Oxmo Puccino raps about Paris, the World Cup, a world beyond our control
PARIS -- Before he became a rapper, a French hybrid of Biggie and Chuck D, Oxmo Puccino lived in the bleak 19th arrondissement. He and his friends didn't know there was such a thing as the Mona Lisa hanging in a museum across town. Their world revolved around the Danube metro stop, about three blocks west of the ring road that forms the boundary of the city. He never ate in a sit-down restaurant until after his first record came out in 1998. Driving through the "dix-neuf," giving me a tour three days ago, he pulled up to the wide four-laned Avenue de Flandres. He never crossed it as a kid.
"My Paris would stop here," he says. "After that street, it was a foreign land."
We drove through the new world that has been created atop the same brick streets and heroin corners where he lived, a wasteland in the 1980s and '90s, now overrun with cafes and strollers. Everything always changes in Paris, even if that change is masked by monuments and their false sense of permanence. New apartment blocks rise on the empty fields where he and his friends used to hunt wild cats. The old crackhead zombie-land along the Quai de la Loire now has a fancy movie theater. People sit outside there and drink rosé in the summer. Both places -- the world that exists today, and the one that exists in Oxmo's memory -- inform each other.
We passed an avant garde theater. We passed a burned-out car. The streets twisted, turning at sharp angles, and he slowed down to point out a park with a view over the city. There's shade and a breeze there. He'd sit on these benches and write his songs, first with a local (and now legendary) rap collective, then on still coveted underground mixtapes and finally, in 1998, his first record, "Opera Puccino."
His stories of the 19th shocked and captivated people with their brutal description of a place that many middle-class Parisians didn't know existed. The divided Paris still exists. This month at the Euros, fans are visiting the France of the Mona Lisa and escargot on café terraces, washed down with cold 50-centiliter beers. But there is an invisible France, too. Puccino can see both of them -- and see what each France can't see about the other -- and he feels something brewing.
"To me, rappers are the last thermometer of a society," he said. "And if you think they go too far, maybe you don't understand the craziness of a situation yet."
HE WANTS TO TALK about 1998, which is the best way to understand 2016, using two different international football tournaments to see what France might have been and what it is today. During the 2016 Euros, there has been a lot of talk about the '98 World Cup, and the French team which won the title on home soil. That was the year Oxmo broke out. "Opera Puccino" was released three months before the World Cup final, and just as his record awoke many people in France to a parallel country existing in the shadows of their own, the diverse team and its diverse fans did the same.
Nicknamed "Black, Blanc et Beur," which roughly translates to "black, white and brown," it's hard to overstate the hope that team inspired in many French citizens; on the other end of the political spectrum, right-wing politicians criticized the team for not being French enough. The victory parade brought more than a million fans into the streets of Paris.
It was the biggest gathering in the city since World War II ended.
People felt like they belonged to something, and to each other.
The future of France -- and modern Europe -- has always hung on whether a liberal, multi-cultural society can survive old ghosts like nationalism and tribalism, and in 1998, it looked like this idea just might last. The Europe of 2016 is a place where that idea is under constant threat. On Thursday, Britain voted to leave the European Union, and similar referendums are being considered in other countries. Nationalist political parties are enjoying success with voters not seen since the 1930s, much of the anger a response to globalization. Immigrants and refugees are being blamed across the continent. In the last decade, homegrown terrorists have attacked France, Belgium and Britain. A nationalist assassinated a British politician a week ago. It's hard to balance those things with the images of 1998.
Puccino's last album had a song on it about the World Cup, and the joy in the streets. At the end of each hook, he says "since..." and lets it hang there. He never explains if he means since then everything has changed for the better, or since then everything has gone to hell.
He simply says that whatever happened on the streets in 1998, like matter, cannot be created or destroyed. "All this love came from somewhere," Puccino said. "It was inside us. All this love cannot disappear without fear."
His vision of the future is the left's dream and the right's nightmare and ultimately beyond either side's control, since the forces at work are older and stronger than politics or rhetoric. The world is simply turning, and what was old will be new again. The spirit of 1998 hasn't disappeared. It's still there, waiting, changing, like everything in Paris is always changing. Graffiti'd in block huge letters across a building in the 19th are the words, "Refugees Welcome."
"The 'black blanc beur' generation is just a precursor to the next generation who will be mixed," he said. "It's just the start. It was a picture of France that no one was seeing, no one knew existed, and that no one was assuming. The new population will be assimilated, and everything will be forgotten, and they will be replaced by new migrants that would be stigmatized, ostracized and poor. It's how society rolls. It's a circle."
THE CAR HE DROVE was electric, one of Autolib's shared fleet parked around the city, where anyone with an account can take a car and leave it at any one of the hundreds of parking spots reserved for the company. He likes that nobody expects to see him in a small electric car so he can roll incognito.
"I'm invisible," he said, smiling.
He switched between English, where he can get a point across, and French, where his genius became clear, building elaborate and beautiful sentences, poetic one minute and blunt the next, a huge mind constantly at work. The drive around Paris took an hour, making a big circle from the Danube metro stop to Belleville, a sprawling diverse community that is home to one of Paris' two Chinatowns. At the end, we talked about the Paris rap scene. His whole career has been chronicling the fault lines of change and of understanding how and why places and cultures morph, but at 41, even he finds himself baffled by the music coming from the streets of Paris now.
Change comes to everyone eventually.
"People think about the video before writing the songs," he said. "They look good on picture but they don't have any songs. Rappers want to be seducers. Before, rappers were war leaders, now they are the most seductive, classiest, the one who pleases the women the most. From Wu-Tang to Drake."
A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.