Prior to arriving at Marseille, the stories I heard consisted of cars being burnt if they failed to display their allegiance towards the local football club, Olympique de Marseille, and that it was the drug and murder capital of France. But what caught my attention was that Marseille was voted as the cultural capital of Europe in 2013. Whether or not the first statements were true, the latter certainly was.
After a fun, relaxing and overwhelming first night in Marseille, my friends and I took full advantage of exploring the nightlife on our second night. Walking through the narrow, dim yellow-lit streets whose terrain provided great exercise, one can feel the different presence as to that of other French cities like Paris or Nice. We settled at a hub of bars and shared a bottle of wine and aperitifs.
Within walking distance was an open space with a water feature in the middle, where one can witness a myriad of entertainment and positive vibes. We followed our ears to the funky sound in the middle where a street jazz band of a 6-7 person ensemble had set up. Chill tunes and upbeat tempos flowed through the air creating waves of rhythm people bounced and danced to. Open bottles of wine were passed about in a communal matter with no judgment and the distinct smell of weed and hash were evident.
I scanned around me to notice another group had formed 5 metres to the side of the band and recognised the jeers, laughter and sounds of amazement made by the crowds as they huddled around two lyricists. A rap battle. I may not have understood what they spat verbatim but there were clear indications of when someone dropped a potent, clever verse *cue more jeers and “ohhhhh’s” from the crowd. At one point during the second battle, the background music cut and one rapper proceeded unaffected while the other rebutted with an angrier stance after previously choking on his words. Dull moments ceased to exist – only high energy.
The crowd started to disperse signifying the end of the battles and I strolled around the open area to see what else was in the vicinity. The street band had taken a drinks break and people were everywhere – conversing, drinking, smoking, dancing, and appreciating the beautiful, peaceful night under the stars. I was steered to my left to the sounds of reggae and noticed a familiar face. One of the rappers from earlier (the one who choked) started dancing! From quicksteps to pop and locks to elbow stands and other enthusiastic moves, he successfully got other patrons involved. This is culture I thought.
Although I took into consideration the things I heard about Marseille before coming here, I never let it be my own definition of the city. Individual experiences are simply that – individual. Some things may overlap and we may witness similar things but what we feel about a city and how we connect with it will never be the same as someone else. If we already thought we knew what we were going to experience before travelling to a city, why travel at all?