Culture Trips

‘I feel admonished for being myself’: Yseult, the chanson singer riling the French establishment | Music

Accepting the award for the best newcomer at Victoires de la Musique (the French Grammys) on 12 February, Yseult said: “This is not just a victory for me, it’s a victory for my brothers and sisters. We have snatched this, our freedom, our independence, this space. We deserve it.”

Raised in the Bercy neighbourhood of Paris by Cameroonian parents, the 26-year-old represents the tension between a new French generation and an establishment that resists change. Yseult is a Black woman putting her own take on traditional variété française. “I grew up listening to Edith Piaf, Barbara, Jacques Brel, Lara Fabian, Patricia Kaas,” she says by phone a month post-Victoires. “The pared-down French classicism of their songs was what I always wanted my own music to be about.”

With critical acclaim and millions of YouTube views, she joins a wave of artists changing the face of pop in France. She follows Lous and the Yakuza and Aya Nakamura, two dark-skinned Black Francophone artists, and a dominant French rap scene – all hugely popular despite institutional attempts to minimise and discredit their success.

This year, a heated political climate in France – one where the rebranded far-right National Rally party is likely to challenge the president, Emmanuel Macron, in the upcoming election – has positioned identity politics, intersectionality and decolonising French history as a threat to the supposedly universalist values of the republic. Yseult’s Victoires acceptance speech made her into a flashpoint, prompting online abuse and media hostility. Valeurs Actuelles magazine named her “the star of the crybaby generation”, while the news weekly Marianne stated she had no right to decry racism since her victory “proved” she was the perfect example of social integration.

“France expects its minorities to be docile – ‘they should be content with being here’,” says Rokhaya Diallo, a writer, film-maker and activist and one of France’s foremost anti-racist voices (and often a target for online abuse herself). “So of course a Black woman having a critical view of French society is going to be perceived as ungrateful.” She says Yseult “belongs to a new generation of uninhibited women. She has a profound physical and political conscience, and she imposes her body in a musical genre that is overwhelmingly white.”

It took time for Yseult to find that freedom. She started her career in 2013 as a finalist on Nouvelle Star (the French X Factor), signing with Polydor and releasing a self-titled electropop album two years later. She later described it as superficial and her place in the industry as precarious. The album’s limited success prompted a rethink: Yseult broke her contract with Polydor to start her own music label, YYY. “It’s been intense, and I’ve had to learn a whole new set of producing, managing, marketing, admin and law skills,” she says. “It has been so worth it, though. I’m not in the dark any more.”

Her music changed drastically. In 2019, she released two EPs, Rouge and Noir, the former an upbeat exploration of sensuality punctured by trap beats; the latter an introspective confrontation of her self-doubt, mental health struggles, body image and the burden of other people’s gaze, in a traditional chanson française piano-voix format. Yseult compares her creative process to therapy. “It has led me to realise how deeply I love and hate myself simultaneously, and to finally embrace that duality within me.”

That tension has become a core part of her work. In the video for Bad Boy, from her most recent EP, Brut, Yseult depicts her naked body bound in shibari, the Japanese art of rope bondage. “It’s a song about two people who love and understand each other, but who also hurt and destroy each other, so I wanted to put myself in the most vulnerable position I could think of,” she says. It was also a political choice, given the narrow, cliched ideal of the French woman. “Using an art form like shibari, in which we rarely see Black bodies and fat bodies, is a way of reclaiming a space in the cultural narrative,” she says. “So is unveiling my body and singing chanson française in my natural hair.”

Her challenge to French ideals has struck a nerve: Yseult’s honesty has often been decried as arrogance, particularly online. “In France, I feel admonished for being myself,” she says. She recently moved to “eclectic” Brussels, where she says she feels liberated. “Its people welcome diversity and are coming to terms with their colonial past, which is still such a blind spot for France.”

In addition to her music, Yseult is working to counter the limitations she has felt as an artist and Black woman. She is partnering with a performers support organisation on a health retreat for overworked musicians that she hopes will open this summer. “Major labels are not managed by music enthusiasts but by business enthusiasts, and the health and creativity of artists suffer as a consequence.”

She is also taking a course in media training to improve the reach and clarity of her message, although she is weary of the “dangerous” expectation that she (and any non-white public figure) should be a spokesperson for minorities. “My goal is just to be conscious of the hostile environment our generation lives in, both as a citizen and as an artist, and to share my narrative through my work.”

She is serious about expanding the space she claimed in her Victoires speech. “I want all the previously invisible minorities in France to become visible in the cultural landscape,” says Yseult. “Not for the sake of representation, but for what we can bring to the table. We want to be present in culture because we are present in society. We want to have our contributions credited.”

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