Mike Ladd: Two Weeks In Paris

I recently spoke with Mike Ladd.  While his musical exploration has bypassed boundaries into other genres, he’s known as one of Hip Hop’s most innovative artists. His resumé speaks for itself, compiling together 14 full-length albums, either collaborative efforts with Vijay Iyer, solo releases, or under the Majesticons and Infesticons monikers. Of course this doesn’t include any of the guest appearances, singles and EPs he’s released. But music, that isn’t what this is about.
Years ago Mike Ladd made the transition from the urban quick-paced life of New York City to the vibrant aged city of Paris, where he lives with his wife and two young children. He’s witnessed tragedies in both the U.S. and France. The following is an excerpt of his journal entries from one of the most chaotic times in Paris’ modern days.
Nov. 14
In January I was flying home as the hunt for the Charlie Hebdo attackers was still in progress. The similarities in my personal narrative’s of that day and today are eerie. Today is an eerie example of “the recurrence of the same.”
I saw the news on CNN as I was boarding a plane home from JFK. When I was asked to turn off my phone the death toll was listed at 18. When I landed in Paris this morning the official count was 120.
6 AM GMT+1: The borders are apparently closed but passing through immigration was as smooth and calm as it was last January, the airport felt almost subdued in the grey/purple sunrise that that often coats CDG airport that this time of day. By chance, I bumped into two friends who used to live in my building (a mile or two from Bataclan). They had moved out of Paris but had left their car in town. We shared a cab to Porte de Saint Ouen. They had been planning on staying a night with friends in town. But my friend, a few months pregnant, opted to skip that idea.
When I got home, everyone was asleep but my son, who never sleeps past 7 AM anyway. You can imagine how I hugged him. All sorts of moments become cinematic. While my wife and daughter slept, we talked softly, watched the news briefly and inspected what I brought back from NY, paused, and talked some more. He was pensive, reassessing his interest in Nerf guns, which seemed to be a handhold on the face of such a mass of information.
When Maya woke, we had crepes served with the real maple syrup I brought back. We decided we would go outside. My gig tonight had been cancelled but not the birthday party Martin was scheduled to attend. There were people out, not the usual Saturday morning throng shopping for weekend meals but enough to feel the whole city was making an effort to keep on. There were very few cars. The soldiers that had been posted in front of the synagogue since January now wore helmets. At the large toy store on Grand Boulevards the attendants were clearly tense. By the end of our visit they had decided to close at four. The store was stocked for Christmas, flashy boxes to the ceiling but very few Saturday shoppers, especially for this season. There was a wrapping station manned by older volunteers who seemed the most stoic of all.

Paris after Charlie Hebdo

Paris after Charlie Hebdo

I wanted to be outside and unafraid. This we accomplished. But we did not linger. My senses were at their most acute. There was the occasional siren but for the most part it was quiet. Last January, at this time of night I was worried about an immediate far-right backlash, that the fascist ideas that simmer in Europe would surface overnight. I worried the following  morning I would receive ugly looks on the street, be mistrusted by neighbors and be questioned by police because I can be mistaken for someone of Arab origin.  But that has yet to happen to me in this neighborhood. As I type, people are being arrested and interrogated, who, I don’t know. It’s reported in they are in the hundreds and growing. Last January I saw a van full of CRS (a rough equivalent to SWAT) enter a building in our neighborhood. I never saw who they brought out. A fellow parent saw a similar event tonight. In plain sight are flowers and bullet holes. The Bataclan, a venue I’ve played a few times, seen Yo La Tango, TV On The Radio, where I got to meet ‘The Weekend’ and is now the place a where a woman I know hid in a closet while her friends died centimeters away. Another friend lives across from one of the cafe’s that was attacked, as he made it home this morning he saw two bodies being gingerly covered with sheets. One was a young brother with little stand-up dreads, the other, a young red-headed woman.
I was on 1st and Houston when the ‘World Trade Center’ was attacked and maybe a kilometer closer for the two Paris attacks of the past year. What resonates in my memory of all three attacks is the profound clam of my immediate surroundings, less than two miles from unimaginable mayhem. In all three cases I was with people I loved. In NY with a dear dear friend, in Paris with my wife and children. I have friends who were not so lucky, lost loves, lost fathers. Friends who joined the abyss of loss that engulfs far too much of the world, rarely in the West and often at our expense.
In NY the second tower fell before my eyes. In Paris I arrived just hours after the event happened. I shared the news and the eerie calm with those I had shared so much peace. I resist saying I am in a war. I know I am not in a war-zone. Where I am, there is a difference. I want to say this last attack was an ‘act of war’ in a ‘place of peace’ but this phrase lacks precision.
Saint Denis

Saint Denis

Nov 18, 4 AM:
Since I wrote the sentence above the French president Hollande declared “war”… so, not really sure where to go with this now…I’m going to have to revise this ‘place of peace’ idea.
I have never been in a war, and I have been in a country at war only briefly:  Mozambique in 1989 for 48 hours. I have, however, interviewed many veterans and spoke with friends who have lived in war. Perhaps I have read too much about the Second World War because the parallels keep coming back, though I actively try to avoid them. I know this is very different. But I am in Europe and it is everywhere here, in memorial, in the memories of the old, in the very air and simultaneously in the process of being forgotten. A process that (in my wildest fears) could allow the same sort of violence to reoccur.
There are many different definitions of war so I will only speak of the war I fear could come here. The war I refuse for my children. Total war. The type of war Germans inflicted on Germans and beyond, Serbs on Bosnians, Hutus on Tutsis, Khmer Rouge on Cambodians, Young Turks on Armenians—the twentieth century examples seem endless. A war that totally consumes a place of peace.  Today I walked with my son’s friend’s grandmother, she recalled Algeria as a place of peace, she remembered the early bombings and how, bomb- by- bomb it descended into war, the war I fear. This war is recorded by Franz Fanon in interviews in the back of ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, in Peter Mass’s ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ about ‘ethnic cleansing’ in former Yugoslavia, in the film “The Act of Killing’, Machete Season, The Painted Bird in endless titles and testimonies. It is a war where you cannot trust your neighbor, your children’s friends, their parents, your own friends, where you cannot trust the calm nor the silence. This distrust is expansive and travels faster than you can run or drive or fly and it is followed by murder. ‘Murder committed by the sweetest people I knew’ to paraphrase my wife’s godfather, another survivor the the Algerian war. This war includes every atrocity one can imagine and absolutely every one we can’t. It’s the war we are sure we know all about, but (understandably) refuse to study. It is the war we westerners are positive we are above until we have slipped beneath it. The war that scars the pages of European history almost without interruption*. The war the west inflicts on others in or wars by proxy. We abstract it in movies, it is ’28 Days Later’ but real and worse. It is rape. It is sanctioned. The war that was here just 70 years ago, the war took over 5 million lives in the Congo region in the last 20 years*. The war that is in Syria, Mali, and Nigeria as I type. In these wars, when there are no jets bombs or guns there is silence, an eerie calm, the sound of waiting for worse to come. I remember that silence Mozambique, at check points, the police station, so I left. I was a tourist I had no business there.
The top of Saint Denis

The top of Saint Denis

As I type, I found out, the police raided the apartment in Saint Denis roughly six blocks away from my studio, where I go every day. The news said there was a fire fight that lasted an hour. The raid started at 4:30 AM, I spoke to a friend who lives down the street around 8:30 he said he could still hear shots, this shit is moving fast and simultaneously very slow, in tiny increments. Marked by each attack and each liberty taken away.
It is the war the attackers want. I feel It is also a war some very wealthy and powerful people are willing to risk in order to gain more power and wealth. Defense industry stock went up today, so did telecommunications and gaming?! Oil and gas went down… look at months not days I guess. I do know that  a few miles south of the Bataclan, at Porte de Versailles, Milipol, the ’19th World Wide Exhibition of State Security’ (a weapons salon among other things) began today. An accountant who was there said something to the effect of ‘people were clamoring to buy guns, it felt like we were Americans’. Something stinks…
It’s been stinking since the first Daesh(isis) media blitz, parading in Humvees and shiny black outfits. (ok, it’s been Stinking since the English and French swept in at the fall of the Ottoman Empire and definitely since the CIA installed the Shah in Iran etc…) Other laymen friends and I asked the same question, ‘Where the hell did they get all this shit?’ What’s/who’s  behind this? I asked people I thought would have an inside scoop.  I asked a friend who produces for a major 24-hour news channel. He gave the same spin he was sending on the air. It’s all stolen property and funded by oil fields they seized. I asked a childhood friend who had spent two years in Syria as a captive of Al Qaeda, his story is a miraculous chronicle of survival. He was released two years ago. Suffice it to say, he has the most intimate knowledge of what’s going on out of anyone I know. His answer was frustratingly simple. “Imagine you buy a country house that you know has termites, if you ignore the bugs, don’t be surprised if the house falls down while you’re gone”.


Nov. 25
A lot has happened since I started this little journal. I was going to post it but there was so much text flying around so many opinions, I thought it better to watch and read before mouthing off. Since, Trump has had to backpedal from full Nazi. In the police raid in Saint Denis attackers blew up so bad it took 48 hours to identify them. There were hundreds of arrests around Europe and Turkey shot down one of Putin’s planes. When I started writing this President Hollande said we are at war, now people I know are saying it. I feel they have no idea what sort of war they beckon. Veterans and victims tell us all the time and no one listens.
I was in Saint Denis about 12 hours before the raid. I walked by the block where the attackers were hiding. They might have been there when I walked by, who knows. I love Saint Denis. It’s my favorite part of greater Paris, It’s like a mini Bronx and Brooklyn wrapped in one. It is full of black and brown people like me, I am more at ease. The main street, rue De la Republique, is reserved for pedestrians. Its lined with shops, hair salons cell phone stores, KFC, McDonald’s, Tati (kind of like the Dollar Store). It feels like Fulton Mall in Brooklyn felt in the mid 90’s, friends who know Brooklyn call it Fulton Mall. Even the pavement feels like Fulton. No Juniors but every soul from all over the world is there, every shade. You could fill up on a Mhadjeb (kind of an Algerian crepe with onions and hot sauce) a paté (a Haitian version of a patty, beef, chicken or fish) and finish off with a pan chocolate all in one city block. I get étouffée made thick with crab, lamb, chicken and black rice or I can head over to the RER (commuter metro) station and get poulet yassa on a terrace over looking a canal. Brother’s from Cameroon or Senegal barbecuing beef, or ears of corn on shopping carts full of coal ready to break out if the cops come. There is music on the streets, no accordions, but Hip Hop or new trapped-out Zouk or Rai booming from the sneaker store. All this surrounding a Crypt filled with the remains of France’s dead kings. Paris aspired to be the official city of the world since the 19th century. The result of its efforts and follies is best represented here in Saint Denis, it might not be what they had in mind but it’s what I love.
Destroyed by Nazis in '44, 640 killed.

Destroyed by Nazis in ’44, 640 killed.

Tomorrow it will be two weeks since the Paris attacks; its It is Thanksgiving in the states. I spent the afternoon in Saint Denis with a friend and his wife. He’s Palestinian, an emcee and a producer. He grew up in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon, a city outside a city outside a country. We spoke of what’s been going down, the police raid on the attackers. The night of the attacks were hectic, they live across from the Stade de France where the bombs went off. The stadium looms over the neighborhood like a massive spaceship that needs a jump- start. We talk of hip hop, the attacks and all the wars connected. From 1980 ’till today, from 1850 ’till day before yesterday when the Russian plane was shot down. We talked about growing up in the shadow of guns, he in southern Lebanon me in Boston and later Brooklyn and the Bronx.  He, still a refugee, me an expat from an empire but both still in transience finding refuge in each others’ company. We spoke of the big money we feel is behind all this violence. We spoke of Fallujah.  We knew fighters on opposite sides of the battle, we shuddered and gave pause when we spoke of combatants eyes, we knew how bad it was by word of mouth and that was enough. We ate ridiculously good hummus and an omelette. He felt there were many Daesh supporters in town. His wife and I feared the rise of the National Front in next week’s regional elections. We shook it off in the gloom of the spacecraft that was attacked, ate more hummus and turned up Vince Staples. We smoked and huddled around coffee in the tight concrete front yard the November cold finally kicking in.
I left their house in a hurry, I am late for a radio show, writing while I walk to the metro. The traffic in the distance sounds like the sea, the water of the canal a constant calm. I left my bike in their yard so I’ll see them tomorrow, inch’allah.
* History of War Oct. 31 2017

Proper title is ‘Lets Discuss Disgusting’ or Ika brick on my Brain.