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Several Degrees of Integration: Basketball, Hip-Hop, and Denmark's Emerging Youth Culture

 

Rules of the  GAM3: Playing at the Local Level

Michaelangelo approaches with a worried look on his face, bearing bad news:  one of the nets has been ripped down and the protective foam around the metal post has been slashed from top to bottom.  He is on his way home.

Simon tells him to suck it up and turn his bike around and Michaelangelo obliges.  When they arrive at the playground in the middle of the housing project, Martin, the coach at Zone “2200, has another update:  only five of the original 10 basketballs have made it back from the first practice.  The other five are missing in action, carried off by blacktop thieves.  

Simon prefers to think of them as eager young basketball enthusiasts.

And so with a shrug of the shoulders, a fresh new net strung up, a touch of tape applied to the mutilated padding, and a black garbage bag passed like a collection tray among the crowd to gather donated basketballs, the second Mjølnerparken practice commences.  The game must go on.

GAM3 is what many in Denmark would refer to as an ‘integration program’ for Danish and minority youth, though participants and coaches themselves are often hesitant to use the politically loaded term to describe what they see as simply a natural congregation of active neighborhood kids.  Spelled with a backwards ‘E’ that alludes to its 3-on-3 tournament format and also lends the project an air of urban hipness, GAM3 is the brainchild of Simon Prahm, Martin Schulz, and George M. Goldsmith, three friends who decided to combine their interests in street basketball, hip-hop music, and youth programs.

But even one visit to any of the 10 Copenhagen, Odense, or Aarhus playgrounds where young GAM3’ers come together once a week is enough to confirm that GAM3 has long outgrown its founding fathers.  In only its second year, the summertime sports association draws enough guest professionals and neighborhood players that Simon and Martin must entrust a majority of the work – and play – to GAM3’s willing and able volunteer coaching lineup.

To call GAM3 a standard Danish sports association is a misnomer, actually, for the informal scrimmages and skills sessions that it spawns are really more of an invitation than an association.  Participants are free to come and go as they please, and at no charge.  There is no separation into skill level groups, and no board of directors.  Perhaps most uniquely, the sport, music, and general culture adopted by GAM3 are not Danish at all, but global – an important characteristic for a project that attempts to bring together youth from around the globe who have, for a variety of reasons, found themselves in Denmark.

For the last several years, the integration of immigrant, refugee, and minority groups has been at the top of the political and social agenda of Denmark. Such has become the high profile of the “immigrant problem” that the first-ever Ministry of Integration was established in 2001 by the incoming conservative government.  But the Ministry has been inclined to view the question of integration primarily economically; in response to a question regarding the role of the national government in cultural issues, Minister Bertel Haarder quips, “my definition [of “integration”] is to put people to work.  I’m not a Minister of Headscarves or Liverpie in Kindergarten…inter-cultural problems should be solved at the local level.”

And indeed, such local initiatives as GAM3 have rushed in to fill the gap in national policy.  For two months in the summer, young children and adolescents gather once a week at designated housing development playgrounds to learn and practice the basics of basketball from seasoned coaches.  GAM3 also takes its show on the road, hosting a full-day training camp with live music in each of the 10 zones.  The summer culminates in the third and final component, the GAM3 tournament, which features professional basketball players and renowned DJs from around the world.  To the casual observer, it would appear that GAM3 has done a fantastic – if abbreviated – job of bringing together Danish and immigrant youth for a summer of fun and recreation.

But the usual dichotomy of Danish culture on the one hand and “immigrant culture” on the other – the one that most economically- and politically-oriented integration programs rely on as a starting point – does not hold up in the settings where GAM3 operates.  Here, there are adolescents from Turkey, Iraq, Somalia, and Palestine; American street slang is the lingua franca; and, in general, people do not identify themselves with only one national or cultural tradition.  The worldly amalgamation of a GAM3 playground resists the routine hopes and fears of both extreme Danish nationalists and extreme cultural relativists, providing a space to budding youth where no one culture is king, and where physical, social, and linguistic improvisation and interaction are the highest-held values.

As Prahm himself puts it, “people tend to see ‘integration’ as either ‘they become as us’ or ‘we become as them’. For us, though, it’s very much about subculture…I think what’s important is that you find something you can share, something you can meet around, and subculture is perfect for that.  It’s a third thing, not either/or, but neither…and both.”

Neither and Both: The Recognition of a Youth Culture

The playground at Valby sits like a peacock among hens.  Perched flamboyantly in the middle of one of Copenhagen’s rougher neighborhoods, its wall-to-wall graffiti leaves nothing untouched – not the fences, the foliage, the brick, or the eye of the beholder.  The tags are a mixture of English, Danish, and purely visual expression.  The smell of fresh spraypaint hangs in the air, commingling with the upbeat bass of a communal boombox.  Even the GAM3 poster that advertises this week’s practice has been incorporated into the vibrant landscape, a fluorescent orange streak across its middle connecting it to the larger plume of color and sound. 

Those who show up at Valby this afternoon have forsaken the Danish football match of the year in favor of fleshing out their fundamentals.  There are about 20 altogether (though the numbers fluctuate as players drift in and out), all male this time around, and older than their counterparts in Mjølnerparken.  Two have brought their own balls, but the majority waits for the neighborhood coordinators to show up with the grab bag of brand new black and blue orbs that Nike has donated to GAM3 this year.  They tease and taunt each other in different tongues, trash-talking and catching up, intoxicated by the freedom they find in a place that is neither home nor the larger Danish society.

There is a young man from Los Angeles who sits at the corner of the court in Valby, not because he has any desire to play, but because he feels at home here, like he is “in an American movie.”  Indeed, it’s tempting to look at Valby as just another set for White Men Can’t Jump, but, upon closer inspection, it turns out to be a melting pot of European, Middle Eastern, and African elements, all blended together – and, paradoxically, finding an even stronger voice through the strangely neutral “American” backdrop.  

Basketball, and its corollary music, hip-hop, have thus been incorporated into a new Danish multicultural context as a global phenomenon; global structures have taken on local expressions and created a new culture. Simon reminds us: “It’s important that it’s not just Danish, but it’s also not just American.”  Coaches Emma Witkowski and Sarah El Habashy echo the sentiment, conceding that while street basketball certainly began as an American phenomenon, the world no longer sees it as such.  “Every place has its own top stars and teams,” Witkowsk says. “It’s a national sport in every country nowadays.” 

Yet it’s important to acknowledge the unique aspect of the American experience that gave rise to the high esteem in which basketball and hip-hop are held by Denmark’s minority youth:  namely, the social, economic, and political treatment of the United States’ African-American community throughout history.  It is no coincidence that GAM3’s logo is a silhouette of Shaquille O’Neal, arms raised proudly after a dunk.  

Michaelangelo Roxas Munar, who grew up watching Michael Jordan on television and now volunteers as an assistant coach at Mjølnerparken, remarks that “if you take a black person in America there’re some similarities between them and foreigners in Denmark,” who he says many people still refer to with the pejorative label, “colored people.”  Though he is the son of two Phillipino immigrants, Michaelangelo himself has been verbally assaulted for being “black.”  Part of the root of his affinity towards not only basketball but also the specific type of urban street culture that includes “rap, baggy clothes, [and] slang” can be found in a perceived social parallel between his own situation and that of African-Americans in the United States.

But the association is not solely a negative one.  Many of the Mjølnerparken children look up to Martin precisely because he is a proud and confident half-African “mulatto”.  “It’s important for them to have a black role model in their lives,” says Simon. “ – a person no one has otherwise in a country where the entire national football team is bright white.”  Coaches such as Martin – who harbor their own international and intercultural tensions; deal with them on a daily basis; and then turn them into something positive – currently boast a stronger presence on the GAM3 roster than ever before.

The same can be said for the music GAM3 hosts.  If any one person is the embodiment of the complementing (and often conflicting) international tendencies in Denmark, it is Zaki Youssef, a Danish-Egyptian rapper quickly gaining popularity in Copenhagen and throughout the country who performed at the GAM3 Finals last year.  Zaki weaves verbal tapestries from the threads of Arabic, English, Spanish, and Danish, drawing on his experiences on the basketball court and in everyday life to construct thoughtful social commentaries. 

Zaki experienced every form of racial discrimination under the sun while growing up in Denmark, a country which has only in the last 30 years found itself on the receiving end of an influx of foreigners.  Despite the fact that he speaks fluent Danish, Zaki remembers being denied entrance to discos and receiving odd looks in the supermarket.  Because of his own personal experiences, he sympathizes with the dilemma that many youth with foreign backgrounds – and with a mix of cultural influences – find themselves in. “When people feel that they’re profiled and labeled just by their appearance, they develop stupid habits. To belong to a group is a basic need. Second generation immigrants are ostracized by society and put in a corner together. They become the self-fulfilling prophecy.  I’m not saying this is the only reason that a lot of them get into crime, but it’s definitely part of it”. 

But a supportive family, his interest in music, and the neighborhood basketball court gave Zaki something to look forward to every day, and to him it is these simple things that provide the answers for many problems that immigrants to Denmark currently face.  “It’s very basic that when you do something, make or create, street ball or hip-hop or even being a carpenter, whenever you feel like you’re contributing something to the world, then you feel responsibility for people and things in the world, and you feel useful…and when we’re young, that’s our foundation.  That’s when we begin contributing something to the world.” 

Zaki has no desire to escape the conflicting categories with which he is confronted.  Instead, he has turned them into something positive that he can use to his creative advantage. “I’m an immigrant no matter where I go – Egypt, Denmark, wherever.  No matter where you go, it’s not your country.  But in a way, I think that’s positive.  Nation-states are becoming outdated, everybody’s working across borders”. Sarah El Habashy, who besides coaching for GAM3 has also rapped with Zaki and the Danish hip-hop group Outlandish, says the thing she most admires about him is that “he comes from different cultures and he wants to use that,” instead of running from it.  Picking and choosing the best of four widely divergent languages certainly has its advantages: Zaki jokes that while crooning the phrase “you are my eyes, you are my soul” is poetic in Arabic, it can sound downright creepy in Danish.  So he opts for the former in this case, but always leaves the overall design open for a latter incorporation of the other thread.

Negotiating his potentially contrary influences, the resulting music is something completely new, a third trajectory of expression.  Zaki is a role model to many of the kids involved in GAM3 for just this reason: they identify with him because he personifies the hybrid culture that so many experience and even desire.

 

It Takes all Kinds: Integral Parts of Society

Five small Muslim girls follow Rufi down the faded white line, three of them hysterical with laughter, the other two with brows furrowed, concentrating intensely on the balls moving between their delicate hands and the cracked concrete.  It’s a simple dribbling exercise he’s teaching them, but it’s the first time they’ve ever done such a thing, so it provokes exaggerated emotions.

One hoop over, two Danes and two Iranians, all twelve years old, take turns on lay-ups.  Four older, more experienced boys perform complicated alley-oops and ankle-breaking stutter steps under the tutelage of Quako.  They have been here before, and would probably be on this court even if GAM3 were not; still, they acknowledge that it’s nice to have some new balls and good coaches present at zone “1909, Danmarksgården.

Madi sports a “Ronaldo” jersey and is hesitant to take up anything but a football.  After a half hour of watching his peers from the sidelines, though, he finally gives in, and Quako leads him through an individually-tailored lesson on cross-over dribbling.

Following from the false dichotomy between Danish and immigrant culture, the process of “integration” itself is often susceptible to an equally frustrating oversimplification.  For most Danes – politicians and populace alike – the concept of integration entails taking X number of immigrants and placing them into a group comprised of Y number of Danes.  The resulting product is something that looks and acts pretty much like Y did, but with just a pinch of spice X tossed in, in the name of cultural sensitivity and curiosity.  

It’s a tempting formula to subscribe to, and one that has gained much backing – for either politically shrewd or more genuinely idealistic reasons.  But it doesn’t take into account that the categories of X and Y don’t exist in any real, concrete sense – or that, if they do, then they are at least accompanied by dozens of intricately knotted subsets of X and Y.  To get a sense of the concrete reality, it is helpful to consider a typical GAM3 playground.

The problem is, there is no typical GAM3 playground.  There is only a plethora of different playgrounds, each boasting its own unique mix of players and settings.  On rare occasions, one will find a court where exactly 10 Danes have neatly intermingled with exactly 10 immigrants to create a new and improved Danish society in which the two sides tolerate and appreciate each other.  More commonly, however, a different sort of integration is taking place at each playground, and often several distinct integrational activities are occurring at the same time in the same location, as in the scene described at Danmarksgården.  

Rikke R.B. Iversen of Projektrådgivningen – a state-funded institution that helps associations integrate ethnic minorities  – is quick to remind clients that, though the Danish media rarely acknowledge it, “there are other immigrants than Muslim immigrants” in Denmark.  Additionally, integrating one minority group with a different minority group can be just as big a challenge as getting Danes to interact constructively with Turks.  In Mjølnerparken, for instance, the more pressing concern for community center leaders is to break down the walls between the habitual ghettos-within-the-ghetto, where Somalis socialize only with fellow Somalis, Gypsies only with fellow Gypsies, and so on.  These national, cultural, and religious subsets of the blanket categories “immigrants,” “foreigners,” or “minorities” are too often overlooked in more traditional integration initiatives.  

Furthermore, a GAM3 practice is all the more useful in developing a child’s social skills if it can introduce the child to others outside of his or her age group and gender.  Having an older coach to challenge them is valuable both physically and psychologically to the teenagers at Valby, and Rufi is just as happy seeing that the girls he teaches to dribble can now play on the boys’ court as he is to see blond-haired, blue-eyed boys playing with their new friends from Afghanistan.

According to several of the GAM3 coaches and players, the program can be equally valuable in integrating the whole family into Danish society in a number of ways.  Parents become curious about what their children are up to when the children leave once a week at the same time to take part in a new program.  They occasionally end up visiting the playground themselves, thereby expanding their own local experience and social network.

The social function is also one of the most important for the children, says Prahm.  He recounts the story of a 9-year-old boy who, when GAM3 was first brought to his neighborhood last summer, cherished the two hours of basketball and music he had access to each week.  Yet the boy showed up only infrequently, and his coaches couldn’t figure out why.  Eventually, Prahm discovered the root of problem: the boy didn’t know the days of the week in Danish because he had never needed to before. 

“The ‘trouble’ isn’t what bothers me,” he says, referring to the real and perceived criminal activity most Danes hope to prevent when implementing social programs for immigrant youth. “It’s when you see the kids who can’t speak Danish at all, so they don’t even know what day it is.  And at 9 years old!  How are you ever going to get a job if you don’t know what day it is?”  In cases like this, GAM3 serves as much of a practical integration function as it does a cultural one.

If these varying types of integration to which GAM3 contributes seem somewhat haphazard, it’s because, in a sense, they are.  Much more so than other planned social programs, GAM3 integrates organically.  It doesn’t target specific demographics, but invites everyone in the neighborhood.  The Headmaster of Humlehaveskolen, Olav Nielsen, who deals routinely with what many consider the worst trouble-makers in all of Denmark, says this is the best thing that any organization can do for its participants.  Instead of focusing on particular minorities, GAM3 deals with all who come as human beings, and the resulting interaction of both sexes, many ages, and all backgrounds provides a more natural introduction to the larger Danish – and indeed global – society.

But are we then left with no single useful definition of the term “integration” in the context of a discussion of the benefits and shortcomings of the GAM3 project?  Not at all.  The common thread that runs through all of the social integrations mentioned seems to boil down to one word: communication.  Of course, this is the word that Nadim Barakji, GAM3’s contact person at Mjølnerparken, uses.  Iversen dubs it “dialogue,” Michaelangelo prefers “sticking together, talking together, working together.”  

At any rate, the underlying assumption is consistent:  that the interaction of human beings with other, dissimilar human beings is a positive and necessary occurrence.  In the sense, then, that every human being is dissimilar from every other human being, every day on the GAM3 playground is therefore a successful integrating experience.  Or as Zaki phrases it: “most of mankind is able to communicate with one another if only they’re allowed or able to.  It’s difficult to maintain your narrow-mindedness for too long, if you’re confronted face-to-face with a person who’s extremely different from you. ”

GAM3 Must Go On: Of Hip Hop and Hoop Dreams

Does this mean that GAM3 is the perfect integration project?  Not by a longshot.  Complications abound whenever human beings come together in new ways, and GAM3 is no exception to the rule.  Both practically and philosophically, those involved at every level of the project entertain their own criticisms about it. 

Among the GAM3 coaches, for instance, there is disagreement over whether the project will make any long-term difference in the lives of the youth it serves.  The skeptics contend that without any social structures to provide guaranteed education and employment to minority families, there is little that a two-hour-per-week, two-month-per-year sports and music program can do, beyond providing a pleasant but temporary diversion from everyday life.  Even the most idealistic coaches believe that the best GAM3 can hope for is to give children a brief glimpse at another reality that they may then choose to pursue.

Anders Riis-Hansen – a documentary filmmaker who spent 10 months observing such sports organizations while shooting “Drengene fra Vollsmose” (“The Boys From Vollsmose”) – says the social situation for the vast majority of minority youth is fixed:  the kids who already hope and work for a life outside the literal and figurative confines of their ghetto will probably succeed in obtaining that life, and those who don’t probably won’t. In the 10th grade class he spent a year following, two boys and zero girls had contact with any social sports organization.  Riis-Hansen does admit, though, that there is “no doubt at all the kids in the ‘gray zone’ [whose futures are still uncertain], as few as they may be, will have more possibilities” as a result of programs like GAM3.  

For Zaki, there is the concern, too, that some of the third culture that GAM3 participants absorb is the worst of what the United States and the rest of the globe have to offer, as opposed to the best.  “There’s a different approach to hip-hop now,” he says.  “Everybody wants to be famous.  There is a growth in immigrant hip-hoppers [in Denmark], which is good in a way.  But a lot of them are just pretending to be American gangsters – ‘honies,’ money, nice rides, and all that.”  But Zaki himself started with materialist and chauvinist rhymes, he says, and then “moved on.”  His hope is that kids today will do the same, entering the hip-hop world through the front door of popular music but quickly becoming interested in more intelligent, independent artists.  If successors of his like Michaelangelo – who, at the age of 17, DJs a mix of popular and independent hip-hop – are any indication, Zaki’s hopes may indeed manifest themselves.  Still, when the kids’ trash-talking on the court turns ugly or violent, it’s disheartening for all involved.

In the final analysis, GAM3 is undoubtedly a step – maybe even a dribble, a drive, or an alley-oop – in the right direction.  Critics’ and supporters’ concerns and suggestions for improvement boil down, as with most social programs, to issues of time and money; more hours, more courts, more camps, and more coaches would of course be ideal.  It’s encouraging that both the Danish government and the municipality of Copenhagen have found GAM3 to be an important and effective enough project to award it state and city funding and prizes in recent months.  Whereas just one year ago GAM3 was fueled by the purely voluntary efforts of only a few dedicated pick-up ballers and late-night DJs, it has now been given the recognition and the resources that it needs to bring its work – and play – to the next level.  As GAM3 continues to grow, we can only hope that more and more Danish and minority youth will be called in off the benches to experience the innovative new culture and the vital forms of integration that it so skillfully weaves together.

Simon tells him to suck it up and turn his bike around and Michaelangelo obliges.  When they arrive at the playground in the middle of the housing project, Martin, the coach at Zone “2200, has another update:  only five of the original 10 basketballs have made it back from the first practice.  The other five are missing in action, carried off by blacktop thieves.  

Simon prefers to think of them as eager young basketball enthusiasts.

 

References

 

Interviews

Barakji, Nadim – GAM3 Contact Person, Mjølnerparken (17.06.03)

El Habashy, Sarah – GAM3 Coach; Musician (20.06.03)

Iversen, Rikke R. B. – Counselor, Projektrådgivningen (16.06.03)

Keblari, Assad – Chairman, Club 36, Mjølnerparken (17.06.03)

Nielsen, Olav – Headmaster, Humlebækskolen; Founder, Fodboldskolen (21.06.03)

Prahm, Simon – Co-founder, GAM3 (16.06.03)

Riis-Hansen, Anders – Co-director, “The Boys from Vollsmose” (20.06.03)

Roxas Munar, Michaelangelo – GAM3 Assistant Coach (20.06.03)

Schulz, Martin – Co-founder, GAM3 (16.06.03)

Witkowski, Emma – GAM3 Coach (20.06.03)

Youssef, Zaki – Musician; GAM3 Performer (18.06.03)

Publications

Bregenov-Pedersen, Mads: Streetbasket: Dunk i boldburet”, Ekstra Bladet August 1st 2002

Habermann, Noe: ”Gadens sprog til gadens unge”, Urban June 18th 2003

Haugaard, Kasper: ”Portræt: Zaki Youssef”, Information June 15th 2001

Havmand, Tobias: ”Streetbasket er lige noget for gadens barske børn”, Berlingske Tidende July 

30th 2002

Hovmand, Mette: ”Belastede unge: Streetbasket hjælper unge”, Jyllands-Posten April 23rd 2003 

Iversen, Rikke R. B.: ”En rummelig idrætsforening, der kan håndtere forskellighed: Et interview 

med gadeplanskoordinator Sami El Shimy”, Social Politik February 2000

Nilsson, Jonas Langvad: ”Integration: Unge spiller sig ud af kriminalitet”, Jyllands-Posten May 

15th 2003

Nilsson, Jonas Langvad: ”Ungdomsliv: Basketball skal modne ustabil ungdom”, Jyllands-Posten 

May 15th 2003

Projektrådgivningen: “Mangfoldighed, Kultur & Fritid: Projektrådgivningens årsberetning 

2002”, Annual Report

Rønne, Kirsten: ”Himmelbjerget eller Volkan”, Dansk Ungdom & Idræt 31/96

Stenalt, Mai Britt: ”GAM3: Basket for integration”, Jyllands-Posten July 30th 2002

Special thanks to the kids at Mjølnerparken, Danmarksgården, Annæxstræde (Valby)

For more information on GAM3, please visit: www.gam3.dk 

 

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