Aya Nakamura, French-Malian Singer, Is Caught in Olympic Storm

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In four months, France will host the Paris Olympics, but which France will show up? Torn between tradition and modernity, the country is in the midst of an identity crisis.

The possible choice for the opening ceremony of Aya Nakamura, a superstar French-Malian singer whose slang-spiced lyrics stand at some distance from academic French, has ignited a furor tinged with issues of race and linguistic propriety and the politics of immigration. Right-wing critics say Ms. Nakamura’s music does not represent France, and the prospect of her performing has led to a barrage of racist insults online against her. The Paris prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation.

The outcry has compounded a fight over an official poster unveiled this month: a pastel rendering of the city’s landmarks thronging with people in a busy style reminiscent of the “Where’s Waldo?” children’s books.

Right-wing critics have attacked the image as a deliberate dilution of the French nation and its history in a sea of sugary, irreproachable blandness most evident in the removal of the cross atop the golden dome of the Invalides, the former military hospital where Napoleon is buried. An opinion essay in the right-wing Journal du Dimanche said “the malaise of a nation in the throes of deconstruction” was in full view.

The rapid immersion of the Olympics in France’s culture wars has its roots in a meeting on Feb. 19 at the Élysée Palace between President Emmanuel Macron and Ms. Nakamura, 28. Mr. Macron, doubling as the artistic director of the Olympics, asked if she would perform.

Ms. Nakamura is by some distance France’s most popular singer at home and abroad, with 25 top 10 singles in France and over 20 million followers on social media. Born Aya Danioko in Bamako, Mali, she took her stage name from a character in “Heroes,” a science fiction series on NBC. Raised in a suburb of Paris, she mixes French lyrics with Arabic, English and West African languages like Bambara, the Malian language of her parents, in songs that interweave R&B, zouk and the rhythms of Afropop.

“This isn’t a beautiful symbol, it’s a new provocation by Emmanuel Macron, who must wake up every morning wondering how he can humiliate the French people,” Marine Le Pen, a leader of the far-right National Rally party, told France Inter radio, alluding to the possible choice of Ms. Nakamura. She insisted that Ms. Nakamura sang “who knows what” language — certainly not French — and was unfit to represent the country.

Ms. Nakamura, who declined a request for an interview, has not publicly addressed the furor beyond a few social media posts. On X, she responded to attacks by saying “you can be racist, but not deaf.” Naturalized in 2021, the singer has dual French and Malian citizenship. But in a country often ill at ease with its changing population — more diverse, less white, more questioning of the French model of identity-effacing assimilation in supposedly undifferentiated citizenship — she stands on a fault line.

“There is an identity panic,” said Rokhaya Diallo, a French author, filmmaker and activist. “I think France does not want to see itself the way it really is.” Citing the soccer star Kylian Mbappé and Ms. Nakamura, Ms. Diallo suggested that “a white France feels threatened in a way it did not 30 years ago.”

Ms. Nakamura is held to an unfair standard because of her background, Ms. Diallo added. “Her linguistic creativity is going to be seen as incompetence instead of artistic talent,” she said, because focusing solely on the artist’s lyrics ignored the inventive musicality of her songs.

The eldest of five siblings, Ms. Nakamura, who is a single mother of two children, was born into a family of griots, or traditional West African musicians and storytellers. “Everyone sings in my family,” she told Le Monde in 2017. “But I’m the only one who dared to sing ‘for real.’”

Her music has little overt political messaging. She told The New York Times in 2019, “I’m happy if my songs speak for themselves.” But she has also said she recognizes her place as a feminist role model. Her lyrics are often an ode to emancipated women who are firmly in control of their lives and unabashed about their sexuality.

“At the start of my career, I was rather skeptical of this idea of a model,” Ms. Nakamura told CB News, a marketing and public relations trade publication, in December. “But it’s a reality: I have influence. If, through my work and my undertakings, I enable certain women to assert themselves, then that’s something to be proud of.”

The furor over her possible performance reflects a fractured France. Some see a reactionary nation intent on ignoring how large-scale immigration, particularly from North Africa, has enriched the country hosting the 33rd Summer Olympics of modern times. Celebrities, left-wing politicians and government officials support the idea of Ms. Nakamura taking a prominent role in the ceremony.

Others, especially on the right, see a multicultural France intent on concealing its Christian roots, even the nation itself, especially with the erasure of the cross from the Invalides dome and the absence of a single French flag in the official poster. Mild pink, purple and green are favored over the bold blue, white and red of France.

“Every time the world is watching us, we give the impression we don’t embrace who we are,” Marion Maréchal, Ms. Le Pen’s niece and a leader of the extreme-right Reconquête party, told French television last week.

Then there is the question of language in this land of the Académie Française, which was founded in 1634 to promote and protect the French language. It takes upon itself the task of shielding the country from “brainless Globish,” as one of the 40 members once put it, and it does so with ardor, if with diminishing success as France succumbs to a world of “les startuppers.”

“There is a sort of religion of language in France,” said Julien Barret, a linguist and writer who has written an online glossary of the language prevalent in the banlieues where Ms. Nakamura grew up. “French identity is conflated with the French language” he added, in what amounts to “a cult of purity.”

That so-called purity has long since ceased to exist. France’s former African colonies increasingly infuse the language with their own expressions. Singers and rappers, often raised in immigrant families, have coined new terms. “You can’t write a song like you write a school assignment,” Mr. Barret said.

Ms. Nakamura’s dance-floor hits use an eclectic mix of French argot like verlan, which reverses the order of syllables; West African dialect like Nouchi in the Ivory Coast; and innovative turns of phrase that are sometimes nonsensical but quickly catch on.

In “Djadja,” her breakout song from 2018 that has become an anthem of female empowerment, she calls out a man who lies about sleeping with her by singing “I’m not your catin,” using a centuries-old French term for prostitute. It has been streamed about one billion times.

Another widely popular song is “Pookie” — a diminutive for poucave, slang that originates from Romani for a traitor or a rat.

During the meeting with Mr. Macron, first revealed by the magazine L’Express, the president asked Ms. Nakamura which French singer she liked. Her response was Édith Piaf, the legendary artist who died in 1963 and famously regretted nothing.

So, Mr. Macron suggested to Ms. Nakamura — in an account that the presidency has not disputed — why not sing Piaf to open the Olympics?

The idea is still under review.

For some, Ms. Nakamura channeling Piaf might be the perfect tribute to “La Vie en Rose,” Piaf’s immortal anthem of Parisian romantic love. Bruno Le Maire, the economy minister — and occasional author of erotic novels — said it would show “panache” and “audacity.” Supporters have noted that the two singers grew up in poverty and came from immigrant backgrounds.

But a recent poll found that 63 percent of French people did not approve of Mr. Macron’s idea, even though about half the respondents said they knew of Ms. Nakamura only by name.

Ms. Nakamura has encountered criticism of her music before in France, where expectations of assimilation are high. Some on the right complain she has become French but shown more interest in her African roots or her American role models.

She responded to her critics on French television in 2019, saying of her music, “In the end, it speaks to everyone.”

“You don’t understand,” she added. “But you sing.”

The Olympics furor appears unlikely to subside soon. As a commentator on France Inter radio put it: “France has no oil, but we do have debates. In fact, we almost deserve a gold medal for that.”

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