"Ball so hard, I’m shocked too, I’m supposed to be locked up too / you escaped what I’ve escaped / You’d be in Paris getting f***** up too."
Jay-Z rapidly flows this lyric on the hit, 'N*ggas” in Paris' before tag teaming with Kanye West on the chorus. At first, the track seems like one big nouveau riche spending spree around the Champs-Élysées. Close your eyes and give further thought into the juxtaposition to Jay-Z’s and Kanye’s lyrics, they could be talking about Black American flight to Paris in the 21st century.
A stretch, yes, although hear me out.
I arrived back to the US from London this past February. It was my first time in UK for fashion week, and I was bewildered by the open arms of welcome from Europeans from all over that traveled to Somerset House, a major arts and cultural center, to see the latest threads from UK designers. My friend, now working in PR for a top American fashion house, informed me he was moving to London and then to Paris. As he gallivanted around the city of lights, I sat mouth dropped at his Instagram pictures. He was having the time of his life—which he later told me via Facebook chat. In his observation, Black Americans were treated in high regard in Paris. There was no pre-existent racial stigma, nor was the ideal of a “post racial” society still in conversation. Or that was his surveillance.
Cut back to Jay-Z’s retrospect of Parisian escapism via his lyric. He may have been onto something. Post World War I, Black veterans were met with dismay upon returning home to the states. While serving in France during the war, they were treated with dignity and respect. Europeans gladly welcomed Black military men into their homes, fed them, and above all revered them—something they were used to back home.
In the North, most White Americans weren’t happy that the already overcrowded job market that many Black veterans were venturing back into would become oversaturated. They feared that they would take their jobs. Riots broke out across in the US for this fear, namely in Washington D.C. and Chicago. The South was much more brutal. As Tyler Stovall, a history professor at the University of California Berkeley, examined in his exploration of Black American life in Paris, Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, many Southern Whites “feared that glimpses of racial tolerance in France had spoiled Black soldiers” and would refuse to go back to the ways of subjugation. Subsequently, lynchings of Black men in the rural areas of the South became the norm.
Yet, things were brewing in a little place called Harlem in New York. The ‘New Negro’, a termed coined to indicate the increased pride and resist discrimination of Blacks, was emerging. The renaissance was in full bloom. As the jazz age invade Harlem and much of New York and throughout the US. France, Paris, specifically felt the tremble of the new sounds. Like many countries in Europe post WWI, France was open to new prospects and vigor after grim and warfare. Nightclubs were in abundance, art from other cultures were prominent and there was a fascination with American life they appreciated. Thanks to Hollywood, many Parisian women looked to the latest styles of actresses like Clara Bow and Louise Brooks for short bob hairstyles and Coco Chanel braved new trends with revealing, less intricate clothing. The emergence of the Jazz Age was in full swing, and no other performer than Josephine Bakerzz—scantily clad and dancing erratically, led the troop. In the section of Montmartre, north of Paris in the 18th Arrondissement, saw a surge in the Black American population. A new wave of Black creatives like Langston Hughes, artist Henry Ossawa Tanner and poet Claude McKay gave insight into a new frontier beyond discriminatory lines, just across the Atlantic.
With the Nazi invasion of Paris in 1940 and WWII coming into play along, many Americans (Black and White) feared imprisonment if remaining in the city. Numerous Americans fled Paris—bet in the 1950's and 1960's, we again saw an emergence of interest. During the height of the civil rights era, writers such as Chester Himes, James Baldwin and Richard Wright became expatriates in Paris. They felt while living abroad they could show how race relations were different for Blacks and with the power of their influence, help mobilize to force change in the states.
As for Blacks of direct African descent that were and are today living in Paris—there’s a vast population. Editor-in-chief of fashion magazine, Ghubar, Sarah Diouf, recounts “the history of Black people in France is really different from Afro-Americans. They are really close to their motherland and its culture and it reflects in their involvement of their communities, there way of dress and all aspects of lifestyle. You can notice "tribes" or "movements" in terms of style such as the afrocentrists who revendicate their African roots."
As my friend pointed out in his observation, he didn’t see too many African Americans living in Paris while he lived there. He bumped into a few and they shared pleasantries about living in the US and a new sense of liberation—but it was seldom he recounted, what Stovall or other documentarians recollected of the Jazz Age and even during the civil rights era in Paris.
One can’t deny the fervency to experience life in Paris—even in a 'N*ggas in Paris' kind of way.