Ray Charles in Paris: Race, Protest, and the Soundscape of the Algerian War

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American Quarterly

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In October 1961 Ray Charles gave six concerts to sold-out crowds at the Palais des Sports in Paris. However, this record-breaking concert series almost never happened. Just before the first show, the venue had been transformed into a temporary detainment facility for seven thousand North African demonstrators arrested on October 17 as they attempted a peaceful protest in the city center. This historical convergence, which brought the commercial triumph of African American music and the state’s abuse of its minority population into the same physical space, has long been a curious footnote in histories of October 17, 1961. However, while convenient shorthand for French racism, this stark juxtaposition has a tendency to oversimplify the racial meaning and symbolic value of Charles’s music in this historical moment. By contrast, this article contends that the Charles concert series should be understood on its own terms: a strange coincidence that nevertheless transformed the terms through which race, empire, and music were understood and deployed in France. Drawing on a range of sources, including sound recordings, photographs, fictional narratives, and contemporary accounts, the article demonstrates how Charles’s music took on an overlapping set of meanings, signifying the voice of anticolonial and diasporic protest while connoting the sound of state and commercial power. In the twilight of the French Empire, Ray Charles thus came to represent both structural power and protest, a contradiction that reveals the malleability of race, music, and culture in the postwar Atlantic World.

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