Introduction

As part of a year-long course within the American Studies department at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, 10 students came together to examine the rich current and historical relationship between the United States and Paris. Over the course of several months, we chose for our primary research topic to focus upon the dialogue between America and Paris as expressed through the exchange of music.

At two critical points in Parisian history – the 1920’s and the present day— France has undergone massive identity crises that focus on the city of Paris. In the 1920’s France, along with much of Europe, sought to find an appropriate response to World War I, which had revealed the human capacity for violence and destruction to an unprecedented degree. The absurdity and horror which characterized the First World War stood in sharp contrast to French cultural ideals, and forced a widespread reconsideration of French identity. Today, Paris is experiencing a massive influx of immigration, principally from former French African colonies. The swiftly changing demographics of the country, particularly in Paris, yet again challenge conceptions of what it means to be “French.”

At these two moments of crisis, two distinct forms of music noticeably entered and overtook French popular culture: Jazz in the 1920’s, and Hip-Hop today. This project examines the history of Jazz and Hip-Hop’s introduction to Paris while considering the significance of African American music’s popularity in the city at these particular moments in history. Over a prolonged research period, which included a trip to Paris in spring 2007, we sought to uncover what cultural needs these musical forms fulfilled and continue to fulfill within French culture, and reveal how both jazz and hip-hop have been used, absorbed, and transformed by the city of Paris.