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Summits, Disciples, and the Love Below

Miles Marshall Lewis

Promise led Lewis to Paris; the tantalizing promise of experiencing the first ever Hip-Hop World Summit and yes, the promise of love.

1.
It was the party of the year, which for 3rd January wasn't too difficult. Actors, writers, singers, poets, playwrights, and more assorted folk all came out of winter hibernation to bring in 2004 at a Harlem house party. I'd move to Paris four months later but no one, including me, knew that then.

MuMs (Poet of HBO's Oz) bought a box of Wild Like That Good Stuff Smellin Strong (Fly By Night Press, October, 2003) books from poet Tish Benson, and passed them out to the 40-plus guests; she autographed some. Author Kenji Jasper chatted up Hot 97 radio's Raqiyah Mays in the weed-scented Balloon Room (my home office, appropriately adorned with colorful Christmas lights for the occasion). Knox Robinson, editor-in-chief of The Fader, carried his newborn son Raul through his first major soirée. Poet Liza Jessie Peterson, The Source editor Fahiym Ratcliffe, singer Sun Singleton, and others waited patiently on line for home-cooked couscous, Indian curry shrimp, baked salmon, salad, and sour cream apple walnut pie in the crowded kitchen. Music, wine, conversation, smoke -- who could ask for anything more?

I co-hosted this get-together at my old Edgecombe Avenue apartment with the singer Mark Darkfeather, in celebration of my Sagittarius birthday two weeks ago and his Capricorn birthday two weeks hence. Jay-Z's "Takeover", the Strokes' "Hard to Explain", Biz Markie's "Goin' Off", Radiohead's "The National Anthem" -- all blared through the air from an eclectic mix-CD. Nobody told me that hosts never enjoy their own events; the bathroom became my refuge, just to take some deep-breath moments alone before facing everyone all over again.

By the end of the night, an anonymous young lady palmed her business card into my hand like an illicit drug and disappeared into the darkness. Her conversation marked the first I'd hear of an organization called Cultural Engineering, and their upcoming first annual Hip-Hop World Summit in Paris.

The young lady turned out to be Chimene Montgomery. By the time I phoned the digits on her card, she no longer worked there. Cultural Engineering turned out to be a cultural development planning and management firm, run by creative director and chairman Dr. Damien Pwono, whom I was soon to meet at their midtown Manhattan office. Attempting to contact the sister from my January bash, I instead met Martha Diaz, a mainstay in the hiphop community with a list of accomplishments longer than my arm. From segment producer at MTV during the heyday of Yo! MTV Raps to co-casting director of hiphop midnite movie Who's the Man? to founder of the not-for-profit Hip-Hop Association (which advocates hiphop as a tool for critical thinking and social change), Diaz was charged with producing the Hip-Hop World Summit.

I'll pause now to say that I'm a fan of this sort of thing: modern movements in the mold of classic models of old. The agenda of Paris's Hip-Hop World Summit echoed forums like Le Congrès des Ecrivains et Artistes Noirs (the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists) of 1956, assessed in James Baldwin's "Princes and Powers", the Encounter magazine piece reprinted in his essay collection, Nobody Knows My Name. The summit promised to tackle topics like globalization and the impact of hiphop on worldwide youth culture, economy, and politics. Scholars, government officials, journalists, MCs, DJs, B-boys, and graf artists were all set to participate in workshops, roundtable discussions, panels, and performances geared to critiquing the international development of hiphop culture.

I met with Diaz and Dr. Pwono later in May 2004 at their downtown Manhattan office, to get in where I fit in. With my participation in the symposium promoted on their site, and my recent move to Paris just gelling, I offered assistance in helping them organize things from the French capital. Cultural Engineering — along with co-sponsors UNESCO, African Marketplace, and Conseil International de la Musique — scheduled the summit for the weekend of 12 November at the outdoor facilities of UNESCO, on the Left Bank in Paris's elegant Seventh Arrondissement.

The Ford Foundation grant that made things possible couldn't supply an extra salary pour moi, but Diaz and Pwono seemed to have things covered. UNESCO liaison Abakar Zakaria, based in Paris, already assisted them in scouting locations for the planned exhibitions and seminars. Sponsors grew: The Source and Radikal (France's own hiphop organ), local Parisian radio stations NRJ and Generations 88.2, Trace.TV and MTV all signed on. Participants grew: Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, KRS-One, Chuck D -- all were listed on the site as speakers, moderators, and presenters. A Global Hip-Hop Awards ceremony was planned. In June 2004, the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, another weekend conference similar in spirit, successfully convened in Newark, New Jersey, to adopt and endorse a political agenda for the hiphop generation. It all began blending together sweet as a Grandmaster Flash mix.

Then things fell apart.

First, the summit was postponed by five months, to the weekend of 1 April. Word on the street whispered about lack of organization and evaporating funds, though the official explanation on the Hip-Hop World Summit website stated "the rapidly increasing requests from hiphop artists, scholars, journalists, and enthusiasts wanting more time to participate further in the event."

Two months back, the other shoe dropped.

"[We] regret to inform you that the first Hip-Hop World Summit, which was to have been held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris from April 1-3, 2005, will be cancelled", read a statement posted on the summit's site. "Today, we have no other option than to acknowledge that despite our efforts and the deep commitment of numerous partners and participants of this summit, producing an event of the desired scope has proven impossible due to the postponement of certain contributions."

A notice on the Cultural Engineering site holds out hope of an upcoming International Hip-Hop Festival they'll be sponsoring in Dubai, "more details soon." Given the apparent financial difficulties of organizing the Paris summit, throwing one in the Middle East seems, uh, dubious. But as hiphop the culture continues its slippery-slope decline into Rap™ the disposable commodity, the dire necessity of such summits will only escalate.

2.
I brought my unborn child to her/his first hiphop concert on 29 March: Nas at Le Zénith. My girlfriend Christine moved to Paris from the French-Caribbean island of Martinique with her parents as a four-year-old, and she much prefers zouk to hiphop. But she helped translate my first assignment for French Rolling Stone late last year, a review of Nas's 3½-star double-disc Street's Disciple, and so I invited her and her cousin Vincent to check out the MC's live show, our 15-week-old baby resting comfortably in her belly.

Nas, backed by DJ L.E.S., stalked the stage for his 90-minute minimalist rap show in a Yankees cap, T-shirt, and jeans, a single throw-up of a subway car tagged with STREET'S DISCIPLE as his backdrop. His new find, the crooning rapper Quan, accompanied Nas on "Just a Moment". His medley of hits — "One Love", "Ether", "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)", "No Idea's Original" — set me to wondering: do MCs skimp on full-length versions of their songs because there are too many lyrics to remember? Is it some time-tested foreknowledge of the attention spans of their concert crowds? Or maybe it's just a way to keep the energy level high as possible, the DJ slapping yet another beat onto the turntable every two minutes.

Whatever the case, the only complete songs I recall from that Tuesday night are the encore "One Mic" and Nas's blues-hybrid lead single, "Bridging the Gap". The mostly teenage audience had no complaints, rivaling a Madison Square Garden mob, on their feet for an hour and a half mouthing English lyrics verbatim. During "Virgo", a Street's Disciple collaboration with Ludacris and Doug E. Fresh, Nas did several subtle flourishes around his head with his hand throughout the song, an homage to Doug E.'s signature move that I'm sure was lost on the French audience. But little else seemed to go over their heads.

My uncle Craig has been one of Nas's bodyguards for the past few years; it was good to see him backstage after the Zénith performance. I congratulated Nas on the show and his recent marriage; I'd interviewed him years ago and wrote his first XXL magazine cover story. The MC's wife, R&B singer Kelis, waved from the wings. (I'd seen her show as well last September, fronting a rock-style backing band at the superhumid Le Bataclan theatre.)

3.
Whenever called upon to explain what it is I'm doing in Paris, my answer eventually winds around to my partner Christine, at which point the listener disregards whatever I've said about 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, and Noam Chomsky, replying, "Oh, it's about a girl." Oui, it's about a girl too. I first met Christine 11 years ago in Paris, visiting a homegirl studying abroad at the École Normale de Musique. A romance began when Christine came to New York City to celebrate New Years 1996, and continued when she moved there that summer. We stayed in touch after the breakup and her eventual return to France the next year. We later spent a lost-weekend vacation together in Venice, Italy, in 2000 with no strings attached. (I was quite blessed, believe you me.) I made the decision to attempt moving to Paris last spring, and Christine was willing to help me find an apartment and learn the language; she's bilingual. One thing led to another. Now we're in love, together for good, and expecting a baby in late September, the first for us both.

From such happenings as drawn above, Paris Noir, the column, will be many things: the historical story of transplanted black Americans like Romare Bearden, Jessye Norman, Sidney Bechet; a modern record tracing the moves of urban hiphop throughout the City of Light; and my own private reflections as a Bronx native building a family here in the first decade of the 21st century. Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker's resident francophile and editor of Americans in Paris (Library of America, March, 2004), says, "There are two kinds of travelers. There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see and sees it, and the kind who has an image in his head and goes out to accomplish it." I hope to eventually tease out some in-between vision of Paris through the reckless eyeballing of my own hiphop lens.

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