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The modern Marseillaise: the album that has redefined the geography of a city

Quartiers nord is Marseille rapper Alonzo's most affectionate tribute to his hometown yet

Alonzo performing on stage at the Stade de France (Photo: Pierre Andrieu/AFP)

Music is sometimes so rooted in geography that it is more map than sound. This is the case for hip hop and rap probably more than any other genre, where identity is often intimately tied to hyper-specific neighbourhoods and the experience of growing up in them, and the US east coast-west coast rivalry was definitive.

Marseille is a place where hip hop – a massive scene in France’s second city
– has also been a kind of musical cartography. IAM’s effervescent Je danse le Mia, a No 1 hit in 1994 and seminal single for French rap, was full of local references and became a kind of unofficial anthem of Marseille. Bouga’s Belsunce Breakdown, a No 8 hit in 2000, called that central area of the city in the title, where the rapper had grown up, “fleuron des quartiers phocéens” (“jewel of the Marseilles districts”).

And while Marseille rap has been notably more laid back than its Parisian counterpart, with the sounds of the many immigrant communities of this Mediterranean port city mixing with the sunshine to produce something altogether more joyful, in 2013 the trio Psy 4 de la Rime, whose parents came from the Comoros Islands off Mozambique, engaged with the grittier face of the city on Crise de Nerfs, referencing the massive Marseille police corruption scandal of the previous year and calling Marseille a city “Au bord de la crise de nerfs” (“On the verge of a nervous breakdown”).


Now, with his 10th solo album released last month, former member of Psy 4 de la Rime, Alonzo, has put forward a new portrait of Marseille in music.

While it is far from the first time Alonzo has rapped about the city of his birth – he is part of a generation of Marseille rappers who grew up there in the 1980s and 90s and who have been chroniclers of the city’s changing face – Quartiers nord is his most affectionate tribute yet.

The Quartiers nord are those predominantly immigrant districts of Marseille that have long been synonymous with poverty and crime and are often said to be the poorest neighbourhoods in Europe. Gang violence and drug trafficking have blighted lives there, and these districts are still known for their high-volume, low-quality housing despite repeated regeneration initiatives.

Yet Alonzo’s Quartiers nord is a self-confessed homage to the north Marseille community that made him, specifically the 1970s Plan d’Aou estate in Saint-Antoine in the city’s 15th arrondissement where he grew up.

Asked by Marseille daily La Provence if the street remained his muse, he replied: “What else can I talk about?”, adding: “it remains my muse, because I was born in the quartiers, I am its fruit, I am the Quartiers nord.”

The opening track of the album, Les pieds sur terre, finds Alonzo wistfully
reflecting on his childhood and evokes him visiting his mother who still lives in Plan d’Aou (“Ça a bien changé ici, c’est vrai qu’je monte rarement, je travaille beaucoup”, “It’s changed a lot here, it’s true that I rarely come up here, I work a lot”), while on the album’s title track he earnestly asserts “Je reste Kassim des Quartiers nord” (“I’m still Kassim from the Quartiers nord” – he was born Kassimou Djae). Héritiers, meanwhile, is an autobiographical song that touches on Alonzo’s experience of being one of seven children and becoming a father at the age of 16.

Yet it is the rather less emotional Tout va bien that is the most-played track on Spotify in France at the time of writing. With its carefree Afrobeat sound, references to Moschino, Yves Saint Laurent and Rolex, and a title that defies the general state of the world, it has song of the summer written all over it, and Alonzo’s previous big hits, like Binta (2016) and Suis-moi (2017), have also been more interested in cars, women and conspicuous consumption than nostalgia and rumination on local identity.

But even if such upbeat sounds are what the French want in this post-pandemic summer, with Quartiers nord Alonzo has put forward the latest word in working-class immigrant Marseillais identity in music, and as the album was promoted with a black banner bearing its title mounted on the huge Hollywood-style “Marseille” sign in the 15th arrondissement’s Parc
Foresta, it has for a moment redefined the geography of a city.

ALONZO AND MARSEILLE in five songs

Alonzo, Marseillais (2009)
From his debut album, this anthemic football song referenced the Stade Vélodrome, home of Olympique de Marseille, and namechecked the club’s 1990s signings, Serbian midfielder Dragan Stojković and Croatian forward Alen Bokšić.

Alonzo, Marseille (2015)
Opening “Bienvenue au 13015” – the Marseille postcode – this was a gritty
evocation of life in the Quartiers nord.

13 Organisé, Je suis Marseille (2020)
This track by a collective of 50 Marseille rappers, including Alonzo, vividly evokes the guns, drugs and “cranes and containers” of the city.

Soprano feat. Jul, SCH and Alonzo, Planète Mars 2021 (2021)
This track from Alonzo’s former Psy 4 de la Rime bandmate was another football anthem. Planète Mars is a common nickname for the city.

Alonzo feat. Ninho & Naps, Tout va bien (2022)
A collaboration with northern French rapper Ninho and fellow Marseillais
Naps, this song has set French Spotify on fire and looks set to be one of the
sounds of the summer.

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