“We are all Algerian here”: Music, Community and Citizenship in Algerian London

Introduction

Citizenship, community and national identity have been brought to the fore in public discourse in recent months by the political situations on both sides of the Atlantic. As Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric has intensified throughout Europe and North America, via political ideology and media representation, many communities have experienced a growing sense of mistrust and social marginalisation.  In this article, I want to explore the ways in which the predominantly-Muslim Algerian diaspora community of London, with whom I have been conducting research since 2011, uses music to construct a sense of community and to shape their place within British society in the face of such marginalisation. I am particularly interested in the ways in which people and ideas of “Algerianness” migrate and circulate between the UK, France and North Africa, and the role that music plays in these cultural flows. What is contemporary “British-Algerianness” in London, and what role does music play in mediating and articulating this sense of localised cultural identity?

 

Algeria and France

Citizenship and national identity have long been complicated issues for Algerians. Between 1830 and 1962 Algeria was part of the French colonial empire, and in 1875 the French government announced that Algeria would become an integral part of the Third Republic, administered as three départments, with the same legal status and political representation as Brittany or Provence (Evans 2012:19). Thus, Algerians forcibly became French, at least legally, which enabled the state to ignore, or repress, local cultural forms. Perhaps inevitably, after independence in 1962 the Algerian government ardently promoted nationalism, but favoured cultural practices that could be advanced as definably Arab, Muslim and Algerian. Martin Stokes writes of efforts during the colonial period to distance al-Andalus, a highly-revered art music performed throughout Algeria, from the disreputable hashish dens and Sufi lodges with which it had become associated, and states that “French orientalists lamented these signs of decline and sought to purify it. Following closely in their footsteps, North African intellectuals appropriated it as national art music” (2011:28). In contrast, raï, a popular music that emerged from the city of Oran, and incorporates non-Algerian instrumentation and musical features, garnered considerable exposure and commercial success in Europe and North America in the 1990s. However, raï retained a disreputable status within Algerian society, and Marc Schade-Poulsen notes that “raï’s syncretism did not fit at all into national politics, and even less did its association with the tradition of the shikha (a low-status female musician)” (1999:20).

Throughout the twentieth century, many Algerians moved to France in search of employment, and large diaspora communities emerged in most major French cities. The members of these communities not only encountered racism and other forms of discrimination, but were forced to engage with the French state’s notions of Republicanism and laïcité (secularism). There is not space here to delve into this complicated issue, but put simply, life for Algerians in France after 1962 did not look that different from their experiences under colonialism. Algerians were expected to integrate into French society, renouncing their national, cultural and religious identities, whilst often being denied social mobility and full political representation. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, debates on immigration in France centred primarily upon Muslim, and particularly Algerian, communities.  Paul Silverstein argues that these debates

Focussed less on border policies than on state security, on immigrants’ access to French nationality, on social integration and exclusion in the (sub)urban cites in which many immigrants and their children live, and on the legitimacy of signs of Muslim difference – particularly group prayer, mosque building, and women’s headscarves – in the French public sphere (Silverstein 2004:5).

Music offered an important way of voicing frustrations and gaining recognition for Algerian culture, and throughout the 1990s, France became home to vibrant Algerian raï and hip-hop scenes. Yet for many Algerians, their citizenship and identity has remained liminal, caught between the nationalism and secular-republicanism of the Algerian and French states. The combination of on-going discrimination and a perceived reticence to socially integrate has been fundamental to, on the one hand, growing Islamic extremism in deprived urban areas, and on the other, a hardening of the anti-immigration, Islamophobic politics currently being advanced by Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

Poster for "Algerian Cultural Festival"

 

Algerian London

This relationship between Algeria and France continues to play out amongst London’s Algerian diaspora community, and is often framed in musical terms. Much of the city’s Algerian population were born in North Africa before migrating to the UK, for work and education, or to escape their country’s civil war conflict in the 1990s. A much smaller section of the local community was born in France to Algerian parents, and whilst there is a desire for unity amongst Algerians living in the city, certain tensions continue to play out between the groups.1

One of my interlocutors, a female events organiser and artist manager who was born in France and raised by Algerian parents, explains the situation by describing herself as follows:

I am French-Algerian, all the way. Initially when I came to England, it was funny. When people said, “where are you from?” I was saying “Algeria”. I’ve never set foot in Algeria. I’m going to be 36 tomorrow and I’ve never been to Algeria in my life... Loads of people have an identity crisis. For them it’s true and they might think that I have an identity crisis, but I don’t. I was born in France; that makes me French. I went to French school, my education was French, but my parents were Algerian. That makes me French-Algerian. To me I don’t have any identity crisis; this is who I am.

Although she describes growing up in France, she also recounts an experience familiar to many others from North African communities, arguing that “in France, you will never be called French as an Algerian. You can be born there, grow up there, it makes no difference”. She bases her self-identification around two categories: “French-Algerian” for those with backgrounds similar to her own, and “Algerian-Algerian” for those born in North Africa but now living in the UK.2 These two categories can be explicated through musical tastes she claims: those born in Algeria are more likely to listen to traditional forms of Algerian music, whilst “many French-Algerians might listen to raï, but they’re not very likely to listen to maluf or gnawa. Some would, I’m not saying that they wouldn’t, but we are more Westernised in the way that we listen to music. We listen to pop music, we listen to reggae, we listen to R&B”. These claims are supported by many of those who were born in Algeria. A female singer and ‘ud player with an Andalus ensemble in London claims that her musical tastes were shaped by her parents’ conservative attitude, and recalls that they steered her away from listening to non-Algerian popular music and towards performing al-Andalus. Had she been born in France, she suggests, she might have been offered a broader range of musical choices.

Although notions of “Algerianness” might be strongly shaped by the relationship between France and Algeria, there is a clear sense that Algerian culture in the UK is definably different from either of these countries. Algerian musicians in London speak of the cultural capital afforded to their music simply because they reside and perform in Britain. For example, a 2013 article in the Algerian daily newspaper El Watan featured an interview with London-based musician Rachida Lamri in which she discusses the efforts of musicians in the UK to promote al-Andalus, and Algerian culture more broadly (Bsikri 2013). She claims that the interest shown by El Watan and its readers was a result of the fact that this was Algerian music being performed in Britain, rather than France, and was therefore considered novel and intriguing to Algerians in North Africa. Similarly, an Algerian rapper with a group based in London explained to me their problems with attracting interest from Algerian audiences in the UK and recounting that, “we actually tried to push our music more in Algeria, back home, because we figured that they have their Algerian rap out there, chaabi or whatever, and ours is a bit of a different flip on things. It’s European, it’s Western music, but we’re Algerian, there’s Algerian in there”. In constructing an Algerian community in London, musicians are therefore able to clearly differentiate their music and garner interest from listeners in North Africa and France.

 

Algerian Cultural Festival, Baraki-House Production

 

Community and Class

Alongside the debates around “French-Algerian” and “Algerian-Algerian” identities, another discourse focuses upon the degree of local community cohesion in London. Issues of social class and residency status in the UK are contentious. A significant proportion of the local Algerian population are described as harraga (without legal paperwork to reside in the UK), and there are considerable barriers to accessing and attending musical performances for these people. However, in the view of a local Algerian radio station owner, national and cultural identity supersedes any differences. During an interview in 2013, he insisted that “in our world, it doesn’t matter what you earn. If you are Algerian, that’s fine. Most of the people I know, we don’t have that differentiation between job titles, or you have papers or you don’t have papers. For us, if you are Algerian, you are Algerian”. This position reflects a frequently articulated desire for a sense of local community in the city.

In contrast, a female singer and prominent member of the local community provides perhaps a more nuanced reading of the situation, suggesting that,

I’ve met a few Algerians here who are completely different from me, that I would rather steer away from. And I’ve always thought “if we were back in Algeria, I would never have to meet you. I would never have had to even talk to you, you’re not even a factor in my life”. But because we’re here abroad, we do become the same, because we’re all Algerians here. That is what defines us. Being Algerian in England. But the class remains there, although we don’t talk about it, because we’re all here and we have something that keeps us all together.

The importance of this shared sense of community and national identity for Algerians in London should not be underestimated. Dispersed across London and throughout surrounding areas, and without a visible public presence or determinable physical space within the city, collective forms of Algerianness are deemed crucial for bringing individuals together and increasing awareness of Algerian culture, whilst challenging negative stereotyping within the local media.3 In many cases these take the form of musical performances. Events with titles such as the “Algerian Cultural Festival” (2012) or “Nostalgically Algerian” (2013) aim to bring together members of the community under the banner of national identity, and provide performance opportunities for local Algerian musicians. Such events typically feature a strikingly diverse range of Algerian performers, from rai singers and chaabi ensembles to rappers and rock bands. The integration of such contrasting musical styles and disparate audiences within a single venue evidences the appetite for a coherent local community. Despite the varying social status of each of these musics within Algerian society, and the diversity of the listeners that they typically attract, the sense of difference is temporarily set aside in order to facilitate social interaction and to construct a communal sense of British-Algerian identity in the city.           

Whilst differences may be overlooked for the sake of community, they do not remain entirely unacknowledged and they continue to play a fundamental role in shaping the types of music and musical events that individuals access. A male percussionist and events organiser expresses the enduring diversity of the local community in the following description:

The community is not solid. You can see that when there is an event, they do turn out. But then again, you have two different communities. You’ve got the mobile community, the younger ones. The non-committed, the non-married, the non-family. They are much more agile, and are moving around. They can go to a gig. And within that you have two categories. The successful ones, the ones who have done studies, have good jobs. Those ones are in a minority. And the majority are the workers. They work hard, many in catering. And the non-papers, the harraga. And those ones are not as mobile. They won’t come into central London for a gig. “Why would I want to go to a gig? I’m looking for some papers, I don’t have time for a gig.” And then you have people who earn minimum wage and work twenty hours a day. They are not going to spend fifteen pounds on a gig! “You’re joking? I would have to work all day for that!” They won’t come. And then you have the families. They would like to come. But with this concept you have the modern family who can go to a gig. And then in Walthamstow and Finsbury Park you have a community where it is very traditional. The wife and the husband. They will go to places where there is no alcohol. They will go to places where people don’t swear.

This description is useful because it unpacks the complexity and intricacies of the local Algerian community, touching upon issues of age, class, legal status and religious observance. It evidences the diversity that exists below the surface of collective musical performances, and the negotiation of communal identities that take place within such contexts.

Poster for "Nostalgically Algerian"

 

Conclusions

A second generation is gradually emerging within London’s Algerian community, but many of those who self-identify as Algerian in the city were still born in North Africa or France. Strong connections remain with Algeria’s long and complex history around citizenship and nationalism, and the desire for community cohesion and cultural reconnection is therefore unsurprising. Music plays a vital role in these processes, bringing people together and enabling a sense of collective identity, whilst providing a visibility and audibility that stakes a place for Algerians in twenty-first century London. Nevertheless, this community is characterised by diversity (both personal and musical), and negotiations around community identities are shaped by both similarities and differences. By recognising such diversity, we can challenge some of the reductive and bounded processes of othering that are increasingly played out through political and media discourses, and better understand what it means to be Algerian within contemporary London.

 

References

Burrows, Thomas. 2014. “Algerian migrant can't be kicked out of Britain because of his right to family life - despite threatening to KILL his ex-partner and children.” The Daily Mail, 30/11/2014.

Bsikri, Medhi. 2013. “Faire connaître la musique andalouse au Royaume-Uni est notre objectif.” El Watan, 14/7/2013.

Department for Communities and Local Government (Change Initiative). 2009. The Algerian Muslim Community in England: Understanding Muslim Ethnic Communities. London: Department for Communities and Local Government.

Evans, Martin. 2012. Algeria: France’s Undeclared War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

International Organisation for Migration. 2007. Algeria: Mapping Exercise. London: IOM UK.

Laville, Sandra. 2003. “100 known Algerian terrorists came to this country as asylum seekers.” The Daily Telegraph, 17/1/2003.

Schade-Poulsen, Marc. 1999. Men and Popular Music in Algeria: The Social Significance of Raï. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Silverstein, Paul A. 2004. Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, and Nation. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Stokes, Martin. 2011. “Migrant/Migrating Music and the Mediterranean.” In Migrating Music, edited by Jason Toynbee and Byron Dueck, 28-37. Abingdon: Routledge.

 

Biography

Stephen Wilford is an ethnomusicologist based at City, University of London. His work focuses upon North African musics, particularly those of Algeria, and spans a range of traditional and contemporary styles. His AHRC-funded PhD focussed upon music-making amongst the Algerian diaspora community of London. He is currently working on the research project “Music and Digital Culture in the Middle East and North Africa”. He is an Early Career Research Fellow of the Institute of Musical Research, and a member of both the national committee of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology and the ethnomusicology committee of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

 

Notes

  • 1. Given the fluid and dispersed nature of London’s Algerian community, and the relatively high proportion of individuals without legal residency status, official statistics are limited. Reports commissioned by the International Organisation for Migration (2007) and UK government (2009) suggest that the UK’s Algerian population was around 35,000 at the time, with most of these people living in London, and that perhaps 90% of individuals were born in the capital city of Algiers.
  • 2. These labels (“French-Algerian” and “Algerian-Algerian”) are used quite widely by members of the city’s Algerian community, and I encountered them in numerous conversations and interviews during my fieldwork.
  • 3. Negative reports about Algerians in the UK have been circulated by the media for over a decade. A 2003 article in The Daily Telegraph used the headline “100 known Algerian terrorists came to this country as asylum seekers”, whilst more recently a 2014 Daily Mail article stated “Algerian migrant can't be kicked out of Britain because of his right to family life - despite threatening to KILL his ex-partner and children” (Laville, 2003; Burrows, 2014).
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