International

France's Music Industry Is Facing a Sex-Abuse Reckoning

Lola Le Lann
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Lola Le Lann

Lola Le Lann delayed her album when a collaborator was accused of misconduct. Now she’s helped ignite a movement.

MONTPELLIER, France — As French actress-singer Lola Le Lann prepared to release her debut album, 45T., in October 2020, she learned that several women had accused one of her collaborators of sexual assault. She and her label, Sony Music’s Columbia France, decided to delay the project’s release indefinitely, and by November, the Paris public prosecutor had launched an investigation into rapper Yohann Malory, who had written a song for Le Lann’s album. "With lyrics from such a person it would be a bit like slipping a snake down your throat while trying to sing in tune," wrote Le Lann, 24, on her Instagram, without mentioning Malory by name. Malory denies the allegations.

In France, Le Lann’s decision to delay her album has forced a reckoning over sexual misconduct that the music industry didn’t experience when #MeToo first swept across the world. Since it reignited in the United States in 2017, the movement has had limited success exposing systematic sexual abuse by powerful men in France, many of whom seem to have operated largely with impunity. “What she did was brave and unprecedented in the French music industry,” says Emily Gonneau, a French music executive and women’s activist.

Since last fall, several other music producers and at least one music executive have been investigated by labels or French authorities. In December, after an internal investigation, indie label Because Music -- home to Christine and The Queens -- dismissed its head of marketing and promotion for France, Tahar Chender, for helping create a “sexualized atmosphere” at the company marked by racist, sexist and homophobic comments. “If my passionate and excessive character has put people in an uncomfortable situation, I apologize,” Chender told French publication Mediapart, “but we cannot judge 15 years of a career through the filter of 2020.”

Ally Pitypang
Emily Gonneau

Whether the recent string of allegations will lead to concrete change remains to be seen. In the past, many French victims stayed silent, fearing reprisals from employers, who have used strong defamation laws to brush off accusers. The French statute of limitations for prosecuting offenses is six years for violent and sexual assault cases; in some U.S. states, such as California, it’s as much as 10 years. And France’s version of #MeToo, which went by the angrier hashtag #BalanceTonPorc (“Expose your pig”), initially drew scorn from some prominent women like actress Catherine Deneuve, who joined more than 100 women in equating #MeToo to a puritanical “witch hunt.” (Deneuve later apologized.)

Le Lann’s stand has coincided with the birth of two advocacy groups pushing for reform in the French music industry. In September, Gonneau, who runs indie label Unicum Music, started #changededisque (“Change the record”), which campaigns for equality in the workplace and an end to sexual misconduct. She says she has about 150 volunteers from across the French music industry who are gathering testimonials and exploring solutions.

Later in September, an anonymous #MusicTooFrance collective formed. Its members -- a mix of music industry employees, artists and lawyers -- are working with journalists to encourage victims of sexual assaults and discrimination to speak out. They’re already claiming some results. A French court is scheduled this year to hear the case against Malory, who has also written songs for singer-actress Jenifer and late rock legend Johnny Hallyday. Antoine Vey, Malory’s lawyer, calls the accusations "false and slanderous" and says Malory "has gathered sufficient evidence to show that the alleged complainants conspired with the intent of harming him personally."

Paris prosecutors in September also began investigating French rapper Moha La Squale for allegations by three women of committing violence, death threats and sexual assault. Thibault Stumm, the women’s attorney, says there is now a fourth accuser and an allegation of kidnapping. The rapper remains on Elektra Records’ artist roster, but the label has put his next album on hold pending the outcome of the police investigation, according to a person familiar with the situation. La Squale could not be reached for comment.

An exposé in Neon magazine in November alleged that hip-hop artist Spleen, a former contestant on "The Voice" in France, sexually assaulted several women. A hearing on the allegations against Spleen (real name Pascal Oyong-Oly), originally scheduled for Nov. 27, has been pushed into 2021. Separately, the Paris police opened a preliminary investigation into rape allegations against Spleen on Nov. 9, the Paris public prosecutor confirmed. (Lawyers for Spleen say the artist denies all allegations in the article.)

As more victims come forward, Gonneau says her organization is disappointed that major labels haven’t responded by publicly condemning violence against women. They have, though, reacted swiftly against alleged anti-Semitism and homophobia recently. On Sept. 17, members of French parliament denounced rapper Freeze Corleone for such anti-Semitic lyrics as “J’arrive déterminé comme Adolf dans les années 30” ("I'm as determined as Adolf in the 1930s"), from his track "Baton Rouge." The Paris public prosecutor opened an investigation into incitement of racial hatred. One day later, Universal Music cut ties with Corleone, citing the “values of tolerance and respect.” In October, Benjamin Chulvanij, head of Def Jam France, left his job after a report that he screamed and violently kicked the chair of an intern and called him a "filthy gay."

Universal Music declined to comment. Chulvanij, who could not be reached for comment, told Le Monde that the report was "pure slander without any proof. I am neither homophobic nor misogynist."

Still, there are glimmers of hope that speaking out is effecting change. After a group of women at Because Music came to founder/owner Emmanuel de Buretel in October concerned about a report in online magazine StreetPress detailing “serious accusations” against rapper Retro X, the label owner launched an internal investigation that resulted in Because cutting ties with the artist and dismissing Chender. Retro X, who denied the allegations to StreetPress, could not be reached for comment.

Gonneau sees "an awakening" in France around sexual misconduct and harassment in the music industry, but thinking of Le Lann’s album delay says it’s coming at a troubling cost. “Is it normal that we collectively wait for an artist to sacrifice both the release of her first album and the launch of her music career just because she has a moral compass?" says Gonneau. “The imbalance of the situation is glaring here."

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jan. 16, 2021, issue of Billboard.