PARIS, France — Rap and prison go together like … well, like playas and playa haters.
But if most of the US rappers who’ve penned albums in the pen have treated it as a temporary inconvenience, for one group debuting this week in France, without the bars, there’d be no beats.
They are Shtar Academy — a play on the name of the French American Idol, called Star Academy, and “chtar,” a slang word for jail — and they were formed, as their alias suggests, in a talent contest. A talent contest in a prison.
Thankfully, Simon Cowell had nothing to do with it. Shtar Ac, as the group’s known, was the brainchild of Mouloud Mansouri, an ex-con turned DJ who now organizes writing groups and concerts in penitentiaries across France — a country with one of the fastest-growing prison populations and highest rates of prisoner suicides in Europe.
In 2012, Mansouri began auditioning inmates at a detention center near Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France. Three made the final cut: Malik, aged 21 and serving three years for burglary and extortion; Mirak, 36, sentenced to four years for selling drugs; and Badri, 21 and with a seven-year sentence for burglary and organized robbery.
With the mentoring of some of the top names in French rap, the three men have just released their debut album. Self-titled, it includes songs such as "Yo Jailbirds" and "The Penitentiary Doors" (sample lyric: “Lots of people take inspiration from our story/Because theirs is just a con/You want to know what prison smells like/Listen to Shtar Ac’s album”). Said album came out on Monday and by Tuesday afternoon had reached number five on France’s iTunes chart.
Amid the rounds of newspaper interviews and TV appearances, there’s one notable absence: Badri, who remains locked up. The group hopes he’ll be given special dispensation to take part in at least some of the concerts — in prisons, naturally — they have planned.
For him, if not the others, it’s just like their website prophesied: “Their CD will be out before they are.”
Check out two of their videos below; more here.