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Art and Politics: Four Dutch Artists and Their Reaction to Wilders

 

“[Wilders and the PVV] are playing—not the race card—but the fear card... People are afraid to speak up because they are afraid their music will be banned on the radio. That’s what happened to me. But artists are afraid they won’t ever be booked again.”

–Appa, Dutch-Moroccan rapper, June 2010

 

Politics is often the subject of poems, paintings, or lyrics. Artists have the ability to inspire great leaders and comfort the public, which could be considered more important during periods of national turmoil. Yet during times of crisis, artists can also be seen as aloof, detached, or impractical. Such is the case when one considers the recent reticence among artists in offering alternatives to the forceful political voice of Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party of Freedom (PVV). Wilders emerged as a powerful storyteller--entrancing thousands of Dutch voters with his talk of safeguarding traditional Dutch norms and securing Dutch interests by ending ‘failed’ multiculturalist policies. His narrative about the current state of the Netherlands is defining the way that the Dutch talk about politics. Politicians of left-wing parties often respond to his statements and policy proposals (often anti-immigration and anti-Islam), reflecting the belief that silence could be seen as a form of collaboration. On this view, in a country like the Netherlands which is still haunted by the role that it played in assisting the Nazi occupation, to be a silent bystander is the worst position in which to find oneself. But is this also true for artists?

Wilders was the big winner in the latest Dutch election on June 9th, 2010. His party, the PVV, gained 15 seats in Parliament, growing to a total of 24 seats out of 150 and becoming the third largest party after the Labour Party (PvdA) and the Liberals (VVD). While discussions about Wilders and the PVV have dominated public debate, it is revealing that many in the Dutch artistic community have shied away from engaging or challenging his representations of the Netherlands. Appa--a Dutch-Moroccan rapper from Rotterdam-- suggested that Dutch artists are afraid to engage with the subject for fear of retribution from PVV supporters. Appa himself has faced PVV threats and hate mail.

How have Dutch artists, in spite of such widespread reluctance, resisted Wilders’ narrative about the future of the Netherlands? In this time of restricted freedom of speech, are Dutch artists the new underground resistance fighters?

Artistic Responses to Wilders in the Netherlands

Some Dutch artists have responded both directly and indirectly to Wilders, his party, and his ideas. Their works are public protests that bypass the traditional political arena, instead expressing their voices and engaging their audience through music, installations, or performances. In order to better understand artistic responses to Wilders and how these artists frame their respective protests, we investigated the work and ideas of four different artists. Together, they represent diverse disciplines and strategies to counter the right-wing ‘Wilderian’ discourse. Although all of these artists are reacting to the same phenomenon, we found their ideas and artwork to be distinctly different.

The Street Philosopher: Appa (Rachid El Ghazoui)

The artist known as Appa is a Dutch rapper and hip-hop artist of Moroccan origin. Born in Amsterdam in 1983 to immigrants, he experienced living in a society in which, as he explains, people’s contempt for his parents (and guest workers in general) was directed towards him and his peers. Despite these obstacles, he tried to initiate several projects within his community, but failed due to a lack of funds and support from the local authorities. He decries the ever-widening gap between the important politicians and immigrants within a society: “They talk about us, but they are never with us.”

In the meantime, however, Appa became acquainted with rap music, and in 2002, joined the THC group from Amsterdam North. The THC mixtape from 2004, as well as the joint album Article 140, earned him a considerable reputation within the Dutch hip-hop community. Initially, however, he did not showcase much interest in political or societal engagement. Bound to the limited vision of the group he represented, he recalls his very first song as being a meaningless hodgepodge of random (stereo)typical rap subjects: money, cars and women. The rest of his work during this period would not differ substantially, and it was only in 2006 (after leaving the THC group in November 2005) that Appa gained artistic independence, and changed his direction. Thanks to his 2006 mixtape, The Most Underrated, he gained in popularity, and that is when many young people (especially of Moroccan descent) began to identify with his music. One of his songs particularly laments the government’s approach to dealing with impoverished areas, while the accompanying video clip broadcasts images of young people in keffiyehs (Palestinian black and white chequered scarves) carrying weapons around Amsterdam. However, his lyrics shifted to a different level with his debut album Street Philosopher, in 2007. Often labeled as autobiographical, the album begins with Appa’s personal life story, and then proceeds to deal with questions of religion, poverty and friendship, while also advocating the virtues of hard work for young people. With this album, Appa began to be regarded as a voice for oppressed minorities in the Netherlands; one of his songs on the album is a letter to Jan Peter Balkenede, the former Dutch Prime Minister.

According to Appa, growing up in ethnically homogenous, predominantly immigrant areas teaches young people a “natural way of taking their place in society”. Their awareness of the different levels of social status between children raised on the street and those who are university-bound has resulted in new divisions being drawn within Dutch society. Many of these immigrant children end up feeling excluded, and subsequently become involved in criminal activities. Appa himself has history of violent behavior and incarceration. However, he prefers not to speak about the “stupid things” he did, and instead focuses on the future, explaining that his solo album represents a time of self-reflection during which he changed his ideas about music and life in general.

Rap music is very personal, which makes an enormous difference in terms of its impact. Appa’s philosophy is that knowledge is “the key to everything,” and that young people have a personal responsibility to themselves and to their communities. He believes himself to be contributing through his music, which by spreading information serves to build bridges between politicians and youth like him. Nonetheless, Appa warns that some information can be harmful. He is particularly distrustful of the media, which he compares to “the devil”. According to him, the media’s influence has been primarily negative; they have a way of blowing things far out of proportion and exacerbating situations related to ethnic minorities. Young people need to start believing in themselves, he says – not the media or the politicians, who always play the fear card. Publicity is only a means to an end. This is how Appa explains the violence-filled video for his song Ik Heb Schijt:

No, not everybody gets it. The point of making a song like that is to get the attention and then you can tell them the rest of the story. They see the scarves and the knives and I know they’re going to want to interview me afterwards. People need to listen to the message, not just the image. The visual had the most impact but I already knew that would. I don’t use sex because I don’t believe in it. But violence—I was born into it. It surrounded me growing up.

In an interview with the newspaper De Pers on August 10th, 2007, Appa said that he wouldn’t mind if Wilders were killed. This statement generated substantial criticism. The rapper still stands behind his words, but argues that the statement was taken out of context: the reasoning behind it was not to encourage violence against Wilders or to threaten him, but simply to point out that he would not “shed tears” if something did happen to him. In response, Wilders – ironically, a defender of free speech – charged Appa (as well as many other people) for threatening statements. Appa won the case, but was subsequently barred from giving workshops in youth detention centers.

In response to the central question we posed earlier about artists’ responsibility to speak out against individuals such as Wilders, Appa, who currently lives in Rotterdam and proudly owns a small business as well as a music studio, concurs that artists do have such a responsibility to speak out against wrongful or racist individuals and events in their society. Of course, this is not a binding obligation, but it is a moral one. Artists have certain talents which allow their voices to be heard by many, and they are looked up to as role models. Therefore, they need to give something back to society.

While Appa's own experience led him to believe in his responsibility as an artist to speak out, what about other artists' level of engagement with the political controversy surrounding Wilders?

The Performer: Jonas Staal

Jonas Staal came to the public consciousness in May 2005, when he was arrested after anonymously erecting ‘roadside monuments’ to Geert Wilders. Throughout April 2005, small monuments including photos, candles, teddy bears, and flowers appeared throughout Rotterdam and The Hague. These installations resembled previous memorials erected to mourn the death of Pim Fortuyn in 2002.

Wilders reported feeling threatened by the monuments, leading to Staal’s arrest. The artist claimed that each monument was a “performance,” and described his motivation as exploring how “the phenomenon of the public memorial acquired meaning as intimate expression of mourning and loss, as well as a celebration.” In addition, Staal’s choice of Wilders as his subject is intended to connect these themes of celebration and mourning with the current Dutch populist movement associated with PVV. In the end, the judge concurred that he had the right to express his artistic creativity in this manner.

Staal’s artistic contribution is to examine the intimate and confusing relationship between celebration and mourning, and their involvement of powerful human emotions that are often connected to populist movements. The emotional component of this art cannot be denied; people become moved and feel connected to his work because of their personal attachments to Wilders and his stories. The major response and backlash to Staal’s work comes from people affiliated with Wilders’ movement. Staal also mentions that his subsequent court case and the reactions of viewers to his artwork also form a part of his artistic work: this is all a single performance. By inserting himself into the political arena, he offers an artist’s commentary on what is going on, but does not offer a solution or a way out.

Staal’s work lies at the boundary between political commentary and actual political influence. Were the monuments only an artistic investigation of celebration and mourning, or were they also meant to shock the public into turning against Wilders? The power of Staal’s work is that it makes us, as viewers, uncomfortable: Does the artist really dream for the day that people mourn Wilders’ death? Or, more radically, does he secretly hope that Wilders is assassinated? We as viewers are forced to ask ourselves: do I feel the same?

Hip and Religious Urban Sisters

“Dear Sister” is the newest music video from the Al-Wahda youth mosque-choir based in Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands, whose population is forty-five percent non-native Dutch. It is in this multicultural and industrial city that Al-Wahda’s music video is set. The two young artists, Hajar and Safa, sing in an ‘Afro-American Funky Sister’ style, as their website describes it. Piano chords and a simple but catchy beat carry the listener along, as easygoing vocals are interspersed with rap – all in Dutch.

The song is an open letter to all of the singers’ Muslim sisters. The artists tell other Muslim girls to live with pride, because they are not oppressed at all. Hajar sings: “to me you are my role model, I admire your power”. They tell their sisters to be proud of who they are and their beliefs. The song explains that at one time in the past, it was the rise of Islam that granted women more rights: “only since the arrival of the Quran, daughters were given a name”. Al-Wahda’s song suggests a different story than that told by many Dutch politicians who depict the headscarf as a symbol of women’s oppression.
Hajar and Safa in ‘Lieve Zuster’ (Dear Sister) on YouTube.

Mounia Abbadi, the author of the lyrics and mother of the youngest singer, Safa, explains that the song is not meant to be political. Still, the rap’s political implications cannot be denied. In the music video, Safa asks the viewers why a Muslim woman can’t just be a citizen of this country. She explains that wearing a headscarf – or choosing to not wear one, as in Safa’s case – is her own choice: “Isn’t that emancipation? She did it herself, and now waits for acceptance”. The video also shows women and girls drinking tea, studying, practicing karate and working as a doctor. According to Al Wahda’s website, the video portrays how being a Muslim woman is not in conflict with being a responsible citizen.

Although the debate in the Netherlands over headscarves began in the 1990s, Abbadi wrote “Dear Sister” only two years ago. The release of the official music video in April 2010 can be viewed as a response to Wilders in the context of this debate. In September 2009, Wilders proposed a ‘kopvoddentax’, which translates as “head rags tax”. According to Trouw, a national newspaper, Wilders wanted Muslim women to pay a 1000 Euro yearly fee in order to wear a headscarf.

In response, the girls sing: “this is the country of freedom, let everyone be themselves”, headscarf or not. Al-Wahda, Abbadi, and the other young artists use their song and video as leverage to make a political point: Muslim women and girls are responsible, equal citizens.

The Lover: Nilgün Yerli

In November 2009, Nilgün Yerli, a Turkish-Dutch actress and writer, initiated an artistic movement in which young Dutch Muslims sent love letters to Geert Wilders. Yerli was born in Turkey but moved with her parents to the Netherlands in 1979. Her parents returned to Turkey when she was 15 years old, but she stayed and began her career in an acting group called ´Turkish Delight´. She went on to star in five solo plays, publish five books, and host a weekly television program. Yerli currently writes weekly columns for two newspapers, Utrecht Nieuwsblad and Het Parool, and recently completed a run of solo performances of ´The Breath of Eve´.

Yerli´s project, ´Liefde Begeert Wilders´ (literally: ‘love desires Wilders’), gathered love letters from Muslim students at the Islamic University in Rotterdam that were addressed to the PVV leader. Later, she intended to send Wilders over 200 bouquets of flowers, each with a letter attached. Yerli attempted to deliver the flowers on November 23, 2009, but Wilders refused them, suggesting they be donated instead to a nursing home. Although the letters were undelivered, one of the aims of her project was to show Wilders that Muslims are people who feel empathy, sympathy and love, but also for Muslims to see that Wilders and his supporters feel these emotions as well. Yerli said of the project, "The only thing that destroys hate is love…I hope my action triggers a loving response."

Nevertheless, excerpts from the students’ letters do not suggest the same complex understanding of love and reciprocity. For example:

Dear Mr. Wilders, I do not support your political views and I wonder why you have such a negative way of approaching social problems. Perhaps that comes from dissatisfaction with problems in your personal life. I hope that problems in your private life disappear in the near future, so that the people in the Netherlands will have a more positive future. Loving regards, Godfather

Students understood Yerli’s belief that Wilders is lacking love in his life, but some missed the point that they themselves were intended to feel sympathy or love toward him. Other students took the opportunity to channel their frustrations, overlooking “love” entirely:

Dear Geert, You can use a lesson? Come take a look at Muslims themselves. Even though you are petrified that you will melt when you imagine going among the Muslim people. It is a shame to always be compared to hateful Muslims. What have we (Muslims) actually done to you? Nothing huh! You yourself have mixed blood (Indo) right? You can die your hair blonde every time but your appearance can not be invisible. It is and remains visible unless you try on a niqab or burqa?        Anonymous

Yerli’s art attempts to be in direct dialogue with Wilders, but does not engage on his terms. Instead of meeting Wilders in the political arena, she uses art and acts of kindness to make her point, flipping the discourse from one focused on the broader issues of racism and immigration to empathy and love on the part of one individual. Yerli’s political goal is not necessarily to convince voters, but rather to reframe the debate and offer new insight into the mentality of Wilders and PVV voters. Still, the question remains: given that some of the students failed to understand the deeper goal, and that Yerli was unable to deliver the flowers, did this artistic effort accomplish its objective? The answer is unclear – especially as more than 15 percent of Dutch voters in the 2010 election supported Wilders. Ironically, Dutch voters seem to have shown Wilders lots of love.

The Role of Art in Politics

Artists have a crucial role in politics, where critical thinking and questioning are rarely valued. More than just telling new stories, they provoke society in rebellious and unsettling ways. Artists draw upon their daily experiences and surrounding world, such as street culture or religious community, in order to create their work. For Appa, his music is telling a story that has never been heard before. “Politics is about us but not with us or amongst us,” he said.“I want to make music that works as a bridge– a bridge of information to politicians. I give them information about my kind of life.” The role of his art, in other words, is to provide information or knowledge for politicians and the public to consume. Specifically, it divulges new information about groups that are underrepresented or invisible, and can be used as a way of interpreting and understanding their world. Of course, that information is not unbiased – it is necessarily situated in Appa’s identity and personal experiences.

Most of Wilders’ storytelling portrays the Moroccan Muslim community as the antagonists; he often refers to the criminal Moroccan boy or the veiled and oppressed Muslim woman. Appa, Safa, and Hajar are the embodiment of these archetypes, yet their art inverts or complicates his story. These individuals use art within the political sphere in order to reviseWilders’ portrayal of their community as the enemy.

The personal identities of these respective artists are connected to the message and motivations behind their work. Their artistic medium– whether poetry, music, performance or installation art – is a way of expressing their emotional reactions to events occurring in their world. While they are “authentically” situated residents of the rough neighborhoods of Rotterdam, they do not necessarily provide an artistic response to social problems. Rather, they are articulating the details of what it is like to experience these social problems themselves. Appa’s music, for example, represents the Dutch-Moroccan experience on a national stage. “The origin of hip hop is the street—from people without a voice. The essence of this is in my music.” His music and accompanying videos feature knives and violence, conforming to some stereotypes of the Moroccan community but also articulating the lived experiences of many Moroccans in the Netherlands.

While Yerli, Appa and the Al Wahda choir oppose Wilders’ ideas and message, Staal attempts to position himself as neutral. He states that his work is not about agreeing or disagreeing with Wilders, but rather a commentary on the populist movement that Wilders represents. By reserving judgement, Staal attempts to step back from society and view current events as an outsider.

This would-be neutrality arguably, carries an arrogant or artificial tone. Out of our four artists, Staal is the only white Dutch artist who is not a member of an ethnic minority. Since he is not being personally targeted by Wilders’ politics, Staal has the luxury of appearing neutral: there has been no proposal to tax his choice of clothing, or deport his family members. On a national scale, this appears to be the response of the Dutch artistic community: they have the luxury to remain neutral while a handful of artists from ethnic minority backgrounds take a stand.

A close examination of the tone used in the work of these four artists is very telling. Appa and Staal choose a dark and aggressive style: Appa uses violent and harsh language, and Staal uses the illusion of death. Viewed from this perspective, the two artists could be said to be reacting in an aggressive and negative manner which parallels the hostile rhetoric of Wilders. This tone is in opposition to the work of Yerli and the Al Wahda choir: love letters and girl power songs. These two female artists are attempting to change the discourse through a positive message. Although we are only examining a very small (and not necessarily representative) sample of artists, it might nevertheless be generalized that both male artists adopt a “negative” approach, while the female artists use positive strategies to convey their messages. This pattern unfortunately echoes old and clichéd gender norms, positing Wilders as the aggressive, white, Dutch male leader who is trying to control the political narrative.

There are additional differences between the four artists. Staal and Yerli operate on a different level than the other two, in that their work attempts to change the political discourse through the use of different mediums than typical debates and speeches. However, their message – while critical – is not the entire picture. By using an artistic medium to critique political power, each of these artists is able to provide new insight. Staal, for example, is able to push the public further because he uses mediums that are not controlled by current political institutions. Yerli refuses to accept Wilders´ way of framing societal problems, instead responding in terms of love and empathy. These artists force viewers to rethink their surroundings and question their hidden beliefs.

The Moral Responsibility of Artists

The role of art and artists in politics is a contentious issue: are artists innocent bystanders commenting on society, or are they active participants, influencing and persuading the public through their medium? Appa´s lyrics comment on the lived experiences of many Dutch-Moroccans and the hypocrisy of Dutch society. Do four million views on YouTube mean that he has influenced or changed Dutch society? Not necessarily; many of the viewers’ comments are negative and aggressively hostile toward Appa. Meanwhile, Staal, despite claiming to be exclusively “artistic”, inserted himself into the national political debate for several months in 2005. His court case had the political effect of rallying support for the PVV, because Wilders was seen as a victim of the liberal artistic community.

The role of artists in politics is contested even among artistic communities. Some artists believe that they should not be distracted by current events or politics, and that their purpose is rather to create lasting works of art which give deep insight into human nature. Political art is seen as trivial because it is temporal; “great” art is valuable because it transcends this moment in time. In fifty years, will lyrics written about Wilders matter? A lot of this depends on the path that the Netherlands will ultimately follow.

The Dutch artistic community is wrestling with its fears over engaging with the subject of Wilders. Even though Appa was taken to court, he continues to make music critical of Wilders and Dutch politics. But he may not necessarily be a representative case: one artist interviewed for this article wishes to remain anonymous, due to the backlash she received as a result of making art about Wilders. After presenting her artistic piece to the public, several newspapers demonized her as a liberal crusader. In the long term, she believes her work to have done more damage than good, and resolves never to engage either Wilders or the media again.

While many artists may desire to remain apolitical, the examples of these four who chose the opposite path – Appa, Staal, the Al Wadha choir, and Yerli – illustrate how making a political statement through art is possible, and how diverse these strategies can be. None of these artists regards him or herself as a politician or working for a political party; yet, their artistic works have political implications and have impacted society.

To take no responsibility for the community or society in which one lives, as pointed out earlier, is a privileged position for an artist to take – one which artists from ethnic minority communities in the Netherlands do not necessarily have, as they are increasingly targeted by right-wing groups for being “un-Dutch”. If it is true that artists have no moral responsibility to act because of their profession or their unique skills, they are still compelled to act as members of a community and as fellow Dutch citizens. If one believes that every citizen has a moral responsibility to one another – a lesson which has been repeated regularly throughout human history – these four examples illustrate, in different ways, how this truth extends to artists as well.

References

Websites

www.ad.nl/ad/nl/1012/Binnenland/article/detail/446056/2009/11/23/Wilders-laat-zich-niet-door-Yerli-vertederen.dhtml

www.liefdebegeertwilders.nl/

www.nrc.nl/binnenland/article2514782.ece/Moslimas_maken_pro-hoofddoeklied

www.trouw.nl/nieuws/politiek/article2865224.ece/Wilders_wil__kopvoddentax_.html

www.wahda.nl

www.zwartekat.nl/yerli/

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2010

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