Lunatic: La Lettre

This song is a landmark in old school french rap. The duo of rappers write this piece like an exchange of letters between Booba who is in prison and Ali who is outside. While filled with classic ego trip punchline about money and sex this song also criticises the prison system and raises questions as to what the alternative could be.

The first verse is Ali’s letter to Booba from outside which opens with the dates at which he received his last letter compared to when it was sent to show how difficult communication is from jail. He then proceeds to tell how life is going outside and criticises the system that is separating the two friends in a couple of lines: “Mislead by the judges, who have never understood anything of our lives. Mislead by the jail and its walls that took years from you”. This highlights the feeling of injustice due to the difference of lifestyle between judges and youths of the suburbs. How can a judge fairly consider the actions of people whose lives are so remote from their own. Prison is here personified as a trickster which shows the defiance of the artist for the institution.

The second verse is Booba’s answer letter to Ali from within jail. It opens with the date “18th of August 1998” which is the actual date at which the rapper went to jail for a taxi hold-up. He goes on to speak about life inside the prison as well as what he dreams of when he gets out: drugs, guns, sex and money. This, although rooted in the ego trip culture of rap,  demonstrates how little imprisonment actually changes the mind of criminals.

Booba also complains about forced work: “I need to work for this b*tch to give me conditional”. The slur refers to the judge and conditional is when someone can get out of jail early under certain conditions. The forced work provided by inmates is criticised notably by Angela Davis who argues that mass incarceration does not create safer communities but simply causes more incarceration which with corporate involvement profiting from the free labour give rise to the “prison-industrial complex”. (Davis, 2003)

The most interesting lines in the song come latter: “Jail puts us under pressure, it feeds our Revolutionary instincts, so f*ck her mom reintegration (meaning social rehabilitation)” this last bit becoming an iconic quote in French rap culture. In Booba’s experience, jail feeds Revolutionary instinct which links with Benjamin’s idea of overthrowing mythical forms of violence. This also can be seen as a reference to abolitionist ideas that a deeper change in society is needed for prisons to become obsolete. For example McLeod claims that: “Justice […] aims to change the world as it is so that those affected have greater resources to heal and so that harm is less likely to befall others in the future”. (McLeod, 2019) In this very vein the slur against the mother of reintegration is both a mark of exasperation and a finger pointed at the ineffectiveness of current rehabilitative measures.

For abolitionists, rather than finding a grand scheme to end prison as a whole in a day, the solution lies in concrete ground work. Working everyday to better the living standard of the community, its education and health care system, creating opportunities so people do not have to turn to crime to survive. This is a direct opposition to the industrial prison complex which consumes social value for profit and only generates more incarceration. (Davis, 2003)

The song ends with a sample from the movie Escape from Alcatraz in which a prison guard tells an inmate that he found him a job for 25c an hour, to which the inmate answers ironically:”I always knew crime would pay”. More than adding to the preceding critic of forced labour this sample adds to the visualisation that comes with the song. Each verse begins with what sounds like paper being unfolded, to illustrate the letter reading and the song ends with the sound of a big metal door closing, signifying both the closing of the song and the closing of the cell. All those effects put the listener in the place of the inmate, it pushes us to think about the hardship of prison and the alternatives to this system.

Julien Djenidi


Davis, Angela, Yvonne. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.
McLeod, Allegra, M. 2019. “Envisioning Abolition Democracy.” Harvard Law Review 132: 1613-1649.

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