Czech rapper rockets from obscurity to European spotlight | Music | DW | 11.05.2012
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Music

Czech rapper rockets from obscurity to European spotlight

Martin Hula, who performs under the name Bonus, long worked in the shadows of the Czech Republic's rap scene. But since winning a top Czech critics' award, he is poised to conquer Europe.

It feels like ages since Prague has produced a youthful artist or thinker with something to say to the world. But judging by growing acclaim in the city, one native son might be on his way to European renown.

Since winning a new Czech critics' award, the Apollo, for best new album earlier this year, Martin Hula, 32, has taken the Czech Republic by storm. And he is not stopping there. A rigorous summer tour schedule includes dates for Slovakia, Germany and England, and could propel him well beyond.

Rapper Martin Hula

Hula's lyrics have a distinctly existentialist touch

Still, the trappings of newfound fame are not going to Hula's head. In fact, the paparazzi treatment is just about the antithesis of his do-it-yourself or "diy" philosophy - as he calls it himself.

"My philosophy is to build alternative, independent culture, to support and promote different values than you get from mainstream culture," he told DW. "I'm not such a fool as to think I would change the system by myself. But I try to create something I believe in."

Nonconformist approach

That worldview is reflected in songs like "My Mistu" (My Place), a hymn to the usually unsung workers who make underground shows possible. In it, Hula praises the sound and stage crews of obscure clubs who sometimes work for no pay. To Hula, they embody the "diy" approach, which he himself employs by writing and producing all of his songs.

The tunes on Hula's award-winning second album "Namesi Miru" (Peace Square) range from aggressive critiques of capitalist society to riffs on love and other demons. They are winning him a growing following, which turned up for a recent show in the atmospheric Bio Oko theater in Prague's post-industrial, trendy seventh district.

The Bio Oko theater

Hula seemed right at home at the Bio Oko theater, a charmingly grungy venue

Audience member Jakub Hrab, 22, was one recent convert.

"What I like is it's a really different approach to rap," he said. "It's not that flat something that copies American-style rap. That's been happening here since the '90s. Now there's finally someone who really has some opinion about himself and does it differently."

The Czech language sounds surprisingly conducive to Hula's chosen musical genre. Whether you understand the western Slavic tongue or not, its guttural sounds seem perfect for rap, which has grown in recent years as a worldwide language of protest. Hula also exploits Czech to compose elegant rhymes and incorporates eastern European melodies into his catchy tunes.

Gallery H

A preoccupation that emerges in Hula's repertoire is the discrepancy between post-Soviet Czech hopes and everyday reality. The artist said he takes inspiration from his father, a mathematician who also ran a Prague art gallery called Gallery H from 1983 to 1988.

"It wasn't illegal, because it wasn't political," he said, "but it wasn't legal either because it wasn't possible to have a legal, private gallery during Communist times."

Rapper Martin Hula

Hula has his sights set on the rest of Europe

Hula added that his father displayed works by artists who couldn't find an outlet in official shows, creating a unique community in Prague.

"He just did what he wanted. I was growing up in this very creative, inspiring environment," Hula said. "It was pretty similar to what 'diy' culture is. It was a network of people around the whole Republic of Czechoslovakia working on a free cultural space."

Berlin-bound

The Apollo award - and the accompanying spotlight - have made Hula a black sheep in the Czech rap scene. Pavel Kucera, a music critic and co-founder of the award, said judges honored Hula precisely to buck Czech music trends.

"He doesn't play the game that most Czech rappers do," Kucera said. "He's very political in his lyrics, and most Czech rappers only rap about themselves and the way they live."

Audience at the Bio Oko concert

The Bio Oko concert was a benefit for handicapped youths

Judging by the audience at Bio Oko, Hula's appeal goes beyond that of the pop star du jour. His lyrics seemed to resonate with audience members like 33-year-old Lenka Svejcarova.

"I think he can speak to all the old people and the young people," she said. "It doesn't matter how old you are, you would understand him."

Onstage, Hula is a charismatic performer. Vigorously strutting and punctuating many of his lines with energetic fist gestures, he makes the venue his own.

Hula might well be part of the best Czech tradition of artists and thinkers. Whether he can successfully make the leap over the border will be seen at a May show in Bratislava, July concerts in Berlin and Dresden, and an August show in London.

Check out the links below for free downloads from Hula's latest album.

Author: Shant Shahrigian
Editor: Rick Fulker

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