Arts From Abroad: “Le Slam” Showcases French People’s Love and Pride for French Language
When my professor told us that we would be learning about “le slam” in my course on current French issues, I misheard and thought we would be discussing “l’Islam.” Honestly, I think Islam would have appealed to me more as a topic of conversation. Poetry isn’t really my thing, slam poetry is even less so, and slam poetry in French is so far off my radar that I refused to believe it even exists. Well, I was wrong. Slam poetry is actually very popular in France, to the point of even being mainstream. So a few weeks ago I found myself sitting on a hard, overpopulated bench in a smoky, sweaty basement, attending the national finals of the slam competition “Vive La Parole libre!,” sponsored by the Association France-Quebec.
Let me tell you something about les Français: they’re very protective of their language. They have an entire government organization, the Académie Française, whose purpose is to determine what is and is not proper French in order to keep the language pure and correct. So it really isn’t surprising at all that slam poetry, insofar that it is a celebration of language, would be popular here.
I learned two things that night: 1. A Quebecois accent is highly difficult to understand, and 2. slam poetry is only acceptable in small quantities. We heard 14 different poets compete with three-minute poems, and after the fourth performer I was about ready to call it a night. The theme of the evening seemed to be the glory of Quebec, which was fitting, as the prize of the competition was a set of plane tickets to the former French colony. Shockingly, there was no mention of poutine, a regional specialty that is the most delicious and caloric dish I can think of (fries topped with cheese curds topped with gravy). I would have appreciated a little more variety in the subject matter, as there honestly aren’t all that many words that rhyme with Quebecois. Try to think of three. I dare you.
The main draw of the event was a guest appearance by slam poetry “stars” David Goudreault and Grand Corps Malade. Monsieur Goudreault, who hails from Quebec himself, is the current champion of the Coupe de Monde de Slam (Slam World Cup. Yes, that is a real thing). He acted as MC of the event, slickly spitting rhymes that played off of each contestant’s name and actually [manage] to keep the crowd engaged after nearly three hours of slam poetry, which is no easy feat.
I was actually kind of excited to see Grand Corps Malade in person, because I had coincidentally selected him as the subject of an oral presentation a week earlier. Grand Corps Malade, aka Fabien Marsaud, is kind of a big deal in the real world. If slam poetry is mainstream in France, it’s almost certainly thanks to this guy. His 2006 album of slam poetry, Midi 20, was actually a top 10 bestselling album of the year in France, subsequently winning two Victoires de la Musique awards (the French equivalent of the Grammys). His single “Inch’Allah” made it to number #59 on the French singles chart. How many slam poems have you seen on the American top singles chart? I highly recommend his poem “Roméo Kiffe Juliette,” which has an awesome video on YouTube, from his third album 3ème Temps.
The stage name “Grand Corps Malade” refers to Marsaud’s physical state. He was in a diving accident at the age of 19 and was told he would never walk again, but he managed to recover and now walks with a heavy limp and a cane. At 6’5”, he cut an imposing figure as he limped slowly up to the stage and proceeded to perform a poem called “À l’École de la Vie” (“At the School of Life”), which was about how the process of living actually teaches us the most important lessons. For me, his performance was the highlight of the night.
But GCM, as he is known here in France, wasn’t competing, only judging and providing a guest appearance. There could only be one winner of such an intense slam poetry showdown, and the guy who won did it with a poem combining obscure literary allusions with the metaphor of oral sex, calling himself “le maître de la langue” (“the master of language”). What could be more French?