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Cet article explore les notions de domination, de résistance et d'identité sur l'île de la Réunion à travers le prisme de Radio FreeDom, une station de radio locale. Sur FreeDom, les résidents du département d'outre-mer français ont la possibilité d'appeler directement les animateurs à tout moment pour discuter en direct de n'importe quel sujet à la radio. Avec près de 30 % de la population à l'écoute et participant aux échanges tout au long de la journée, la station est fréquemment qualifiée de "voix de la Réunion". En 1991, le gouvernement a saisi les émetteurs de FreeDom, provoquant des protestations parmi les plus violentes de l'histoire de l'île. Cet article examine ces événements en mettant en relation le rôle contemporain de la radio dans la société réunionnaise pour démontrer comment FreeDom va au-delà des catégorisations binaires de domination et de résistance, soulevant des questions liées à l'identité, à la région et à la nation.

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The Voice of an Island

  • 1 See Lilou. Dans le secret de Radio Freedom. Monaco: Editions du Rocher, 2011; statistics according (...)

1A stunning portion of the population of Réunion Island listens daily to 97.4 FM Radio FreeDom. As one FreeDom host put it, in Réunion, « radio has passed in front of TV and the internet » with an astounding 30% of the island’s population of ~900,000 and nearly 40% of the island’s entire radio audience listening– almost 13x any station in mainland France1. Radio FreeDom’s popularity in the French overseas department located in the Southern Indian Ocean can be at least partially explained by its entanglement in local politics and social movements, but also by its distinctive broadcast model. FreeDom operates on the “free antenna”, an unfiltered radio model where any listener can call in directly to the on-air hosts to say whatever they would like about any subject live on air. With callers participating in dialogue all day, the station is colloquially coined the “voice of Réunion”.

  • 2 See Cooper's (2016) and Wilder’s (2015) work pointing to emancipatory visions that rejected the nat (...)

2While scholars of media have extensively documented radio’s diverse roles as a tool of colonial domination, resistance, and nation building, Réunion’s postcolonial trajectory challenges conventional narratives of colonial domination and independentist national resistance, as does Radio FreeDom. In the years following World War II, Réunion became a French overseas department, fully integrating into the French Republic. Representing an alternate vision for decolonization, Réunion’s departmentalization was part of a larger vision for freedom that imagined a transcontinental egalitarian French federation as a path to substantive freedom2. However, like national independence in many contexts, departmentalization has not come without challenges–Réunion still has not reached equality with mainland France (Insee, Hoareau).

3I will explore Radio FreeDom's central role in two instances of violent social unrest in 1991 and 2018, examining how the station’s politics and symbolism are interpreted diversely—sometimes as a tool for liberation, at others as a colonial actor, and occasionally as trivial or irrelevant. First, I will demonstrate that Radio FreeDom's complex relationship with the French government often reinforces the belief that it upholds the values implied in its name: freedom (“Free”) and départément d’outre mer (“DOM”). Supporters of this perspective point to the fact that FreeDom was one of Réunion’s first “free” radio stations, opening the microphone to Creole-speaking listeners, breaking the government’s radio monopoly.

4Second, I will consider an alternate perspective. With the station’s avoidance of particular topics, slippery linguistic dynamics, and their metropolitan French owner with a cult-like political following, the radio is conversely interpreted as a symbol of what Tyler Stovall might refer to as “white freedom,” or liberty defined in racial terms that is as an aspect and privilege of whiteness pursued at the expense of Black freedom (Stovall, 2021).

5And lastly, to nuance these binary evaluations of the radio, I move to an examination of Fridom, an opera by a Réunionese theater company that provides a fascinating synthesis of the ways Radio FreeDom has been symbolically read in Réunionese society. This opera puts the radio’s contemporary existence in conversation with historical conversations about race and freedom in France, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic world, revealing how Radio FreeDom works both with and against the goals of departmentalization and decolonization, facilitating the negotiation of Réunionese identity beyond binaries of domination and resistance and bringing questions of identity, region, and nation into disarray.

6Methodologically, I follow Yarimar Bonilla’s (2015) approach of treating her interlocutors in Guadeloupe as theorists of their own social experiences. Applied to this case, I will consider the dialogue about Freedom amongst Réunionese activists and radio callers and the Fridom opera as both generative theory and empirical evidence of how the station symbolically functions in Réunion. While Radio FreeDom has already been analyzed in terms of its contribution to the Réunionese media landscape and creation of public space (Idelson, 2006; Poindexter, 2016; Simonin and Watin, 1992), how its unique format may foreshadow an evolution toward new media models (Wolff et al., 2012), and in terms of its relationship with social movements (Idelson, 2016), I build on this work to provide a preliminary examination of how the radio comes to be understood as a contradictory space in terms of the politics of domination and resistance in the unique context of departmentalization.

7This study emphasizes the perspectives of those directly involved with the radio as well as Réunionese identity activists whom I have encountered during field research. While this approach is not representative of the entirety of Réunionese society, it aims to follow Radio FreeDom’s example of centering Réunionese viewpoints in a region where historical and societal documentation disproportionately emphasizes French national perspectives. There are important exceptions to this trend, but the historical preponderance of such approaches contributes to the marginalization of Réunionese narratives and Réunion Créole.

8Despite the ambiguity between domination and resistance revealed in this analysis, FreeDom’s fraught history and continued salience gesture toward the possibilities afforded by the radio station for future analysis. At a preliminary stage in my work studying Radio FreeDom, I see this assessment as a foundation for a larger anthro-historical project aiming to listen to FreeDom as a source of anthropological knowledge–and as an alternative “auditory” archive– of sovereignty, freedom, media, and identity on the island. Réunion becomes a generative space for rethinking regional solidarities and identities, the genealogies of freedom and enlightenment, and the place of radio in the contemporary media environment.

Radio FreeDom as Réunionese Resistance

9As described by Fuma (2011), Idelson (2016), Navin (2011), and others, the radio has been implicated in numerous political movements and local issues, most infamously in the events of 1991, when the capital’s suburb of Chaudron erupted in violent protest resulting in seven deaths, the dispatch of riot police from mainland France, and the large-scale destruction of property–most notably the burning of a major supermarket. Known as the “events of Chaudron,” this moment is considered among the most violent riots in the island’s 20th-century history, recognizing the inequality between Réunion and the mainland that persisted into the 90s despite Réunion’s “on paper” equality through departmentalization since 1946. Examining Réunionese dialogue about the radio’s place twentieth century social movements illuminates one interpretation of FreeDom as a catalyst for social dialogue and a symbol of the persistent struggle for equality and recognition. Specifically, the continued reemergence of the motif of freedom-fighting violence in Chaudron reveals how Radio FreeDom is often understood as both a tool and symbol of resistance.

  • 3 In this section, I draw on scholars of media who have already documented this history in the broade (...)

10Contextualizing Radio FreeDom within the broader history of French and Réunionese media is instructive in understanding FreeDom’s role as the spark of protest3. Within broader France, prior to the 1980s, French policy regarding radio and media was characterized by a significant degree of government control and censorship. The tide shifted in the early 1980s during François Mitterrand’s presidency, with the advent of policies aimed at diversifying media ownership and fostering greater editorial independence. In Réunion, this narrative took on unique dimensions. Before the liberalization of the media, local content was sparse, with radio transmitting from mainland France, and Réunion Creole remained censored on public radio.

  • 4 Recording from Radio FreeDom, July 1989

11When Camille Sudre, a medical doctor from rural France, founded Radio FreeDom in 1981 (and eventually TeleFreeDom), FreeDom defied these constraints by broadcasting in Creole without authorization, becoming one of Réunion’s first “free” stations breaking the state’s monopoly. For the first time, on both the TV and the radio, people in Réunion– a department with among the highest illiteracy rates in France– could express their problems in a public forum suited to their language and culture rather than one organized by French metropolitan sensibilities. From the very beginning, radio listeners defended this forum with force. As one protestor explained on the radio in 1981, “I am Reunionese. I speak Creole. I also speak great French. But when we have a free radio, let us speak about our problems and our freedom however we wish. Leave Radio FreeDom alone! 4

12However, still, FreeDom faced increasing scrutiny, culminating in 1991 when the French state filed a complaint of illegal broadcasts, shutting down the station. Chaudron became the epicenter of violent protests where the seizure of FreeDom was seen by many to symbolize a much deeper, older social unrest concerning the disenfranchisement of the Creole-speaking population, social inequality, and high unemployment levels. Though Radio FreeDom was eventually restored, the legacy of these events remained highly implicated in Réunionese electoral politics. The station’s owner Camille Sudre was, to the shock of the Réunionese political establishment, elected President of the Regional Council of Reunion from 1992 to 1993, albeit marred by controversy and eventual invalidation due to accusations of excessive political advertising. Since then, Sudre has continued to be involved in politics and entered the canon as a nearly mythical figure in Réunion. With Sudre claiming to be “neither of the right or the left, just for freedom” (Fuma 2011), politicians from both sides of the aisle remained suspicious of the FreeDom movement, though it eventually came to be more closely associated with the Réunionese Communist Party.

  • 5 Clicanoo, Les Émeutes du Chaudron: 20 ans après les habitants s'en souviennent encore

13Even 30 years after the protests, many people– especially those who were personally involved in the events of ‘91– remember this as one of the most significant events in Réunion’s recent history, representing a broader struggle between freedom and oppression. An example that reveals the depth of this symbolism comes in the description of the events from a 1991 protestor. Twenty years after the events, he proclaimed in an interview with a local news channel, “Camille Sudre was the Sarda Garriga of audiovisual media,” comparing FreeDom’s charismatic owner to Sarda Garriga, the abolitionist who made the formal declaration of the abolition of slavery in Réunion in 1848. The protester continued to explain, “People in Réunion could finally say what they thought… whatever they want however they want at their will. And then, we hear Sarda Garriga [referring to Camille Sudre], crying for “liberty of expression. What do we do? We free ourselves!”5 While this quote reflects the opinion of one protester, we can nonetheless see it as emblematic of a broader movement that explicitly connects Radio FreeDom to the politics of freedom, at times in the most intense and literal sense– the question of slavery and its abolition.

14This connection has continued to resonate. A 2012 film by sociologist Laurent Médéa and journalist and director Anaïs Charles-Dominique shows the way young residents of Chaudron continue to connect with the history of 1991, for example. Describing the film, they explain, "the events of the Chaudron primarily narrate a time rich in upheavals, during which all the major issues of the island seem to come together…If all the issues of the time have evolved, they have not disappeared…all the ingredients of revolt are still present, or have even worsened" (Imaz Press).

  • 6 The Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) were named after the bright yellow hi-vis safety vests worn by pro (...)

15I was first exposed to Radio FreeDom’s symbolism for the resistance movement not through the history of the 1980s and 90s, but in 2018. Nearly 30 years after the 1991 events, I had only been in Réunion for a few months when the island was paralyzed by the protests of the Yellow Vest6 movement. The Yellow Vests were a broader French movement initially centered on high fuel costs and economic inequality across all of France, and in Réunion, the movement’s demands were more reminiscent of the protests of 1991, referring to broader inequalities between Réunion and the mainland. Réunion was the only French overseas department where the protests spread, and the only department in all of France where the government instituted a curfew to curb the violence occurring in Chaudron.

16In my case, the protests meant that the school where I worked closed for two weeks, could only travel on foot, was not permitted to leave my house after 8PM, and could not host my American Thanksgiving celebration due to the severe shortage of supplies in grocery stores due to the blockages at the port, airport, and major roads. Instead, I found myself in a situation that felt quite anachronistic – we were huddled in our apartment around not a TV or social media, but a radio as our only effective source of updates.

  • 7 RMC, Radio Freedom, Au Cœur de La Contestation à La Réunion, 2018.

17With the station claiming to receive 1000 calls per day (roughly 2x more than usual)7, the radio became the island’s central means of communication. The only way to get up-to-date news was through the collective effort of calls from FreeDom listeners who were able to communicate across blockades. When I finally spoke to my students and colleagues, I learned they and their families had also relied on FreeDom to make it through. For those living in the epicenters of the protests or protesting themselves, the radio was crucial to know when it was safe to leave and where the police were stationed. I began to realize that it seemed obvious to my colleagues that the radio was the place to turn in moments when the question of Réunion’s supposed equality to the mainland was called into question.

18The shared location of both the 1991 and 2018 protests of Chaudron also came to the fore as significant during and after the Yellow Vest protests. Chaudron’s recurring role as a venue for identity struggle in Réunion can be summarized in a commentary by Théatre Vollard, a local Indian Ocean theater company whose interpretation of FreeDom will later be critical in my analysis. In an essay archived on their website, award-winning playwright Pierre Louis Rivière (1998) writes: “The neighborhood of Chaudron is the maroon laboratory of Réunionese society, where new identities are crafted on the remnants of our young, shattered history of shared pain and violence. Here, shreds of ancient memories with still-vibrant colors intertwine: fragments of tradition with lost meaning and ludicrous imitations. Rickety mental constructs are pieced together, always on the brink of collapse, giving rise to either picturesque behaviors or the blind violence of riots”.

19The Yellow Vest Protests interpellated memories of other violence linked to “ancient memories,” perhaps most specifically from 1991. As illustrated by the protester referring to Sarda Garriga, 1991 brings even older memories to the fore, such as departmentalization in 1946 and the abolition of slavery 100 years before. The events of 2018 demonstrate the way FreeDom sees itself as carrying this legacy into the present, reemerging as a symbol of Réunionese resistance and of demands for equality with the mainland. While many people in Réunion, especially those involved in the protests, share this vision, other accounts of FreeDom’s role in Réunionese society can seriously complicate this picture of the radio as a tool of liberation.

White FreeDom: Radio FreeDom as a Tool of Domination

  • 8 Interview with a language activist, July 29, 2022; Interview with a language activist, August 11, 2 (...)

20Some describe Radio FreeDom simply as a tool of the colonizer, providing compelling evidence that Radio FreeDom could be more about white freedom– freedom not just to control one’s destiny but also to dominate and exclude– than about Réunionese freedom. For example, during my studies of the Réunionese Creole language, I have frequently asked my instructors– who also happen to be established activists and members of a younger generation of experts in Réunionese Creole identity– what they think of the radio. In contrast to the narrative of FreeDom as the ultimate tool of liberation, they have often expressed how the radio is stuck in “the slippery, conformist discourse of the state” that “does not want to admit to systemic racism8”. To them, Radio Freedom avoids real political issues and instead focuses on petty problems, preventing the Réunionese population from coming to any sort of revolutionary consciousness.

  • 9 Interview with a Creole teacher, August 11, 2022

21Seeing it as their duty to explain the linguistic dynamics and language ideologies of the island to me, my Creole teachers also pointed out how Radio FreeDom can use language as a weapon, with French-speaking hosts treating Creole-speaking callers with condescension or by side-stepping conversations about the adverse effects of French presence on the island. Once attuned to this, anyone who listens to FreeDom regularly can notice this dynamic. Creole is usually used only to talk about petty, everyday problems. As soon as politics enter the conversation (and especially when discussions approach issues of French cultural imperialism), hosts shift conversations out of Creole and into formal French, at the risk of leaving listeners and callers incapable of or insecure about responding in French and repressing further political conversations. During the protests in the 90s, radio hosts (and Camille Sudre himself) would always respond in French, even when spoken to in Creole (Fuma, 2011). My teacher explained, “Radio FreeDOM reveals what people really think. It is a barometer of Réunionese society, for sure. At the same time, I see the ideology of this radio station and I think… Radio FreeDom is about little personal stories, and then people think, ‘That is what Réunion is–’ a little story, or a place of gossipy rumors. There is always a certain sarcasm behind what is said on the radio. They caricature Réunion, and they parody what it means to be a Réunionese person… It’s sad because it reveals our loss of consciousness of our cultural identity9.”

22The words caricature and parody here are incredibly salient. According to this activist, FreeDOM’s position as the “voice of Réunion” is not meant to elevate Réunion’s voice, but to turn its history into nothing but a “little story.” This reflects broader patterns where the comprehension of the radio as a channel for “little, insignificant stories” quickly slips into portraying Reunion as a minor, insignificant place with a minor, insignificant language.

  • 10 Radio FreeDom host discussing the Yellow Vest protests live on air, November 2018

23Even during the 2018 Yellow Vest protests, the radio would at times slip into a conservative discourse, dismissing the violence of the protests as needless violence by “youths” unaffiliated with the movement's formal claims rather than calling the state to address the roots of social inequality fueling the fires in Chaudron. On FreeDom, one host explained, “We have moved on to idle, unemployed youths who have nothing to do with the movement. They take advantage of the cover of night to pillage, steal, and break things. This is not just chaos– we are in a climate that can only be described as insurrectional”10. In this rhetoric, common at the time, the connection between violence in Chaudron and older colonial memories is denied, with violence viewed as having no connection to either colonialism or the FreeDom movement.

  • 11 Interview with a language activist, July 29, 2022

24And regarding the events of 1991, the Réunionese protester’s comparison of station owner Camille Sudre to the most famous abolitionist in Réunion, claiming that “Camille Sudre was the Sarda Garriga of audiovisual media,” rings hollow when Garriga and Sudre’s legacies are considered more critically. At FreeDom, even today, employees refer to Sudre not by his first name, last name, or any title, but as God. Sudre only appears publicly while dressed in white, and, somewhat like a deity, he is always listening to what is happening in Réunion because he is always listening to the radio. A well-known musician and Creole language activist explained Sudre’s effect to me in 2022, “Actually, since he was the boss of the station, people saw him as something of a cult leader or a guru all dressed in white like that. I think he sees himself as something of a guru, at least.” He went so far as to say that Sudre, also known as the man in white, was a misguided white savior and a “mocker” of Réunionese people11.

25This perception of Sudre’s cult of personality aligns with the protester’s comparison of Sudre to the mythic abolitionist Sarda Garriga, who also has a saint or guru-like reputation on the island for many Réunionese people who see him as a representation of freedom itself. Yet, this parallel carries a dual implication – in 1848, Garriga, a white man from France who arrived on the island to announce the freedom of enslaved people, assumed a somewhat authoritative role similar to Sudre's. Dennis Lamaison presents a revisionist account of Garriga's career, stating that beyond his symbolic role as the herald of abolition, Garriga declared early on that his intention was not to dismantle colonial society but to restructure it to sustain the plantation economy (Lamaison, 2020). The impulse for Réunionese activists and scholars to question Garriga’s– and by extension Sudre’s– intentions on the island beyond being messengers of freedom fits into larger conversations about commemoration and memory in the French overseas departments and beyond. The legacy of abolitionists’ in the DOM were publicly called into question in May 2020, for example, when Martiniquan and French Guianan activists shocked the French speaking world by destroying statues of abolitionist Victor Schoelcher, a person who has been understood as a hero and one of the most important figures in the French abolition movement.

26This perspective on Garriga, Schoelcher, and Sudre reflects what Tyler Stovall calls white freedom, or the idea that freedom and racism are inevitably intertwined, “not just enemies but also allies” (Stovall, 2021: 5). Specifically, white freedom is the enemy of what Stovall calls “savage freedom”, exemplified by pirates, children, and most importantly, Black freedom. White freedom seeks to eradicate this so-called savage freedom, rather than facilitate this kind of liberation. Similarly, my interviewees comments suggest that Radio FreeDom cannot truly embrace a universal idea of liberty, but instead betrays the cause of liberty by continually prioritizing whiteness.

27How do we reckon with these contradictory readings of Radio FreeDom’s history? Though FreeDom’s story is often told within binaries– of domination and resistance, or colonialism and liberation, slavery, and freedom– FreeDom, both historically and in the present, plays a more liminal, ambiguous role in Réunionese politics. One way to analyze this ambiguity is to examine a Réunionese text, specifically an opera performance, that closely considers FreeDom’s role in local social issues.

An Indian Ocean Opera

28Théatre Vollard, a local theater company created in 1979, tells a more complicated, and perhaps more compelling, story of FreeDom’s legacy in their full-length opera Fridom (2018). Centering on the social context surrounding FreeDom’s 1991 shutdown and the protests in Chaudron, Fridom continues opera founders Jean-Luc Trulès and Emmanuel Genvrin’s mission of creating a lyrical repertoire from the Indian Ocean, incorporating local themes, historical and post-colonial issues, multiculturalism, and multilingualism.

29Théatre Vollard is well known in Réunion for more than just their operas. In a sociological study of theater in Réunion since the 70s, Zareen Cajee situates Réunionese theater– especially Vollard– next to the politics of the Réunionese Communist Party and the academic study of Creole as a major figure activism related to Réunionese identity (Cajee, 2007: 190). In examining the work of Théatre Vollard, I follow Bonilla’s value of considering interlocutors as theorists, using the reflections of Théatre Vollard “not just as anecdotal evidence but as sources of analytic insight” into questions about FreeDom’s place in Réunionese society and history (Bonilla, 2015: xv).

30Fridom places the Réunionese radio station squarely in the middle of struggles over identity in Réunion. The opera’s story revolves around Mae, an adored radio host, who is kidnapped by her former lover, Ménéla, a convicted criminal on parole formerly imprisoned for killing his white employer. Dr. Camille (representative of the radio’s founder Camille Sudre) and police officer Mikael, both in love with Mae, work together to find her, using the radio and its listeners as tools in the search. The people of the island (represented by the chorus of radio callers) rally around Mae, to whom they feel personally connected due to her position as a radio host taking their calls. When Mae is kidnapped, she and her kidnapper and ex-lover Ménéla rekindle the relationship in the safety of Réunion’s inaccessible mountains along the traces of a maroon haven. Mae is forced to marronage status as soon as she chooses Ménéla over his white metropolitan counterparts Camille and Mikael.

Figure 1: Mae (pictured in the center) answers calls from the chorus in Fridom. (Screenshot, Opéra Vollard).

Figure 1: Mae (pictured in the center) answers calls from the chorus in Fridom. (Screenshot, Opéra Vollard).

31This love triangle depicts Radio FreeDom’s complex relationship with questions of race and identity in Réunion. Camille Sudre is an awkward fourth character in a story where the radio host Mae, representing Réunion, is caught between the police officer Mikael, representing France, and her authentic love for the misunderstood Ménéla, clearly written to represent Africa. Without Camille vying for Mae’s love, the story would be a typical postcolonial drama where Réunion, through Mae, sits between love for Frenchness (Mikael) and Afro-Asian identity (Ménéla). However, Camille’s presence, as well as every character’s relationship to the radio, complicates the story in meaningful ways.

32When Mikael realizes that Mae does not want him, he takes his revenge by using his governmental authority to seize Radio FreeDom’s transmitters, shutting down the station. The island plunges into the chaos of the 1991 riots. At this point, it is Mikael and the French government against Ménéla and Camille who both protect Mae. But when Mae admits to Camille that she loves Ménéla, Camille turns against her, telling her to “wake up” from Ménéla’s “spell” and promising to hunt down his rival “like a beast.”

33In their shared jealousy of Ménéla, Mikael and Camille move the radio transmitters to a hidden location, and Radio FreeDom is formally reborn as Radio Maroon, in a reference to its new clandestine status as well as its rising symbolism as a Black resistance movement. The chorus sings, “FreeDom is dead and buried. Rest in peace. Where is the doctor? He has fled to the Metropole, and Mae has been bewitched by her criminal. But listen to the radio waves. There is a radio show: Radio Maroon.”

34Broadcasting from a hidden location, Camille calls for a protest against the state that quickly turns violent. The opera’s set transforms to show archival footage of the real-life chaos of 1991 in Chaudron. In their mountain haven, Ménéla and Mae learn of these developments. Though Mae tries to tempt Ménéla pleading that he “forget the radio, forget the uprising. Let's leave. For Mauritius. For Lamu. For Madagascar,” Ménéla insists on joining the rioters in Chaudron. Ménéla sneaks out during the night and quickly becomes the leader of the protests on behalf of Radio Maroon. Mae’s desire to abandon Réunion and the radio and leave for Africa alludes to a more profound longing in Réunionese society to form connections with the African continent through shared histories or even through the lost dream of Réunionese independence. But Ménéla, though hurt by French racism and his imprisonment, is not ready to abandon the fight for a different kind of justice and identity, symbolized by the fight for Radio FreeDom and the dreams of departmentalization.

Figure 2: Dr. Camille as represented in Fridom (screenshot, Opéra Vollard)

Figure 2: Dr. Camille as represented in Fridom (screenshot, Opéra Vollard)

Figure 3: Camille Sudre in the 1990s at the head of a protest (archive, Témoignages)

Figure 3: Camille Sudre in the 1990s at the head of a protest (archive, Témoignages)

35When Mae wakes up to Ménéla’s disappearance, the police officer Mikael asks Mae to go on the radio and ask Ménéla to surrender the fight. Meanwhile, Camille proclaims that the authorities have given in and returned the radio transmitters. Abandoning the other demands of the protest and once again encouraging radio listeners to hate Ménéla, he calls for calm and promises to run for elections. Radio Maroon becomes FreeDom again, and the chorus rejoices and returns to making petty complaints on the radio, rather than engaging in revolutionary revolt against systemic inequality.

36Turned against Ménéla and even Mae, the transformation of Radio Maroon represents the station’s embrace of white freedom. At this point in the opera, the station functions not as an instrument of justice but returns to spreading racialized, fear mongering rumors about Ménéla and resumes its role as a space for petty complaints. Mae, symbolizing Réunion, is actively being seduced by white freedom at Ménéla’s expense.

37Ménéla, however, has not set aside the cause of Radio Maroon. Listeners report on the radio that he was seen entering the Géant Score supermarket (the real site of a lethal fire during the Chaudron riots) with gasoline. Mimicking the content and format of real radio calls where listeners collectively grapple with questions of collective identity, Mae pleads live on-air with Ménéla to surrender and publicly declares her love for him. However, it's too late, and she rushes to join him in the supermarket. The lovers embrace in the store while the chorus sings about the journey to Madagascar, symbolizing, according to the opera’s leaflet, “emancipation and a return to roots”. Ménéla strikes a match, and the lovers perish in flames. Below, I analyze this theatrical explosion alongside transoceanic histories of revolution and marronage, revealing the way radio speaks to intersecting currents of media, republicanism, enlightenment, and freedom.

Figure 4: Mae, Ménéla, a radio, and gasoline in front of archival footage of the Géant Score supermarket, burned in the 1991 Chaudron riots. (Screenshot, Opéra Vollard)

Figure 4: Mae, Ménéla, a radio, and gasoline in front of archival footage of the Géant Score supermarket, burned in the 1991 Chaudron riots. (Screenshot, Opéra Vollard)

Radio Maroon and the Common Wind

38In addition to the obvious references to marronage, the radio listener reporting Ménéla and Mae’s explosive deaths in Chaudron makes an instructive reference to Matouba, another historical explosion by suicide. Matouba, the site of Louis Delgrès’s death in Guadeloupe in 1802, connects Radio FreeDom to Black Atlantic history in its reference to Delgrès’ final battle resisting the reinstitution of slavery just eight years after the Jacobin government’s abolition. With 100 men and women beside him, Delgrès and his followers ignited their stored gunpowder and committed suicide to take out as many French troops as possible, uttering their infamous last words, “to live free or to die.”

39In referencing both Matouba and histories of marronage, Théatre Vollard places the stories of Radio FreeDom and Chaudron in the genealogy of what Laurent Dubois describes as an effort that “gave new content to the abstract universality of the language of rights,” or the demand that the flawed non-universal “universalism” of Enlightenment thinkers be expanded to enslaved persons and persons of color (Dubois, 2004: 2). Like Ménéla and Mae, the tragic heroes of Matouba died using Republican language in an effort to defeat the nascent Republic’s racism. Yet, as we see in Fridom, Radio FreeDom was quick to shed its marronage status and abandon Ménéla in Chaudron, leaving both him and Mae to perish in flames, betrayed like Louis Delgrès at Matouba. One cannot help but recall the reemergence of similar themes in 2018 when FreeDom hosts denounced the unrest in Chaudron once again as “not representative” of the Yellow Vest movement.

Figure 5: The chorus, representing Radio Maroon, in front of archival footage of the Chaudron protests. (Screenshot, Opéra Vollard)

Figure 5: The chorus, representing Radio Maroon, in front of archival footage of the Chaudron protests. (Screenshot, Opéra Vollard)

40The inclusive republic represented by Delgrès, ultimately abandoned by France with Napoleon’s reinstitution of slavery in Guadeloupe and the isolation and neglect of Haiti, harkens to J.S. Scott’s (2018) concept of the “common windigniting revolutionary events in the 18th century Caribbean. In his seminal dissertation from 1986 published in 2018, Scott brilliantly describes how sailors, runaway slaves, maroons, convicts, and free people of color circulated rumors of revolutionary liberty across seas, igniting the events that would become the Haitian Revolution. Island hopping rumors spread by word of mouth drove conversations about what it meant to be free, directly influencing transoceanic political developments as much or more than official French revolutionary discourse. Despite FreeDom’s implication in white freedom, can we also see the radio waves of Radio FreeDom as a descendant of this common wind delivering rumors of freedom and struggle?

41The common wind was, at least in the contemporary period to Louis Delgrès, rejected when it reached the shores of Réunion. A delegation from France arrived by ship to announce the Republic’s abolition of slavery but was immediately sent away by angry planters. The initial period of French abolition from 1794 until 1802 would never occur in Réunion. And– given the island’s shared political status with Guadeloupe as an overseas department– neither would the revolution for independence that occurred in Haiti.

42While Guadeloupe and Haiti may have been part of a shared network of circulation of ideas across the Atlantic as so beautifully described by Scott (2018), Réunion bridges an alternate space of exchange: the Indian Ocean. Despite the reference to Matouba in Fridom, Mae and Ménéla’s primary island-hopping interlocution is not with the Caribbean but with Madagascar, a place frequently mentioned in the opera, including in the final scene of the characters voyaging across the Indian Ocean. This reference, not to mention Réunion’s historical ties with Eastern Africa, China, and South Asia, taps into other “common winds,” for example, what Graeber (2023) calls “pirate enlightenment,” a movement based in Madagascar that reconsiders the roots of what is usually presumed as “western” Enlightenment thought. Other scholars have described the Indian Ocean as a sea of long histories, a “deep archive of competing universalisms,” pointing toward modes of connection, circulation, and entanglement that reach back much farther than 400 years (Hofmeyr 2010).

43Aspirations for freedom in Réunion, so frequently broadcasted on Radio FreeDom, speak to these historical legacies rather than just to white freedom or the currents of the Black Atlantic. While much work remains to be done in exploring these connections, Fridom gestures to the possibility that listening to islanders negotiate questions of identity on the radio can relativize the Atlantic and provincialize Europe (Chakrabarty 2000), creating possibilities to conceive alternative ways to think about the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, and Europe together.

44In grappling with the divergent interpretations of Radio FreeDom’s historical narrative, we are confronted with its central– if complex– role in Réunionese politics. By situating FreeDom within a broader sociopolitical context and examining its portrayal in local artistic expression, we gain valuable insights into how Radio FreeDom emerges not only as a platform for dissent but also as a site of contestation and negotiation of Réunionese identity. Whether Radio FreeDom suppresses or facilitates liberation, the station is a tool to listen to Réunionese voices about questions not just regarding sovereignty, resistance, and domination, but also of race, identity, insularity, and connectivity.

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1 See Lilou. Dans le secret de Radio Freedom. Monaco: Editions du Rocher, 2011; statistics according to Médiamétrie (2022)

2 See Cooper's (2016) and Wilder’s (2015) work pointing to emancipatory visions that rejected the nation-state as the end point of self-determination from the post-World War II moment until the 1960s.

3 In this section, I draw on scholars of media who have already documented this history in the broader context of the history of media in French and Réunionese society. See, for example, work by Bernard Idelson, Nelson Navin, Elaine Wolff, and Jacky Simonin.

4 Recording from Radio FreeDom, July 1989

5 Clicanoo, Les Émeutes du Chaudron: 20 ans après les habitants s'en souviennent encore

6 The Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) were named after the bright yellow hi-vis safety vests worn by protestors.

7 RMC, Radio Freedom, Au Cœur de La Contestation à La Réunion, 2018.

8 Interview with a language activist, July 29, 2022; Interview with a language activist, August 11, 2022

9 Interview with a Creole teacher, August 11, 2022

10 Radio FreeDom host discussing the Yellow Vest protests live on air, November 2018

11 Interview with a language activist, July 29, 2022

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Mae (pictured in the center) answers calls from the chorus in Fridom. (Screenshot, Opéra Vollard).
Fichier image/jpeg, 92k
Titre Figure 2: Dr. Camille as represented in Fridom (screenshot, Opéra Vollard)
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Titre Figure 3: Camille Sudre in the 1990s at the head of a protest (archive, Témoignages)
Fichier image/jpeg, 208k
Titre Figure 4: Mae, Ménéla, a radio, and gasoline in front of archival footage of the Géant Score supermarket, burned in the 1991 Chaudron riots. (Screenshot, Opéra Vollard)
Fichier image/jpeg, 148k
Titre Figure 5: The chorus, representing Radio Maroon, in front of archival footage of the Chaudron protests. (Screenshot, Opéra Vollard)
Fichier image/jpeg, 96k
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Référence électronique

Kristi Rhead, « Broadcasting Freedom: Thinking Beyond Domination and Resistance on Réunion Island’s Radio »RadioMorphoses [En ligne], 11 | 2024, mis en ligne le 20 mars 2024, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Kristi Rhead

Kristi Rhead is pursuing her PhD at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) in the Program in Anthropology and History. She lived in Réunion Island as an English instructor from 2018-2019 and has conducted preliminary field research in Réunion in 2020, 2022, and 2023

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