In 2021, the global music company BMG was looking for a hit in France’s growing hip-hop market when its executives came up with a strategy: They would sign Freeze Corleone, a rising rapper on the Parisian scene with an aura of mystique, a hit album and more than a million monthly listeners on Spotify.
There was one problem. Freeze Corleone had been widely condemned in Europe for antisemitic lyrics. “I arrive determined like Adolf in the 1930s,” he rapped in French in one 2018 song, and, in another, “Everything for the family, so that my children live like Jewish rentiers,” a word often associated with landlords. Other tracks have included conspiracy theories about 9/11 and a shout-out to “the Aryans.”
Just a year before BMG’s deal with him, Freeze Corleone had been dropped by his previous label, the French arm of the giant Universal Music, which said that his music “amplified unacceptable racist statements.”
“In order to mitigate the risk of possible controversy,” BMG executives wrote in a memo, they had a workaround. The contract with Freeze Corleone stipulated that the label had the right to approve his lyrics and that it would keep BMG’s involvement with his career hidden, according to documents and internal emails reviewed by The New York Times.
“No BMG logo anywhere on the release,” Dominique Casimir, one of the company’s most senior executives, emailed to a company lawyer and other executives.
She also demanded there would be no announcement heralding the deal. “No signing picture,” Ms. Casimir wrote. “Sorry to be this strict.”
A few weeks later, in October 2021, BMG signed a one-album deal with Freeze Corleone worth more than one million euros, or about $1.1 million.
In the end, BMG didn’t put out the album. In a recent interview, Ms. Casimir said that she had decided to cancel the deal the day before the release of its first single.
But the story of BMG and Freeze Corleone raises questions about why BMG executives had signed him in the first place while going to great lengths to conceal the relationship. And it offers an object lesson in the temptations and risks corporations face when they seek to capitalize on the notoriety of pop-culture figures. That tension played out on a bigger stage last year when, amid a rising tide of antisemitism, Adidas ended its lucrative partnership with Kanye West after he made antisemitic comments.
In the interview, Ms. Casimir spoke about the challenges of monitoring a large pipeline of content at a multinational company; said that the decision to omit BMG’s name from the album had been made mutually with the artist; and described BMG’s ultimate decision to scrap its deal with Freeze Corleone as a sign that its content moderation policies had worked.
“People make mistakes,” she said. “We caught the mistake. And whatever the outcome of that mistake is, we have to deal with that.”
A Fraught History
This was not the first time that BMG, and Ms. Casimir, had to scramble to minimize damage over antisemitic lyrics.
In 2018, the company was at the center of a media firestorm over an album it had released the year before, “Jung Brutal Gutaussehend 3” (“Young Brutal Good-Looking 3”), by a pair of German rappers, Kollegah and Farid Bang. Despite lyrics like “My body is more defined than Auschwitz prisoners” and “make another Holocaust, show up with a Molotov,” the LP had become a monster hit.
When that record (which BMG executives now refer to as “JBG”) won best hip-hop/urban album at the Echo awards, Germany’s equivalent of the Grammys, other artists revolted. Some, like the classical conductor Daniel Barenboim and Klaus Voormann, the musician and artist who worked with the Beatles, returned their prizes in protest. The media and politicians in Germany — where there are strict laws against hate speech and Nazi propaganda — zeroed in on the uproar. The Echo awards were discontinued permanently.
The rebuke was felt particularly strongly at BMG, which is part of the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann. In 2002, Bertelsmann had apologized for its past ties to the Nazi regime.
In response to the uproar, BMG said it would give 100,000 euros to a campaign against antisemitism. It sponsored a series of songwriting workshops centered on opposing hate speech through music.
Ms. Casimir, who had overseen the deal for “JBG” as the managing director of BMG’s German market, became a public face of the company’s campaign. “Given Germany’s history, it is everyone’s responsibility to take a stand against antisemitism and hate,” she said in a news release.
The company enlisted the help of Ben Lesser, a Holocaust survivor who speaks to groups around the world through his Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation. Soon after the awards, Mr. Lesser spent about three hours at a theater in Berlin, sharing his wrenching personal story with BMG employees and local schoolchildren, he and his daughter Gail Lesser-Gerber said in an interview.
BMG asked Mr. Lesser, now 94, to take part in a songwriting workshop in Los Angeles in early 2019. At the five-day event, he consulted with musicians as they wrote and recorded tracks with uplifting messages, including “Letter to the World,” sung by Emily Vaughn.
The label let Mr. Lesser know that to support his efforts to eradicate antisemitism, it would give the foundation the revenue generated by the songs.
“Altogether, it’s been less than $100,” Ms. Lesser-Gerber said. But she said that money was not the incentive. “The motivation was to get the message out.”
Lyrics About Hitler and Jews
Freeze Corleone rarely speaks to the news media. His real name is Issa Lorenzo Diakhaté, and he was born in a suburb of Paris in 1992. His father is Senegalese and his mother Italian. The rapper did not respond to numerous messages sent by email and social media requesting comment for this article. A business associate who helped him arrange his deal with BMG declined to comment.
Yet he speaks through his music. Rapping in a low voice, over minor-key piano figures, he performs a variation of drill, a hip-hop style often filled with dark tones and violent imagery.
Many of his lyrics feature standard hip-hop tropes, like allusions to sports and pop culture. On one track he rhymes the name of Larry Bird, the Boston Celtics legend, with that of Marty Byrde, the money launderer played by Jason Bateman on Netflix’s “Ozark.” But a thread of antisemitism runs throughout his work, manifested in Nazi references, dismissals of the Holocaust, and slurs and stereotypes about Jews.
He has boasted of having “the propaganda techniques of Goebbels” and “big ambitions” like “the young Adolf.” In one song, “Le Chen,” from 2016, he rapped: “I’ve got to get the khaliss moving in my community like a Jew.” In Wolof, a language spoken in Senegal, where he spent time growing up, khaliss means money.
Olivier Lamm, a music critic for the French newspaper Libération, said that “the thematic substance of Freeze Corleone’s rap is obsessively antisemitic.” He cited an example from one of the rapper’s early tracks in which he used a profanity in dismissing the Shoah — a term for the Holocaust — and pointed to lines on his latest album, “Riyad Sadio,” that seem to refer to Israel and Jews, with key words bleeped out.
In 2020, Universal Music France released “La Menace Fantôme” (“The Phantom Menace”), which went double platinum in France, selling the equivalent of 200,000 copies there. Lyrics highlighted “Aryans,” though did not explicitly address Jews.
But the album’s popularity drew attention to Freeze Corleone’s earlier lyrics about Hitler and Jewish landlords, and in the resulting controversy, he was dropped by Universal.
“Finally free,” the rapper tweeted.
Freeze Corleone’s name on a marquee continues to draw protests. A concert planned for late last year in Montreal was canceled after it drew condemnation from some leaders in the local Jewish community. Local officials in Rennes, France, have asked organizers to remove him from a festival next month.
The Fine Print
BMG executives knew that signing Freeze Corleone could result in blowback, according to internal documents, but they were attracted to his market potential. “This signing will strengthen BMG France’s position on the strategic market of urban music and hopefully bring our first platinum local record, a key milestone to sign bigger urban acts later,” read an internal investment request memo.
The memo, sent in September 2021 by two executives in the company’s French office, weighed the risks of hate speech against the financial upside of working with him.
Pro: “Freeze Corleone is France’s fastest growing artist in the last 2 years,” the executives, Sylvain Gazaignes and Ronan Fiacre, wrote in the memo. “Riyad Sadio,” his album with Ashe 22, another French rapper, was ready to go and “would really help us meet our revenue target,” another document read, and it projected revenue of 1.2 million euros from the project and profit of 155,000 euros.
Con: “Freeze Corleone faced controversy when releasing his first album in 2020,” the BMG memo noted, with understatement. An investigation, the memo added, had been opened by French authorities “on the grounds of incitement to racial hatred,” but had concluded “there was no ground for prosecution.”
In fact, that investigation was closed with no charges brought because the statute of limitations had passed, a spokesman for the Paris prosecutor’s office told The Times.
According to BMG documents, no money would be paid until executives had listened to and approved the lyrics. There would be none of the usual publicity at the time of signing the deal and “the release will be white-labelled” — meaning that no BMG logo would appear on the music or marketing materials.
The contract was executed a few weeks later, with BMG stipulating that the new album had been listened to and approved. Under the terms of the contract, that should have guaranteed Freeze Corleone at least his initial payment of 500,000 euros. BMG declined to comment about whether it had paid him the money.
When the two BMG employees in France approached her about the deal, Ms. Casimir, who by then had been given oversight of most of the European market, said she told them that it can be difficult to draw the proper line between artistic freedom and language that crosses lines of propriety.
“You have to check the back story,” she said she told them. “You have to understand you work for a German company. You have to understand the history, because ‘JBG’ is a history. I mean, I lived in that moment.”
The French employees assured her that the lyrics would be “clean,” she said, and that they would vet them before paying Freeze Corleone. Neither Mr. Gazaignes nor Mr. Fiacre responded to text messages seeking comment.
BMG executives cleared the lyrics of Freeze Corleone’s album, “Riyad Sadio,” and prepared to release its first single, “Scellé Part. 4,” in late October.
At the last minute, the label abruptly pulled back. Ms. Casimir said that days before the song’s scheduled release, she decided to have her team in Germany review Freeze Corleone’s past lyrics.
“I must say, that was a very fast decision, the moment we translated some of those lyrics,” Ms. Casimir said. “We called the French team, said, ‘You have to end this relationship.’”
She said she had alerted Hartwig Masuch, the BMG chief executive, about the termination, and that “he agreed with the next steps.” BMG did not make Mr. Masuch available for comment.
After BMG canceled the deal, Freeze Corleone released the album independently. It has had modest success, drawing more than 40 million streams on Spotify.
Ms. Casimir said that two of her employees in France no longer work for BMG as a result of the episode. “It has consequences,” she said. BMG executives declined to name which employees left the company; Mr. Gazaignes remains a top executive in the French division.
In 2022, Ms. Casimir was promoted to chief content officer, and was given a seat on BMG’s board.