Hip-hop schools and graffiti art saved Medellin. Can they do the same for Paris?

Urban planner Daniel Carvalho says embracing youth culture can transform France’s poorest suburbs

In the hilly streets of Medellín’s Comuna 13, once ranked the most dangerous district in one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Daniel Carvalho is a local hero.

The urban planner is credited with helping to transform the poor neighbourhood on the western slopes of Colombia’s one-time drug and crime capital from no-go badlands into a tourist attraction.

His weapons? Not the guns and knives of the notorious drug gangs who held Medellín in their clutches for decades, but art and culture.

Today Carvalho, now a Medellín councillor, is turning his attention to another city – one that is no stranger to art or culture but which has suburbs that are afflicted by crime and exclusion among their disaffected youth: Paris.

In a meeting with city officials last week, Carvalho explained how young people in Medellín had been persuaded to use their talents to turn their city around.

“Thirty years ago, Medellín was the most violent, the most dangerous city in the world. Nobody wanted to go there, not even Colombians,” Carvalho told the Observer. “Today the city attracts tourists and Colombians.

“We discovered you can really change people’s lives with culture. Not by giving them culture, but by getting them involved in it. We don’t stage a concert, we give people the tools to stage their own.”

Daniel Carvalho grew up in Medellin when it was under the yoke of drugs cartel lord Pablo Escobar.
Daniel Carvalho grew up in Medellin when it was under the yoke of drugs cartel lord Pablo Escobar. Photograph: Kim Willsher/The Observer

Growing up in Medellín, which spent two decades under the yoke of the largest cocaine cartel in history run by the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, Carvalho has described Comuna 13 as a terrifying place. “There were murders all the time. The police didn’t come here, they just couldn’t … it started to change when we opened the doors to community participation and artists started to understand they have a role in the city,” he told a television documentary.

Among the projects Carvalho oversaw was allowing graffiti artists to decorate the 385 metres of covered escalators, part of a regeneration programme giving Comuna 13 residents easier access to their hillside homes.

“Today local youngsters do graffiti tours. They not only have a fierce pride in their district, but it enables them to earn money. Before they were condemned to be at the service of the drug lords, because there was nothing else for them to do. Now there is. The change is enormous,” he said.

Medellín’s youth are also being given access to music lessons and instruments and encouraged to set up hip-hop “schools” where the older ones teach their juniors, he said.

“At first the idea was that if they had an instrument in their hands they wouldn’t be holding a gun, but we’ve discovered so much talent. Now they play music instead of sitting at home drinking, smoking or taking drugs.”

The Paris meeting was organised by Ruth Mackenzie, artistic director of the Châtelet Theatre and a passionate advocate of culture for all.

British-born Mackenzie has been making waves at the historic Châtelet, previously known as Broadway-sur-Seine for its penchant for American musicals, which opens in September after a two-year renovation with what she describes as “activist” ambitions.

One of its first shows will be a rap music adaptation of Albert Camus’ Les Justes – a play set in Moscow about a socialist revolutionary plot to murder a despotic governor – by the French rapper and director Abd al Malik, who has been writing the script with youngsters from some of Paris’s poorest areas. In the suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, where a series of national riots started in 2005 highlighting social tensions in the French banlieues, other youngsters are learning circus skills for another Châtelet show.

Mackenzie and Carvalho say Paris is not Medellín, but lessons can be learned. “We know from experience that the arts can help those in prison, in social services, in the prevention of radicalisation, and communities dealing with vandalism and crime,” Mackenzie said.

Street art in Comuna 13, previously one of Colombia’s most dangerous neighbourhoods, in Medellin.
Street art in Comuna 13, previously one of Colombia’s most dangerous neighbourhoods, in Medellin. Photograph: Juancho Torres/Getty Images

The Paris deputy mayor responsible for culture policy, Christophe Girard, who has met Carvalho, agreed. “Daniel is extremely interesting, articulate and profound,” Girard told the Observer. “His presentation was formidable.

“We should definitely have links between our cities and joint projects. We know how important art and culture are; every single time we open a cultural place in a district where there isn’t one, it completely changes that district. It enables people to meet, to talk, to sing, dance … to dream.”

Mackenzie says what impressed officials most was when Carvalho revealed a graph showing how since engaging local communities, murder rates in Medellín had plummeted to a low of 496 in 2015 (though last year the number rose 7.6% to 626 homicides, many in Comuna 13).

“Our artists aren’t police officers and we’re not going to work miracles, plus Paris is not Medellín, but the values we’re instilling through the arts, like respect, engagement, listening to others are really important,” Mackenzie said.

“I watch these kids learning circus tricks and they may not end up working as acrobats, in fact they probably won’t, but they are learning important life skills that will help them … plus it’s fun.”


Kim Willsher

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘It belongs to the people’: new life for British director’s Paris theatre
Napoleon III’s Châtelet reopens after a £28.6m facelift with a stress on innovation

Kim Willsher

08, Sep, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Colombian family win award for world’s best cookbook
Mother-and-daughter team scoop gong at Gourmand awards in Paris for volume of traditional leaf-wrapped recipes

Emma Graham-Harrison

05, Dec, 2021 @10:30 AM

Article image
Harry Styles stadium show falls foul of football fans in Bogotá
Bid to move pop star’s Colombian tour date to capital’s biggest venue has united supporters of clubs who play there

Luke Taylor in Bogotá

24, Sep, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
‘It’s a miracle’: from begging in Paris to bestselling author
Jean-Marie Roughol reveals how a chance encounter with a former government minister led him to write about living rough – and to turn his life around

Kim Willsher

31, Dec, 2016 @7:55 PM

Article image
Paris warms to Emily as Netflix’s ingenue returns for new series
Roasted by critics for being clichéd and inane, the romcom is due to return with a ‘more mature’ heroine

Kim Willsher in Paris

12, Dec, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
It’s a wrap: Christo’s final art project follows Paris triumph
As the covers come off the Arc de Triomphe, work begins to realise an ambitious project in the desert and secure the artist’s legacy

Kim Willsher in Paris

03, Oct, 2021 @5:45 AM

Article image
No return to civil war, Farc leader promises ahead of Colombia vote
Guerrilla chief says it is the time to heal wounds, whatever next Sunday’s referendum decides

Ed Vulliamy and John Mulholland

25, Sep, 2016 @8:30 AM

Article image
‘Without drug traffickers, we’d have peace’: Colombian villagers flee new killings
Two years after the end of the guerrilla war that killed 220,000, other players have moved in on the drugs trade, with poor local children now being bribed to take up arms

Karen McVeigh

22, Sep, 2018 @3:59 PM

Article image
Covid: political chaos and poverty leave South America at virus’s mercy
President Jair Bolsonaro’s prediction that the coronavirus crisis was nearing an end was misguided in Brazil and many of its neighbours

Tom Phillips in Rio

02, May, 2021 @6:42 PM

Article image
Colombia activist killings ‘will not be tolerated’ says minister
Clara López, key player in the peace process, vows an ‘end to impunity’ for rightwing death squads

Ed Vulliamy

19, Feb, 2017 @12:03 AM