Society

David Guetta, The Happy, Genre-Busting DJ

The second highest-paid DJ in the world, a celebrity with 17 million Twitter followers, is currently touring the world. The hedonist sits down with Le Monde after a concert in Brazil.

French DJ superstar David Guetta
French DJ superstar David Guetta
Véronique Mortaigne

RECIFE — David Guetta, who was honored at last month's French music awards, Victoires de la Musique, had just returned from Brazil, where he spent the beginning of the year. Brazil, seen from its joyful, festive side, is a playground for the smiling Frenchman.

To celebrate the release of his sixth album at the end of 2014, the Parisian DJ returned to the ember country for 12 massive concerts, where he spoke with Le Monde. Here in Brazil, the DJ sensation is idolized by fans who don't always know he's French. "I nearly moved here," he says. "We did an arena tour with Will.i.am in 2010, and had so much fun. The weather's nice, lust for life is vital and the present is essential here." Almost trademark-Guetta values.

The 47-year-old Guetta is the second highest-paid DJ in the world, according to Forbes — behind Scotsman Calvin Harris, who reportedly earned $66 million in 2014. His concerts are huge events, and his primary challenger and ally is Avicii (Tim Bergling, third on the Forbes list), a 25-year-old Swede. Together, they are building a mass phenomenon, Electronic Dance Music (EDM).

The clubs where they come from have become too narrow, too closed to social diversity. They are now the heroes of open-air festivals. In France, Guetta the Parisian is often mocked, labelled as a bouncing blondie. Unpopular, "because there's a conflict between house music and the EDM intended for the masses," he says. And because the French audience missed a chapter: Over the course of a decade, the Ibiza party animal transformed into a global pop star with 17 million Twitter followers (three million more than Beyoncé).

A David Guetta concert is an ode to joy. It's Pharrell Williams' "Happy" combined with the sounds of an uninhibited party. In early January, when times were hard, Guetta posted a simple "Je suis Charlie" on Facebook page. He still can't believe he received furious "Je suis Gaza" comment in return.

Guetta, who grew up in eastern Paris near the Aligre market, where Jews and Arabs lived together, is a popular, intercommunity artist, which is rare for a music genre that is typically regarded as the domain of white people. But Guetta has collaborated with the elite of black American music: Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Usher, Kanye West, who feature on his albums and vice versa. "I have a black musical background," he says.

Generational hymns

When Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am made a 2007 stop at the Pacha Club in Ibiza, he fell for the "Guetta sound" while dancing to "Love expand=1] Is Gone." Will.i.am. had thought about Madonna's intuitions, she who was among the first to combine EDM and pop and entrusted electronic musician William Orbit to produce her Ray of Light album in 1998. As for Guetta, he understood that to grow, he had to bring together black singers and his metallic electronic sound. For "Love Is Gone," he chose Chris Willis, a former gospel singer.

In 2009, he turned the corner with "Sexy Bitch," recorded with the R'n'B star Akon, who has Senegalese origins. "The track became No. 1 on American radio," Guetta says. "It was a historical change in pop music, because an EDM song had never been in that place before. Then, Kelly Rowland former Destiny’s Child alongside Beyoncé came to see me, and we produced "When Love Takes Over," another global success." The same year, the Black Eyed Peas-Guetta alliance produced two generational hymns: "I Gotta Feeling" and "Rock That Body."

Guetta performs "around 140 concerts per year," he says after a sweltering party in Recife, on an empty site next to a former textile factory. At 1 a.m., he disembarks from his private jet that flew in from Bahia. At 2 a.m., he's on stage amid a torrent of lasers and fireworks. At 4 a.m., he leaves the stage, and his car hurtles off to his hotel. It's a fast-paced life. "I spent 15 years of my life without leaving my room," he says. "Shows, hotel, music in my own little world. Now I'm releasing the tension. I go out a bit. I'm changing."

He separated from his muse Cathy, who was born in Dakar, after 22 years of marriage. It is evident in his latest album, which is "more introverted, more nostalgic," he says. "It's a moment of my life. It's more focused on emotion. There are fewer electronic instruments. I didn't write this one around rhythms, but I started with the piano, the guitar. In the end, it's not very EDM."

"Dangerous" is the title song that has topped charts around the world. With a cello solo in the intro, it's sung by Sam Martin, an alumni of the prestigious Berklee College of Music who has an angelic voice. But Guetta has long reversed the rule: The starring role has been taken away from the singer by the composing DJ.

The Guetta "touch"

There's a Guetta "touch." While Avicii develops his pop themes in loops, Guetta builds his rhythmic surges on sound peaks during which the crowd goes into raptures. His hits such as "Without U" and "Turn Me On" inspire audiences to sing at the top of their voices. His arms forming an X, with the body language of a preacher, Guetta wants to spread joy, and it works.

Crowd at a David Guetta concert in Amsterdam — Photo: maartendive

On giant screens, pictures of the dancing crowd merge with the DJ's smiling face. On the posters announcing his world tour, he seems almost Jesus-like. "It's the idea of sharing, the desire to be just one, and happy," he says. "I come to party with people. Visually, electronic music has long been nebulous, foggy. It had no face. Identities kept changing, the names of the DJs, of the labels. Daft Punk's very singular helmets don't hide them, but quite the opposite, make them visible. As soon as they arrived at Virgin in 1996, and in 2001 with Discovery, they had in mind to "market" their fans." Daft Punk are among his friends.

Guetta spreads a culture of tolerance, which is oddly considered goofy in France, maybe because he always looks happy. "In 1986, I was a DJ at the Broad, a gay club in Paris, where I played funk when the fashion was new wave," he recalls. "I combined house music, a gay culture, and Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim or Run DMC's hip hop, which wasn't gay at all."

At the time, the DJ recalls, there was still a strong anti-disco sentiment. In 1987, Guetta was 20 and dancing to "Love expand=1] Can't Turn Around" by Farley Jackmaster Funk, the legacy of disco mixed with the house music that was born in Chicago and Detroit's black and gay underground. These were the presages of acid house, "an up-tempo that made people dance," he says.

"For me, a DJ was somebody who played alone with people dancing in front of him," he continues. "One day, in London, at the Shoom, my life changed. The audience was participating, the DJ was watching them. I began a crusade for acid house. I gave out flyers." It gave way to the so-called Second Summer of Love, an ecstasy-fueled movement that was totally opposite the kind of aggressive hooliganism seen in soccer stadiums.

"In England, it was a revolution — all the colors, all the sexualities were together," he recalls.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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