US singer Will.I.Am, frontman of hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas, wowed locals in a Paris neighbourhood park on Saturday, rapping for them personally in a surprise appearance.
The global star freestyled for several minutes on stage in front of a few hundred fans assembled for a local hip-hop festival — a contrast to the tens of thousands who have paid to see him in three concerts this week at the Stade de France national stadium.
His surprise turn in the Square Sarah Bernhardt park, eastern Paris, drew wild cheers from residents of Paris’s largely immigrant and working class 20th arrondissement district, at the start of the Paris Hip Hop festival.
“In the 20th district… the pleasure that you want… Don’t forget it,” he rapped, before making way for French rappers and breakdancers.
“Coming here to the 20th district is so special because it reminds me of my neighbourhood where I grew up” in east Los Angeles, the star, dressed in dark aviator shades and bright yellow sports shoes, told the crowd.
Earlier he gave an inspirational address to young aspiring musicians and dancers at a community centre, on a visit forming part of cultural outreach efforts by US diplomats and local authorities.
He told them of his rise to stardom with the Black Eyed Peas after growing up in an LA neighbourhood stricken, as French suburbs have been, by violence between youths and police.
Hip-hop and rap music are popular in France’s poor urban districts, where young people complain of being excluded and disrespected by politicians and the police.
“People are always going to tell you you can’t do it, but you can’t listen to that,” Will.I.Am told the youngsters.
He spoke also of his childhood friends who were killed due to crime or clashes with police.
“You can tell he’s speaking from experience,” said Yannick Fred, 19, a member of a local community association who attended.
“He is like us. He talked about lots of things he has experienced. It’s the kind of thing we have experienced ourselves.”
The singer’s visit was organised by the town hall of the district in northern Paris and Charles Rivkin, the former Hollywood executive who is now the US ambassador to France.
Rivkin has launched various cultural projects to reach out to France’s run-down urban districts since his appointment by US President Barack Obama in 2009.
The projects aim partly to improve the United States’ image in France after it was dimmed following the Iraq war.
“Mr Rivkin is Barack Obama’s representative in France,” local Mayor Frederique Calandra told the crowd, drawing huge cheers.
“We are so happy that the United States is taking an interest in our neighbourhoods.”