Last month, an outrageous phrase, “Hang the Whites”, was trending on French Twitter. What brought this horrendous exclamation under the national spotlight was a provocative song named PLB (the French acronym for “Hang the Whites”) by Nick Conrad, a black rapper that no one had heard of before.
In the equally provocative video clip for the song, posted briefly on Youtube and taken down after widespread outcry, Conrad and an associate abduct, chase, torture and violently kill a white man. The song’s shocking lyrics appear to advocate for the “killing of white babies” and “hanging of their parents”.
The video clip quickly set the French political landscape on fire.
In response to Conrad’s video, Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right Rassemblement National Party (National Rally) criticised what she called “an anti-white racism that no self-proclaimed expert or media person speaks of”.
Minister of Interior Gerard Collomb also tweeted that he “condemned without reservation these abject remarks and ignominious attacks”.
On September 27, Paris prosecutor’s office announced that it launched an investigation to determine whether Conrad’s video constitutes an incitement to a crime.
I, too, was shocked when I watched the video clip for the first time, only hours after the start of the controversy. What I saw in those images was nothing more than a disturbing fascination with violence. I could not stand the words that were describing the killing of human beings in gruesome detail.
Nick Conrad gave an interview to RTL on September 26 and explained that his song was not a “call for hate” but a “fictional” re-telling of the horrors experienced by black people in real life, in which the races were reversed for impact.
He said that the scene in the video clip in which he tortures and kills a white man was a re-enactment of a scene from the 1998 Hollywood movie, American History X, in which a black man was killed by Neo-Nazis in a similar way. He even referenced the movie in the lyrics, saying “Black History X, it is the beginning.”
Several people also came to Conrad’s defence on Twitter, and argued that this was not a “racist” song calling for murder, but instead an artist’s provocative attempt to attract attention to the very real racism black people have long been facing.
After reading Conrad’s interview and comments by people defending him on Twitter, I was still not entirely convinced, but I decided to have a second look at the clip. After looking at the disturbing images from that perspective, I had to admit that Conrad’s explanation made some sense.
Every single scene in that video clip, and every verse in that song, is a re-telling of a specific abuse black people had suffered in not so distant history. When Conrad says, “Catch them quickly and hang their parents, tear them up to entertain black kids of all ages big and small”, he clearly refers to the spectacle that was made of the public executions of black people during the Jim Crow era. When he says “Whip them hard – frankly, it stinks of death as blood is gushing”, the reference speaks for itself.
The way the artist used his platform to shock his audience is more than questionable and certainly counterproductive. But even though I’m still not certain of his real intentions in creating this video, and concerned about the brazen display of violence in the clip, I have to admit that it is possible to find new layers of meaning under the violent imagery.
Is Conrad’s video simply a celebration of violence, or is it a provocative and controversial commentary on racism? I’m still not certain. But if we put the clip itself aside for a second, and focus on the reaction it received, we are faced with an even more interesting question: How can a virtually unknown rapper become a topic of national discussion, and a symbol of “anti-white racism”, simply by releasing a video clip on the internet?
As read the reactions to Conrad’s video, I could not help but wonder whether I had ever witnessed such a vivid backlash to any racist statement, song or comment by a d-list celebrity, an aspiring musician or an unknown member of the public. As far as I can remember, I never did.
Conrad was not a superstar, or even a well-known public figure before this controversy, and it was obvious that his music would have next to no influence in France or anywhere else.
So why on Earth would so many pre-eminent political figures give so much exposure to an unknown rapper who had no more than a couple of hundred followers on social media?
It was very revealing to see people who usually have no interest in standing up to racism, suddenly became human rights defenders to “protect” white people from “racism”. This entire debate did nothing but serve the agenda of far-right groups who had long been working hard to prove the existence of what they call “anti-white racism”.
Racism is not the sum of isolated acts; it is a system that oppresses a group of people. What minorities experience nowadays is the result of a history of domination started with slavery and colonialism. It doesn’t only operate in individual interactions but also at an institutional level, for example, through police brutality that overwhelmingly targets minorities.
In such a system, white people can still be exposed to slurs and hate, but they cannot claim to be systematically oppressed because of their race, since they belong to the privileged group. Wherever you go around the globe, it is an advantage to be white. This is the meaning of global white supremacy. As we can not start talking about anti-men sexism after a woman beats a man, we can also not start talking about “reverse racism” on the back of a controversy like this one. There is no “anti-white” or “reverse” racism, because minorities have no power to transform the system to their own advantage.
The most concerning reaction to Conrad’s music video came from the International League against Racism and Antisemitism (LICRA), an anti-racism organisation close to the French government. They declared, “The LICRA did not wait for #NickConrad to denounce and prosecute the anti-white racism. The law does not make any distinction according to the colour of the perpetrator and the victim.” That lack of understanding of racism, from an association that is supposed to support the victims of racism, says a lot about the confusion that revolves around the subject of race in France. The irony is that the controversy occurs in a country where race is still a taboo, where there are no data about race in the census or in any official document.
Seeing how quick some politicians can be to stand for white people even if there is no systemic threat against them while they remain silent when actual people of colour like Adama Traore die in the hands of the police gives me pause. How can a nine-minute-long music video targeting a privileged population shake a country much more than decades of racism and discrimination against non-whites occurring in our streets?
How can Interior Minister Collomb quickly and categorically condemn an unknown rapper’s act of so-called “anti-white racism”, but feel comfortable to look the other way when desperate migrants trying to reach our country to find some security were attacked by far-right activists at Europe’s borders?
When will politicians like Collomb find the energy to condemn real acts of racism that harm our country and threaten innocent human lives with the same enthusiasm that they condemn a music video that poses no real threat to anyone?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.