One muggy afternoon in July 2003, I headed up to the South Bronx for the Crotona Park Jams, a small festival that is little-known locally, but manages to draw hip-hop fans from around the world. The annual event is organized by Tools of War, a grassroots arts organization that invites artists from across the country and Europe to perform in the Bronx, hip-hop's putative birthplace, and to meet some of the genre's pioneers, figures like Afrika Bambaataa and Kurtis Blow. I arrived at the park and asked around for Christie Z, a local promoter and activist. Christie, who has blue eyes and a ruddy complexion and wears a white head scarf, is the founder of Tools of War and a smaller group called Muslims in Hip Hop. She is married to Jorge Pabón (aka Fabel), a well-known dancer and master of ceremonies (MC), who appeared in the classic 1980s hip-hop filmBeat Street and currently teaches "poppin'?" and "lockin'?" dance styles at NYU. The two — Christie Z & Fabel, as they're known — are a power couple on the East Coast's hip-hop scene, but they've become significant players internationally as well, organizing shows in Europe and bringing artists from overseas to perform in America.
Christie's story is unusual. "People always ask me," she says with a laugh, "how did a white girl from central Pennsylvania become a Muslim named Aziza who organizes turntable battles in the Bronx? I say the lyrics brought me here. I was in high school when I heard 'The Message,'?" she says, referring to the 1982 breakout song by Grandmaster Flash, which vividly described life in the ghetto during the Reagan era, and was one of hip-hop's earliest mainstream hits. "I heard that track and I followed the sound to New York."
I had arrived early hoping for a pre-show interview with the French rap crew 3ème Œil (Third Eye), who had flown in from Marseille to perform that evening. The rap trio is known in France for its socially conscious lyrics. Since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the group had become even more political, rapping about what they call the West's "stranglehold" on the East. I stood around the stage waiting. A circle had formed with a group of boys clapping and dancing, as the DJ on duty that evening — another pioneer, DJ Tony Tone of the Cold Crush Brothers — spun rap and Latin soul classics. Soon Third Eye's manager, Claudine, a brown-haired woman in her early twenties, appeared and led me backstage. I explained that I was a researcher at Columbia writing about global hip-hop. Her face lit up. "We've been wanting to talk to you for a while," she said, as she walked me through a backstage tent and out into the open. Later I found out Claudine had thought I was a representative of Columbia Records, about to offer her group a contract.
The sun was setting, a blue glow had enveloped the park, and I walked up to the four young men lounging on a bench facing the spectacular Indian Lake, which sits at the park's center. Soon I was chatting with the rappers — Boss One (Mohammed) and Jo Popo (Mohammed), both born in the Comoros Islands off the coast of East Africa, but raised in Marseille — and their DJ, Rebel (Moustapha). They were dressed similarly in sagging denim Bermudas, eighties-style Nike high-tops, and baseball caps. Jo Popo gave me a copy of their new hit single, "Si Triste" (So Sad). I told him I'd already seen bootlegged copies at African music stands in Harlem. He nodded and gave me a fist bump. The song, popular among West African youth in New York, offers social commentary over a looping bass line, decrying police brutality and mass incarceration (with a special shout-out to the American death-row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal). I asked them how the French press responded to their lyrics, and about the anti-immigrant National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's claim that hip-hop was a dangerous musical genre that originated in the casbahs of Algeria.
Boss One shook his head, "For Le Pen, everything bad — rap, crime, AIDS — comes from Algeria or Islam." This was mid-2003; the War on Terror was in its early years. "The more Bush and Chirac attack Islam and say it's bad," said Boss One, "the more young people will think it's good, and the more the oppressed will go to Islam and radical preachers." His tone became a little defensive when talking about thebanlieues, the poor suburbs that ring France's major cities, stating that life in France'scités was better than in the American ghettos. "Life is hard in France, but we have a social safety net. Here there is no such thing" — he stood up to emphasize the point — "and it will get worse with Bush, the cowboy,le rancheur!"
Their bluster disappeared when I asked what they thought of the Bronx. They grew wistful talking about the Mecca of hip-hop. Jo Popo smiled describing their meeting the day before with hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaataa. "C'était incroyable!" Bam, as he is known, is particularly loved in France, where he was instrumental in introducing hip-hop in the early 1980s. The group's music mixer, DJ Rebel, who previously hadn't said a word, suddenly spoke up. "I have dreamed of visiting the Bronx for all thirty-six years of my life. This is where hip-hop started, this music which has liberated us, which has saved us," he said with apparent seriousness. "Yesterday we met Bambaataa and Kool Herc. I thanked them personally for what they have done for us blacks and Muslims in France — they gave us a language, a culture, a community." His voice broke a little.
I was struck by the emotion and sincerity of their words, and I had a few academic questions to ask: Why was the Bronx so central to the "moral geography" of working-class kids in Marseille? Where did this romantic view of the American ghetto come from? Why were they more fascinated by Bronx and Harlem folklore than by the culture of their parents' countries of origin? Claudine suddenly reappeared and asked them to return to the tent. Grandmaster Flash, the legendary DJ and another iconic figure of global hip-hop, had arrived, and they were scheduled to meet him. "Flash invented scratching—I get paid to teach scratching in France," said DJ Rebel getting up to leave. "A bientôt," and the rap trio and their thoughtful DJ walked off. Half an hour later they were on the stage, waving their arms: "Sautez! Sautez! Sautez!" Boss One translated: "That means, 'Jump! Jump! Jump!'?"