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Sefyu: 'Not all young people from Parisian suburbs will end up with a bad education'

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Translation by:

Louise McTavish


Not all rappers don a panoply of gold chains, or leave the ghettos they grew up in. The one-time Arsenal football player-cum-French rapper avoids the showbiz scene. Whilst promoting his latest album, he invests a lot of time into improving life in the suburban ghettos - he still lives in Aulnay-sous-Bois - and is devoted to his passion for football

I wait patiently for Seyfu with several other journalists in Zebra Square, a restaurant in the 16th arrondissement of Paris that looks onto the Maison de la Radio, the headquarters of Radio France. The inside is cosy, the lights subdued and the music playing in the background makes us feel more comfortable as we wait. Sefyu finally arrives half an hour late after being stuck in a traffic jam. He claims to be starving, but is smiling and willing to spare us come of his time. 'Hi, I'm Sefyu,' he begins, 'and in two minutes I'm all yours!'

Outside of rap business

Sefyu hardly ever shows his face in public. It usually remains hidden under a hood, a cap, or even behind his fist. Although a certain online encyclopedia claims that this is because he doesn't want his father to recognise him, the real reason is out of respect for those who struggle to get themselves noticed, and to make people understand that the image that one gives off is of little importance. 'What matters most is talent,' says Sefyu.

'Sefyu' is actually Youssef in verlan, a French slang phenomenon where syllables are broken up and reversed to make a new word. Sefyu's real name is Youssef Soukouna, and he debuted in the world of French hip hop at the start of the nineties whilst rapping for the band NCC (Natural Court Circuit). By the time he was thirty, he had released the albums Who Am I ('Qui suis-je', 2006), Am I My Brother's Guardian ('Suis-je le gardien de mon frère?', 2008) and Yes I Am ('Oui je le suis', 2011, Because Music label). Sefyu's aggressive and ironic style is portrayed in his song titles, which include The Legend ('La Légende') and The Life That Goes With It ('La vie qui va avec'). Sefyu maintains that he doesn't really associate with the rap world. 'When I first started out, there was quite a lot of favouritism,' he explains. 'Rap artists had all the power. There were singers who wanted to keep all the business to themselves.' However, he has collaborated with several successful rappers such as Passi, Rohff and Sniper. 'These collaborations worked well and helped me to evolve,' he says. The singer also shares the same ideas as pioneers IAM, MC Solaar and tourmates NTM, who he calls good friends.

Professional football to music career

Sefyu arrived in London at the age of 27 with high hopes of becoming a professional football player. However his dreams were shattered after he sustained an injury to his protractor muscles whilst playing as a left-winger for Arsenal. Since then he has been dedicated to his second passion in life, rapping, which he had been working on parallel to his football career. The young rapper takes this forced change of career path as a sign of fate. 'I don't complain about it because I'm lucky to have music as an alternative,' he says. 'I started rapping, singing and drumming when I was really young. It's just that I was more gifted at football than music!' he laughs. Today, football still plays an important part in his everyday life. 'I watch more football on television than music programmes, and I spend a lot of time at football stadiums. Arsenal are still in my heart and I wear their shirt with pride.'

'I went to a school in the centre of town where all the pupils were from different social backgrounds. We used to sing Brassens and Brel'

Even though Sefyu has had a gold disc, won a 'Victoire de la Musique' French music award in 2009 and performed on multiple international tours, he still lives in the rough Parisian suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois where he grew up. Once a youth worker working with young people from under-privileged backgrounds, issues such as immigration, national identity, racism, communitarianism and violence still remain sensitive topics for him. After setting up his own publishing firm, he now plans to create an organisation to support young songwriters from the disadvantaged suburbs. 'Personally, talking about the suburbs is part of my strategy,' he explains. 'Prejudices do exist and will always exist.' Growing up in the suburbs has helped Sefyu to gain more life experience and to mix with people from lots of different backgrounds. 'I went to a school in the centre of town where all the pupils were from different social backgrounds. I developed a taste for and learned lots about different musical genres, from reggae to French songs. At school we used to sing (legendary French musicians George and Jacques) Brassens and Brel,' he laughs. 'I'd like to get rid of all the cliches. Not all young people from the suburbs will end up with a bad education/doing NVQ's. They are allowed to have other ambitions. The issues of diversity and integration shouldn't just be talked about during things like the world cup, but also in all areas of life.'

After a twenty minute question-and-answer session, I have to let other journalists have their turn. Sefyu kindly signs an autograph and starts over again with another interview. I can hear that he is answering the same questions, whilst still managing to keep the same smile on his face. From the suburban ghettos to the affluent 16th arrondissement of Paris we are today, it is all part of his life.

Images: © Fouad Allaoui; in-text: album visual courtesy of © Because Music/ videos (cc) Sefyu/ youtube

Translated from Sefyu : « à l’école, on chantait du Brassens, du Brel »