Amel Bent: Idol Voices Against Discrimination

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Bent refuses to be labeled as an R&B or pop singer. She sees herself with a talent that allows her to practice all forms of art, not only music. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Said Khatibi

Published Monday, May 14, 2012

The young French woman of Arab origins does not spend time discussing the issue of "identity." She does not even care much about classifying the musical genres of songs. All that concerns her is singing about the suffering and the dreams of human beings, regardless of their color, religion or nationality.

Amel Bent Bachir was born in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis to an Algerian father and Moroccan mother. She grew up in the outskirts of the capital, in an area famed for gangs and drug dealers.

"Some French journalists try to provoke me when they remind me about my childhood in Saint-Denis, which is absurd," says the young woman, who prefers to be called by the name Bent.

After finishing high school, Bent was planning to study psychology. But her plan never materialized because of her love for music.

After having practiced in private throughout her teenage years, she did not hesitate to audition for the second season of "Nouvelle Star" (the French version of American Idol) in 2004. She came in third place, beating dozens of talented singers, and grabbed the attention of the music world in France.

"I never expected to reach such an advanced rank in the competition," Bent says. "I did not decide to audition to prove that I'm a singer because I have been singing and studying music since childhood. But it was to test the audience reaction to my performance."

The audience reacted positively to Bent's voice. This brought her early recognition and prompted her to reconsider her career plans. She gave up the idea of studying psychology and dedicated her life to music.

"I did not intend to have a career in music and wanted it to remain a hobby," says the young woman. "But life changes drove me to change my mind."

Bent recorded her first album, A Summer Day, in 2004. It won her the Victoire de la Musique (French equivalent of the US Grammys) award for best new female artist in 2006. The album, with 13 songs, sold more than 200,000 copies.

In one of the album’s songs, "My Philosophy," Bent sings, "I only have one philosophy; to accept me as I am. Despite everything that is said about me, I will continue to raise my head high."

Bent wrote the lyrics of that song in partnership with controversial female rapper Diam's, who also joined Bent in her second album,At Twenty, in 2007. The two sang a duet in the album before splitting and ending a four-year artistic relationship. The split came after Diam's embraced Islam and wore the veil.

What is Bent's take on religion? "I respect Diam's' decision," she says. "Religion is a personal question primarily related to the person involved."

Bent continued her musical career with another album in 2009 titled Wherever I Go, with 11 songs, including "I Love You Much," "I Feel Fine" and "Paper Clip."

In 2011, she released her fourth album Minor Offense, which contained some autobiographical and emotional themes. In this album, Bent cooperated with several of France's top stars, such as well-known singer Maxime Le Forestier, who wrote the lyrics for her song "Minor," and famous musician Jean-Jacques Goldman, who wrote the song "Believe."

"I met Goldman by coincidence and asked him to write me a song," she says. "He hesitated in the beginning, but he later agreed, and I was very happy to work with him."

Unlike other French singers of Algerian origin, such as Sheryfa Luna and Kenza Farah, Bent does not lean toward Arab Maghreb music.

She says that the time was not right for turning to Algerian music. "But I still believe I will sing some kind of Algerian music in the future," she says.

Bent's style is open to all forms of Western singing. In addition to the variety in her own music, she returns to musical classics in her version of Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender" (2010) and Brigitte Bardot's "Do You Want or Not" (2011).

She has also performed duets with several singers, such as Kery James in "Our Dreams" (2005), La Fuente in "Sacrifice for Her" (2007), and Rohff in "Hysteric Love" (2008).

Although her artistic experience so far has been relatively short, Bent’s success has exceeded that of many artists that share her origins. In addition to her Victoire de la Musique award, she also grabbed the European Union's European Border Breakers award in 2006, and was nominated for MTV Europe's best female French singer award in 2005.

Bent's music hit record sales and grabbed the kind of media attention that her peers were not fortunate enough to capture. She says that this may be due to the "openness and musical variety I use in my work."

Bent refuses to be labeled as an R&B or pop singer. She sees herself with a talent that allows her to practice all forms of art, not only music.

She participated in a television series, Foreign Affairs (2010), about a policeman who travels in search of suspected criminals in France. She also worked on the French-dubbed version of US-Australian film Happy Feet 2, acting as the voice of Gloria.

These experiences expanded Bent's audience and made her an important figure for the immigrants in France who are facing difficult times due to the rise of the extreme right.

"I don't believe that the immigrants give much attention to political affairs or what is said about them and their origins," Bent says. "They care about how to get out of the poverty and unemployment that haunts their daily lives."

Despite the young singer's concern over French policies that are increasingly based on discrimination, she remains optimistic about the future. She believes that matters will improve, even if it takes time.

She insists on making her music her discourse with which to defend herself, her fellow immigrants and human beings in general.

Perhaps that is why UNICEF chose her to participate in a European musical tour, whose proceeds will go to helping Horn of Africa children who are facing threats of famine and infectious diseases.

Bent recently released her latest single, Misdemeanor, and is busy pursuing her artistic career. But this does not come without a price. "My attachment to music has often made me feel very lonely," she says.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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