DANS LA RUE: Paris Urban Youth Culture
If race is as much of a competition as its name implies, then it follows that the outcome will result in a hierarchy of winners and losers.  Gold, silver, bronze; first, second, third…and sometimes dead last.  If race is a construct constructed like the world of track and field, then different countries have their own meets and varied rules.    So then what is the race like in France?

While kicking it with my boy Babacar, the son of Senegalese immigrants, we compared notes on our respective countries.  Unlike many other French who cite differences in cultures as cause for conflict, he outright said there's plenty of racism to go around.  Finally some honesty.  But are black, brown, and yellow subjected to the same prejudice?  Of course not.  Babacar broke it down for me.

Arabs are treated the worst and are then followed by Black Africans and Caribbeans.  He pointed me to a recent study showing that Paris police stop young Arab men 7.5 times more than whites.  And by stop I mean pulled aside, ID cards checked, and their bodies searched, all without a warrant and based purely on suspicion.  No 4th Ammendment Rights here.  Now I know where Arizona got its inspiration.  

Tecktonik style
Blacks too were targeted by the police and stopped 6 times more than whites.  

Attire contributed to the profiling as 47% of those stopped wore "youth clothing," styles associated with hip hop, goth, and tecktonic.  Such a finding only confirms that racial profiling is persistent since hip hop and tecktonic are associated with the youth cultures of the black-brown banlieues.  Perhaps goth is as well?

Babacar, who rocks a warm smile and equally warm baggy sweats, has himself been searched by the police once or twice coming home from late night parties.  "Night police are terrible!"  They're the most aggressive, the most rude, the most unrelenting.  They're just out to get you.

He suggested that the perception of Islam may contribute to the relative status of Arab people in France.  It's a nasty mix of improbable assimilation, racial difference (though this multi-culti American doesn't notice too much difference), and heavy immigration that stirs the distaste of the white mainstream.

HLM in the 19th Arrondissement
What about France's abundant population of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees, Chinese immigrants, and Tamil-speaking Indians?  Like in the US, they lie somewhere between black and white.  Stereotypes of obedience and hard work have found root on both sides of the Atlantic.  However, Babacar notes that some of the community does live in cites (HLMs), French housing projects, where the hood impact is noticeable.  

"France is just like the US, except instead of Latinos, we have Arabs."  But I raised Babacar's eyebrows when I told him that Latinos enjoy slightly better treatment, that Blacks are still criminalized much more.  "Really?"  Yes, really.  

A history of slavery is our stain that may never go away.  But at the very least, we talk about it, albeit only sometimes.  Race matters.

P. Diddy once told me to either Vote or DIE!  So naturally I voted.  50 Cent lives by the mantra "get rich or die trying."  Those Vitamin Water ads suggest which way his scale is tipping.  And here in Paris, our good friend-of-the-blog and celebrated Vertifight organizer Youval has commanded that I "Stay or Die!"  While the act of staying seems rather mundane and disproportionate to the severity of death, I must admit that it was an arduous task.  I failed to stay, so I died…

….on the dance floor.  Last week, once again Youval commandeered the closed shopping space beneath La Defense (Paris' financial district) for a literally underground street dance competition.  This time the contest categories were in Popping, House, and All Styles.  This time "Stay or Die" was the format.  And this time, for the first time in Paris, I competed.

I showed up nervous, anxious, and eager to prove myself.  There again stood an intimidating mass of 100 young hip hop heads, forming a circle around a portable amp hooked up to an mp3 player.  Surrounding them were closed clothes stores, some with signs that read "Skateboarders and dancers, please don't touch the windows."  

I was among the first group of 6 people called into the circle.  My beating heart almost burst out of my chest...

I thought we would do a round of preliminary selections in which each person had 30 seconds to get busy, and the judges would select one from the group to advance into the main competition.  But then something crazy happened.  Youval called out 6 more poppers to the floor.  The second group of 6 stood before me at the other side of the circle.  "I don't understand," I complained to my friend Mohamed.  "What do I do?"

"You battle."

Judge Franquey looks on in his fat North Face.
So it was an improvised crew battle, I thought.  Each crew sent out one dancer at a time for their moment in the cypher.  But unexpectedly, after every other solo, the judges pointed to a side, picking a winner.  Even though I don't speak the language, the people there could still read on my face: "HUH??"  

One by one, members of the opposing crew sat down, having lost to those on my side.  I was the fourth person to go, suddenly aware that this was survival of the fittest.  My opponent was alright but not incredible.  I smelled blood, hungry for a kill as the adrenaline thrust me into the cypher.  I started unloading my arsenal, showing technique, character, hunger.  And they cheered.  It's all I could've asked for-- respect from the melange of African, Arab, and Asian faces surrounding me.  I don't speak French, but I proved to them that I speak dance.

Pretty soon though, overwhelmed by the unexpected cheers, the adrenaline, the pressure, I got lost in that cypher.  My mind went blank.  The longer I was out there, the more I froze and the quieter the crowd got.  I rushed out of the cypher, and looked to the judges.  Two pointed to me, one pointed to my opponent.  Phew, I got to stay.

The hyped audience.
 A few more mp3's into the battle and only one man stood on the other side of the cypher while five on my side remained.  He paced brazenly back and forth, staring each of us down like the warrior he was.  His name was Amour, the French word for "love."

One by one, my crewmates stepped into the circle with Amour.  One by one they fell.  It was like marching up to the guillotine (French historical reference!).  Suddenly it was my turn.  I knew resistance was futile, but with nothing to lose, I felt liberated.  I danced hard and I had fun with it.  I laughed during my own solo.  The crowd sensed my liberation and enjoyment, and they cheered.  But they cheered even more for Amour.   So I died, and he stayed, the last man standing in the circle.  Love really does conquer all.

Afterwards, friends and strangers alike high-fived me to commend and appreciate.  After months in Paris, documenting the lives of others, I finally expressed myself to them.  In turn, I felt connected, intertwined into the fabric of their local culture.  I'm finally a part of something.  I think I'll stay a while.

Here's an example of a past "Stay or Die" battle hosted by Youval.  The last person standing from each battle ultimately goes on to face the other survivors. 



    Brian is a writer, dancer, activist, and general hip hop head from New York City. He is currently working towards his Master's in Global Communications in Paris.  


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