Toasting The 'Hood

RICO'S EYES ARE POOLS OF black anger staring out from beneath a black ski cap. They are French eyes, but only in the most modern sense. Descended of Italian and Spanish Gypsy immigrants, they have negotiated a home in this place, changing it as they are changed by it. By his account, at 26, these eyes have seen some things. Rico lives in Sarcelles, a working-class suburb north of Paris, in a colorless housing project that bears the acid nickname "the business district." The "business" is the petty drug trade. Like most of France's suburbs, or banlieues, Sarcelles is largely poor, mostly immigrant. Rico's neighborhood of the projects, or cite, is known as Cop Killer, home "to all the riffraff. You have to carry a knife or a gun." Half of his friends, he says, are in jail.

Rico, whose real name is Salvatore Aloisi, is a dance-hall "ragamuffin," a reggae-style "toaster" or "chatter," spinning intricate rhymes over bass-heavy rhythms. His chat is also French, but again, only in the most modern sense; it belongs to a France that has not yet told its story: "From unknown worlds across the universe / I arrive discharging out of the earth . . . / French music's been dead for a while / That's why I'm here to fire in a hail of bullets / A radical militant style." It is a relief when he talks about his music. His dark eyes grow calmer, brighter. A white immigrant's son singing Jamaican ghetto music in the French 'hood, he is most at home in the cultural cross-fire. "The ghetto is an energy source; it inspires me," he says. "If I lived in Paris, I wouldn't have the same rage, the same hate. I wouldn't want to destroy everything."

This is the new cultural energy in France: blunt, assertive, multiethnic, nurtured in immigrant housing projects rather than the French academies. It is an affront to people who think of French culture as the Louvre, Rousseau and Rodin. Instead, it is the culture of the banlieues, a multiethnic mix of Arab, American, Caribbean, African and French idioms that is influencing the way French young people talk, dress, sing, dance and define themselves. As the French high arts have stagnated, the banlieues have invigorated the culture with what ghetto novelist Azouz Begag calls "a rage to live." Rico and rap stars MC Solaar and Alliance Ethnik top the French charts. A burgeoning graffiti scene -- a collision between the American "tagging," or name-writing, and the French art schools -- has risen from the underground to the galleries. Mathieu Kassovitz's film "La Haine" ("Hate"), a cautionary tale of three kids from the fictional Muguets cite, took best-director honors at last year's Cannes film festival and has been called the most important French movie in years. A supermarket chain even bid to market a line of street fashions inspired by the film.

Born in France, the new movement really belongs to a global ghetto culture. Its roots are in the Bronx and Kingston, Jamaica; in South-Central Los Angeles and Brixton, London; in Dakar and Algiers and Paris; in Islam and the NBA. It is what happened when the African diaspora hit the electronic media. As MC Solaar says, "I'm negropolitan." His is the voice of a guerrilla renaissance, playing out in the poor folks' spaces: on the Metro station walls and the sound systems of the housing projects' caves, or cellars. Adama Ouedraogo, 26, a French-African aspiring actor, is excited just to be a part of it. "French culture used to be a baguette, a beret and a Camembert," he says. "Now it's us."

For many people both inside and outside France, the first close look at this growing suburban culture came from "Hate," which is now playing in New York and will open in Los Angeles March 1. Shot in grainy black and white, the movie follows three suburban youths -- one black, one blanc, one beur (Arab) -- in the 24 hours after a riot. They find a gun, careen restlessly through the city and pick fights with skinheads and the police. They are, in Kassovitz's crude strokes, a tragedy waiting to happen. The movie was inspired by the killing of an Arab youth in police custody. "I can't see something like that," he says, "and go and make a film about my problems with my girlfriend." Instead, the movie is Kassovitz's idea of a firebomb. "In France, we've decided a lot of things in the streets," he says. "From the Revolution to '68 to '92, governments have been brought down, presidents toppled."

For the polyglot armies of Kassovitz's revolution, the common language is hip- hop. "When you can't express yourselves [in the] newspaper, the only way is through your art," says Jean-Manuel Massenya, 27, who lives in the suburb Chanteloup, where "Hate" was filmed. "So you create your own media." In the early 1980s, Massenya remembers running the streets of Paris with a banlieue graffiti writer named Solaar, whose signature icon was the sun. At the time, rich kids from the 16th Arrondissement were returning from trips to New York, laden with the latest flavors: not just rap records but Air Jordan sneakers, break-dance steps, the slang, the attitudes. "It was funny for them," says Massenya. "We didn't have any real underground music except rock. They came back with this music that was talking about life on the streets." Together the two friends, like many of their peers, began to rhyme.

Though it started as simple appropriation, the French hip-hop scene -- rap, break-dancing and graffiti -- soon developed its own voice. It is now less derivative of the United States than contiguous. "The French rap is the first quality rap that I ever heard," says Massenya, who hears plenty of the other sort when he travels to New York on business. "They try to be poetic. We don't want to hear about the degradation of women or who's got the biggest car or the biggest gun. We want life."

No group so embodies the multiculturalism of banlieue culture as Alliance Ethnik. The five members cover the rainbow, and come from five different suburbs. In the last year they've won MTV Europe's award for best new group and swept the French equivalent of the Grammys. Between bites of fries in his manager's Paris apartment, K.Mel, the group's leader, talks about the cultural connections and dislocations of Alliance Ethnik. The son of Algerian parents, K.Mel grew up in the Plateau projects of Creil, a suburb whose vitality he does not romanticize. "A lot of my friends died from drugs or guns," he says matter-of-factly. He is 23, tall and athletic, with a jaunty trim beard, and a girlfriend in New York; the sober French daily Le Monde recently dubbed him France's first beur idol. "I was born in France," he says. "I speak French. But my roots are not French." Asked how he identifies himself, K.Mel pauses a while to map out his answer. Finally he says, methodically, "I'm an Algerian guy with a French culture and a black-music culture."

Talking to K.Mel and some of the others is a disturbingly familiar experience. They reiterate sentiments from the American hip-hop scene of the 1980s, when the corrosion of violence was starting to eat away at the kids' lives and their music. It is a horrible deja vu. They talk about guns and point to the kids now 13 or 15, growing up with a rampantly materialistic pop culture and few prospects of their own. The worst thing, Massenya says, "is that we have an example of what we shouldn't be. The U.S."

K.Mel sees both aspects of the banlieue; he is, like many of the kids, a complex enough character to straddle them, to see himself in each. "I don't want to leave the suburbs," he says. "I couldn't live in Paris. That's not me. In the suburbs, it's like an extended family; everyone knows each other." A minute later, though, he is of a different mind, saying, "I have to get out, I don't know when. I don't want my children growing up in the suburbs." These are the two sides to the culture that is now invigorating France, even as it signals its erosion. Like the banlieues themselves, it is a bracing reminder that art is long. And life is sometimes short.