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Music

From the streets, into the concert hall

Hip-hop has a storied past - from its roots in gritty 1970s New York, to becoming one of the most influential areas of pop music. The genre has often fused with indie or radio-friendly pop, but what about classical?

Mihalj "Miki" Kekenj is the concertmaster for a regional German orchestra known as the Bergische Symphoniker, based in the cities of Remscheid and Solingen. He plays first violin, an instrument that has been played in his family for generations. Kekenj has played since he was six, but that's just one side of his musicianship. He's also a rapper and hip-hop producer - under the moniker Miki - with a knack for combining classical and rap on one stage.

The performer says he discovered rap at age 12 when he bought his first album, "Fear of a Black Planet," by legendary New York hip-hoppers Public Enemy. The album was distinctly political, like much rap music has been before and since then. The genre was born in the New York of the 1970s, when children from the ghettos often had nowhere to turn to get a leg up in society. Instead, they built up their own value system by way of hip-hop, with DJing, rap, graffiti and breakdancing fusing into a shared cultural identity.

Rap offered a way for young people from the lower class to express themselves, earn respect and recognition, and have fun.

Miki holding his violin Copyright: Stefan Butte

Miki - violinist by day, MC by night

'CNN of the streets'

Since violence and crime was a part of daily reality in the ghettos of the Bronx, gangsta rap has always been part of rap culture - not so much as a glorification of urban malaise but as a reflection of its reality. Public Enemy once called rap the "CNN of the street." And what's carried on from that description is the media's focus on rap as a source of scandal and intrigue.

"Gangsta rap is a part of hip hop. You can't imagine the genre without it. But I support another form," said Miki. "There are rappers who have so much to say that's meaningful, creative, and magical. They never even come into the public eye. But those are the rappers with whom I'd like to work."

Overcoming skepticism

Miki has already brought rappers and classical musicians on stage together many times. He says it's no surprise that the orchestra musicians are often skeptical at first, haven only taken in rap through the media lens of scandal and sensation.

Mihalj Kekenj Miki sitting on steps Copyright: Stefan Butte

Miki says he's out to draw in new audiences for classical

"However, [the musicians] have been impressed with how much creativity and technical prowess the rappers approached their work," Miki reports.

He has started music projects titled "Opus 1" and "Moments with…" "Opus 1" is a symphonic hip-hop project featuring rappers like Curse, Megaloh, Chima and MC Rene. The group's work can be found as an album online. For his part, Miki rapped and produced for Opus 1, but his main roles were to play violin and put together the orchestral scores. For "Moments with…", a concert series in Berlin, Miki adapted songs by artists like Erykah Badu or Aloe Blacc for chamber music ensembles.

When it comes to rap and classical together on stage, Miki says there's no contradiction. "A soul singer or rapper can of course play with a classical ensemble. They just have to approach each other. That's my job with the arrangements, making everyone feel at home."

Familiar territory

But long before Miki's projects, rap had been borrowing from classical music, the violinist and MC says: "Hip hop has long used samples from the world of orchestral music. Strings and wind instruments are not unusual in hop-hop."

Peter Fox performing on stage (AP Photo/Sven Kaestner)

Peter Fox scored a major hit with his crossover "Stadtaffe"

In recent years, though, hip-hop has drawn increasingly from the classical concert halls. Peter Fox, a German rapper and member of the band Seeed, released a highly successful solo album in 2008 called "Stadtaffe" (City Monkey) with backing from the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg. US superstar Kanye West gave a concert joined solely by a string orchestra, and the show evolved into an album. And Germany's WDR Radio Orchestra has also collaborated with rappers Maeckes and Plan B to produce a concertante radio drama. So rap and classical are merging on various fronts.

Miki is already at work on "Opus 2," a violin concerto that includes rap parts. He's also planning to write an opera that incorporates influences from urban culture. His goal is to conquer classical spaces like the opera house both for and with young people. Along the way, he hopes to expand the audience for classical music.

"I sit every day in a symphony orchestra and enjoy every note that I play. I would like for many people who have nothing to do with classical music to enjoy it just as much as I do," he said.

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