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The Persistence of Solaar

Written By: Jonathan Haddad on October 20, 2010 1 Comment

Eohippus_bw

In Stephen Jay Gould’s (1992) enlightening collection of popular science essays, Bully for Brontosaurus, he traces the evolution of a simile through school science textbooks from the 19th century on.  He wonders how it happened that the “dawn horse,” eohippus, became linked in size to the fox terrier, despite such a reference being in no way relevant to the contemporary biology student:  “The breed is no longer so popular, and I suspect that most writers, like me, have only the vaguest impression about such fox terriers when they copy the venerable simile.” (p. 164)

This story stuck with me, perhaps because I suspected that much of my high school education reflected a similar degree of fossilized knowledge passed on through the California-and-Texas-approved textbooks.  At least the dissections were fun.

Teaching French today, I cannot help but think of this passage about eohippus whenever I think about using MC Solaar in the French classroom.

I first encountered MC Solaar during my participation in a junior-year-abroad program in France; it was the 1993-94 academic year.  Upon my return to my home undergraduate institution, I found he had become wildly popular among my peers.  Those of us who knew French, in particular, rejoiced over the wordplay (Je suis l’as de trèfle qui pique ton cœur,” par exemple) which was evocative of the best of Gainsbourg, but with a (then) contemporary hip-hop sound.

It is not hard to see why MC Solaar is a French teacher’s dream:  The kids love the rap, but with songs about Le Sida (HIV), violence on television, and life in Les HLM (the housing projects), MC Solaar carries a socially conscious message — not one of those “gangsta” rappers all about money, champagne and garden tools.  And what self-respecting French teacher couldn’t buy into a guy whose lyrics play on complex grammatical structure?  “Hostile à mon style j’ai filé passé composé pour créer le plus que parfait.”

But that was the 1990s.  For comparison purposes, at the time of the release of MC Solaar’s breakout Prose Combat, Diddy was still Sean “Puffy” Combs, Snoop Dogg was still “Snoop Doggy Dog”, Will Smith hadn’t yet saved the world from mass destruction, and Notorious B.I.G. and Outkast had both come out with their debut albums.

Since that time, MC Solaar has served on the jury of the 1998 Cannes film festival alongside Martin Scorsese, and he has produced a couple of brilliant forays into French exoticism (under the guise of multiculturalism, as usual):

I have no hard data on this, but current French textbooks that place MC Solaar on the same level as Nicolas Sarkozy in terms of noteworthy cultural figures and my own liberal use of MC Solaar during my first year of teaching, suggest to me that MC Solaar is the go-to representative of the genre of French rap in today’s classrooms.

Is this a bad thing?  My recent textbook encounter with MC Solaar led me to weigh this issue.  It reminded me, as well, of the time I unsuccessfully devised a unit to introduce social issues in sub/urban France through contemporary rap.  Upon my attempt to scaffold the unit through a discussion of the emergence of U.S. rap — after all, I came of age in the era of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five — a student kindly informed me: “Umm… when we think about rap, we think about Flo Rida… no one really listens to Mos Def.”

Teaching French rap, in fact, speaks to the problems of teacher identity and teaching culture in the language classroom.  Everyday, I worry that my understanding of what’s contemporary and relevant in French music is out-of-date, and that surfing on Radio France Internationale only furthers my plunge into a stale, officially sanctioned version of French culture.  A former advisor told me I might want to consult this new phenomenon called Le Slam, of which Grand corps malade and Abd Al Malik are the most notable artisans.  However, is it even in the interest of my students to try to be so topical?  Are we, as language teachers, rather better off returning time and again to our own references: the singers and pop stars who influenced us when we were students?

As Diam’s would say, we may really only ever be teaching Ma France à moi:

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One Response to “The Persistence of Solaar”

  1. Usree Bhattacharya on: 28 October 2010 at 9:14 am

    Hi Jonathan, I’m wondering, could you speak some more about how you first encountered ‘Solaaar in your French class? What did it tell you about your teacher(s) who selected ‘Solaar to bring you some French “culture”?

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