BMG Signed French Rapper With Antisemitic History, Then Killed His Contract Before Single Release
The German company's French subsidiary signed Freeze Corleone knowing UMG had dropped him, making a deal with him to keep it hidden.
BMG signed a Senegalese rapper from Paris that Universal Music Group had dropped because of Holocaust-denying and antisemitic lyrics — but executives in Berlin ultimately pulled the plug on the release, according to a report in The New York Times published Friday (Feb. 3).
In internal documents obtained by The Times, in 2021 BMG’s French division weighed the financial benefits of signing the rapper, Freeze Corleone, against his history of hate speech, and decided to sign him so long as his connection to the German label would remain hidden. In previous songs, the rapper had questioned the Holocaust and compared himself to Adolf Hitler. In one 2018 song featuring Corleone, “KKK,” he raps about “Nazi vehicles” and says he’s “determined with lotta ambitions nigga, like the young Adolf.” BMG signed the rapper on the condition that his new album would not have antisemitic lyrics and planned to promote it on his imprint without BMG branding, according to The Times.
In 2020, Universal Music France released Corleone’s La Menace Fantôme (The Phantom Menace), which went double platinum in France and included lyrics in songs like “Tarkov” that mention a “fraternity like Aryans” (though with no explicit mention of Jews). Despite the album’s success, a week after it began distributing LMF, in September 2020 the label said it was cutting all ties with him because the album had “revealed and amplified unacceptable racist statements.”
After UMG dropped him, the 30-year-old rapper, whose real name is Issa Lorenzo Diakhate, Tweeted “finally free.”
Then in 2021, BMG’s French team proposed signing Freeze Corleone, who was becoming increasingly popular in the Parisian hip-hop scene. In internal emails and memos reviewed by The Times, French label executives at BMG noted the artist was “France’s fastest growing artist in the last 2 years” and would thus “really help us meet our revenue target.” But the executives, Sylvain Gazaignes, the French operation’s managing director, and Ronan Fiacre, the head of A&R, also noted the controversy around the 2020 UMG release.
“In order to mitigate the risk of possible controversy,” BMG executives wrote in an internal memo reviewed by The Times, their contract would ensure the label had the right to approve his lyrics. The memo also said the contract should keep BMG’s involvement with the rapper’s career hidden. There should be “no BMG logo anywhere on the release,” Dominique Casimir, BMG’s chief content officer, said in an email she sent to a BMG lawyer and other executives, according to The Times.
BMG signed a one-album deal with Freeze Corleone worth about $1 million in October 2021, according to The Times. About three weeks after signing the deal, Casimir decided to cancel the contract the day before the release of “Scellé part. 4,” Corleone’s first single from the album, titled Riyad Sadio. The decision came after Casimir’s German team had completed a review of Freeze Corleone’s past lyrics and told the French team they needed to end the relationship with the artist, a person familiar with the matter confirms to Billboard. (An undisclosed settlement was paid to Freeze, the source says.)
Freeze Corleone has two entries on the Billboard Global Excl. U.S. chart — “Freeze Rael,” which spent one week on the chart in September of 2020 at No. 176, and “Mannschaft,” billed as SCH featuring Freeze Corleone, which landed at No. 167 in April of 2021.
In a statement sent to Billboard, BMG says “today’s New York Times story confirms that as soon as senior BMG executives became aware of the historic allegations against the artist, it ended their relationship. No record was released. BMG stands firm against anti-Semitism and hate.”
For Berlin-based BMG, the incident is the second such situation in the past five years involving an artist known to have music containing antisemitic lyrics. In 2018, a controversy exploded over an album BMG released by two German rappers, Kollegah and Farid Bang. The album, Jung Brutal Gutaussehend 3 (Young Brutal Good-Looking 3), contained lyrics like “make another Holocaust, show up with a Molotov,” but nevertheless became a hit.
Antisemitism is a particularly sensitive issue for the label’s parent company, media giant Bertelsmann, which in 2002 apologized for its past ties to the Nazi regime after an independent commission of academics the company hired found it had thrived during World War II by producing antisemitic material and Nazi propaganda. Bertelsmann previously had claimed to have played an active role in the Nazi resistance.
Casimir, who was promoted in May to the CCO post and given a seat on BMG’s board (and was recently named to Billboard’s 2023 Power 100 list), also oversaw the signing of the controversial German rappers as managing director for Germany at that time.
After BMG decided to drop him, Freeze Corleone released his album independently. Two employees in France involved in the Freeze Corleone signing — who “believed in the artist” – have since left the company but were not fired, the source familiar tells Billboard. Gazaignes remains a top executive in the French division.