Soft Power Songs: PSG, Rap and the State of Qatar

26 mars 2021
By Professor Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon, and Dr Paul Widdop, Associate Professor of Sport at Manchester Metropolitan University

The last time Glastonbury took place, in pre-pandemic 2019, a highlight of the music festival was the appearance of British rapper Dave on the ‘Other Stage’. During his performance, he beckoned a fifteen-year old onto the stage to join him in a rendition of what remains Dave’s best-known track – ‘Thiago Silva’.

At that time, Brazilian international footballer Silva was a stalwart centre-back, the main stay of Paris Saint Germain’s ‘le défenseur’ during its ascent to the top of French professional football. As the teenager clambered upon the stage, it became clear that he was wearing a now iconic PSG shirt replete with the logos of sponsors such as Ooredoo and QNB.

The Glastonbury PSG fest seemed inevitable; the video to accompany the track’s original launch in 2016, in which fellow British rapper A.J. Tracey appeared, was an homage to all things PSG including the club logo, its stadium and the suburbs of Paris from which the club traditionally draws its support.

It is not the first time that PSG, football and diverse urban communities have appeared together on-stage or in music videos. Other rap track videos in which PSG apparel appears centre-stage include Sugar MMFK’s ‘Trikot von Paris’, and Guy2Bezbar’s ‘BEBETO’.

Strong links between football, sports apparel and fashion are hardly new, the likes of the Fred Perry, Kappa and Lacoste brands have long had a symbiotic relation with the sport. Nor are connections between football and music a surprise, indeed one can even think of bands such as the Kaiser Chiefs which is named after a football club in South Africa and Saint-Etienne, named after a French Ligue 1 club.

However, the bonds and associations now being forged between Generation Z and PSG are particularly notable. Socio-culturally, they appear to reflect a sense of place and an urban identity that is rooted in sub-groups with diverse and sometimes multiple heritages, where consumption is inextricably bound-up in lifestyle, fashion and digital technology.

The role that PSG plays in people’s identity and sense of place warrants analysis in and of itself. However, it is the political backdrop to the clustering of young people around PSG, that is particularly intriguing. After all, the club is owned by Qatar Sports Investment, an investment vehicle through which the Gulf nation’s government acquires stakes in sports properties around the world. Meanwhile shirt sponsors Ooredoo (a telecommunications company) and QNB (a bank) are both Qatari stated-owned, adding a further interesting cultural-political dimension to the relationship between nation state and publics.

Qatar wrestled with its position in the world from a western standpoint. Indeed, this is a country that has struggled to shake-off its controversial associations with the right to host FIFA’s World Cup in 2022. Ever since the decision was made, Qatar has also been trying to shrug-off stories about its mistreatment of migrant workers and bribery. There are also concerns relating to equality, freedom and democracy.

Yet in the world of rap and the urban environments of Paris, London and other big European cities, for some young people Qatar-owned PSG is the epitome of cool and the embodiment of style, an unlikely emblem of their collective values. Whilst the symbols of state-led corporate Qatar add to the status-laden mix, as they adorn one of world football’s most desired items of apparel.

Nowhere is this convergence more apparent than in the video for Niska’s track ‘Freestyle PSG’, which depicts a lifestyle to which numerous people across the world presumably aspire. Indeed, when watching the video one is reminded of a banner that is often seen when driving around Doha: ‘Qatar deserves the best’.

Whilst the government in Qatar has tried to convince itself and the country’s population that they too deserve the best, the country has been similarly engaged in creating an equally compelling narrative in Paris and beyond. The world-record breaking signing by PSG in 2017 of Brazilian international Neymar being the most prominent example of this.

Neymar’s signing was classic soft power projection, especially as it took place at a time when Qatar’s near neighbours (such as Saudi Arabia) had just cut diplomatic relations with the government in Doha. Much has also been made of the small Gulf nation’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, another attempt at soft power projection designed by Qatari government to convince the world that they want what many others also want.

Crucially, soft power is the opposite of hard power which involves coercion and force. Soft power is attractive power, a means through which a country attempts to convince others that it wants the same things as they do. But it is still power, which raises the issue of what it is that Qatar actually wants.

A small Gulf nation of less than three million people which, until 1971, was a British protectorate, Qatar is a strategically vulnerable country (precariously wedged in-between Saudi Arabia and Iran) about which people have historically known very little. It is also a country with huge oil and gas wealth.

Yet it is a country that is not without issues, the treatment of immigrant labourers being one such challenge. At the same time, Qatar remains a somewhat conservative nation, bound by the doctrine of Wahhabism. This has typically dictated that matters of gender equality and sexual orientation have not been addressed in the same way as in many other countries.

Nevertheless, Qatar is trying to reform, develop and change whilst at the same time trying to ensure that it becomes a relevant, legitimate and prominent member of the international community. It may seem like a big jump from the committee rooms of government in Doha to the ‘Other Stage’ at Glastonbury; in fact, it is not.

The legitimacy, relevance and visibility delivered by an association with rap, apparel and Thiago Silva is classic soft power. Instead of questioning the country’s ideology or highlighting the state’s failings, all that most people see is status, fashion and a lifestyle statement. In a world where symbols are an increasingly important measure of distinction or uniqueness, PSG’s is shining brighter than others influencing the everyday activities of influential youth groups. This is perhaps the underlying mechanism of soft power projection

In the same way that most people eat at McDonalds without questioning US foreign policy, or marvel at Brazilian football without thinking about deforestation in the Amazon, so Sugar MMFK and PSG make Qatar cool without people feeling the need to question the nation and its state. This, then, is the (rap) power of soft power.

This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.
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