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Serbian hip-hop: how the music of the streets turned towards post-war nationalism

Serbian hip-hop: how the music of the streets turned towards post-war nationalism
Still from the music video for Rap and the City by Fantastic Four

From its origins in 1980s Yugoslavia, Serbian hip-hop has always had a particular edge — from funky pioneers to gangsta rap-inspired takes on war and social collapse. So why, since the Milošević years, have some of the country’s most popular rappers adopted an ugly nationalism?

19 February 2018
Text Nedeljko Subotić

The further hip-hop has travelled away from US shores, the less it has come to resemble DJ Cool Herc’s original creation: in Britain, for example, it has been crossbred with dancehall and garage to create grime. This is a fairly natural evolution: grime, like hip-hop, was spawned by the UK’s disenfranchised black youth. But in Serbia, a nation hardly known for its hip-hop heritage, it has been adopted by ultra-conservative nationalists who have fused it with hooligan chants and given the genre a chauvinistic edge. As bizarre as this sounds, there’s a twisted logic behind it, but to understand that you need to familiarise yourself with the peculiarities of the Serbian hip-hop scene.

Hip-hop first arrived in Yugoslavia sometime in the early 80s, but 1987 is regarded as a pivotal year for the local scene as it marked the release of the debut single from Badvajzer (Budweiser), Ponoćna Trka (Midnight Race), which helped inspire the formation of several key Belgrade rap groups, namely Who Is The Best, Robin Hood and Green Cool Posse. In 1992, MC Best of Who Is The Best was given his own radio show by a local broadcaster, Politika, which he used to boost the genre’s profile. The first homegrown rap album didn’t arrive until two years later, though, when Gru dropped Da li imaš pravo? (Do you have the right?).

From its very beginnings, Serbian rap came in a variety of flavours. Funky G made cheesy dance rap reminiscent of 2 Unlimited; Who Is The Best channelled Public Enemy in their political protest anthem Deca Revolucije (Children of the Revolution). But as the 90s wore on, gangsta rap-inspired tales of street life overwhelmingly came to the fore. This reflected the state of the nation as sanctions crippled the economy, civil society crumbled and organised crime ran rampant.

On 1992’s Otpisani (Written Off ), Robin Hood (a pun on “Robbing Hood”) rapped that “if you want to succeed and be good, these days the best career is digging graves.” In 1994, on Pravo u Raj (Straight to Heaven), Gru waxed lyrical about a friend shot in broad daylight. Unlike Tupac Shakur or Eazy E, neither Gru nor anyone else in the Belgrade hip-hop scene were gangsters, but in a city where the murder rate doubled during the first two years of the war, criminality and gangsterism were inescapable fixtures of daily life throughout the 90s. This is precisely what attracted many young Serbs to the genre — they immediately identified with depictions of life in American ghettos on records like NWA’s seminal Straight Outta Compton. Hip-hop, a music borne out of marginalisation and hardship, one formulated by those on the fringes of society, had a profound resonance in a nation under embargo.

In the 90s, gangsta rap-inspired tales of street life came to the fore, reflecting the state of the nation as sanctions crippled the economy and civil society crumbled

For a long time, Serbian hip-hop was just a cheap imitation of its US counterpart. But in the early-to-mid 2000s, widely regarded as its golden years, the scene reached maturity. The arrival of Bassivity records and groups like V.I.P elevated its production values and professionality and nurtured a scene that began to find its own voice: Bad Copy strung together vulgar, absurdly satirical rhymes vaguely reminiscent of Eminem on one of his manic days, but crafted from a humour and slang so localised that it’s impossible to translate. Prti Bee Gee spat raw, dark bars about drug addiction, a subject they understood intimately: one of their members, Moskri, died of a heroin overdose in 2005, a fate that befell many Serbian youth who came of age during the Yugoslav wars.

This wave of homegrown rap also produced a 12-man collective called Beogradski Sindikat (Belgrade Syndicate), who barged into the national consciousness in 2001 with unflinchingly political rhymes delivered with the force of a football chant. BS took aim at not only the crooked political elite, but also pro-western progressives and the Belgrade urbane class that we used to call “Another Serbia” back in the Milošević years. After lambasting government corruption on Govedina (Livestock), BS turned their attention to Another Serbia, who they regarded as traitors, willing, in their words, “to give up Guča, kajmak and rakija / and tolerate Croats, Borka, gay parades / fuck the Levys, documentarians / I’m not embarrassed of my origins.” Like a broken record, most of BS’s songs regurgitate tired right-wing tropes that dominate political discourse in Serbia: from attacking emigres (“because when the ship starts to sink it’s always the mice who flee first”) to mythologising Kosovo (“be aware, spears were snapped on this field but Serbian Orthodoxy is unbreakable”) and propagating ethnic hatred (“I await your return on the bridge, but this time no Albanian shall pass”), their music drips with the same ethno-populism that brought Milošević to power and set the country on the path to its current state of ruin.

As much as they like to style themselves as dissidents, their personal politics are barely distinguishable from the likes of Vojislav Koštunica, Ivica Dačić, Aleksandar Vučić, Vojislav Šešelj — and every other rotten politico that they blame for the nation’s woes. They are all part of the same chauvinist consensus that has ruled Serbia since the 1990s. This isn’t hyperbole: the group’s most prominent member, Škabo, used to be closely associated to Dveri, a far-right political movement best known for organising a “family values parade” that takes place on the day of Belgrade Pride and brings together religious conservatives, members of the Orthodox clergy, outspoken homophobes and their children, who march together through town as a show of opposition to the social liberalism that they believe has been imposed upon Serbia by the EU. Another founding member, Aleksandar “Prota” Protić, led a populist political party called Third Serbia to an embarrassing result in local elections in 2014, before sliding into irrelevance. These days he peddles streetwear and Russophilia through his clothing brand, Kadet.

It might seem strange that these turbo-nationalists have chosen a foreign musical genre — one from a country that they despise — as the vehicle for their ideology

Beogradski Sindikat aren’t the only Serbian rap group with right wing tendencies: Marlon Brutal, a rapper from the concrete jungle of New Belgradewhose songs include charming lines like “we’re regarded as butchers but we’re the victims / and you ask me why I don’t want into the EU / fuck Amsterdam, I smoke skunk in the block / there I won’t see gays” — recently got married while wearing traditional national garb. This mimicked the late mobster and war criminal Arkan, who pulled the same stunt when he tied the knot with local pop star, Ceca, back in 1995. Marlon’s wedding, where he was greeted with flares and monarchist-era flags, resembled a football match. His Instagram is littered with tributes to Bosnia’s majority-Serb province of Republika Srpska (and local cuisine). On the moderate end of the patriotic spectrum, THC La Familija make references to Kosovo and weave traditional instruments and folk elements into their music — a bandwagon that BS have desperately, and much less succesfully tried to hop aboard.

As extreme as their conservatism might appear to foreign readers, within Serbian society these views are only ever-so-slightly right-of-centre. Protests within Serbia against Milošević are often crowbarred into the West’s triumphalist Cold War narrative, but those that opposed the regime on an ideological level were a tiny minority. Like many in the Eastern Bloc, most people didn’t yearn for democratic society: they wanted a better standard of living. A recent House of Lords report claims that Western Balkans states are turning back to authoritarian nationalism but the reality is that we never truly turned away from it. Beogradski Sindikat and their ilk have served as advocates for this agenda since 2001 and their towering pop cultural significance says something about the national mindset.

It might seem strange, hypocritical even, that these turbo-nationalists have chosen a foreign musical genre — one from a country that they despise, lest we forget — as the vehicle for their ideology. But if you ignore that part, it’s actually quite a natural fit: rap has always been used as a tool for social commentary. Having been on the receiving end of US bombs, Serbia’s far-right hip-hop fans identify with the African-American poor as fellow victims of America’s imperialist tendency. They might be bigots, but bigots in the Balkans are so consumed by local tribal animosities and anti-Western sentiment that few of them have the energy for anything like white supremacy. So, on closer inspection, Serbia’s chauvinist rap isn’t quite so riddled with contradictions as it might first appear. Having said that, if these so-called patriots really wanted to put their money where their mouth is then they’d take up the accordion.

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