French Like Me (The Finale)
Looking for work took some wind out of my American-in-Paris adventure. I’d been going through the classified ads in FUSAC, a magazine full of job and housing listings for English-speaking Parisians. It advertised plenty of work for student au pairs and English teachers, but not much else. The slim pickings made me think back to Langston Hughes doing dishes at Le Grand Duc and my own college summers hauling garbage as a porter in Park Avenue apartment buildings. I had no working papers and I struggled with French, so wiping café tables wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. But then Olivier Laouchez returned my email.
Monday morning I walked the fifteenth arrondissement in search of rue des Volontaires. I stood in front of a hospital across from the Trace TV offices waiting on my nine o’clock meeting with the CEO. Weeks back, surfing the Internet for work, I’d found an online editor position at www.trace.tv and sent in my résumé. Nothing. But then I requested an interview with Olivier for “Paris Noir,” and he quickly agreed. The column still had no home—and so technically didn’t exist yet—but a rendezvous with the chairman of Trace would be great to have on tape for down the line. And if I could wiggle my way into a job, so much the better.
I soon strolled across the street and followed another early bird into the seven-story apartment building. The Trace space was one floor below the lobby; I descended some steps, turned a corner and walked into their main office. Fashion photography from Trace magazine broke up the simplicity of the eggshell walls. A receptionist smiled at my mangled French and directed me into a spacious conference room, handing me a Trace TV media kit with model Noémie Lenoir smoldering on the front.
I wrestled with the language flipping through the folder’s glossy contents, but some things were clear. Reprinted statistics gave numbers on the amount of black Africans living in the country (eight million) and estimations of the 4.7 million urban French residing in the underprivileged areas of les ZUS—zones urbaines sensibles or sensitive urban zones. Another section provided detailed explanations of reggae, zouk, hiphop and the Algerian folk music, raï.
Trace magazine had originally started in 1995 as True, based in London as sort of a European response to Vibe. I studied abroad in Britain that year, writing for True a little bit and hanging out at their large studio office on Old Street. So I already knew Claude Grunitzky, the Togolese founder of Trace. We were the same age and crossed paths in SoHo often enough after Trace opened an American office in ’98. According to the press materials, he’d joined forces with Olivier and former Goldman Sachs exec Richard Wayner last year to launch Trace TV.
Olivier entered the room with bottles of Evian in hand. A suit jacket and slacks framed his slight build. He wore an open collar dress shirt with no tie and sleek prescription glasses, his head nearly as clean as his shaven babyface. He offered water and a spirited handshake, introduced himself in English, then jumped right into the interview.
“When I started thinking about launching an urban TV channel, I was still in Martinique,” he said. “I saw urban music in a broad sense; not only R&B and rap, but also world music, zouk, ragga, reggae, all of that. I could see this music had a real appeal for many people who weren’t from the West Indies or Africa. So there was truly a kind of crossover potential. I went to see people from BET. I called them in Washington and said, ‘Look, you are based in America but there is definitely something to be done at the international level. I have some expertise in TV. Why don’t we do something together?’ But it didn’t work out.”
I interrupted to tell Olivier a little about my working as a website editor for BET back in 2000.
“Really? This is when I met with them. They said, ‘We want to do BET at the international level, but our idea is to exploit only our U.S. content.’ I told them about the urban scene in Germany, in France, in the UK. But they didn’t really believe in that. So they launched BETInternational by themselves and they failed. They opened an office in London, spent a lot of money. They were not successful.” It took Olivier three more years to partner up with Richard and Claude. The trio formed Alliance Trace Media, and Trace TV soon grew out of their partnership.
From a flat-screen mounted on the wall, I noticed Trace TV playing a Wyclef Jean video. I asked Olivier about the challenges of balancing French and American content on the channel. I’d recently seen Rakim on the cover of the latest Radikalmagazine and thought the same thing. If American hiphop is the most well known rap around the world, don’t ratings dip when Trace plays Rohff instead of Wyclef?
“That’s the challenge actually, because in the hiphop industry, the American artists are the biggest ones,” Olivier said. “They put much more money into their music videos than Europeans, so visually it really has an impact on our company. It’s very difficult to get rid of that. But at the same time, the urban scene in France is the second biggest in the world, before Germany, before the UK. In French society we’ve got all these African and Caribbean people living in the suburbs. For them rap is a way to express themselves. It’s very important to find the right balance between the two.”
He took a swig of Evian and continued. “We’ve got some quotas. In France, you need to show a minimum 60 percent of French and European content. That means in our rotation, we have to adjust and take that into consideration. The French-speaking African countries are considered French content as well.”
I’d heard something like that was true for the radio, but not television.
“Yes, when more than 50 percent of your content is music, you have to follow these quotas. But the longer we exist, the more I think we will invest in domestic content.”
As an American, I’m ignorant sometimes about the cultural muscle that my own country flexes internationally. English is so familiar worldwide because foreign school systems prioritize the teaching of other languages higher than America does. But another reason is because the US is so rich, with a power to export its products that other countries don’t have. Practically everybody everywhere knows Superman and Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. English became such a global language partly because of commercial familiarity. I thought of the multiplex at Les Halles: fifteen of the twenty-three movies showing this week were American, while in the US, foreign-language films go straight to art house theaters. It would never be necessary for radio or television stations back home to mandate English content. Most of us don’t speak anything else. I asked Olivier about this double standard.
“No French-speaking artist will break the US market,” he admitted. “Obviously we’ve got a new scene of French artists which are quite good. But the only way they could make it is if they do something with a big American artist, then try to catch a connection through appearing in music videos.” He went on to mention a few who’ve tried just that—MC Solaar, Ärsenik and Les Nubians, the most popular French-language music group in America. (The two sisters were born in Bordeaux to a Cameroonian mother; they sing in both French and English.)
“I think what really makes the French market unique is, because of the diversity of the origins of the people here, they want to put part of their original culture into their urban expression,” Olivier said. “The rap production here, sometimes they mix it with oriental songs, with Caribbean songs. I think all this gives a very interesting flavor to what we do.”
In the end, he said that any opportunities for me at Trace would depend on their next wave of fundraising for the channel. They couldn’t afford an extra salary at the moment. I would hear from Olivier again much, much later but it wouldn’t be about a job.