Marseille and Why French Rappers Can Teach Us About Community

Have a listen while you read – performing is Keny Arkana, a Marseille rapper of Argentinian heritage:

I blogged a few weeks ago in “I am a Clevelander” that there is no solution to urban violence without the understanding that whether you live in the suburbs, or in the city, you are a Clevelander. When you are invested and committed to your community, if problems occur you are more likely to seek conciliation, rather than confrontation. A recent New York Times article, In Marseille, Rap Helps Keep the Peace, offers a model well worth following.

The young adults of Marseille face many of the same challenges as their American counterparts in Cleveland (or any rust belt city). Unemployment (40 percent unemployment is some parts of the city, 13 percent citywide), racial tension, multicultural neighborhoods and a gritty history are the fabric of their lives, yet violence is conspicuously absent. When asked why, the residents talk about belonging to the city. The poor are not isolated and the affluent aren’t shielded.

Comparing Marseille to Paris, where youth violence is on the rise, one rapper observed:

the neighborhoods are rough … but there’s not violence here without meaning … like in Paris. I lived there for a while,” he said, meaning in the isolated suburbs outside the capital … “Here there is a culture of respect,” he said. “We’re all Marseillais.”

They may belong to different neighborhoods or gangs, but the rappers of Marseille put differences aside to share their music. It isn’t about getting out and getting famous, it is about belonging to the city. Respect is earned, and given, within a shared urban experience.

Police patrols will never create this sense of community. True community is lots of people, creating and sharing a variety of experiences in the same place, without the need for a neighborhood watch. The first step to restoring this true sense of community is to give the arts sufficient support, space, staff and funding, to take hold and blossom. If you build it they will come.

Art and music programs are often the first to go when school funding is cut. Neighborhood community centers struggle to keep their doors open amid the myriad of hoops they have to jump through to maintain funding. Current philanthropic wisdom targets preschool programs as most worthy of funding. There is merit to the wisdom, but without focused intervention and programming for this current generation of adolescents, what will be left?

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