Asked a couple of hours before Paris Saint Germain’s Champions League choke against Barcelona whether he hoped for a Parisian win, IAM frontman Akhenaton left no room for doubt, “Absolutely not – I hope they get trampled”.
Not for the first time in the past three decades, IAM’s members spoke for their home city of Marseille.
That they were doing so as special guests in the final ever broadcast of France’s flagship Le Grand Journal programme gave an indication of the esteem in which the band is now held across the rest of the country, after leading hip-hop into the French mainstream and providing a voice for France’s disaffected youth – in the south in particular – in the process.
Born Philippe Fragione to a father of Italian roots and a militantly unionised mother, Akhenaton hit his teens in the early 1980s, just as hip-hop was making its mark in France. Soon the music and culture began to rival Fragione’s passion for Ancient Egypt, which spawned most of the band’s stage names.
Along with his friend Eric Mazel (DJ Khéops), he formed his first group – Lively Crew – in 1986 and began to make a name for himself, rapping in English. He started making regular visits to family in New York to experience hip hop at its source, to work with local musicians and to buy records: after one summer trip with Khéops, the pair returned to France with 300 vinyls.
The music soon did for Fragione’s geology and archaeology studies but it took the wake-up call of being mistaken for a homeless person, as well as being given some sympathetic chocolate by a tourist information officer at Marseille’s Vieux Port, for Akhenaton to find the focus to make a career of his passion. By 1988, he and Khéops had moved on from Lively Crew to another band – B Boys Stance - and they soon recruited Geoffrey Mussard (Shurik’n) and, with Pascal Perez (Imothep), François Mendy (Kephren) and Malek Brahimi (Freeman) coming on board soon thereafter, IAM was formed.
The name itself has been open to much interpretation over the years, including theories that it stands for Imperial Asiatic Man (in reference to the band’s passion for ancient cultures: Shurik’n’s stage name owes more to his passion for Taoist spirituality than his partners’ Egyptian pseudonyms), Indépendantistes Autonomes Marseillais (as a nod to their passion for their home city) and Italien Algérien Malgache (as a reference to their countries of origin). Akhenaton himself has been quoted as saying that it’s borrowed from the Black civil rights movement in America (“I AM A MAN”) and serves to highlight the band’s independence of thought and their concern not to resemble everyone else. He has also noted that, “In Arabic, it means ‘history’, ‘time passing’”.
One other theory is that it’s an acronym for Invasion Arrivant de Mars – an idea perhaps given increased credence by the name of the band’s 1991 break-out album, …de la planète Mars – “Mars”, in IAM’s case referring to Marseille. The album featured the band’s first hit, Tam-Tam de l’Afrique, setting IAM’s stall out early on as a band proud of its roots and unafraid to tackle major issues of the past and the present (in this case the slave trade). The track is also notable for sampling Stevie Wonder’s Pastime Paradise, four years before Coolio.
In the quarter-century since that album, the band has continued to grow in popularity and influence, managing to walk the fine line between commercial success and retention of credibility – this despite almost blowing it in 1994 with their biggest hit single – Je Danse Le Mia (sampling George Benson’s Give Me The Night) – their version of the big summer commercial hit of which every serious band must be ashamed and one which they have in the past disparagingly referred to as a song for camp sites.
IAM’s peak – commercially and probably creatively too – was with 1997’s l’Ecole du Micro d’Argent. Tracks such as Nés Sous La Même Etoile and Petit Frère offered a withering critique of the social problems in Marseille, the difference between the haves and have nots and the dangers to which the youth of the city are exposed; from violence to drug trafficking to prostitution.
The album spoke for a generation of disenfranchised youngsters and contributed to what is considered a classic of the French rap scene, as well as becoming the genre’s best ever seller. L’Ecole du Micro d’Argent also highlighted the band’s brilliant wordplay and erudition: not least in the epic closing track Demain C’est Loin (for which Akhenaton and Shurik’n merged songs that they had each written for solo projects to stunning effect), an intense, chorusless, nine-minute description of Marseille’s estates, Shurik’n’s half of which is delivered in anadiplosis style.
What has marked IAM out from some peers is that their music, while so often dealing with the difficult subject matter, is in a sense positive. By contrast with the leading hip hop band from Paris – NTM – whose name (Nique Ta Mère) is provocative, whose songs encourage violence towards the police and whose members have also had their violent moments (Joey Starr has been sentenced to prison for physically harassing an air stewardess – and also punched a monkey live on television) – IAM are seen as closer to the MC Solaar end of the good guy spectrum. While not afraid to criticise and question authority, their work serves more to look at the causes rather than the consequences of many of France’s societal issues, to promote acceptance and to vaunt the virtues of multi-culturalism.
In the case of Marseille in particular, while their music acknowledges the problems facing the city, their love and pride of their home also shines through, and they are happy to highlight all that is good about the city, from its geographical beauty to the character and resourcefulness of its citizens, ensuring that it is not only the negative stories that are heard. Akhenaton – who converted to Islam in 1993 – has also become a leading, spokesperson in the media for racial tolerance and for better understanding of French Muslims, arguing with eloquence for better treatment by politicians and media alike.
In the past twenty years, IAM’s five album releases as a group have all enjoyed continued success, their reputation allowing them to collaborate with international stars including Wu Tang Clan and Beyonce. They have also worked on film soundtracks. Having already contributed a track to the album inspired by La Haine, the band also features, with Marseille La Nuit, on the soundtrack for Luc Besson’s Marseille-set-pre-Queen-Latifah-remake-horror hit Taxi, for which Akhenaton composed the original score and invited several other Marseille bands to appear.
IAM’s members have also devoted time to solo projects. All band members have released solo albums as well as collaborating on and producing the projects of others, particularly fellow Marseille bands, such as Fonky Family and Chiens de Paille. Freeman has left the band. Khéops has developed an obsession with the Beast of Gévaudan. Unsurprisingly, Akhenaton has remained the most high-profile member. His solo hits include Bad Boys de Marseille, since adopted as an IAM standard, and his range of other work has stretched from hosting a cooking show to curating an exhibition on the history of hip-hop at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.
While not as prominent as some of their other recurring themes, the band’s love of football and particularly of Olympique de Marseille has never been far away. Akhenaton composed the opening credits for the Foot2Rue animated series. As early as 1993, Le Feu began with the Vélodrome’s “ce soir on vous mets, ce soir on vous mets le feu“ chant. And arguably the connection between the band and OM was sealed a decade later when Akhenaton collaborated on the design of the team’s reversible black/orange shirt for the 2012-2013 Europa League campaign. While the colours represent Marseille La Nuit, the orange is also Akhenaton’s homage to the colour of OM’s South Winners ultras – and a nod to another of IAM’s favourite themes, an anti-racism message reflecting the tradition of turning bomber jackets inside out to reveal their orange lining. Lyrics from Akhenaton’s accompanying Lumières Orange single are also woven into the shirt.
Throughout, the band members have retained their characteristic imagination, sense of adventure and nods to their roots, no better example being their choice of venue for their 20-year anniversary gig in 2008: the Pyramids of Giza.
In 2017, they released their eighth album, Rêvolution, the title as well as the contents again highlighting their lyrical talent as well as their social engagement. Rumours of the band’s splitting have come and gone over the years but, whether as a band or as individuals, whether through music or other forms of art, it seems a safe bet that IAM will continue to speak for Marseille and for France’s minorities for a long time to come.