Paris can often feel like an evasive kind of city, one with two distinct faces. To most outsiders, it’s the thronged open-air museum full of photo opportunities and antique tourist landmarks, a place of static and overwhelming establishment beauty. But there’s another side of Paris, one that the city itself tends to hold back for locals and those in the know. This fervent and frenetic modern metropolis is one that still permits new memories to be made, that still feels up for grabs. For the Dublin-born rapper Rejjie Snow, it took time to undress and understand it. Gradually, though, he was able to pierce the veneer that Paris puts up to protect itself and find his own way in. “I didn’t immediately understand the Parisian way of life,” admits Rejjie.“ I kind of had that ‘Paris Syndrome’ thing, plus the food was strange and it took me a while to get used to kissing people when you greet them. The first few times I was in Paris, though, it was with Americans – since then, I’ve made some good friends here who really define the essence of the city and its culture.”
The French capital has come to live inside Rejjie’s music, its presence heavy throughout last year’s debut album Dear Annie, on which the rapper wedded the whip-smart lyrical sorties and Irish-American brogue that have always marked him out from his peers with a newfound loverboy edge. “Going to Paris in my formative years really defined a lot of my understanding of the female,” he says. “Parisian women are so strong and powerful. My first time there, I saw them painting graffiti, driving buses – leading, I guess, in ways I hadn’t encountered before. ‘Mon Amour’, a vocal duet with Milena Leblanc, is the most obvious ode to the City of Lights. Its airy, swooning Francophone chorus is flushed with the exhilarating lack of care that settles on a person when infatuation strikes, while ‘Désolé’ features a spoken word interlude from Leblanc describing exactly that scenario, coupled with productions from Lewis OfMan who offers the kind of wonderfully aimless organs and keys that have been synonymous with Parisian music since Serge Gainsbourg rocked up to the party chain-smoking in the 1960s. In fact, once you start listening for Paris on the record, it’s hard not to hear it everywhere, an indefinable lightness of touch that permeates the scene-setting second tracks ‘Rainbows’, ‘Room 27’, ‘Charlie Brown’ and closing song ‘Greatness’.
“I love waking up, getting a coffee and just roaming the streets, trying to be one with the energy,”
It’s graffiti, though, that dominates Rejjie’s mind when he visits. It was one of the first subcultures in which he found a home when he was growing up in Dublin, spending his early teens leaving his mark on the city’s brick walls and rail depots – a pastime that he says kept him out of “real trouble” when he was younger and that he continues to indulge whenever he crosses the channel. The skit before ‘Mon Amour’ on his album finds him telling a chat show host: “Shit, all I do when I’m out there is eat baguettes and leave my name on vacant bus stops.”
The French capital has a long history of breeding phenomenally talented and intrepid street artists, the result, perhaps, of a slightly more laissez-faire attitude to those who wish to share a visual dialogue with the city. “I love waking up, getting a coffee and just roaming the streets, trying to be one with the energy,” he enthuses. “Paris is so fast paced. I like to keep a marker pen in my pocket and just use the city as a canvas, in a way. The architecture there makes me so happy.”
“Dear Annie was some real feelings shit,” says Snow of the album, much of which was produced with Paris-based artist and composer Lewis OfMan. “I was out there for a long time working and learning, like, one French word per day, so it inherently crept into the songs. What always inspires me most, though, are the people in the places I visit and Paris has some incredible humans and artists. People like Horfee, Saeio – RIP – and Edouard Deluc.”
It’s telling that, when asked to choose his favourite artists from the city, Rejjie names not musicians but two graffiti artists and a film director. His ambitions have always extended beyond music and even as he waits to realise them, he’s keen to take responsibility for the look and feel of his work, the influences he lets in: “My main inspirations from Paris come from film and the art world. I’ll always return to the new wave stuff from the 1950s as a reference point for my visuals and Studio 28, the arthouse cinema in Montmartre, always finds its way into my brain when I’m writing.”
“That memory will always live with me; I think it’s what made me fall in love with everything else in Paris. Despite the hardships I’ve experienced there, I feel it has given a lot to me and my art.”
Speak to most graffiti artists and they’ll tell you that the transgressive sense of mission inherent in any tagging raid is at least as much of a buzz as the act of spraying itself. It’s something that can grant you access to a side of a city that very few other people get to see, a rare glimpse of the hidden spaces that those who run cities tend to forget are there. It is, in its own way, a means of unlocking a city, of finding new routes through the sprawl and leaving a trail of visual markers in your wake, weaving yourself and your story into its fabric.
As indelible as it is invisible, the music Rejjie made on Dear Annie feels like a permanent tribute to Paris and the rapper’s time there. “I think that city is the true definition of love,” he asserts in that same album skit, a statement that is lent extra poignancy when Rejjie reels off the memories upon which his love for Paris are built. “My first romance was there,” he explains. “That memory will always live with me; I think it’s what made me fall in love with everything else in Paris. Despite the hardships I’ve experienced there, I feel it has given a lot to me and my art.”
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