Kamini

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DENIS ROUVRE FOR TIME

Rapper Kamini in Marly Gomont, France

Kamini grew up in a tiny town deep in the French countryside called Marly-Gomont. He stood out, in part because everybody stands out in Marly-Gomont—pop. 432—but partly because Kamini is black. There aren't a lot of black people in Marly-Gomont.

Kamini (who keeps his last name private) wanted to be a hip-hop artist. It's a long way from Marly-Gomont to South Central L.A., but he recorded a song and shot a video with a friend. Total budget: 100 euros. The name of the song was Marly-Gomont, and in it Kamini raps about what he knows. "I couldn't rap about 'bitches' and 'hos' and do that whole gangsta thing," he says, "because it's not true. It's not my life."

Instead he raps about cows and tractors and soccer. "In Marly-Gomont," the song goes (it's in French), "there's no concrete/ 65 is the average age around here/ One tennis court, one basketball court." The video shows Kamini raisin' the roof with the village elders, who obviously think he's hilarious. But Kamini also raps about racism and being different: "I wanted to revolt, except that there, there's nothing to burn./ There's just one bus for the high school, same for the community center,/ Not worth going and burning a neighbor's car,/ Cuz they don't have them, they've all got mopeds."

On Aug. 30, Kamini and another friend put the video online and cold e-mailed some record companies to tell them about it. The response wasn't exactly a feeding frenzy. But an intern at one of the companies posted a link to the video on a bulletin board. "It's a site that sells custom-print T shirts," Kamini says, shaking his head. "It doesn't even have anything to do with music!" By the end of the day, nobody on the website was talking about T shirts. Everyone was talking about Kamini.

The video spread to YouTube and its French equivalents, WAT.tv and Dailymotion.com. Thousands of people watched it. Kamini started getting requests to appear on radio shows. In mid-October, without having toured or even played a single gig, Kamini signed a record deal with RCA for Marly-Gomont and two albums. He was a rap star by popular proclamation. He had paid his dues virally. "Everything has happened in two months," says Kamini, who hasn't quit his part-time job as a nurse. "Look at me, sitting here at a luxury hotel being interviewed. How did all this happen?"

The answer is that the people can make their own stars no—no auditions, no promotions. It's like American Idol, but everywhere, all the time. Though it's worth noting that the bands that have broken through online—OK Go, the Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen, Gnarls Barkley—are a lot more interesting than the bland standards belters on American Idol.

Some rules haven't changed. People respond to talent and authentic emotion, and Marly-Gomont has them. "I'm not the only one on the Internet with a video," Kamini says. "But Marly-Gomont is different. It shows my real nature, and people respond to that. Materially speaking, it's the Internet that made it popular. But behind that, emotionally speaking, are people."

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—Reported by Jeremy Caplan and Kathleen Kingsbury/New York, Susan Jakes/Beijing, Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles, Grant Rosenberg/Paris and Bryan Walsh/Seoul