism and other divisive subjects in favor of national unity, as a way in which to protect and preserve a cleaner collective memory. Kokoreff argues that issues facing populations of color are rarely discussed at all anywhere in France, unless one concentrates on deviance and other sociological ills that take places in areas where minority populations reside in large numbers (such as in the Paris suburbs). As for women from ethnocultural or visible minority communities, Fleming states that their stories are rarely heard at all. That said, French youths of color have found a unique niche in terms of talking about their “space” and any issues relevant to them: Via Hip-hop music, songs, and rap lyrics.

Even though global hip-hop culture is assumed to be the domain of young men, women have also played a major role in rap, and gender motivates the topics and subjects that are discussed in their songs. Berry and Rose (Black Noise, The Hip-Hop Wars) posit that males in hip-hop usually rhyme about social dichotomies such as racism and other issues that focus solely on the masculine urban experience (e.g., police harassment, crime, street violence). This means that the thematic material in their songs is spatially limited, because men rap by using language associated with power and dominance. However, female rappers also breach social issues in their lyrics, but their narrative tends to focus less on the above-mentioned themes and more on equality and social issues. Strausz and Dole argue that the subjects that are heard in songs released by women seek to produce a broader dialogue concerning different ideologies, topics, and communities that are not spatially limited to urban areas. These include topics like domestic abuse, gender bias, sexual discrimination, and misogyny. Rose (Black Noise: 147) supports these points by arguing that one tactic employed by female rappers of color is their desire to work “within and against the existing dominant sexual and racial narratives” in order to conceptualize and educate listeners on issues that are important to them. Furthermore, Rose (“Black Noise,” “The Hip-Hop Wars”) also posits that women rappers use their pulpit to speak to the importance of the female voice and sexual freedom. In other words, women in hip-hop educate their listeners on themes such as autonomy, the importance of gender unity, and the resistance to all types of violence and dominance affecting females across racial lines. Perhaps for some, rap music is not something that would consider as being inherently feminist. That said, female artists employ specific and simple generic qualities of the genre to promote themselves and their unique lyrical message. Because hip-hop music represents extreme self-promotion, women rappers are able to use this public platform to their advantage in order to express female power without being accused by critics as being self-centered feminist radicals who are anti-establishment, thereby dismissed by mainstream pop-culture outlets and being spatially limited to the academy.

Although women have influenced the rap genre stylistically and technically, their overall contributions are often downplayed or ignored in favor of men (Layli, et al.). Since hip-hop music is usually framed as being a representation of life as experienced by “urban” males of color, it has not always been easy for young females to create spaces outside of the pre-conceived sexual and misogynistic tropes and stereotypes found in many rap lyrics and videos (Weekes). Moreover, the appearance of women in the hip-hop industry is often one of an outsider or a bystander rather than as what Guevara (51) labels as a “participant,” since females and their contributions to the genre are largely unrecognized or downplayed. Guevara (51) further states that whenever women take leading roles in commercialized visual presentations of hip-hop culture (especially in film), they enter the scene as “exotic outsiders” who make their mark via some sort of romantic involvement with a male protagonist. In this sense, hip-hop remains a male-dominated industry or privilege. Industry executives and even some consumers may refer to rap as being the music of the streets, a place where female artists are seen as interlopers (Rose, ”The Hip-Hop Wars”). Adams and Fuller argue that in a world where negative social constructs such as sexism, misogyny, and hatred are institutionalized, observations of this sort of patriarchal ideology and attitude in hip-hop culture as promoted by the commodification of the genre by the record industry are extensions of outer negative societal parameters that go beyond music.

In light of these realities, to gain acceptance and credibility in hip-hop culture, women often borrow or adopt masculine attitudes and personalities when they rap, dance, or tag graffiti. Faure and Garcia state that this type of appropriation of male behavior is intended to mask signs of femininity, and it is often manifested by language, fashion, or personality changes that mirror those as seen amongst male artists. Therefore, female rappers take style cues from men in the industry and visually or lyrically appear as “tough” or “hard” in their appearance and delivery, even when many women artists outpace males in overall sales and popularity. Moreover, stylistic changes assumed by female rap performers are not just limited to one’s look, behavior, or sound. Troka (87) argues that the experiences of women of color in hip-hip are made invisible since they are neither male, nor a member of the dominant culture, which are traits that she labels as being the two “prized markers of neutrality” in the United States. Misogynistic lyrics, songs, and video presentations further demonstrate the dominance of males in rap by ignoring, dismissing, subjugating women, or outright discriminating against them. According to Guevara (56), female rappers are restricted when they perform, and hip-hop music is oppressive and discriminatory because women artists are “expected to act differently” than males when they appear in front of a crowd. For example, it is acceptable for men in rap to be sexually suggestive and even misogynistic on stage or in visual presentations. At the same time, with a few exceptions, female rappers refrain from doing anything similar when they present themselves to the public. That said, this is starting to change. For example, contemporary artists such as Cardi B, Lil Kim, and Nicki Minaj seem to present more of a “female in control” narrative in lyrics. However, the sort of feminist presentation promoted by these same rappers is often given from the perspective of the male gaze (again, pushed by record companies), as suggested by the sexist imagery in their video-clips. Because industry insiders and executives are cognizant that young males are the major consumers of hip-hop in the United States, Hollywood’s concept in regard to the involvement of women in rap focuses more on fantasy (i.e., focusing on the appearance of female artists) than reality (i.e., the creative talent/art of females). Although rap music is promoted as mere entertainment, representations of women within hip-hop culture does little aside from perpetuating existing gender and sexual objectifications and stereotypes, all of which endorse a society where females are the subordinate objects of men (Quinne).[3]

Similar to hip-hop cultural presentations in the United States, rap music has been no less limiting and misogynistic towards women. What is known in France as le rap français is also traditionally dominated by men and geared towards male consumers and females are by and large marginalized by record companies. Strausz and Dole (12) argue that women who are present in French rap have been more “tolerated than accepted,” and in order to gain respect, female artists have been forced to struggle against hardened patriarchal attitudes that have been pervasive in the industry. However, when given support, a handful of women rappers have been major money makers in the genre, whilst earning massive fame and esteem amongst hip-hop’s consumers. This sort of popularity suggests that the opinions of the purchasing public in France do not reflect the assumed male-dominated aesthetic of the larger market as seen, forwarded, funded, and promoted by record labels.


Earning Respect via Resistance

Despite the many limitations that they face, women in French hip-hop have a long history with the music, dating to the very beginning. Even though there is a lack of equilibrium in rap music in France in terms of gender, the first ever hip-hop song to be issued on vinyl in was the song “Une sale histoire” by the female artist Beside, which appeared on the B-side of New York rapper Fab Five Freddy’s 1982 hit, “Change the Beat.” However, following this initial groundbreaking contribution to rap music in France, women largely disappeared from the scene and remained non-visible players until the late 1980s. The first female hip-hop artist to receive album recognition after Beside was Saliha, a rappeuse (a female rapper) who entered rhyming competitions across France. Throughout the late 1980s, Saliha recorded singles that appeared on the numerous best-selling “Rapattitude” compilations, which featured the major artists of the day. Saliha later followed up this sort of exposure with a complete album of her own in 1994. However, following her tepid success, no other woman would attract much interest from record companies or producers in terms of a large commercial perspective. Other artists (such as Princess Aniès) occasionally appeared and released albums that featured feminist-empowered lyrics, some of which at times enjoying moderate airplay. That said, a sustainable female presence in the hip-hop game was lacking throughout the 1990s. Regardless of these sorts of challenges, over time things would change as a newer and younger group of women rappers emerged to challenge male dominance in rap music. This fresh group of female artists would eventually start to reverse the misogynistic imagery as presented in hip-hop culture up until that point.

One of things that help expedite the serious arrival and visibility of female rappers in France in the late 1990s was the sudden rise of women in American hip-hop. Artists such as Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliot were breaking sales records and winning multiple Grammy awards as they changed the sound and redirected the landscape of rap music in the United States. The emergence of American female rappers was hardly a new concept, as earlier popular artists paved the way in the late 1980s. Female rappers such as Queen Latifah helped to diversity the genre with empowering songs such as “Ladies First,” a track whose lyrics and Afrocentric feminist narrative celebrated the contributions of women in hip-hop and in society, as this example shows (from Berry: 193):

Who said the ladies couldn’t make it, you must be blind

If you don’t believe, well here, listen to this rhyme

Ladies first, there’s no time to rehearse

I’m divine and my mind expands throughout the universe

A female rapper with the message to send

The Queen Latifah is a perfect specimen.

Stimulated by this new wave of women artists gaining prominence and respect in American hip-hop, things started to evolve in France as well. In the late 1990s, a rapper from the French-Caribbean island of Guadeloupe named Lady Laistee (née: Aline Farran) emerged onto the scene. Her last name “Laistee” means “style” when the word is reversed and restated in Verlan, which is a linguistic code that is spoken by urban youths in France. After working alongside one of the pioneer groups of French hip-hop (NTM) and issuing a few songs on compilation albums (notably “Respecte mon attitude,” which appeared on the release entitled “Cool Sessions 2”), Lady Laistee enjoyed popular success not previously seen for a female performer. Following this small bit of initial visibility via her contributions on those male-dominated compilations, Lady Laistee put forth a few successful albums of her own, two of which deserve denoting. For example, the first of these releases, entitled “Black Mama,” became a top selling record in France, a first for a woman rapper. The most popular track of this groundbreaking album was the song “For the ladies.” As its title suggests, the song’s lyrics challenged everyone in France who dismissed females as second-class citizens, as shown here:

Lower your arms, my status as a woman makes me excluded

The closed universe, past up, let’s share the monopoly (…)

No machismo. Step off, keep your weakness, brother,

Get back and between us all, I represent all proud sisters.[4]

The above excerpt echoes familiar themes as manifested in many songs by Lady Laistee, such as a demand for equal rights and female empowerment. This technique was previously used by artists in the United States. Weekes (147) maintains that American rappers such as Queen Latifah and later Missy Elliot were re-appropriating hip-hop music and producing their own responses to the “masculinized containing of femininity” by using hip-hop to educate the masses and create a place where women could portray themselves on their own terms. It is from these established American female artists that their French cousines (female cousins) would draw their inspiration. The song “For the ladies” as well as several others from Lady Laistee’s album Black Mama received massive airplay in France, making her the first French female artist to rise up and challenge male dominance on a large commercialized scale; whether in the industry or French society in general. In addition to rapping about the subject of sexism from the point of view of a woman of color, Lady Laistee also followed the usual thematic trends as established by male hip-hop artists in France. For example, subjects such as racism, acculturation, exclusion, and marginalization form the traditional rubric of le rap français and Lady Laistee also discussed these topics in several of her songs. The following excerpt from the song “Black Mama” (a track that addresses the disparities and exclusion facing French-Caribbean migrants in France) demonstrates this point:

Born in the tropics, my domain is the DOM-TOM

Until I was taken far from my home sweet home

I took an eight-hour flight to become metropolitan

Métro, police hatred, suburbs, hardly had it better (…)

We used to play with those who insulted us, I stood up for myself

It was from all of that where I became conscientious of the color that I am.[5]

The discussion of one’s ethnocultural identity and marginalized social position is a frequent topic found in French hip-hop. The above lyrical example shows that Lady Laistee also used rap music in order to protest against majority society or send out a social message, albeit from a women’s perspective. Further lyrics throughout the song “Black Mama” address the realities of downward mobility and exclusion as faced by immigrant women in France in particular, including those residents coming from the overseas départements and territoires (known as the DOM-TOM). Despite their lack of traditional immigrant status (they are French citizens in full), people from the Caribbean and Indian Ocean colonies are frequently marginalized in mainland France. Similar to immigrants from French-speaking regions of Africa, Caribbean residents also tend to live in the socially disadvantaged suburbs of Paris and other cities where they are faced with racism, low educational attainment vis-à-vis the majority culture, as well as constant suspicion by the police. Unemployment figures amongst youths of color aged 15–25 years old in many Paris suburbs are estimated to range upwards to 85 percent, with women being the most underrepresented in terms of jobs and upward mobility (Kokoreff; Mallière).

Unlike the few female artists who came before her, Lady Laistee was able to sustain her fame for a few years. Her follow-up album to Black Mama was entitled “Hip-hop Therapy” and this new release featured several songs promoting the empowerment of women, as well as discussing the lack of rights concerning females of color in general. The two most popular tracks of this new album were the songs “Diamant noir” (“Black Diamond,” a track where she reflects on the nostalgia of growing up in as a woman of color in the downtrodden Paris suburbs) and “Un peu de respect” (“A little bit of respect”). Both songs received considerable airplay in French radio. The track “Un peu de respect” was intentionally modeled after the famous 1960s feminist anthem “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, even going as far as to sample its background music and beat. This enabled Lady Laistee’s single to be immediately recognizable to listeners. Moreover, lyrics from “Un peu de respect” follow the exact same trajectory as the earlier empowering song by Aretha Franklin. In other words, respect for females is both demanded and expected in a society where women should be treated as equals. Throughout the entirety of the track, female listeners are instructed to stand up, speak loudly, and believe in one another, as shown here:

We’re asking for a little respect

Come on, we’re going to teach you how to stand tall

In our world, don’t expect us to wait any longer to be heard

Because we believe in ourselves (…)

The stone age is over, we’re precious gemstones,

That will break things apart, we hit hard (…)

Let us sisters talk.[6]

Later parts of the song further echo this sort of powerful refrain of shaking and breaking up this system as a means of appealing for female unity and empowerment. For example, Lady Lastee reminds her listeners to let “the haters hate when it comes to our future” (“On laisse baver les bavards sur notre futur”) and to allow women to talk for themselves (e.g. “laisse parler des soeurs”). The premise of this song is to demand true equality for all women, because they are setting their sights on new goals in order to create a female-centered history that will be as good as that of their forefathers. This is highlighted when Lady Laistee raps “on vire nos repères pour égaler nos pères” (we’ll be as good as our fathers). There are good reasons for this sort of demand. In a country with such intense gender inequality and imbalance, empowering lyrics such as are intended to resonate with female listeners and inform them that despite the positive developments of recent decades, much more work needs to be done.

Similar to Queen Latifah in early American hip-hop, Lady Laistee’s massive success opened the door for future female rappers. Other artists soon followed in her footsteps as the genre further developed during the first decade of the 2000s. However, not all women rappers would receive the same type of popular and critical acclaim. The most famous female “rappeuse” who immediately followed Lady Laistee was an artist known as Bams. Born in France of Cameroonian parents, Bams (née: Rita Bamsoukoisant) was an outstanding scholar and athlete in her adolescent years who later became attracted to hip-hop as a teenager. Similar to previous female rappers, Bams also appeared on compilations that featured emerging artists, and she was the only woman who with a track on the hardcore rap album entitled “Hostile hip-hop.” Bams differed from other women rappers in the sense that her lyrical narrative was more radical in form, which mimicked the approach used by popular male hardcore artists at that time. This was not surprising considering that she released songs under the tutelage of the same management company that worked with artists such as NTM, a frequently banned hardcore group who has made a career out of tackling controversial issues dealing with race and class in France, often with very forceful and direct language. Bams’ debut album “Vivre ou mourir” (“Live or Die”) did exceptionally well in regard to radio airplay, and from this release came the powerful song “Douleur de femme” (“Women’s’ Pain”). The thematic approach of this track focuses on direct and explicit feminist militancy; one that is far greater in scope than what was stated by Lady Laistee and others. In this track, Bams raps “je fais mes thèses bien exposées” (“I expose my theses well”), and further lyrics explicitly delineate sexism as they concern the male-described historical role of women in society, as shown here:

           Nothing has changed, history repeats itself

           Violated, all (women/stories) has been perpetuated

           No matter the offense, women are the star (i.e. to blame)

           Eve’s sin due to a very stupid husband

           Who was an idiot, too stupid, with a gluttonous taste

           (And) that so-called evil magnetized (influenced) everyone (…)

           Women at the dawn of 2000: The marks the history leave indelible traces

           Whatever the decade, we are treated the same way

           Always more beautiful, yet more servile.[7]

In addition to the above example, later lyrics from “Douleur de femme” further elaborate on subjects of rape and violence against women. Female listeners are instructed to understand that firm resistance to these things is not solely their duty, but one that is the responsibility of all of humanity, when Bams raps: “ce n’est pas un geste, ni une cause feministe, juste un sentiment de devoir humaniste” (“it’s neither a feminist cause nor gest, just a feeling of humanist obligation”). An additional refrain from this song aims to unite all women together as one in order to resist the uneven and subordinate categorization of females everywhere on Earth: “unis, l’ensemble des femmes,” or “united, all together as women.” The song “Douleur de femme” fared very well commercially, and its accompanying videoclip visually showed viewers that is not just male artists who could take a more militant approach to rhyming about negative societal ills. Bams made sure to remind everyone who listened that women also have something to say on the matter their subordinated position.

Additional tracks from the album “Vivre ou mourir” such as “Pas cool” feature lyrics that address sexism and gender imbalances directed towards women: “J’veux pas être jolie, fais chier d’être une fille” (“I don’t wanna be pretty, it sucks to be a girl”), whilst other releases on the same album such as (“Moi, ma violence” or “My Own Violence”) take a more direct approach. In the latter song, Bams suggests that working-class females of color (about whom she raps as those women being “on the bottom, those women who have nothing”) should revolt and resist against the systematic discrimination they face. Direct, hard-hitting tracks such as these made Bams the first true hardcore female rapper, and her approach has been further copied and emulated by others in recent years, notably by the contemporary Marseille-based radical artist Keny Arcana. Bams was a very popular and rappeuse whose lyrics were far more revolutionary than the time when they were released in the 1990s, when women in French hip-hop avoided confrontational thematic subject matter. In other words, despite the fact that male artists had been addressing themes of social resistance to the political order for years, Bams was the first female rapper to cast away any reluctance to tackle these subjects in the same fashion as men in French hip-hop, which was atypical for a woman artist. Although she received critical acclaim for her work, Bams’ popularity was short-lived and she did not enjoy the same amount of sustained commercial success as Lady Laistee. After Bams’ success waned, she moved to other educational-type projects that have had a lasting impact. Amongst other things, Bams became the co-founder and later editor of Respect Magazine, which is a popular bi-monthly magazine whose target audience is youth of color in France. Several years would pass until another female would gain any sort of popular visible prominence in French hip-hop.


Teaching from the Platform of a Mégastar

The immediate years following Bams’ success did not see the emergence of any notable female rap talent on a grand scale, though a little-known rapper by the name of Diam’s (née: Mélanie Georgiades) started gaining notoriety for her unique rhyming, smooth lyrical delivery, and stylistic technique. Diam’s would soon become the highest-grossing female rapper ever seen in French hip-hop to date, and one of the best-selling Francophone musical artists of all time. Born in Cyprus of a French mother and a Cypriot father, Diam’s moved to Essone in the Paris suburbs when she was very young. She came of age up in the disadvantaged “banlieues” (urban–suburbs) at the same time when French rap started to explode in popularity in the early 1990s. When she was an adolescent, Diam’s started writing and performing and she was quickly noticed by small record labels. Similar to other artists who came before her, Diam’s would also be first gain acclaim after she was featured in tracks or albums released by male rappers (in her case by Les Neg Marrons and Black Mozart). After a few solo releases that were mildly received by the public in terms of their very modest sales and airplay, Diam’s finally evolved from the rap underground in 2003 with her own album entitled “Brut de femme,” (“Crude Woman”). This particular release was autobiographical in nature and one that tackled many women’s issues head on, such as domestic violence, marital problems, and gender discrimination in employment, amongst others. Once the album hit the airwaves, “Brut de femme” became one of the top selling French hip-hop releases of all time, and its crossover appeal helped Diam’s win a “Victoire” award for “Best Rap Album of 2004” (a first by a female artist). This sort of visibility and commercial success enabled Diam’s to cement her status as a major player in the French hip-hop scene.[8] However, despite her preliminary success, even greater things lied ahead for her. For example, it was her next album, entitled “Dans ma bulle” (“In my Bubble”) that would set a new standard, not only for female artists, but for French hip-hop in general. The subject matter of this new release did not shy away from discussing contentious matters as they affect women and others from ethnocultural communities. The thematic matter of her newest songs addressed, discussed, and deconstructed divisive topics such as racism and sexism in France. Diam’s was fully cognizant of her growing popularity and she used this public platform as a lectern in which to educate the entire French public about the status of women and young people of color living in disadvantaged and marginalized communities across the country.

Upon its release, “Dans ma bulle” quickly rose up the charts where it quickly became the top selling album in France in 2006 (of all musical genres). In addition to gender, Diam’s takes on the subject of one’s identity and social position in France since these topics are repetitive refrains amongst nearly all artists in le hip-hop français. Several songs from “Dans ma bulle” addressed the marginalization of immigrant youths, albeit from a feminist and humanist perspective, as this excerpt from “Ma France à moi” (“My France”) demonstrates:

This is not my France, this deep France

The one that shames us and wishes that we submerse ourselves

My France does not live in the lie

With heart and rage, we’re in the light, not in the shadows (…)

My France is all mixed together, yeah, it’s a rainbow,

My France bothers you, I know, because it does not want you as a model.

France is a country that is deeply divided by race. High concentrations of immigrants and people of color reside in the impoverished suburban areas surrounding Paris, cramped into small apartments located in high-rise complexes known as “cités.” Kokoreff, Marlière, and Thomas state that youths from these areas suffer from institutional discrimination, low educational attainment, high unemployment, all of which contribute to feelings is disillusionment and malaise. All of these issues are the primary themes featured in the song “Ma France à moi,” albeit from a female perspective. What separates female artists from their males is their broader focus on issues that go far beyond the usual lyrical tropes that center on racial and cultural discrimination as the central thematic refrain. According to Rose (Black Noise, The Hip-Hop Wars), women rappers tend to discuss social issues from a far less revolutionary perspective than is often the case with male rappers, choosing instead to focus on more humanistic themes. Diam’s is no exception to confronting personal and social issues, and she does so by rapping empowering messages in her songs and their accompanying videos. This sort of pedagogical and philosophical narrative was previously used successfully by Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill, amongst other female rappers in the United States (Rose, “Black Noise,” “The Hip-Hop Wars”).

The second major release by Diam’s also tackled a broad range of social issues, many of which had never before been discussed so openly in French music, no matter the genre. Topics such as teen suicide, relationships, anxiety, dating, eating disorders, and body image were featured as major themes in many songs, all of which were accompanied by popular music videos. Additionally, more radio-friendly feminist topics were also covered on this new album, such as what one hears in the song “Jeune démoiselle cherche mec mortel” (“Young Lady seeks Cool Dude”), a song whose subject matter revolves around women looking for an ideal partner, but with a small twist: Females seize and maintain control of the power dynamic of mate selection and dating (not males, with this theme being further emphasized visually in the track’s official video). In the single and videoclip, the men to whom Diam’s makes reference are told to be courteous towards women and to treat them well, as illustrated in this line: “Mon mec a des valeurs et du respect pour ses soeurs” (“my guy has values and respects his sisters”).[9] Further lyrics from “Jeune démoiselle” echo similar points when Diam’s raps: “In my dreams, my guy speaks to me very low, when he writes letters to me he writes like Booba” (Booba is a famous artist in French hip-hop). The song and video presentation were both extremely popular on French music charts, where they remained for several weeks.

Other tracks from “Dans ma bulle” contain similar lyrics that demand a reconfiguration of gender imbalances. For example, lines from the popular song “La Boulette” proclaim “y a comme un goût de boum boum dans le coeur de mes soeurs” (“there are exploding feelings in the hearts of my sisters”) that serve to pay homage to the growing unity amongst women of color in France.[10] Furthermore, the song goes on to address some of the dangers facing females in the disadvantaged suburbs of Paris, as this example shows:

Kinda tastes like rape when I walk around my city.

Kinda tastes like fear for us chicks in the 2000s

Kinda tastes like pot in the oxygen we breathe,

Don’t ask me what breaks your balls.

I ain’t like 911, I’m just a young girl who hustles well.[11]

After first naming some of the distractions that affect women of color in poor neighborhoods on a daily basis (e.g., rape, fear of walking freely without being harassed, drugs), Diam’s states how she is able to navigate the contours of her environment because she “hustles well” as a means to survive. All of the subject matter discussed in “La boulette” serves as an educational rallying point that call for other women to mimic this sort of aggressive reactionary approach (i.e., hustle and fight back). Further lines from the song go on to get to the cause of the sexist and racist social ills that plague marginalized communities. Diam’s asks her listeners to reject the educational curricula in France that minimizes any contributions that deviate from a Euro-linear narrative when she raps: “nan nan c’est pas l’école qui nous a dictée nos codes” (“no no, school hasn’t taught us how to be”). The “us” in this excerpt makes reference to women of color in particular, as they are often in a triple or quadruple minority position vis-à-vis majority society (e.g. language, status, race, and gender). Additional lyrics from “La boulette” highlight generational differences in France when Diam’s describes the rebelling adolescents of her contemporary era as belonging to “la génération nan-nan” (“generation no-no,” which is a repetitive and continual refrain throughout the track). On other words, Génération nan-nan rejects the usual schematic norms of France as dictated by adults from previous eras, as they prefer to rewrite the rules of French society in a way that benefits youths within it.

What makes Diam’s stand out from earlier female artists such as Lady Laistee has been her mass appeal across gender, class, and racial lines. At her peak during the first decade of the 2000s, her popularity was unrivalled (to date), and record sales and chart dominance of all of her releases reflected this reality. However, constant touring and endless hassling by the French media forced her to retreat from recording and take a two-year sabbatical until 2009 when she released “S.O.S.” Similar to her previous releases, the new album by Diam’s also featured tracks that addressed controversial and contemporary themes in France, but with some new twists. For example, in addition to gender, race, and class, religious differences were included in many songs. Perhaps, the most famous track from this album is “Lili,” a song that discusses the organization of female immigrants and Muslim women in French society:

France for me is nothing but a very large hospital,

I spend my life in isolation since they told me I’m wrong sick (e.g. negative media coverage)

I do not deserve that because they kept me from my studies, from my education

This (i.e. France) is not a secular nation, it is one that fears getting ill (…)

So, because I am a converted woman, and I wear the veil.

This song confronts the Islamophobia that divides France, a fact that Diam’s labels as societal “illness.” Kokoreff argues that youths of color in France (and Muslims in particular) have few prospects of success, and thus are condemned to fail by the system. In other words, Diam’s raps that this type of societal exclusion is contributing to a social separation in France, a country that is becoming sick. This deepening dichotomy is dividing French society in many ways, with both sides adopting increasingly hard attitudes when compared to the other. In recent years (and especially since 2015), that sort of divisiveness has been exploited as a recruiting tool by international organizations that promote terror against State institutions as a means to an end (as shown in the recent attacks on the periodical Charlie Hebdo and the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice). Topical matter such as this appears throughout “Lili,” as Diam’s warned listeners about how the potential dangers of racism and exclusion can be divisive in more harmful ways.

As Diam’s has evolved and matured as an artist, her commitment to making life better for women and others who face obstacles from French majority society has increased substantially. Unlike other performers in the music industry in France, Diam’s has dedicated the majority of her royalties from the sale of the album “S.O.S.” to her foundation (entitled the “Big Up Project”), which provides support and funding for youth centers and non-governmental organizations that work with adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa. However, in the years following the success of “S.O.S.,” Diam’s once again withdrew from the spotlight. She resurfaced during an interview on a popular talk shown broadcast on the French television network TF-1 (in 2012) where she announced her indefinite sabbatical from hip-hop. It remains to be seen if she will stage a comeback in the future. Despite this new pause from recording, Diam’s remains the most successful rappeuse in France, as well as being one of the most popular female artists of all time in French music. Despite the massive popularity that she has achieved as a mégastar, Diam’s has made a career out of resisting being placed in any sort of set category concerning gender stereotypes, choosing instead to project a more positive outer image that contrasts her style from other female artists and musicians.


Anarchist Education and Le rap radical

Despite the wide commercial success of Diam’s, female hip-hop artists in France rarely choose to emulate the more radical side of the music put forth by their male counterparts, with Bams being a notable exception. That type of revolutionary rap, known in French as le rap hardcore, features songs with themes that center on discrimination, invisibility, and alienation with stated goals to encourage and teach listeners to resist and fight against the divisive system by any means necessary. Although we have shown that female rappers have not shied away from addressing subjects that discuss racism and despair among youth of color, they have typically avoided having a true “pure et dure” revolutionary pedagogical approach in their music. Aside from Bams, women in French hip-hop have preferred to employ a more delicate approach to their message; one to which all sectors of French society can relate. However, the arrival of a Marseille-based radical artist named Keny Arkana broke this pre-established schema. In fact, her entire musical repertoire tackles more controversial subjects in a revolutionary and political type of way, whereas previous artists resisted political labels and rapped about issues from a more humanistic perspective.

Keny Arkana’s first forays into hip-hop music came via her participation in an underground group from Marseille named État-Major. This assemblage released several mix-tapes and vinyl tracks and went on to gain a small underground following that caught the attention of small record companies. However, none of these productions received much airplay. In the poor and working-class areas of Marseille, a small radical collective known as “La rage du peuple” (“People’s Rage”) was formed to protest a variety of global issues that affected youth negatively, with Keny Arkana being one of the founding members. In fact, it was her participation with this anarchist group that would eventually serve to motivate her music and career. Following her participation with “la Rage” and État-Major, Keny Arkana launched a solo career and the thematic narrative of her lyrics has been far more forceful than what has traditionally been the case amongst female rappers in France. For example, her songs focus on topics that relate to or juxtaposed with anti-globalism and anarchist movements, albeit as seen through a feminist lens.

Her first album, entitled “Le missile est lancé” (“The Missile is Launched”) contains songs with themes that concentrate on a variety of left-of-center subjects dealing with globalism, capitalism, climate change, the Zapatista movement in Mexico, genetically modified foods (GMOs), and subjects as they relate to racism. In terms of stylistic delivery, Keny Arkana raps by employing direct language that is angry, forceful, violent, and more aggressive than any previous female artist. For example, she openly encourages revolt and protest by all available means and she refuses to be aligned with any larger political entity or ideology aside from those that are strategically allied with her own vision. Although women rappers in French have tackled so-called controversial themes and subjects in their lyrics, none have openly and repeatedly encouraged revolt and civil disobedience against the State by being aligned ideologically with political anarchist movements. Previous female artists such as Diam’s and Bams focused on issues as they involved women of color living exclusively in France, whereas Keny Arkana concentrates on international protest movements and the juxtaposition of feminism and liberation in France with a global struggle for rights. This important distinction makes her stand out from other rappers. That said, despite this sort of revolutionary and aggressive approach, Keny Arkana’s lyrics also express a positive effect since her messages are based in education and social activism, without concentrating on or glorifying petty street crime or social deviance that masquerades as resistance.

Perhaps, Keny Arkana’s most well-known song echoes her social involvement. “La rage du peuple” (“People’s Rage”) is a track that channels the anger of the anti-globalism movement, as it pays homage to the very anti-capitalist and openly anarchist organization that she founded in Marseille. Lyrics from “La rage” (along with its accompanying video, which shows clips from anti-globalism protests from around the world) outline the frustrations that anti-globalist groups have vis-à-vis the current world order. The song’s stated pedagogical goal is to educate uninformed listeners about how a variety of topics directly affect them in their day-to-day lives. In “La rage,” Keny Arkana makes a plea for her listeners to direct their anger into a “rage” as they learn more about how they can topple and demolish the current system, as shown here:

Because we are enraged, we will stand up to everything,

The rage to go through to the end to the place where we want to lead our lives (…)

Anti-capitalist, anti-globalist, or wherever you’re seeking the truth about the world,

The resistance of tomorrow. Inshallah on the eve of a revolution. Globally and spiritually,

The rage of the people, la rabbia del pueblo; because we’re enraged,

The type that will shake up your norms. Rage has taken over the people and the rage is huge.[12]

Later in the same track, she even goes as far to express her anger about genetically modified food (GMO) when she raps “La rage, car c’est la merde et ce que ce monde y adhère, et parce que tous leurs champs OGM stérilisent la Terre” (“Rage, it’s this shit this whole world adheres to, and because all of their GMO fields sterilize the Earth”). Despite this sort of strong narrative, it is important to note that Keny Arkana does not endorse any sort of hate towards those in power. For example, in the same song she goes on to say: “On a la rage, pas la haine. La haine est inerte et destructrice” (“We have rage, not hate. Hate is inert and destructive”).[13]

The type of forceful and confrontational thematic discourse shown in tracks like “La rage” separate Keny Arkana from other female rap artists in France since her message is not as much concerned with the unity of woman solely on gender lines alone as much as it focuses on unifying and educating the entire working class against the French government and its ties to corporate interests. Keny Arkana has not developed a massive following along the lines of Diam’s since she is not very comfortable being labeled as a rappeuse in the commercial or artistic sense, though she is conscious of her place as an activist-teacher. For example, during an interview with the French radio network RFI, she once stated: “Je dis que je ne suis pas une rappeuse contestataire, mais une contestataire qui fait du rap” (“I am not a radical rapper, but rather a radical teacher who raps”).[14] Even though this choice may limit Keny Arkana’s overall popularity as it concerns album sales, it solidifies her reputation as a true radical-type educator in French hip-hop.


Discussion and Conclusion: the Future

It is unclear how women involved with hip-hop music in France will continue to evolve and develop as the music becomes more and more commercialized and commodified by industry marketers and advertisers. To use the United States as an example, aside from a few notable exceptions, women have been all but erased from mainstream rap music in recent years, and educational-style conscious hip-hop is not seen as commercially viable by Hollywood record executives. Contemporary male artists in the United States are presented to consumers via presentations that endorse concepts of the male gaze. Furthermore, the Grammy Awards mirrors this type of gender invisibility in American hip-hop as it eliminated the Best Female in Rap category in 2005. Whereas women were once extremely popular and were an integral part of hip-hop in the United States though the late 1990s, women are now once again hypersexualized and stereotyped in the industry. Moreover, in terms of American rap music, females in general continue to be the victims of misogynistic lyrical and visual presentations put forth by male rappers in their lyrics, songs, and videos. This sort of sexism even occurs among best-selling female hip-hop artists in the contemporary era. In 2015, Nicki Minaj’s choice to self-promote her “brand” via the use of misogynist body imagery on her recent album differs starkly from the feminist and Afrocentric powerful presentation once employed by female rappers such as Queen Latifah. In France, this type of negative imagery is far less common. That said, blatant sexism is not invisible when best-selling contemporary French hip-hop artists (such as Booba) freely label women as “putains” (whores) in many songs and the use of misogyny to sell records is on the rise. Furthermore, despite good visibility in terms of album sales and airplay, women in French hip-hop remain marginalized by an industry that favors males. Although men continue to dominate rap music in France in terms of per capita release percentages, female rappers have shown that they can sell records and they are extremely popular when they are fully promoted by record companies. In other words, feminist messages resonate when they are heard and given full industry support and commercial airplay, and women rappers are able to be noticed because of the unique subject matter of their rap counteracts and confronts sexism in France. This sort of feminist lyrical protest follows a well-established traditional French schema of resisting via poetry, stories, plays, and now hip-hop songs.

Our study is not exhaustive and it is our hope that this study stimulates researchers into examining similar topics for further academic investigations. As additional subject worth research would be to measure the effectiveness of feminist rapped messages in terms of how well they are being received and understood (or not) by consumers. Additional scholarly work is also needed in terms of measuring whether or not hip-hop consumers in France are listening to what is being rapped to them, or if they are merely hearing it. In short, further explorations could examine whether or not people are paying attention to the issues and subjects brought forth by these artists, and discern what the result of this “education” might be. Moreover, an analysis of other French music styles in terms of feminist-inspired songs or lyrics (perhaps juxtaposed against hip-hop) is also worthy of academic research.

The four artists briefly examined in this essay use the medium of French rap as a way in which to provide females agency in a socially expressive pedagogical space. This sort of “rapped classroom” is one where artists educate listeners whilst also denouncing patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes, whilst at the same time raising awareness as they concern issues that relate to the experience of women of color in France. In other words, the sense of “place” as defined in rap music is dissected and discussed from a female perspective, just as it once was in American rap during its commercially conscious era. When evaluated under contemporary norms, female lyricists have played an important role in French rap as hip-hop philosophers by offering their students (consumers) a uniquely feminine view and perspective to a variety of issues affecting women of color in France that otherwise may not be heard, discussed, exposed, or understood in a country that still has a long way to go in terms of gender equity. Although this sort of pedagogical approach via music is not unique to hip-hop music, it is the most effective method in terms of reaching females from marginalized populations whose identity and sense of belonging are often put into question by majority society.



[1] All French to English translations that appear in this paper were done by the author, unless otherwise noted.

[2] See: (retrieved Feb. 2018).

[3] The cover photo of latest single by the American hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj (entitled “Anaconda”) illustrates this aforementioned point, as the artist is featured in a misogynistic and suggestive pose that some may consider as sexist and/or degrading to women. The thematic idea of this photo was made by Nicki Minaj herself (as she stated in radio/television interviews). However, this decision may have also been endorsed by the advice from her producers and record company management.

[4] All song lyrics that appear in this paper have been translated by the author and have not been published elsewhere in English. To reference the track’s original words in French, see:

[5]Ibid. To reference the track’s original words in French, see:

[6]Ibid. To reference the track’s original words in French, see:

[7] Ibid. To reference the track’s original words in French, see:

[8]The Victoires de la Musique are the French equivalent to the Grammy Awards in the United States.

[9]All song lyrics that appear in this paper have been translated by the author and have not been published elsewhere in English. To reference the track’s original words in French, see:

[10] Ibid. To reference the track’s original words in French, see:

[11] Ibid. To reference the track’s original words in French, see:

[12] Ibid. To reference the track’s original words in French, see:

[13]An interesting footnote to the above excerpt is Keny Arkana’s linguistic insertion (code-switching) of Arabic and Spanish into her lyrical delivery. This is typical across French hip-hop and it is especially acute for rappers hailing from the very diverse city of Marseille.

[14] See: (retrieved: 12 Feb. 2018).



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