MONTREAL — As pungent pot smoke filled the air in a bunkerlike, dimly-lit basement recording studio in Montreal, the Quebec rapper Snail Kid pondered a question befitting these pandemic times: What word rhymes with Purell?
Mulling how to fit the hand sanitizer into his latest rap lyric, he considered the English words “well,” “smell” and “toaster strudel” before toying with the French words “pluriel ” and “ruelle.”
Then, Snail Kid, 30, a member of the popular Quebec hip-hop group, “Dead Obies,” began to rap:
Le monde ici est cruel
On n’est plus well
(The world here is cruel. We are no longer well.)
“Now everyone is going to be competing to find the best rhyme for ‘quarantine’ or ‘corona,’” mused Snail Kid, whose real name is Gregory Beaudin. Mr. Beaudin grew up speaking the native English language of his Jamaican-born father, a reggae singer, as well as the French of his Montreal-born mother, a French teacher.
The bilingual wordplay in the cavernous recording studio reflected how the coronavirus has changed not only how we live, but popular culture. It was also notable for another reason particular to Montreal: The group was rapping in Franglais or “Frenglish,” mixing English and French with artistic abandon that irks some purists.
The Dead Obies are part of a new generation of young Quebec hip-hop artists who meld the language of Shakespeare and Voltaire with the urban poetry of Montreal’s street life and the bling-bling, drug-fueled themes of some American hip-hop.
Other artists of this generation are Loud and FouKi.
To their legions of fans, the groups give voice to the bilingual vernacular of a multicultural city, marinated by its past French and British rulers, the forces of globalization and successive waves of immigration.
“Franglais rappers reflect that the younger generation in Quebec don’t care about old orthodoxies and are open to the world,” said Sugar Sammy, a Quebec comedian with Punjabi roots who became a global sensation after pioneering a bilingual comedy show.
But they have also spawned a backlash in Quebec, a majority French-speaking province, where critics have castigated them as self-colonizers who are “creolizing” the French language and threatening its future.
And they have lost out on lucrative federal government funding for Francophone artists because their content wasn’t French enough.
Mathieu Bock-Côté, a sociologist and influential columnist at Le Journal de Montréal, said Franglais rappers were a worrying sign that the younger generation in Quebec had lost sight of the fragility of the French language in the city and were turning to English as a default to show emotion and express themselves.
“Franglais is a slippery slope toward Anglicization,” he said. “These bourgeois-bohemian adolescents who think speaking English or Franglais will make Montreal into a New York are deluded because it is the French language that gives the city its cachet.”
“Without French, Montreal would be Pittsburgh,” he added.
Questions of language are inextricably bound up with identity in Quebec, a province of about 8.5 million people where the British minority exerted its language and culture after Quebec was ceded to Britain in 1763 following France’s defeat in the Seven Years’ War.
French-speakers of a certain age can still recall being admonished by members of the Anglophone minority at factories to “speak white,” or speak English.
Today, language laws require that French be the official language of government, business and the courts.
Concerned that the Franglais greeting of “Bonjour-hi” was becoming too ubiquitous in Montreal shops and restaurants, the Quebec government in late 2017 passed a nonbinding resolution calling for shopkeepers to say only “Bonjour” instead.
A French citizen was recently denied a certificate she needed to settle permanently in Quebec. Her offense? Writing a chapter of her doctoral thesis in English rather than in French. After an outcry, the right-leaning Quebec government granted her the document.
It ruled that using “grilled-cheese” on menus instead of the more long-winded “sandwich au fromage fondant” would not breach Quebec’s language rules, while cocktail, drag queen, and haggis were also deemed acceptable in French.
At the same time, the watchdog has been successful at encouraging Quebecers to say “courriel” instead of the pervasive English word “email” used by many in France.
Mr. Beaudin, who grew up in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, a working-class neighborhood in the eastern part of Montreal, said the Dead Obies hadn’t set out to make a political statement. Rather, they were merely mimicking the language and sounds of Québécois French, where words and expressions like “c’est le fun” (it’s fun) and “mon chum” (my boyfriend) were commonplace.
Brought up on English video games and Facebook, he said he and his friends didn’t have neuroses about language. Moreover, he argued, a society that attacked its artists was discriminatory, insecure and misguided.
“You can be more creative when you are rapping in two languages,” he added.
To make his point, he rapped a few lines from a Dead Obies song that switches midsentence from French to English:
Je te jure que Billie Jean is not my lover
C’est juste une fille que je meet sur le “E” dans le after hours
(I swear to you that Billie Jean is not my lover. Nope, nope. It’s just a girl I meet on E at the after-hours.)
As a biracial teenager in Montreal, Mr. Beaudin said he had been attracted to rappers like Eminem and Jay-Z and had turned to Franglais rap for cultural affirmation. Rapping in two languages spliced with street slang was also a way to revolt against a Québécois cultural elite dominated by white Francophone artists.
But he said rapping in Franglais has come at a heavy cost. The group lost subsidies of about $18,000 on their second album from a national government fund for Francophone artists because it was 55 percent French and 45 percent English.
The funding was predicated on an album having at least 70 percent French content.
The equivalent Anglophone fund stipulated that French content on an album be no more than 50 percent, making them ineligible for that, too.
“Now we count how many words we say in French or in English,” he said. “In a small domestic market like Quebec, artists need subsidies to survive.”
Nicolas Ouellet, host of a popular music show on Radio-Canada, Canada’s leading French-language radio station, said Franglais rappers were largely omitted from commercial radio stations and sneered at for not being part of Quebec’s “folklore.”
But, he said, “rather than bastardizing Québécois French, they are acting as a bridge between Quebec and the rest of North America.”
Montreal has become among the most bilingual cities in North America, alongside Miami and Los Angeles. According to 2016 national census figures, about 18 percent of Canadians speak both English and French, with Quebec driving the bilingualism.
While some guardians of the French language fear creeping bilingualism, the resistance to Franglais rap is more than just a question of language.
FouKi, a popular Quebec rapper who’s real name is Léo Fougères, observed that Franglais rapping didn’t just irritate defenders of the French language.
“My father will hear my raps and say to me, ‘Isn’t there a word for that in French?’” he said. “But other older people say to me, I don’t understand anything you say.”
Nasuna Stuart-Ulin in Montreal contributed reporting.
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