Rap is like Marmite", says Sarah Custance. "You either like it or you don't." At the end of a session with Djoloff, a French rap group, Sarah and her friends in Year 10 at Roundhay school in Leeds are pleasantly surprised. The comparison with Marmite is rejected: they want to try it.
Djoloff is just one of a number of rap groups brought over by the French Music Bureau to work in inner-city Action Zone schools. They are all top-flight groups who are touring United Kingdom venues at the same time. Young students can interview them, and the more adventurous can create a rap. The FMB would like UK students to research the potential of rap in their area and help promote the band.
The Djoloff rappers are from Senegal, a former French colony, and nothing they sing about has anything to do with American ghettoes. Group spokesman Mbegane Ndour tells his audience that rap is actually the authentic voice of Africa. It is called Lawane and the group's rapping is positive, life-affirming stuff. Mbegane and his rappers want to emphasise the roots of rap.
Questions are fired at them - in French. How did an African group come to be in Paris? Have they ever experienced racism? Mbegane remembers how many times he was told to show his identity card in the space of five minutes at a railway station and his audience is stunned. If the group could have a guest singer who would it be? The answer is Bob Marley.
When they rap, the words seem to un out of their mouths. One is tapping a drum, their bodies are swaying. Their voices are percussive and rythmic and nothing is harsh or repetitive. Alistair Jarmin, a teacher at Primrose Hill school, is delighted that Djoloff's rapping is not American, which "often has brutal lyrics and is very demeaning to women".
His Year 10 French students have been working on a rap. They have the words and now the Djoloff rappers will each take a group and help them put the words to music. It is instructive to watch students James McGawley and Terry Miller. They are struggling and then, suddenly, they are not. One of the rappers has chanted the lines for them and the boys are picking out his rhythm. They are no longer stiff, their voices are striking. They are still sitting on chairs but their bodies move; they are almost dancing.
"He told us to move," explains James. "We seemed to pick up the rhythm and then it was quite easy."
THE French Music Bureau is very selective with the groups it sponsors, weeding out rappers who use colloquial French, or bad language, or who have created their own speech. CDs and tapes of the approved groups are available.
To host a rap group contact Marie Agnes Beau, French Music Bureau, 23 Cromwell Road, London SW7 2EL. Tel: 020 7838 2043.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or Marie Doublier, Delegation Culturelle Francaise, Bridegwater House, 58 Whitworth Street, Manchester M1 6LS. Tel: 0161 236 7117. E-mail: email@example.com