DANS LA RUE: Paris Urban Youth Culture
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 three of us, cramped into the backseat of the VW Golf, suddenly got into a contest over who's visited the most countries.  I boasted "8!" which soon ranked low on the impressive scale when Mar retorted with "12!" as he proceeded to list exactly which countries he's been to.  But then both of us were dwarfed by Ich when he burst out with "16!"  Counting with his fingers, he ran down the list of countries spanning most of Europe, North America, and Japan.  Not bad, I thought.  I wonder how many frequent flyer miles he has.

It was an odd conversation to have amongst us three grown men.  It's the kind of talk I'd expect to have on the school playground in first grade.  "I have six GI Joes, how many do you have??"  But when you speak almost no French and the French people with you speak a limited amount of English, you take what you can get.

Unlike myself, Ich was genuinely excited to talk about all the countries he's visited, many of which had to do with international Hip Hop events.  His eyes lit up even more though when he recounted the kind of food he's had in every place.  But it's not that he speaks of bratwurst from Germany or fettucine from Italy.  Instead he has the unique ability to rattle off the McDonald's menu and highlight its variations in every single country.  "You have cheeseburger with shrimp in Japan!" 

And it doesn't end with McDonald's.  He can also name every variety of Fanta and Schweppes according to the flavors available exclusively in a country.  So when Ich goes to the Netherlands, he always makes it appoint to stock up on Fanta Cassis to take back to France, a Cassis-less land.  He does the same with flavored bottled water and assorted candy.  

Why does any of this matter?  

Well, allow me to paint the rest of the picture.  During that 4-hour car ride, the only thing we listened to was the latest Lil Wayne mixtape and the new Nas & Damian Marley collabo album.  Ich and Mar don't even understand a majority of what I say in English.  How much can they really absorb of these rappers spitting fast rhymes riddled with local references and witty wordplay?  Mar admitted that he looks up lyrics on the internet and just listens to the tracks over and over again till he gets it.  

In contrast to the ethnic pride apparel I mentioned in a previous post, Ich sat there decked out in his New Era cap, I heart NY hoodie, and Japanese anime t-shirt.  Plus I can't forget his Dr. Dre Beats headphones saddled around his neck.

Ich is black but yet goes by this Japanese name.  It's short for Ichigo, the protagonist of his favorite anime Bleach.  In fact everyone in his dance crew is named after a character from Bleach.  He also has a second crew called Super Mario Bros.  I really don't know what his real name is.  Yes, hip hoppers do tend to take on aliases, but usually you hear someone refer to them by their birth name once in a while.  Not the case for Ich.

Ich's two favorite destinations out of the whopping 16 countries he's visited?  New York City and Japan.  He loves New York because quite simply it's the Mecca of Hip Hop.  He loves Japan not only because of its incredible dance scene, but perhaps more so because of anime and manga.  

When I remarked how expensive Japan is, "C'est tre cher," (OK, I speak a tiny bit of French) he revealed that he saved 9,000 euros to spend one month there.  It enabled him to live freely (ironically) and give in to his material desires.  Indeed he must have purchased every single bit of Bleach paraphernalia.  By the time the manga convention came around to Paris last September, Ich was so disappointed that he already had every product they were selling.

Though I firmly believe in the power of Hip Hop, I question the repercussions when it's propped up firmly beside these other forms of global commodities and obsessive consumption.  In part I came to Paris to get away from McDonald's and CocaCola and Target and all the crap I own.  But I also came to connect with Hip Hop out here.  Is it at all possible for me to engage one without the other?

Later the following night, Ich was inhaling a McFlurry with a topping that was only available in Holland.  "C'est la merde."  I didn't quite follow.  Was he saying that it was bad?  "No," he said.  "It's the shit."



    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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