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Can ya kick it, Germany? The role of Hip-Hop music within the Afro-German society

 

Black Hip-Hop in Germany.  The three subjects of this sentence require more elucidation and explanation than one might expect.  First, the word “black”.  For an American student in the midst of studying in the African-American studies department at a liberal arts institution, the word “black” sets off clear reverberations.  Thoughts of slavery, prejudice and discrimination, racist crimes, the terminology of politically correct racial discourse – all of these associations are clear for an American, however they cannot be transferred into a German framework where the history and terminology of race has not reached such a level of tangibility.  “Hip-Hop”.  Hip-Hop music encompasses Rhythm & Blues, Rap, and Dance music rooted in the music of the African Diaspora.  Heavy beats, layers of rhythm and sound, and call and response between song leader and his accompaniment are three basic elements of the form.  Hip-Hop artists who come to mind in June 2003 are the most popular celebrities of the moment: you can barely turn on the radio in America or Germany without hearing “50 cent” telling the world that we can find him “In da club”, or the young gentlemen of “B2K” proclaiming that they need a “Girlfriend”.  Other artists of popular culture or the underground complete the league of Hip-Hop music, however, it is those who receive the most air time on MTV and Kiss FM who become pillars of the genre.  “Germany.”  Attempting to identify the intersection of the black community in Germany with Hip-Hop music is a great challenge when the background information on blacks in Germany is so limited. We look for the usual markers of racism and prejudice in Germany and find that they are either hidden behind walls of defensive speech or remain latent within the minds of the minority.  Through endless emails and returned phone calls, we found ourselves in the midst of a small though energized community of activists and artists who are developing the strong lobby that the black community has lacked in Germany in the past.  Cybernomads and Brothers Keepers are places where we continually found our search leading. From our start in a Hip-Hop music store in conversation with a black German DJ to the heart of these organizations where the effort to document the history and current difficulties facing the population of black people in Germany is in full swing, the issues of the black minority in Germany promises to become a more significant part of German discourse in years to come.  It is within this moment of taking action that we find Hip-Hop music at its best.

“They got it wrong”

Sanderstrasse, the middle of Kreuzberg, down the street from a Turkish travel agency lies Soultrade, a Hip-Hop R&B record store, an anomaly within the surrounding German Turkish community. Photographs of popular Hip-Hop artists from America line the walls: “Ice-T” and “Public Enemy” with gold teeth and heavy chains circa 1987, “50 cent” and “B2K” of recent MTV fame as evidence of the most up-to-date trends of the musical genre.  The smooth voices of black American singers from the 1960s fill the store with its historical context.  As the crowning image to this Hip-Hop haven, a bottle of “Olde English” malt liquor in the quantity of 40 ounces, so familiar to the sidewalks of New York City, sits atop a shelf behind the counter. One step through the door frame, and we are faced with the Hip-Hop culture in its most visible and tangible forms – however, it is dominated by America. 

A black German disc jockey who goes by DJ D.O.N, stands behind the counter and tells us of his impressions of how Hip-Hop music within black German society.  For him, the fans of the music in Germany are confused, “they got it wrong” .  DJ D.O.N describes the story of Afro German youth who have grown up in white German society with white German mothers and no concrete markers of their black heritage.  At a certain point, when questions of identity begin to enter into the mind of the youngster, he looks to the most accessible forms of black culture around him and finds the Hip-Hop culture propagated on MTV as viable avenue of expression.  The images of black male rap and Hip-Hop artists from America is more than easily replicated.  Buying baggy jeans, diamond earrings, and gold chains, adopting the slang of the artists, their outward behavior and style of walking are all clear means of expressing the most visible and concrete forms of black culture available.  This is the “big party” Afro-German artist Adé Odukoya later explained to us.  These kids see Hip-Hop music within the confines of its superficial signs and come to develop a sense of what it means to be black based in the money, cars, sex, and drugs expressed in the lyrics and personas of popular artists. The result is a perception of Hip-Hop music and events as dangerous and risky for club owners to undertake. DJ D.O.N tells of his experience of club owner’s hesitation when considering sponsoring a Hip-Hop event.  There is a fear of “vandalism and violence.”   The perception is that the patrons of a Hip-Hop event will behave belligerently, take over the club and assert a menacing attitude.  Hip-Hop music is connected in their minds with the negative actions of tagging the walls of the bathroom, starting fights on the dance floor, and a general mood of violent potential.  These impressions of Hip-Hop music are incorrect when looking beneath the façade, down into the real issues that face those who engage in such behavior.

Black German youth who co-opt the superficial symbols of black culture through the lens of popular Hip-Hop music they witness on MTV and American discourse comes with a dangerous sacrifice of individuality.  It is an over simplification to describe black youth in Germany who listen to Hip-Hop music based on the circumstantial, face value evidence.  The choice to ascribe to the popularized form of black identity is proof of the difficulties facing the Afro-German population within mainstream German society.  In a country where the national identity has been perceived as homogenous for many years, considering oneself a German and a black person is a complex problem which can only begin to be examined by popularized American forms of black culture.  Identifying the use of Hip-Hop music within the black population in Germany is part of a greater question of identity.

“What it takes to be German”

For Afro-German artist, Adé Odukoya, “Afro-German is a working definition”  for the black population in Germany.  In addition to highlighting the unique origins of the black population in Germany, it focuses on the notion that black people are a part of Germany and should be included in the definition of what it means to be German.  This was an important point of departure for Afro-German artists participating in a project known as Brothers Keepers.

On the “seventh Sunday after Easter”  in Dessau in East Germany, a German resident from Mozambique, Alberto Adriano, was brutally attacked by three skinheads.  After three days in the hospital, Adriano died.  Though Adriano had spent more than 10 years in the country, his presence in Germany not welcome by the three young men he faced on the open street that day.  The brutality of the crime caught the emotions of Adé Odukoya.  For the first time, his impulse to use his music as a means of asserting a positive political agenda came into full view.  Consulting the many black German artists he was in touch with, the idea to produce a single concerning the murder of Alberto Adriano and the greater questions of race relations in Germany was developed.  Nigerian German, Caribbean German, African German and African American Hip-Hop artists came together with their own rhymes on the subject to produce a recording of unprecedented political merit.   Tyron Ricketts of Panthertainment, a production agency for black artists in Germany, describes his attachment to the project as “immediate” .  It was the first time such artists had come together to talk about the issues that had always been on their minds but which had never had a forum in which to be expressed.  Unlike previous projects he had been asked to be involved with, finding the rhymes for his contribution to the song was a quick process due to the urgency of the subject.  After the few months it took to get the recording together, the greatest challenge was finding a record company to produce the track.  The song was perceived as “too political” , so much so that record companies feared a backlash, a negative response to being involved in such a political project.  If this was the response from record companies, how would the general public receive the recording? 

When the single and the project surrounding it came to the public realm, it faced immediate challenges on the official level.  Within the first fifteen minutes of the press conference announcing the Brothers Keepers’ single, the mood of acceptance or rejection of the hip hop project was established in no uncertain terms.  The 14 black male artists facing 50 to 60 reporters, 99% of whom were white, felt attacked. There were questions indirectly at times, fully explicit at others of whether the Brothers Keepers project was a separatist movement, an initiative akin to the Black Power movement in the early 1970s in America.  Why wasn’t the project multicultural?  Were the artists advocating violence as a means of protest?  The reporters expressed their underlying discomfort; they were unsettled in the face of the action of a minority group, an action that had not yet been undertaken by the black community in Germany.  By no means were the reporters expressing attitudes of racism, it was rather an expression of the “general fear of the unknown” , a phrase Adé Odukoya uses to describe the climate of prejudice in Germany.  It was a female reporter who changed the mood of the conference or confrontation, as it were, when commenting that in all her 20 years of journalism, she had never until now witnessed a press conference in which a group was forced to defend itself in such a manner.  The importance of the message of “Adriano (the Last Warning)” lay within the power of language.  In the words of Tyron Rickett’s, “It is the word, not the sword” .  Though it was clear to the artists that the project was non-violent in its conception, its political stance was an unusual addition to a Germany where issues of minority rights remain in an “infant state.”

Identifying the problems and questions facing black Germans through the music of Brothers Keepers had an impact beyond Adé Odukoya’s “wildest dreams” .  The step taken by Brothers Keepers to identify the struggles of the black community in such unequivocal terms was a meaningful experience not just for the artists but for a mainstream culture that has yet to fully consider the needs of its minority populations. 240, 000 singles of “Adriano – The Last Warning” were sold, from which 200,000€ in proceeds were made available to victims of racist attacks.  During its first month, the Brothers Keepers’ website was among the top three most popular webpages in Germany, evidence of the interest the initiative generated within the country.  A concert given by the Brothers Keepers’ artists attracted 30,000 young people from around Germany.  Adé describes the moment when the audience began to cheer Adriano’s name.  “We didn’t start it, they did it on their own.  It sent chills down our spines” .

But the response was not limited to the numbers of German’s interested.  An interest in issues of discrimination and the difficulties faced by minority groups in Germany took a firm hold on politicians and everyday people in the wake of the Brothers Keepers’ initiative.  Many politicians expressed their interest in the new lobbying force resulting in conferences between the group and top government officials.  The group met with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, German Minister of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer and the President of the German Parliament Wolfgang Thierse.  “They were happy to see we were making a contribution,”  Adé explains.  For many politicians, the issues facing black people in Germany are not clear or concretely defined but with the initiative of Brothers Keepers, the possibility to discuss such issues became more substantial.

Additionally, the influence within the black community added to the long term effects the project promised to have. “It was the best way to address the young people,” said Jeannine Kantara, a black German journalist at DIE ZEIT.  Brothers Keepers had the “best outfit, best rhythm and political lyrics.”   Kids interested in Hip-Hop music had an alternative to the materialistic themes of popular Hip-Hop and were introduced to the political potential within their favorite art form.  Brothers Keepers engaged in a tour of schools in five cities in the East of Germany as a additional means of spreading their message. The controversy was once again highlighted: “Posters promoting nazism in schools. Calls to disrupt our concerts. Huge police presence. Teenagers who don’t dare to leave their homes after dark.”  The experience of  these visits left such impressions in the minds of the musicians and activists who felt more and more that their work would go beyond the immediate success of the single.

“Look, doing something is possible” 

As Germany begins to deal with the notion of their role as a country of immigration within Europe, the need to recognize the cultural uniqueness and the specific needs of the new German communities, the efforts of Brothers Keepers is an extremely important starting point for every member of the community.  It is with the introduction of a cyber community, known as Cybernomads that the initiative to continue the documentation of blacks in Germany can be found.

“Cybernomads is an online community where the people of African descent from around Germany can come together to recover and document their own social, artistic and academic history thus establishing a ‘mothership’ databank.”   Throughout Europe, the discourse and language used to describe the experience of minority populations has been developed from the point of view of the majority.  “Documenting the German angle of the African Diaspora has consistently been defined through a Eurocentric lens.”   Although there have been smaller efforts on the grassroots level throughout the country to express the Afro-German perspective, these efforts have remained on the fringes due to their small scale development.  The power of the ‘‘mothership’ databank’ of cybernomads will enable the many diverse small scale efforts of the afro-German population to be brought together into one large lobbying force.  The strength in numbers, the academic quality and approach of the organization and the multilateral access provided through technology will all allow the afro-German and eventually afro-European experience to become an integral part of German and European existence.

 “German politicians are still discussing immigration and minority issues without inviting members of those groups,” Abdel Rhamed Satti, a co-founder of the online organization, points out.  With the efforts of Brothers Keepers and Cybernomads as well as the small scale efforts that have yet to make it into public discourse, the power of the voice of the black community in Germany will be felt by the mainstream in an exceptional way.

“Quality not quantity”

Examining presence of black Germans in Hip-Hop music is only an entering point from which to consider the presence of black Germans in all forms of media.  When Tyron Ricketts, a black German performer and producer and member of Brothers Keepers received a job offer from VIVA , to host a Hip-Hop show, he found himself faced with an opportunity to influence the image of black people in Germany.  In its first years, his show included clips of rap and Hip-Hop videos with minimal time for interviewing artists.  However, when Tyron expanded his duties at VIVA to include producing and editing, he was able to delve deeper into the world where the music is conceived.  He brought the interviews to where artists had come from and asked questions on the subtle political meanings to their music.  Tyron noted that the images of black people in the media in America and Germany are in a state of flux at the moment.  The music kids want to hear is about “cars and naked women, smoking weed and wearing gold chains,”  and this is the music that generates profit.  But somewhere, we need to find the way to demonstrate that this is not the only avenue of success for black people around the globe.  Though there may be many successful black artists in the music industry, the numbers only constitute quantity, while the information disseminated in the music is of little quality.  In his everyday work at Panthertainment, Tyron tries his best to walk the line between generating profit and putting out positive information for the youth culture, an admirable means of using his art to contribute to necessary political discourse.

“Young people are more aware” 

In the words of Jeannine Kantara, the black youth of Germany are beginning to take on the awareness that has been lacking within issues surrounding race in Germany.  Searching for the meaning of Hip-Hop within the black population in Germany is connected to a deeper search for a meaningful identity of black people in Germany, and it is the young people who will begin to bring this quest to a positive standpoint.  As Germany slowly begins to become comfortable with itself as a nation of immigration, dealing with the needs of the immigrant populations and minority populations take on new significance.  Defining what it takes to be German is a complex question that faces all immigrant and minority populations in the country.  It is through the initiatives of these minority groups that their voices begin to be heard and changes begin to take root, and Hip-Hop music is one of the most viable art forms to begin the spark of meaningful change.

 

References

 

Interviewees

DJ D.O.N : Soultrade Record store in Kreuzberg, DJ at the Matrix Club and the Soda Club

Mr. Abdel Rahman SATTI: Film-maker, Activist of Cybernomads

Mr. Sun Leegba LOVE: Poet, activist of cybernomads

Mr. Adé ODUKOYA: Artist, member of Bantu, founder of Brothers Keepers and initiator of the Adriano project.

Mrs. Jeannine KANTARA: Journalist at DIE ZEIT, Board member of “Initiative Schwarze in Deutschland” (Initiative of Blacks in Germany)

Mr. Tyron RICKETTS: Manging Director of Panthertainment (music production, Germany’s only black model agency, former VJ at Viva, Member of Brothers Keepers

 

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Germany Germany 2003

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