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.

Racial Violence and Representation

Funkadelic: Maggot Brain

How could the cover of the mythical album not remind us of Aunt Hester’s scream, Douglass’ “original generative act” (Hartman, 1997)? The head of a black woman seemingly buried from the neck down as she screams her lungs out, eyes shut in pain. Pain and sorrow are the theme of the most famous song of the album from which it takes its name, Maggot Brain. In this moving masterpiece of psychedelic guitar, Eddie Hazel gives us a new insight into the spectacle of violence and pain, hinting towards their transcendence into healing.

The context of the song sheds light on its ‘genesis’. While very high on LSD Eddie Hazel was asked by the band leader, Georges Clinton, to perform as if his mother had just died (Clinton, 2014). Already this quick contextualisation gives us a lot to uncover. Firstly, LSD is a powerful psychedelic substance, which is to say a hallucinogenic drug. The etymology of the word psychedelic, comes from the Greek Psyche, understood as mind or spirit and delos which means “to manifest” (Osmond, 1956), and therefore can be understood as the transcendence of the mind, manifesting into new sensory realms. It is easy to understand, under such influences, how the music produced by Hazel brought forward a new paradigm in feeling emotions through sound. Secondly, the inspiration from the loss of the mother echoes what Moten points out as “the materiality of a maternal substitution” (2003). In Douglass’ context, the screams of Aunt Hester represent his birth into a world of violence, for Hazel the deathly thought experiment on hallucinogens permits a transcendental shift of his pain into sound. Ironically, adding to the already legendary lore around this mystical masterpiece, Eddie Hazel’s mom asked for Maggot Brain to be played at his funeral, after he died of liver failure at age 55 after a long struggle with addiction (Thompson, 2001).

The guitar solo, in a minor scale, evokes sorrowful cries while the backing guitar loops in arpeggio emulates the constant passing of time. The intensity of sound brought up and down along a powerfully melancholic tune could be interpreted as mimicking the various phases of mourning, may it be the passing of a maternal figure or the end of innocence, the awakening to a world of pain. Elongated notes, using various echo effects and pedals, give the impression of distorted shrieks while more rapid progressions along the pentatonic scale, illustrate grief in the form of sobbing. In the making of the song, Clinton felt the power of that guitar solo and faded out the other instruments present in the initial recording, giving it its due space. He also delayed it “back on itself three or four times” giving it an “eerie feel” (Clinton, 2014), adding a supernatural, almost magical, aspect to the pain.

Moten argues that: “The broken circle demands a new analytic (way of listening to the music).” (2003) I believe this song gives us the key to this new way of listening to music: as a tool for healing. Recent research into psychedelic assisted therapy have highlighted the centrality of the interaction between music and psychedelic substances in the evocation of emotions both pleasant and unpleasant, (Kaelen & Al, 2018) moving from Moten’s “cathexis” (2003) into catharsis, release of emotions and purification. Emotional breakthrough is fundamental to the long term effects of psychedelic therapy (Roseman & Al. 2019) and openness to music during therapy sessions has been shown to be significantly predictive of reduction in depressions. (Kaelen & Al, 2018) While psychedelic research has been mostly white dominated, there has recently been promising research looking into the power of psychedelic therapy in potentially healing racial trauma (Williams & Al, 2020). Drawing from the conclusions of those various papers, I would like to paint the idea that musical representation of pain and suffering can be in certain context cathartic and play an important role in healing from this pain and trauma, transcending the cycles of representation of violence towards an instrumentalization for peacefulness, not solely of the mind.

Julien Djenidi


Dave Thompson, Eddie Hazel in Funk, Backbeat Books, 2001
Fred Moten, “Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream”, In the Break. The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2003
Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection. Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Oxford University Press, “Introduction”, Oxford 2007
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, Harvard University Press, chapter 1, Cambridge 2009
Humphry Osmond, Letter to Timothy Leary from 1956, published in Cynthia Carson Bisbee, et Al. Psychedelic Prophets : The Letters of Aldous Huxley and Humphry Osmond. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018.
Mendel Kaelen & Al, “The hidden therapist: evidence for a central role of music in psychedelic therapy”, in Psychopharmacology 235, 2018
Roseman, Leor et Al. “Emotional Breakthrough and Psychedelics: Validation of the Emotional Breakthrough Inventory.” in Journal of psychopharmacology Oxford 2019
Williams, Monnica & Al. “People of color in North America report improvements in racial trauma and mental health symptoms following psychedelic experiences”. in Drugs: Education Prevention and Policy. 28. 2020

Gendered Violence

Ibeyi: Deathless

With this anthem for life, the french twins of cuban origins deliver a powerful chant of strength, unity and hope against state violence.

The opening verse tells the story of a stop-and-search by a police officer. This is a true story about an event that Lisa-Kaindé, who sings the song, lived in the Paris metro when she was younger. (Sound Exploder, 2017) The traumatic encounter echoes the writings of Françoise Verges who writes about “those children who the police […] apprehends as adults”  (Vergès, 2020) in the same context of current day France. These brutal forms of state violence are plagued with racial bias. (HRW, 2021) While often promoted as means of security and protection, the artist suggests otherwise as she was personally left “shaken” and “frozen with fear” (Sound Exploder, 2017) while many were left “for dead in the streets” (Ibeyi, 2017).

Another song of the album, “No man is big enough for my arms”, samples a speech by Michelle Obama stating that “the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls”. For Ibeyi, this speech was both poetic and empowering (Samway, 2017). It is only fair to say that their sound has similar properties.

The powerful hook then follows:

Whatever happens, Whatever happened,
We are deathless! We are deathless!

Sang by many voices, it rings like a war chant and fills the listener with power. The message was inspired by “the dark times for the world” when the album was written as Lisa discussed in an interview with Fader, referencing the election of Donald Trump (Mistry, 2017). She goes on to explain her desire for “humans being together and loving each other no matter what.” a desire for sorority and general unity. The word ‘deathless’ takes a deeper meaning beyond everlasting and immortal when looking at the video clip for the song which pictures the two twins dying and giving birth to each other again and again. Life itself coming from the womb, through fertility, the twins are able to transcend death. It is fertility that gives them power to continue the struggle, their body becoming a war machine. This can be linked to Gago’s idea of a war on women’s bodies who states that both feminised bodies and land or territories are seen as “surfaces of colonisation, conquest, and domination”. (Gago, 2020) The twins are through this imagery reclaiming the right to their bodies and also actively taking part in the feminist struggle against such domination.

The second verse tells the rest of the stop and search, with the policeman’s racist comment. This highlights how women of colour can be discriminated against in specific ways, at the intersection of patriarchy and racism. She sings about her “funny look, with her books”, which she suggests in the interview might be the reason for the officer leaving her alone: He saw she had a big book, a partition, he froze and “thought She might have a little bit of intelligence” stopped and left. (Song Exploder, 2017). She concludes the verse by stating how she was “Left for dead in the streets”

The hook comes around like a resurrection, opposing that last statement: “We are deathless!”

Kamasi Washington then takes us away with a beautiful saxophone solo, infusing sorrowful tones into the melody carried by rhythmic traditional drums, a massive part of the cultural and spiritual heritage of Ibeyi. Drums of war, drums of life, the Cuban percussions give a thrilling tempo that only amplifies the empowering capacity of the song.

 Julien Djenidi


B. Jeannerod & J. Sunderland, 2021, Time to Stop Ethnic Profiling in France: Organizations Initiate Procedure to Push for Reforms to End Widespread Abuses, Human Rights Watch.
Sound Exploder, 2017, Episode 116: Ibeyi-Deathless.
A. Mistry, 2017, Ibeyi’s Home, Fader.
F. Vergès, 2020, A Feminist Theory of Violence; A Decolonial Perspective, Pluto Press.
V. Gago, 2020. Feminist International: How to Change Everything. Translated by Liz
G. Samways, 2017, Ibeyi // Interview, London in Stereo.

Border Violence

Dave: Three Rivers

The album cover shows a small boat at sea, a symbol of migration which is the central theme of the album with very personal insights into Dave’s family history as migrants. (notably his own mother’s testimony of migration at the end of the song Heart Attack). In this melancholic song, the young rapper from south London tells three different stories of migration and the struggle migrants face when trying to settle in the UK.

The first verse tells the story of the windrush generation, a generation of Caribbean people that were “drafted to England” (Dave, 2021) with the promise of citizenship and better life conditions. However, these people suffered from the latter change in immigration laws and many suffered and died from being unlawfully deported as they could not prove their status. (Williams, 2020) The Jamaican community, especially in London, is a main actor and influence in British culture, (Dabydeen, 2010). Dave highlights said influence by referencing the Notting Hill Carnival, one of the world’s biggest street carnivals. Dave also names a list of English footballers from the national team, who are children of migrants of the Caribbean, to put emphasis on the way the United Kingdom profited in many ways from migration.

The interlude then follows with a sample from a news report about the false promise of the British government to those migrants and a moving testimony from someone who lived in the UK since they were 10 years old, paid taxes for 37 years but are still deemed to be illegally here.

The second verse is about a migrant family from Eastern Europe in the 1990’s with description of violence that can point towards the Balkans War. Contrary to the first verse which depicted the origin country of migrants as paradisiac, the image painted here is much more gruesome with ‘dictators and leaders persecuting your people’ and ‘Bodies of the innocent pilling’.  This is a reminder that people who are risking their lives on dinghies and under cargo trucks are not doing so out of spite or as a scheme of undermining a country’s identity but because they are “escaping from war, conflicts, violence and injustices” (Cesare, p50, 2020). The end of the verse explains how through difficult times this migrant drinks to cope which causes him to be violent towards his family and become a reflection of what he was seeking to escape. This is an interesting point about various forms of violence that occurs with migration and how the hardship and violence inflicted upon migrants can cause wounds that will be the root of more violence: a form of transgenerational trauma (Phipps & al.2014) .

The final verse is about migration from the Middle East. It sheds light firstly on the duality of western governments when it comes to migration. “Your oppressor is your liberator” (Dave, 2021) is an antithesis referencing the multiple interventions for freedom and peace causing constant war and violence in the region. The same governments that profit from the demise of ‘third world’ nations, through weapon sales, natural resources exploitation and “an economy of dispossession” (Walia,p.29, 2021), are also the governments building walls to protect themselves from the migration of people leaving the chaos.

There is also further exploitation of the migrants that compose an important part of the workforce of many western countries while still often being less considered than other nationals. This is beautifully expressed by Dave: “We rely on migration more than ever before, they’re key workers but they could not even get in the door”. Key workers are the workers in the UK that had to keep working during the Covid pandemics, many of which came from migration. (Fernandez-Reino, 2020)

Finally in the outro, Daniel Kaluuya talks about identity and racism, as a famous Academy-Award winning actor, British-born of Ugandan parents. He explains then rather than defining himself against the tide, which “still makes it about them, still makes it against the poison that you’ve internalised”, he “Switched rivers” which is to say he changed his perception of what being black or from a migrant family means, and conceived it as an “asset”.

The overall song with melancholic piano and various samples from news reports and testimony creates a touching and emotional atmosphere which can help the listener connect with the stories on a deeper level, through empathy. The common feature of the three stories is that they depict the human reality of migration and forces us to face it. It deconstructs the various preconceived ideas about migration to draw a complex image of violence in migration.

Julien Djenidi


David Dabydeen, 2010, “Notting Hill Carnival”, Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick
Di Cesare, Donatella. 2020. “Migrants and the State.” In Resident Foreigners: A Philosophy of Migration, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Phipps, R.M. and Degges-White, S. 2014, A New Look at Transgenerational Trauma Transmission: Second-Generation Latino Immigrant Youth. Journal of Multicultural Counselling and Development, 42: 174-187
Mariña Fernández-Reino, Madeleine Sumption, Carlos Vargas-Silva, From low-skilled to key workers: the implications of emergencies for immigration policy, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Volume 36, Issue Supplement_1, 2020, Pages S382–S396
Wallia, Harsha. 2021. “Fortress Europe.” In Border & Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Violence and Nonviolence

Meechy Darko: Kill Us All

This dark track from the newly released album Gothic Luxury, asks questions about state violence, biopower and the portraying of black liberation movements. These themes will be reviewed in relation to Judith Butler’s text on non-violence.

The song opens with a dark atmosphere, minor scales accompanied by what sounds like a modulated voice singing an eerie melody. The beat drops into a classic hip-hop instrumental and Meechy Darko starts rapping the hook: “They can’t kill us all”, the backing voice affirms that negation “Nah, nah, nah”. This statement is a praise of life but also a promise of death.  One could therefore ask who are “they” and “us” respectively in that context.

“They” points at the US system, not only the government and its various entities but also doctors, the media, and really “America” understood as: the USA as a whole. “Us” refers to black Americans, Meechy Darko being himself Afro-american.

The bridge follows: “it’s either kill or be killed, I ain’t gon die tonight”. The message seems clear, if the choice is between killing or being killed and he is not going to die it means he will kill. This however should be understood beyond the scope of direct violence: What is at stake here is really the liberation of black Americans from a system that tries to kill them. Let us then take a look at the criticism of the system and the solutions raised by the artist.

The firstly mentioned and most evident form of violence is direct state killing. Meechy poetically frames it with a powerful antithesis: “Black kid get shot, white man get tazed” this stylistic device highlights the contrast in grievability (Butler, 2020) between black and white people in the United States. It also encompases both forms of Butler’s debate on non-violence firstly “not killing and destroying another or others” and secondly “to preserve the life of the other or others”(Butler 2020).

Meechy also raises the question of biopower, an idea brought forth by Foucault that is developed further by Butler. The idea of the biopolitical is the state conceiving of its subjects as biological, living beings. (Butler, 2020) Violence in the context of biopower is explored by Meechy Darko when he accuses doctors of drugging “us up so we can reach an early grave”. This is a reference to the poor health care provided to Afro-Americans in general, resulting in lower life expectancy as well as to the opioid epidemic ravaging the US for which pharma groups and doctors in part are to blame. Johnson & Johnson was held accountable for fuelling the opioid crisis in Oklahoma for example. (Attorney General of Oklahoma, 2019) Even if the ruling was then overturned by the Supreme Court two years later.

Bringing about the end of the state violence, both direct and indirect, requires for Walter Benjamin some kind of divine violence which is understood as being non-violent but framed as violent because of its destructive nature. (Butler, 2020) Meechy Darko however questions this appeal towards non-violence, especially through a criticism of the portrayal of black liberation movements in the US.  He points out the negative press that armed groups receive while the softer black representations are praised. This is especially evident in the phrase: “America loved the Black Panther Movie but in ‘66 they hated the Black Panther Movement”. Also the classic opposition of the good liberation protester, incarnated by Martin Luther King and the violent Black nationalist, represented by Malcom X is criticised by the artist: “I turn on CNN they tell me be MLK instead of Malcom X but they both died the same way”. He points out indeed that both the peaceful and the armed group leaders were gunned down. The culprit for him is named a couple of sentences later: “Operation Black Messiah is the FBI paid”. This is a reference to the FBI’s objective to “prevent the rise of a black messiah who could unify and electrify militant black nationalist movements” (FBI, p69, 1966). The FBI’s memo continues to state that “Dr. King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white, liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence)”. The vocabulary used here is particularly striking as the term Messiah can directly be associated with Benjamin’s concept of Divine violence. The idea then was that he could turn messiah by rejecting non-violence which seems to contradict Butler’s view.

A final appeal to theological terms is used by Meech in his last verse: “We head to Armageddon, this is Revolutionary”. His raspy and deep voice seems to call us towards the end of time, towards a revolution. Whether this is the literal end of time and a violent revolution or the end of oppression to a revolution of the mind, is up for interpretation.

Finally the chorus comes again hammering the deathly affirmation of life: “They can’t kill us all”.

 Julien Djenidi


Federal Bureau of Investigation. 1967. COINTELPRO Black Extremist Part 01 of 23, p.69, Accessible on:

Attorney General of Oklahoma. 2019. Attorney General Hunter Celebrates Major Victory for the State after Judge Balkman Issues $572 Million Judgement in Opioid Trial, Accessible on:

J. Butler, 2020. The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind, Chap.3, London: Verso.