DANS LA RUE: Paris Urban Youth Culture


In France it seems that there's no question whether skating is hip hop.  B-boy competitions mix with BMX contests, Nas rhymes while Saint Denis youth grind.  Paris' skatepark at Bercy is just another iteration of this intertwining culture. 

Here the energy of young skaters is matched by raw Paris graffiti blanketing every available surface.  A skater's explosive aerial tricks compete for your attention with a graff writer's eye-popping aerosol colors.

Lying at the edge of Bercy's tranquil park and in the shadow of its Palais Omnisports, the skatepark is easy to overlook.  But once there, you become completely enmeshed in the grittiness of street culture.  It's impossible to focus your senses anywhere else.

Graffeur Jen, whom I met at Les Frigos, first told me about the skatepark, telling me it's another major place for writers to get up.  On the cold, dank afternoon I visited, I ran into PESCA who was in the middle of going over someone else's tag on the main wall.  Apparently, on these walls, there's no police intervention or fear of repercussion from rival writers. 

Bercy Skatepark in the early days, before it was graffitified
It's only when you go over someone on the illegal walls that you may run into problems.  It's like honor among vandals, rules that govern illegal activity.  At the park, it's all fair game.

Behind him, 8 or more skaters and skateboarders casually hit the ramps, taking smoke breaks in between tricks, chatting it up with their friends or their dog.  It felt more like a chill session than a training one.  They were young, mostly high school age, and the park was their hang out spot.

Ironically, Bercy is the site of the oldest known human occupation in Paris, dating back to 4000 BC.  In recent decades Paris has revitalized the area, transforming it into a commercial center and the home of the Ministry of Economy, Finance, and Industry. 

Yet nestled at its corner is this haven from any of that, a detached shelter for the city's expressive youth.  But perhaps that's the point, to draw the skaters and graff writers here and away from the public, keeping them off the city's beloved architecture.  Rather than police them, enable them.

It's history is unclear to me, but I do know the park has been around since at least 2006.  It was also temporarily closed in 2007 as they constructed a roof for it, providing a vital place for youth even during the crappiest of weather (much like this week's when I visited).

So there I sat with PESCA at the top of a skate ramp.  He told me how Paris writers stick to bubble and block letters mostly, some 3D, but rarely wild style.  I asked if he's ever been to New York, and he expressed that he wants to but like other writers here, he spends too much money smoking. 

During the conversation, one of the inline skaters sped up the ramp.  When he reached the summit, he launched into the air like a rocket and somersaulted over our heads.  Unphased, PESCA carried on as if nothing happened while I was still sweating for my life.  Here, the graff writers are used to the skaters.  To them it's all the same.

PESCA and TULE get up
It was the year 2000.  Scattered among tapes in my friend's basement in New Jersey, one VHS caught my eye like a diamond in the rough.  On the cover graffiti block letters hovered over an ill drawing of a b-boy doing headspins.  It was Battle of the Year 1998, and it felt like finding buried treasure in your own backyard: pure gold and straight underground.

I had never seen breakin like this before.  The basement party cyphers and subway station performances did not prepare me for BOTY, the world championships for b-boy supremacy.  Live on stage in Offenbach, Germany, France's The Family faced California's Rock Force Crew in the heated controversial final, Japan's Spartanic Rockers taking "Best Show" honors.  Not only an introduction to a culture, it was a gateway to a whole new world.

A decade later, BOTY continues to be the biggest and most legendary b-boy event.  It's kept the Bronx dance style alive and evolving, providing inspiration for aspiring b-boys in every corner of the world.  It's also the focus of Benson Lee's 2007 documentary Planet B-Boy (whose image I sampled for this blog's banner) and is the inspiration for his upcoming feature.

The last BOTY France won was 2006 when Vagabonds placed 1st
Celebrating its 21st anniversary this past weekend, BOTY abandoned its home country of Germany for the first time and relocated to Montpellier, France.  This changing of the guard marks a major turning point for France's b-boy scene.  It's an acknowledgement of France's stature as breakin powerhouse, a country that's produced BOTY champions four times, 2nd place finishers twice, and "Best Show" winners twice.  The only country more dominant is Korea, having won six times in the past decade.

The event has helped launched the careers of France's best dancers, earning them worldwide renown.  "It [BOTY] gave me a name in the world of b-boying," says By of Fantastik Armada, 2004 runner-ups.  France's best known street dancer Salah, winner of the first season of Incroyable Talent (France's version of America's Got Talent), made his international debut in the 1998 BOTY final against Rock Force.

BOTY started out in Hanover, Germany in 1990 with just over 500 spectators and representation from Germany, the UK, and Switzerland.  This past Saturday, the annual event hosted 14,000 in Montpellier's ARENA with crews from 19 countries worldwide (having won regional or national qualifiers), from Israel to South Africa to Brasil, competing for the title. 

Korea notched another victory in their championship belt as Jinjo crew overwhelmed Japan's Mortal Combat.  France's La Smala finished a respectable fourth, but certainly disappointing for the hometown crowd. 

Major French TV network Canal covered the event live over the internet, complete with pro-sports-like commentary and interviews. 

The move to France has certainly increased the event's live audience but new problems have emerged.  The MCs now have the cumbersome task of hyping the crowd in English and in French.  While English was no problem in Germany, it's obvious that the crowd in Montpellier has a lower threshold for it.

And already there's backlash from the b-boy community at the different atmosphere in France's BOTY.  On the global forum bboyworld.com, one commenter advocates for a return to the past: "It was the worst crowd in the history of BOTY, bring it back to Germany next year."  Others described this BOTY as the "weakest" and "horrible," while another clamored for majority English MCing.

BOTY is slated for at least one more year in Montpellier.  For the French b-boy scene, it's still a relished honor to host, to attend, and to compete.  "Ever since I was a kid," Lilou, of 2003 champions Pockemon, explains, "I dreamt of being on that stage."  Next year, France will have one more opportunity to own that stage.

Here's a great short documentary on the 10th anniversary of BOTY's qualifications and what it's meant for the local scene:
If you only hung out with hip hop heads in Paris, you would start to think that all French people share their food with the people around them.  A bite for me, a bite for you, a bite for him, a bite for her.  By the time it got back to you there'd only be a nickel-sized piece left.

Luckily I've gotten over my inner-germaphobe and paranoia about contracting mono, having shared every can of soda, every piece of candy, and every buttery pastry offered me since I arrived.  I've grown so accustomed to it that I've started to  initiate the food cypher myself.  As they say, "when in Paris…"

So when I turned and offered a tasting of my Royale with Cheese to Sou, she shocked me with her refusal.  "I can't eat it," she said.  Judging by the half-eaten Filet O' Fish in front of her, I ruled out the possibility of her being veggie-tarian.  "Waitaminute," furrowing my brow for dramatic effect, "are you Muslim??"

(MickeyD's has yet to adopt a halal menu though French rival Quick has.)

Sou and I have been friends for over a year and a half.  She lived in New York City as an au pair for 6 months.  We hung out countless times and not once did her religious faith ever come up.  She revealed to me then that while in the states, she deliberately kept it secret; she worshipped Allah on the low.  But why?  Especially among friends?

Out of fear.  "They don't like Muslims over there."  Even though I doubt anyone would guess that this young Thai-Cambodian girl with the French accent was Muslim, she still felt the need to suppress her identity for self-protection.  The US has produced so much fear of Muslims that it's spawned fear of Americans.

Weeks later, I met Yousef who expressed to me his desire to one day visit New York.  I encouraged him to.  But in his broken English, he said that it's a bad idea because once he lands at JFK then…He brought his wrists behind his back to explain the word his vocabulary lacked--detained.  He then pointed at his Arabic features, cited his name, and lamented, "It's not possible."

But I thought it was France that leads the world in Islamophobia, at least against those within its own borders.  It's France that bans burqas in public and denies citizenship to those who wear them as well as their husbands.  It's France that wants to prohibit fast-food menus from conforming to halal restrictions under the guise of laicite or secularism.    It's France that wants to revoke the citizenship of foreign-born French caught assaulting public servants.  It's President Sarkozy who referred to the immigrant youth as racaille--a derogatory term meaning low-life scum--that he wants to be rid of.  Message transmitted: You don't fit in here so go away.

I suppose that's not quite at the level of no-fly lists, secret detentions, renditions, and waterboarding, but still, do people not regard the US as a place of religious freedom and melting pots and a president with Hussein in his name?  I was even part of the fight that brought 49 of 51 New York City Council Members to vote for a resolution to adopt the major Muslim holidays as public school system-wide holidays (though the not so tolerant Mayor won't enact it).  Then again, millions more know about the fight against the Muslim community center near Ground Zero.

The comparison is pointless.  It's like a race to the bottom, finding the worst of two evils.  A Muslim cabbie has his throat slashed in New YorkA Muslim woman gets attacked while shopping in Paris.  Intolerance and inequality know no boundaries.

Yet, through shared adversity, strength and solidarity shine through the bigotry.  In working class neighborhoods of New York, a certain degree of acrimony simmers amongst African Americans and Arabic immigrants that run local corner stores.  Meanwhile in working class banlieues surrounding Paris, African and Arabic immigrants connect through a common religion, parallel cultures, and shared living conditions.  Their youth blend into world champion dance crews, mighty rap groups, and all-star graffiti collectives.  They find solace in each other as there's always strength in numbers.  Afterall, France does have the largest Muslim population in Europe at 10% and totaling over 4.1 million.

My friend Mohamed, a Moroccan-French beatmaker, learned that I'm of Filipino descent.  His immediate follow up question, as his eyes widened in hopeful anticipation: Are you Muslim too??  I was sad to disappoint him.  Unfortunately we can't connect on that level.  In that moment, I kind of wish I had kept my faith (or lack thereof) a secret.

Fascinating survey data from our friends at the PewResearch Center in DC.  Notice that there's a huge discrepancy between the greater French public that believes Muslims resist assimilation and French Muslims themselves who wish to adopt local customs.  Also worth noting is the across-the-board agreement amongst European Muslims that the US is unfavorable.
The cover for IAM's single 'Planete Mars'
In this latest podcast, special guest music afficionado Josquin breaks down the other most influential rap group in the French hip hop scene: IAM.  In contrast with Paris suburbanites NTM, this talented team provides an alternative sound stemming from their south of France hometown Marseille.  Instead of offering up hardcore gangsterism, IAM tells crafty tales of everyday life, combining slick production with Ancient Egypt mythology and outer space metaphors.

For more from IAM's impressive discography, stream away their tracks from here.

Stay tuned for the next podcast with guest Josquin as we discuss the third and final component of the French hip hop canon.

Here's an IAM collaboration with Wu-Tang fam Sunz of Man.  IAM's Ancient Egyptian and sci-fi themes blend perfectfly with Sunz of Man's Kung Fu predilections and 5 percenter mentality.  Plus their music's almost the same!

Cars overturned after anti-Israel protest in 2009
My friend Sara loathes Paris.  Even a few hours in the City of Lights causes her great dismay and gets her red in the cheeks.  She swears, that without fail, every visit to Paris she endures encounters with the most cantankerous people and the most insufferable inconveniences.  Paris is out to get her.

Perhaps this was regional bias coming from the Lille native, I thought.  Like many other hip hop dancers from her hometown, she was just projecting a similar brand of East Coast vs. West Coast rap bitterness towards their rival city.  But rather than call her out on it, I enabled.

"Yeah people here can be pretty rude.  They're not very friendly or open to people.  Plus there's a lot of racism too."

Oooh, the R-word.  Sara responded, "Racism?  Really?  I don't think there is much."

What??  Of course there's racism in Paris and in France as a whole, duhh.  She must be blinded by her white girl privilege, thought the self-righteous American blogger.  Her denial felt like a betrayal to her embrace of hip hop and to her rainbow coalition of friends.

Protesters against France's acts of anti-Semitism during WWII
I looked at Sara sitting across from me, decked out in Dickies khakis and a fresh purple tee like a Cali chola, her black Chuck Taylor's matching her geek chic thick-rimmed glasses.  As she leaned forward on the table, her necklace swung around, dangling over her Big Mac.  At the end of the chain, a small six-point star served as its pendulum.  It was the Star of David.

I realized that I wasn't seeing the whole picture.  Race is an American preoccupation.  In France, it's about a clash of cultures.  It's about immigrants.  It's about religion.  What prejudice I see as racist at it's core, she may see as something else.

France is home to not only Europe's largest Muslim population, but to its largest Jewish population as well.  And the country has had a long, troubled history with its Jewish community.  Guilt from the country's complicity in the Holocaust during the dark days of Nazi occupation still persist. 

In recent years, renewed anti-semitism has erupted as Israel-Palestine conflicts escalate.  Anti-Israel protesters have sacked Jewish businesses in Paris.  In the immigrant communities of the banlieues, Muslim and Jewish youth scuffle in the classroom and on the playground.  French Jews have been the targets of violence including Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old who was kidnapped, tortured, and killed.  The assaults have led many French Jews to flee for Israel while others stay and seek resolutions from the Sarkozy government.

The majority of France's 600,000 Jews come from waves of North African immigration since the 1950s.  Many of these families immigrated to escape religious persecution in places like Morocco and Tunisia in the first place.  They fear that history may be repeating itself.

Protest against desecration of Muslim and Jewish graves in 2008
I'm uncertain of Sara's family history.  Maybe her parents came from Tunisia, escaping the riots of the 60s, after their ancestors settled there from Spain.  Maybe her family came from Eastern Europe post-WWII looking for refuge.  Maybe like the rapper Shyne, Sara just recently converted to Judaism. 

In any case, I'm sure religion plays some role in her life and influences her worldview.  But I doubt Sara would be caught up in the recent religious tensions, the line in the sand dividing neighbors.  Her positive outlook and teethy smiles won't let her.  It's because her sunny disposition is endangered by the rudeness of Parisians that she has such distaste for the city.  She's looking to overcome the disputes and connect with people, not shut herself in.

And so she continues to visit Paris nearly every other month.  She comes for the hip hop events here.  She comes for the people in these spaces.  She comes for the community.  Whether black, white, brown; Muslim, Christian, or Jewish; Sara has nothing but love to give.  And judging by her popularity, that's also what she gets in return. 

In such a sheltered environment, it's no wonder that the "isms" don't really apply.

In this latest podcast, I chat with French music scenester Josquin about the realest of the real of French hip hop: Supreme NTM, the hardcore rap group that laid the foundation for France's rap scene.  In contrast to the easy-listening stylings of MC Solaar, these boys pack the aggression like 9mm's tucked into the back of their sagging jeans.  We cover the group's origins on the streets of Seine-Saint-Denis to their rise in the mid-90's to their mainstreamization.  And of course, we listen to some choice tracks handpicked by Josquin.

For more of Paris' answer to NWA and Wu-Tang, check out this treasure trove of streaming tracks.

Finally, something uniquely French.  It's electro dance, a style of street dance born from the same country that gave the world Daft Punk.  It obviously draws from vogueing, raving, wacking, and hip hop, but there's no doubt electro dance is in a world of it's own.  And unlike its ancestors, it stresses routines in every round just as much as solos.  Here's an inside look at a recent competition called Vertifight with insights from organizer Youval.

October's winners will represent France atthis main event in 2011
According to this blog, techtonik (but is it the same as electro dance?) originated mainly from the dance clubs in Southeast Paris, particularly Metropolis.  But what's interesting is that in the context of Vertifight, all the dancers probably can't get into these clubs since they're still struggling with high school pre-calc.  Youval mentioned that many youth took to electro dance via YouTube clips, which is probably also how Vertifight and the dance itself have successfully been exported all over the world (except the US).

Also interesting to note is that Youval considers electro dance the little brother of voguing.  He can lay that claim as he is indeed one of the original and only voguers in Paris from the 1980's.  But he maintains that his culture is none other than hip hop, as he's also from the first generation of b-boys and poppers.   When he speaks about electro dance's misrepresentation in the mainstream media as "techtonik," I sense that he's linking it with the history of breakin' which outsiders termed "breakdancing" during its era of exploitation.  But like breakin, electro dance has endured in the underground.



    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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