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.

Princess Hijab was here.
Just after dawn, when the Paris metro starts running, beware!  A looming, long-haired figure skulks around train stations hunting prey.  Her targets: consumer advertising.  Her weapon of choice: a fat black paint marker.  Her method: Hijabisation.

Paris' latest street art sensation Princess Hijab stalks the scantily clad women and men on the posters adorning subway platforms and gives them a costume change.  In quick, broad strokes, she covers them with a niqab, dripping in wet, black ink.  From Dolce & Gabbana to H&M, she leaves a veil trail of topical ad-busting.

With the hijab prohibited in schools and the burqa and niqab to be banned from public spaces starting in 2011, Princess Hijab's guerilla art seems like a strike of retaliation.  Yet she claims in a recent exclusive interview with The Guardian that she has no judgement on the way people dress, one way or another.  She doesn't use the veil as a tool to promote Western feminism or religious freedom.

Instead, she uses "veiled women as a challenge."  She sees herself as part of a new "graffiti of minorities" that is reclaiming the streets and bringing " inside [Paris] everything that's been excreted out."  The niqabs she leaves behind then become a representation for the Paris outsiders who lack opportunities--"the poor, the Arabs, black and of course, the Roma." 

The jarring juxtaposition of dripping black veils on the sculpted bodies of massive ads forces people to confront France's larger problems of integration and increasing consumerism.

Who Princess Hijab is remains a complete mystery.  She reveals nothing about her identity, her religious or ethnic background.  Even her sex and gender are unclear and deliberately ambiguous.  To her (or him), Princess Hijab is a character.  And judging by her costume choice (I'm hauntingly reminded of the girl from The Ring) in this short documentary, her street art is also performance art.  Probably a necessity, not just an aesthetic choice, since her pieces get torn down an average of 45 minutes after they're completed.

So like Bansky and JR before her, Princess Hijab's true identity remains shrouded in secrecy as her anonymity adds to her cultural appeal.  Like Bansky, she subverts mass consumerism with her clever art.  Like JR, she gives attention to the marginalized and shares a concern for the disadvantaged communities of the banlieues

But unlike these two predecessors, she imbues her work with a punch-in-the-gut urgency that the others seem to lack, a kind of hardcore fuck-you attitude.  It's the gangsta rap to their backpacker rap.  Perhaps it's because the veil is such a powerful icon, especially in a Western, Christian space.  Or maybe it's the dripping black ink that does it.  Either way, Princess Hijab has got your attention.

Interestingly enough, Al Jazeera scooped The Guardian months earlier with this video:
A guy I met makes custom ethnic apparel
Fashion is undoubtedly one of the core elements of Hip Hop.  After all, 1990's hip hoppers practically made the Tommy Hilfiger brand.  And where would New Era fitteds be without Jay-Z?  

Hip Hop, in every one of its art forms, is all about stylistic expression.  It's no surprise then that fashion, as an outward expression of style, is so embraced by the Hip Hop generation to connote culture and identity.  It's about reppin' who you are and where you're from.  

The glocalized Hip Hop community here in Paris and France puts its own twist on that concept and the outfit trends from the US.  Sure, the fitted caps, baggy pants, and fly sneakers remain a staple, but here young people spice up their wardrobes with a smattering of ethnic and religious roots.

World b-boy champ Lilou
At every event I attend, I always feel like I'm at a convening at the UN.  In the middle of a cypher, there will be a gleaming turquoise jacket with "ALGERIE" embroidered across the chest.  To the left, I'll spot the outline of the African continent colored in bright red, green and yellow, on the front of a sweatshirt.  I'll pick out the word "SENEGAL" discreetly wrapped around a friend's wristband.  And then of course, my favorite Tee yells out to me, with huge block letters, "I'm Muslim, Don't Panik!"   As I observe, I notice that I too am rockin' my favorite Philippines revolution crew-neck.

Then there's the case of my friend Sam.  I've seen him all of twice and both times he's worn the same t-shirt.  Either that I always catch him around the same time as his laundry cycle, or he reserves this shirt specifically for Hip Hop gatherings.  The shirt reads, "Algerien Pur Souche," basically "Pure Strain Algerian."  

It's ironic because he's blonde-haired and blue-eyed.  Being the nosy blogger that I am, I tried to pry the ethnicity out of him.

     "What's your ethnic background?"
     "Huh?" (His english is not that advanced)
     "Where is your family from?"
     "Algeria.  I'm Algerian."
     "But you don't look Algerian."  (so insensitive, I know, sigh)
     "My mother is French but she grew up in Algeria where she met my father."

'Pure Strain Algerian'
Sam, then, is not pure strain Algerian.  But yet, his identity, regardless of genetics, most certainly is.  The shirt proudly proclaims that identification, which is particularly useful in these settings that are predominately brown.  Without the tee he might easily be relegated as an outsider.  Instead, he wears it in defiance of his French heritage to resolutely say, "I am part of this culture, OUR culture."

This need to assert ethnic and religious identity in these Hip Hop spaces is interesting because mainstream American Hip Hop can sometimes be so devoid of it.  For example, the Caribbean heritage of icons such as DJ Kool Herc, Notorious BIG, and Busta Rhymes is not very well known.  Neither is the Islamic faith of rappers such as Mos Def.  In an America that's wrapped up with racial consciousness, these other forms of identities take a backseat to blackness.  

France, on the other hand, frames it's own issues around otherness along the lines of immigration and Islam.  The sentiment then is not so much racist as it is xenophobic and islamophobic best represented by Sarkozy's most recent efforts.  No wonder then that the Hip Hop heads in France resist by asserting ethnic and religious pride.

But true, not all drape themselves in flags and call it a day.  Some are pushing boundaries or in fact re-drawing them.  At Who Iz Underground, a guy walking around in his black letterman jacket would occasionally stop to chat up some friends.  He'd open up his backpack and pull out some fresh white tees for them.  He'd leave and they'd put them on immediately.  Suddenly, a number of people had written all over them, "UNIVERSAL STREET."

It didn't matter what country, ethnicity, or religion you came from; the culture and the experience is always the same.  Street is Street.  What's important is drowning out marginalization through unity and solidarity through the language of Hip Hop.


    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.  


    December 2010
    November 2010
    October 2010
    September 2010

    RSS Feed


    Black Youth
    Electro Dance
    Ethnic Identity
    French Hip Hop
    Les Frigos
    Mc Solaar
    News Coverage
    Notorious Ibe
    Saint Denis
    Speedy Graphito
    Street Art
    Street Dance
    Supreme Ntm
    Techno Parade
    Who Iz Who
    Zulu Nation