Why Paris?

For me, this subject recently became one of those predictably reoccurring questions that most people spout prepared answers to with rehearsed spontaneity. “I’m chasing the ghost of James Baldwin”, I could’ve replied, or “Fahrenheit 9/11 changed my life”. The perfect pat response eluded me, even months after packing up my New York City life and heading out for France early last year. In a post-soul world decades after the civil rights movement, I couldn’t claim to be fleeing racism; not of the sort that led writers like Richard Wright to take flight in the 1950s, anyway. Eventually I decided I was on a vision quest, to discover the new black American vanguard of Paris in the 21st century.

The reputation of a colorblind society attracted writers Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen to the French capital during the Harlem Renaissance, in the days when Josephine Baker shook her bare breasts and banana skirts onstage for Parisian crowds. Miles Davis carried on with French singer Juliette Greco (Miles with a white woman? Who’d have thought?) while jazz greats Charlie Parker and Bill Coleman took cues of inspiration from the City of Light. Negritude, the literary arts movement of the 1930s, existed partly due to the presence of expatriate African-Americans in Montmartre; the Eighteenth Arrondissement neighborhood once known as the Harlem of Paris. Blacks’ impact on the city during the last millennium is undeniable. But with hiphop now the driving cultural force across the globe, is the modern-day urban influence as pervasive?

Walking down rue Saint-Denis between rue Berger and rue Étienne-Marcel, where clothing stores like Ruffneck Hiphop Shop hawk wears by Rocawear and Enyce amid the arcades and sex shops, it’s evident that hiphop bleeds into pop culture in France much the same as in America. Magazines and newspapers tell tales of rap celebrity: Joey Starr (classically handsome, a scorpion-tail tattoo circling the navel of his chiseled abs) recently ending a romance with actress Béatrice Dalle is something like 50 Cent breaking up with Vivica Fox. The musique of local stars like Rim-K, Booba, IAM and Kool Shen all get regular radio rotation here on Generations 88.2, the Hot 97 of the French radio dial. Rival station 101.5 even maximizes multimedia synergy with its own music magazine, Nova.

Yet something like Sean Combs’s December 2004 tour of the White House, where P. Diddy rubbed shoulders with President Bush after his Vote or Die campaign fought to eject the leader, wouldn’t happen here. President Jacques Chirac reaching out to MC Solaar for some kir royale at Palais de l’Elysée is pretty unthinkable, maybe the main difference in hiphop’s impact abroad. NTM, Joey Starr’s former group, was an acronym for nique ta mere — otherwise known in English as “fuck your mother”. Rebellion like that doesn’t go over well with the grown-ups over at l’Opéra. In spite of a certain mainstream acceptance and the help of French MTV, Parisian hiphop is still rapping to itself here, like American hiphop in the early ’80s. Paris’s hiphop music — a mix of Algerian, Arab, French and Antilles (the Afro-Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadalupe) cultures speaking to political and economic realities of class through beats and rhymes — isn’t likely to magnetize the average Frenchman anytime soon.

Here, the culture remains exclusively for the youth. Every Saturday, loads of teens descend on Les Halles, a former food market turned adolescent hangout due to the Forum des Halles shopping mall. The effects of globalization are seen all throughout Paris, including here in the First Arrondissement, with extremely familiar shops everywhere you turn: H&M, Foot Locker, Gap. With hiphop as much of a capitalistic commodity as a culture these days, the same American influence saturates the fashion style of the youth loitering at Les Halles: Phat Farm, Sean John, Marc Ecko. The major fashion distinction between the US and France seems to be a time lag in trendiness. Labels like Karl Kani and FUBU are still highly in vogue with teenagers, whereas in America, those designers have fallen a bit out of favor. No enterprising MC has yet launched his own clothing line here, in contrast to the Eves and Jay-Zs of American rap.

An exception is 30-year-old Mohamed Dia, the designer and CEO of the popular M. Dia line. Raised in a foster home in the hardscrabble Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, Dia now runs a company with multimillion-dollar profits aimed at the local hiphop market. With parents who migrated to France from Mali before he was born, Dia was directly inspired to launch his own label by the success of black designers like FUBU during trips to the US visiting cousins running an African food shop in Harlem. “American clothing is cut too big and colored too bright for the French,” Dia once told a reporter. “In France, young people like things simpler and tighter. They want to look like Americans but still be French.” Dia’s success in following his own formula allows him to maintain four M. Dia stores throughout Paris, and he’s in talks with Haitian-American rapper Wyclef Jean to partner in opening a Harlem location. In a bout of nationalist pride, Dia’s sneaker line, the Tariq Abdul-Wahad, is named for the French basketball star signed to the Dallas Mavericks.

I sit in Haynes Grill one winter night in the Ninth Arrondissement, framed, autographed photographs of famous black Americans covering nearly every available inch of the white walls. On a slightly elevated stage in the corner, a jazz trio saunters through Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing”. Haynes Grill may or may not be the place where Baldwin and Wright had their legendary tiff over the future of black protest literature, depending on whom you believe. What’s certain is that the bistro is the premiere soul food restaurant of Paris, established in 1949 by the late Atlanta University football star Leroy Haynes. And the fried chicken with honey can’t be beat.

At the bar thumbing The Source France magazine, I consider how the hiphop generation is getting down in Paris. The heyday of American expatriate culture in Paris was the 1920s, the Jazz Age. As the trio at Haynes Grill takes five to diners’ smattering of applause, I mull over why the aughts haven’t ushered in the hiphop age in quite the same way. Parisian hipsters loved jazz largely because it reinforced both their hip status and their notion of black Americans as genius exotics. Last summer at the Rock en Seine concert festival I witnessed crazy hands in the air for the Roots, proving that hip Parisians will be hip Parisians. The hiphop generation is putting down its own stamp in Paris, but local MCs like Rohff aren’t following the hip-pop path of American rap. And more power to them. What, we need a French Chingy?

So who are the noirs nouveau in Paris, and what are they doing here? In 1998, California native Robin Bates launched Cafedelasoul.com, a website founded, according to its manifesto, “to highlight and explore not only the African-American community in Paris, but also the thriving African and Afro-Caribbean communities.” Despite a history dating back to about 300 BC, I don’t live in the Paris of Napoleon, Picasso, or even Chester Himes. The technology of cellular phones and email (and digital photos and MP3 files) creates a world village unlike the planet has ever seen before; a site like Cafedelasoul.com makes connecting the dots in black Paris a lot easier than it was for Eldridge Cleaver.

Surf for about an hour and you’ll meet Melcom Copeland, a San Francisco transplant who runs Buyhiphop Media Ventures and moved here with his French wife; singer Crystal Donahue, an expatriate who belts neo-soul at clubs like Le Triptyque; Carolyn Davenport-Moncel, the president of MotionTemps, who services the worldwide clients of her marketing and public-relations agency from the French capital; DJ L in Japanese, who keeps a blog on the site; and more. Users trade info on message boards about studying abroad, French racism, jobs and the elusive cartes de séjour (work permits for non-European wannabe citizens).

Author Tyler Stovall’s Paris Noir: African-Americans in the City of Light (Houghton Mifflin, December 1996) explains that, since World War I, Paris has drawn both artists and working-class folk of color alike from the US, and it’s the same during the hiphop era. Whether or not the above crew sounds glamorous to you depends on your personal standards for glamour. Up and moving to Paris has always been pretty sexy in and of itself, no matter how you make a living to sustain the lifestyle.

But okay, here’s some glam. (Hiphop culture’s standards for glamorousness are pretty high after all, bling-bling and all that…) On 3 August 2004 — the posthumous eightieth birthday of James Baldwin — I attended a celebration in my hometown of the Bronx, at Clinton High School where the author graduated. There, I met Alva French (her real name, yes), a 30-year-old filmmaker who, it happened, also relocated to Paris last year. Alva, it turned out, is the granddaughter of Tria French, the late actress who starred in Melvin Van Peebles’s 1968 Story of a Three-Day Pass. Born in Paris — Baldwin was a family friend — Alva moved to New York with her parents at two-years-old, a true Franco-American. She’s returned to her native city to live and film a documentary of her grandparents’ lives.

Alva has become my best friend here and tonight we’ve come to Sunday School together. Once a month, Le Trabendo is hiphop church. Sunday School is a three-years-running showcase for up-and-coming MCs and singers held the last Sunday of every month in the Nineteenth Arrondissement. Surrounded by tight Baby Phat jeans and tighter hair weaves (Château d’Eau is the place for young women to hook up their tissages, the most popular hairstyle for young black women), Sean John sweatshirts and marijuana smoke, we watch the French hiphop generation manifest. On brick walls outside of Le Trabendo, posters featuring an African sprinting in still-frame promote Nèg Maron, an upcoming film starring the French rapper Stomy Bugsy.

Hollywood has blessed both Will Smith and Queen Latifah with Oscar nominations in a town where Mos Def, LL Cool J, Ice Cube, and many other MCs are regularly spotted acting on stage lots. In Paris, Stomy Bugsy is the only rapper-turned-actor to date. Kicking off a lighthearted-sex-symbol rap career with 1996’s Le Calibre Qu’il Te Faut, Bugsy quickly debuted on the silver screen the very next year in Ma 6-T Va Crack-er. Sporting a résumé of 10 movies (including 2002’s critically acclaimed comedy, Le Boulet) and four albums during the past nine years, the 32-year-old MC has become more of a thespian than a rapper in the eyes of the French.

Back inside the venue, open mic is over for the night and B-boys crowd around a circle, break-dancing to Big Daddy Kane. Some young ladies in the house sport designs from local clothiers like Pimkie, Etam, Morgan and La City, but they’re not in the majority. The vibe here at Sunday School is more reverent of American-style hiphop — the showcase, after all, is named an intentionally English “Sunday School” — and so women fashion their style closer to a typical BET video. The dance floor action is something that might’ve attracted choreographer Mya Frye in her clubhead days. Her trademarked wild style of blue contacts, a blonde tissage, and blue fingernails would fit right in.

The most successful example of hiphop’s impact on Parisian dance, the 39-year-old Frye moved from the United States at 12 years old and set sights on making a mark on dance in France. Currently an instructor at the esteemed Centre de Danse du Marais, Frye has also served as dance coach for the wannabe talent on French TV’s Popstars (as adored here once as American Idol in the US), and has provided hiphop credibility choreographing videos for the likes of the late singer Serge Gansbourg. With Paris bidding for the 2012 Olympics, the city could soon be flooded with Americans, who may choose to stay after taking in the magnifique sights. (The same is true of the Hiphop World Summit due here shortly.) Bush’s reelection already has my friends renewing passports and weighing options. Paris Noir is kind of an answer to the collective “Why Paris?” questions I’ve been fielding, which is often a way for people to dip their toes into the pool of my experience, wondering if they should hazard a swim.

My ruling? The water’s fine. Come take a dip.