A government-funded hip-hop centre seems like a paradox – given the history of tensions between rappers and the establishment. Both the former presidentn – the Republican Nicolas Sarkozy – and Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls have denounced French rap groups in the past. But now La Place, a new hip-hop cultural centre, has become the centrepiece of the controversial Canopée des Hallesa €1bn architectural space designed to breathe new life into the notoriously ugly and dangerous Les Halles station, and draw a line under Paris’s shame at the destruction of the beautiful 19th-century wrought-iron market that was bulldozed in 1971.
Featuring two concert halls, studios, 200 square metres of co-working space for hip-hop entrepreneurs and a bar open to everyone, La Place is less about paying tribute to hip-hop and more about offering a space for musicians to collaborate and celebrate their music. While the bar has been open since April, La Place only announced its programme of events this month. Its first season will kick off with the theme Paris-New York where, from 5-9 October, it will present DJ sets, conferences and concerts with New York artists such as KRS-One and Dynasty. The season will continue with the French beatbox championship qualification, an exhibition on French hip-hop activists, dance performances, documentary screenings about the lives of graffiti and hip-hop artists, and French rap concerts.
La Place follows several other officially funded projects that recognise underground art. Last summer SNCF partnered with street artists to turn Gare du Nord station into a gallery of urban art; and this year the state-owned rail giant, the biggest landowner in Paris, invited artists to transform disused industrial sites into creative venues focused on art, sustainability and urban farming. “There is a strong tradition in France of public finance for cultural endeavours. Hip-hop is like every other discipline … but it was the only one not yet benefiting from funding,” said Paris’s deputy mayor, Bruno Julliard.
Les Halles is Europe’s busiest underground station, used by 750,000 passengers a day, many of them travelling in from Paris’s suburbs, where French hip-hop originated. Its concourses have long been a place of spontaneous street dance and music. Locating a homage to underground art in the heart of Paris is symbolic at a time when tension between a social and cultural elite and deprived ethnic minorities is among the most pressing issues facing politicians.
But not everyone is sold. French hip-hop journalist Salim Jawad is pleased about the location of La Place. “Les Halles is central: there are lots of different people passing through, and it was always a hip-hop neighbourhood. Plus hip-hop shouldn’t be ghettoised and found only in the suburbs,” he said. However, he is sceptical about the government’s attitude. “That’s all just smoke and mirrors to me. Look at what happened to Black M at his Verdun concert [the rap artist was to perform at the commemoration of the Battle of Verdun, but his concert was cancelled as the government deemed him an unfit guest for the occasion]and when politicians like Henry de Lesquen talk about abolishing “negro music, it seems like politics and hip-hop don’t mix well. Government or no, hip-hop has often served as an excuse for politicians to come down hard on various communities in France.”
For the government, La Place is much more than a symbol of integration. It opens at a time when terrorist attacks, floods and strikes have had a dramatic impact on tourism, with visitor numbers falling. Paris City Hall alongside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted with a sizable online campaign, budgeting €2.5m to promote Paris as a tourist destination to foreigners, recently releasing a new promotional video that will be broadcasted on Air France flights and on the outdoor screens of Decaux, an international advertising company.
Although the principal goal of La Place is to nourish the underdog of the art world, Julliard hopes that on an international scale it will be a means “to show that Paris can be the most beautiful city in the world, not only for its heritage but also because it is a place of innovation”.
• La Place Centre Culturel Hip Hop, 10, passage de la Canopée des Halles, 75001 Paris, +33 1 70 22 45 48, laplace.paris