All through my first year living in Paris, this was the song I heard everywhere.
Daytime radio, from what was blaring in shops and cafes, couldn’t play it often enough. All manner of TV shows — chat, politics, football — played it in full or in snippets, as a sort of signifier for ‘today’s pop culture’. Stand long enough on any street at any time and a group of girls, be they coming home from school or going out to bars, would pass you singing its key lyric, one fist raised in the air. If the family upstairs from me left their windows open, I could often hear their young daughter singing it, presumably into a hairbrush in front of a mirror in time-honoured fashion.
It’s a good thing that I loved it then and still love it now.
In one sense it’s not a song for me. ‘Ma Philosophie’ is a kick-ass anthem about a young girl in the working-class suburbs asserting herself and celebrating her identity. Clearly this has never been me, but it describes both of the main people involved with this song: its co-writer, a rapper called Diam’s, and its singer and other writer, Amel Bent — a finalist from the French version of the TV talent show format du jour, ‘Le Factor X’ or whatever. (How disingenuous of me. It was called Nouvelle Star, which translates itself.)
In another sense, though, it definitely is a song for me. Far be it from me to mansplain to you the everyday individual and structural sexism that women face. (Two definitive accounts of this are Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, about how women’s experiences are virtually absent from the design considerations of infrastructure and science, and She Bop by Lucy O’Brien, about great women in rock and pop and the sexism they still must deal with.) Instead, it behoves me to shut up and listen when women tell their stories and share their experiences, so that I might learn something. Those groups of young girls singing along the streets of Paris are testament to how ‘Ma Philosophie’ became itself a shared experience: young girls feeling good about themselves. That key lyric I mentioned, the triumphant chorus clincher those girls are enacting, is exactly that; the singer with “toujours le poing levé” (“always the fist raised”).
Another layer of significance; Bent’s parents came to the Paris suburbs from Algeria and Morocco, and Diam’s is a practising Muslim. Suburban Islam and suburban ethnic identity are still, to put it lightly, hot topics in French public discourse, especially heading into another presidential election cycle. Back in season 2004–05, Bent and Diam’s were already presenting a portrait of the young French woman of colour or of Islam with far more cred and depth than most media coverage, whenever the media bothered to cover them at all. In France it’s compulsory to carry photo ID and the various French police forces are empowered to ask you for it at any time, but in eight years of Paris residency how many times do you reckon I (white male in business attire) was stopped and ID-checked, compared to colleagues and work contacts who were women of colour? One of my work contacts, a senior manager around my own age, once told me how she had been offered a job in another company on the condition that she not use her traditional west African first name — the one on her photo ID — but something more French; they suggested Camille. She declined. Her counterparts in other countries no doubt have their own similar stories to tell.
What Bent and Diam’s have to their advantage, of course, is that they are communicating all this in catchy, swaggering R n’B-flavoured pop. ‘Ma Philosophie’ has now gone full circle and become a staple of the same French TV pop talent shows that gave Bent her opening. I’ve not been near a French radio recently but I reckon ‘Ma Philosophie’ still blares out today. You may speak no French at all and raise your fist at the wrong time, but you’ll love it. Give it a listen: