Lord Esperanza takes French rap to the upper crust
He is clean-cut, ambitious, painfully polite and with the kind of upbringing that might have landed him a job as a young executive in a multinational company.
Meet Lord Esperanza, one of the new -- and distinctly upper class -- great white hopes of French rap.
At 22, the well brought up Parisian -- the son of a life coach and a corporate branding guru -- is on the cusp of what many see as big things.
His debut album, "Drapeau blanc" (White Flag), has been hailed by the critics for its maturity and sophistication, while the singer songwriter sees its earnest appeals for a better world as "giving hope to the people".
"Wake up!" he cries in one of the album's catchiest tracks, whose title translates as "The Silence of Politicians", to the destruction of the planet and the spectral "skeletal polar bears" roaming the Earth.
While French rappers tend to sing about sex, drugs and money, Lord Esperanza gets fired up about food waste, social determinism and humanity's ineffable talent for undermining itself.
He voted Green in the recent European elections, he told AFP in an interview around the corner from his childhood home in the fast gentrifying streets behind Montmartre.
- Snub to Macron -
He may have come from a comfortably off family, but Lord Esperanza insisted that he is a "yellow vest protester in his head", referring to the mainly rural and working class protesters who have been taking to the streets for the last six months in France.
That is why he turned down an invitation from French President Emmanuel Macron to join him at the Elysee Palace later this month for the country's annual mid-summer street music festival.
Unlike the yellow vests protesters, the darkly handsome Lord Esperanza readily admits that he has been "pushing at a wide-open door" to find a platform in the increasingly white world of French rap.
A wave of white performers led by Orelsan, Eddy de Pretto, Loud from Quebec and Romeo Elvis from Belgium have been taking the ghetto out of the genre.
Like the talented de Pretto, Lord Esperanza -- whose real name is Theodore Desprez -- has managed to meld melodies worthy of traditional French chanson into his work.
Which is no surprise given that the young rapper is also a fan of the timeless ballads of Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg.
Indeed his friend and closest collaborator, Majeur Mineur, who composed the music for the 14 tracks on the album, insisted that Esperanza is "passionate about the French language and fascinated by pop and the avant-garde".
- Upper-class confidence -
That poetic legacy is clear in his lyrics. "For me happiness/ Is a succession/ of less sad moments," he sings at the start of the album in a flourish worthy of Brel.
Indeed privilege is no guarantee of happiness, with Esperanza admitting that his fraught relationship with his father -- the product of one of France's most elite schools -- is one of the things that drives him.
When as a teenager he announced he wanted to become a rapper, his father "took a blank piece of paper, drew a graph on it, and put up my idols (the rappers) Orelsan, PNL and Damso at the top of it," he said.
"He put me at the bottom and told me that I was going to stay there," he told AFP.
"It was his way of telling me I had to prove the contrary."
Lord Esperanza's stage name, which translates as "The Lord of Hope", was his way of kicking against paternal scepticism.
His often bragging, super-confident stage presence is further armour against it.
For Majeur Mineur (a business and sociology graduate whose real name is Hugo d'Azemar), the whole Lord Esperanza project comes out of this "paradoxical, bipolar" worldview.
"He is rooted in his era, a world that is fractured socially and ecologically, but that is full of creativity."
The Lord Esperanza character has melted into Desprez's own personality creating a mix somewhere between "extreme kindness" and "lots of pride and ego", said Majeur Mineur, "two things which are a must if you are to succeed in this business".
Certainly Esperanza doesn't lack outward confidence -- something he attributes to his mother who urged him from an early age to trust his unconscious creative self.
He sees himself as "the inspirational force" for the team of 15 behind him.
"I give them energy and elan, then the people around me put it in place. My only real talent, in all humility, is that I know how to surround myself" with good people, he said.
? 2019 AFP