The best-selling album in France when it came out this April was Arts Martiens, Martian Arts, by IAM, a group that hails from Marseille, in Provence. The title refers to the city, which the rappers sometimes call Mars. IAM is huge. They've been together since 1985. They rap about their hometown, France's second-largest city, its poorest one, and the only one with poverty at its center as well as at its edges. People call it the most ethnically diverse city on the Mediterranean. It is extraterrestially different from Paris.
"I don't recognize my city anymore, I don't recognize my street... European Capital of Culture, If it were a joke, we wouldn't have believed it."
A few years ago, a European jury appointed Marseille a 2013 European Capital of Culture, intriguing the city's rappers. "When we first heard of this project, we told ourselves, finally, a project that can shed light on all we have been able to do for this city," says Boss One, a member of Le 3ème Oeil, a Marseillais rap group that topped charts late in the 90s.
Marseille is not known for its museums, or its theaters, or its opera. The port city is known for sunshine, pastis, and an influx of immigrants, of whom the newest are always the poorest. Mostly it is known for crime, corruption, and the French Connection -- politically networked mafia who ran the city for most of the 20th Century and, by the time they were disbanded in the 70s, refined and shipped out nearly 90 percent of the heroin consumed in the United States.
Over the past few decades, however, Marseille's rappers have established a different kind of international renown. "We have been ambassadors of this city," Boss One recently said around a cigarette, taking a break from recording a new solo album.
But Boss One does not appear in the Marseille-Provence 2013 festival, which kicked off January 12 and lasts all year. Neither does Keny Arkana, a rising star in Marseillais rap who wrote a protest song called "Capitale de la Rupture." The year's major music festival, This Is (Not) Music, includes a few Parisian and Dutch hip-hop groups, a couple of them partly Marseillais, and two rap headliners that are American: Mos Def and the Wu-Tang Clan. Akhenaton, the iconic figurehead of IAM, has said there are "grave mistakes" in the year's programming. "They do theater and opera for 2 percent of the population," he told local news last summer, darkly calling the festival's ends impossible: a "trendy, hip" Marseille, Marseille "like Berlin." Toward these ends, those who run the festival risk excluding local rap-star bards.
Arkana sings, "I don't recognize my city anymore, I don't recognize my street... European Capital of Culture, If it were a joke, we wouldn't have believed it."
The Capital designation, annually awarded since 1985, is meant to spur second-tier cities. Marseille-Provence 2013 is a $875-million infrastructure investment as well as a $135-million arts festival, funded by European, national, regional, and municipal governments, but mostly local businesses. Marseille's Chamber of Commerce pitched its bid. The designation has accelerated a decades-long renovation to attract tourists and a creative class to the fallen city. Impressive museums have lately sprouted from Marseille's port, beside cranes and billboards that advertise a sleek, impending complex of forty shops and restaurants near where an overpass once shadowed the neighborhood. Other signs promise new condos. A recent headline in local paper La Provence speculated that the dock here for ferries from North Africa would become one for yachts and cruise ships.
"The city's transformation is a tourism and real-estate project," says Eric Pringels, an architect who worked Capital festivals in Brussels and Lille, France. He helped to organize a simultaneous festival known as the "Off," which posits itself as an alterna-Marseille-Provence 2013. "It's a poor city, Marseille, and to extract itself it has decided to play the cruise-ship card."
Despite its current facelift, Marseille bears the scars of France's colonial history. There are many cultures here, and not all are represented in the Capital festival. "There is the official culture, which the city and Marseille-Provence 2013 seek to promote, which is elitist," says Boris Grésillon, a professor in urban geography at the University of Aix-Marseille and author of Un Enjeu "Capitale": Marseille-Provence 2013, or A "Capital" Issue: Marseille-Provence 2013. "But alongside this official culture, there is another, parallel culture in Marseille, that of the kids from the fringes of town."
If this second culture does not appear in the festival, Boss One, who was born in Comoros and raised in a housing project in Marseille, has a theory. "France has never considered rap as music because it comes from the ghetto," he said. "It allows people to lift themselves from low places, and they don't like that."
Marseille fell for a long time but really plummeted around 1962, when Algeria won independence from France after the bitter war. The city's erstwhile wealth had arrived through its port: French colonial businesses shipped through it, and Marseillais factories made soap, olive oil, and other products with the raw materials that arrived. After 1962, businesses in the former colony started to ship their goods elsewhere. The discovery of oil in Algeria further overhauled its economy. Marseillais factories closed. About 150,000 pieds noirs, the mostly white, ancestral French whose families had colonized Algeria in the 19th Century, flowed into Marseille, followed by other new arrivals.
"Rap from Paris is a lot of bling-bling. It's women, cars, American-style, money. But in Marseille, rap speaks to everything."
Now about one in five Marseillais was born abroad. Of the immigrants who built the city --Italians and Greeks, Armenians in tens of thousands after the genocide, Southeast Asians after the Vietnam War -- recent waves come from France's former African colonies and protectorates, particularly Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Comoros. About two million people arrived from North Africa to Marseille as its decline continued through the economic crisis of the 70s. The Front National, the anti-immigration far-right party, assembled a following in this part of France out of a lingering nostalgia for French Algeria.