Urban cool

Article published on Nov. 21, 2005
Article published on Nov. 21, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

From hip hop to slang, there is an abundance of creativity in ‘ghetto culture’. As a response to unemployment and violence, artistic projects are flourishing in disadvantaged areas across Europe.

Hip hop. Two onomatopoeic words which single-handedly sum up the culture of urban ‘ghettos’ found on the outskirts of large cities. Originating in the USA, the hip hop movement spread to western European cities in the 1980s, acting as a liberating force for many disadvantaged young people by giving them their own identity.

Cultural crossover

Through dance (breakdancing), music (rap, R&B), art (graffiti) and clothing (baseball caps, baggy trousers – a tribute to life in American prisons where inmates were not allowed to wear belts - and lots of flashy jewellery), these young people come together to form ‘tribes’ and are forever reinventing their own code-like language. This language is formed through watching cult films, such as La Haîne, and following trendy idols, such as Eminem or Fifty Cent. Indeed an increasing number of rappers are creating their own trademark gear, from FUBU by LL Cool J, to Com 8 by rapper Joey Starr of NTM.

This offbeat, parallel society gives a new generation of urbanites the opportunity to claim its own distinctiveness, to express its anguish and disappointment in the face of an out-dated model of immigrant integration. In metropolitan France, verlan, a type of inverse language originally invented by young ‘brothers’ condemned to living in council housing on deprived estates, has integrated itself into everyday language. It is a jargon comprised of slang, phonetic SMS-style abbreviations, Anglicisms or Arabic expressions (such as wesh, wesh, meaning hello).

These customs are reclaiming language and, more importantly, a history and culture long forgotten by official documentation: The origins of rap are rooted in the spoken arts of the African griots and in the Blues, the music of black slaves who were forced to immigrate to the United States. It is, in essence, music which stages a protest against established order. Since the first hip hop hit, Rapper’s Delight by Sugarhill Gang in 1979, rap has become a lucrative market, made popular by commercial artists such as MC Solaar or IAM of France, Samy Deluxe of Germany and 7notas 7colores of Spain, who are listened to by young people everywhere. Legends, words, codes… this urban culture can be found in disadvantaged areas across Europe, where it encounters incomprehension from those outside.

Art made in urban areas

Faced with this mutual lack of understanding, art, in the wider sense of the word, can prove to be a means of expression for urban youngsters living in deprived areas, confronted with mass unemployment and an uncertain future. Many artistic projects integrating these cultures are springing up in European suburbs. Associations and local movements have known for a long time that art could prove to be a factor in the integration of immigrants and their children, who are often consigned to disadvantaged areas. Since 1992, the Banlieues d’Europe network, comprising universities, local council representatives and artists, has been reflecting upon the question of artistic intervention in urban areas.

One of their projects is the Munich International Art Lab training centre, founded in 2001 following the very successful ‘West End Opera’ experiment (of operatic hip hop, performed by young people out of school), which aims to give inexperienced people a background in the arts (dance, theatre, music) capable of putting them in touch with working life.

In Villeurbanne, in the suburbs of Lyon, the CCO, (Cultural Ecumenical Centre), promotes cultural diversity and supports artistic projects by sculptors, actors, graffiti artists, etc. by helping them approach official cultural institutions. For Fermanda Leite of the CCO, “art creates possibilities”, particularly for poorly integrated immigrants who have a tendency to “idealise their past and traditional culture”.

In Romania, Silvia Cazacu, from Banlieues d’Europ’Est, stresses that, “the younger generation remains very suspicious when faced with politics and official strategies. The commitment of the association thus becomes the most well-adapted and effective instrument to bring about change”. A team of young people are promoting urban culture, such as graffiti and hip hop, in Bucharest and are preparing for the “cultural revolution of 2020”. Even if this is not the miraculous solution to the malaise of urban areas, these experiences still constitute a wealth of ideas which politicians should draw on, provided they know how to listen.