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Scene in Berlin

Jan Kage, BerlinApril 30, 2014

Even ahead of EU elections, conservative Hungary is distancing itself from Europe. That reminded DW Insider Jan Kage of the time he tried to end Budapest's ban on an Ice-T song with a flash mob. It didn't quite work.

Rapper Ice T, Copyright: Brad Barket/Getty Images for CBGB)
Image: Brad Barket/Getty Images for CBGB

He said, "At home I listen a lot to this kind of music, too," and then continued with some lame rock bands after I asked him for credible specifics. "Yeah right," I thought, and instantly knew he just wanted to win our confidence.

He worked for the Hungarian embassy and they'd sent him down to talk to us because he was their young guy and that was the way they looked at us, I assume - as young guys. But he was the kind of young guy that seems old because he's adopted a manner that he seems to think makes him more grown up. It might help his career goals, but the façade is easy enough to see through.

Ice-T rap ban

Let's go back to the beginning. I organized a flash mob outside the Hungarian embassy a few years ago because Viktor Orban's right-wing government had changed the Hungarian constitution with its two-thirds majority in parliament to tighten control of the press. A lot of media reports I read argued this meant nothing but pure censorship.

The first thing I heard on the news when I woke up on January 1, 2011 - with a New Year's hangover pounding in my head - was that the Hungarian government had forbidden radio stations from playing a song by American rapper Ice-T called "It's on." It was a song from the 80s that's nearly been forgotten today.

Jan Kage, Photo: Stefan Ruhmke
Jan Kage's 'Insider' columns appear on the first Thursday of every monthImage: Stefan Ruhmke

My first thought was, "How stupid is this government to use this new law to censor a song on the very first day the law has gone into effect!" And that after months of turbulent discussion in the international media about the impending restrictions. My conclusion: This shameless government really meant it, which is why they proved they were serious.

"It's on!" I thought to myself and called the embassy and asked for the department of culture to get some answers. Why such an old song? And if it's about the obscene language, aren't there a few other songs that should be banned along with it? The embassy referred me to the ministry of the interior in Budapest, which in turn referred me back to the embassy.

Flash mob

Since I didn't get far on the phone, I thought, "It's on." That week I played the tune on my own radio show, Radio Arty, and told my listeners, "Let's meet outside the Hungarian embassy next Tuesday and listen to some Ice-T albums to protest the Hungarian censorship. Since it is a little too cold to drink ice tea this time of year, I'll get some mulled wine for all of us!" So it was on.

First I had to borrow a boom box from my radio station, Flux FM. Then I had to buy Ice-T's albums on CD since I only have them on vinyl. Next: the mulled wine. Since I only have two thermoses I said to myself, "It's the thought that counts," filled up the two jugs, packed my stuff and went to Unter den Linden, the street in the middle of Berlin where a lot of the embassies are, including the Hungarian.

When I got there the police were already waiting. Two newspapers had announced the flash mob, and obviously the police read these papers (or maybe they listened to my radio show?). I was curious to see what would happen next.

Berlin's Unter den Linden, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
Berlin's Unten den Linden boulevard is home to many international embassiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

I put on the first CD, the classic Ice-T album, "Power" and poured myself a glass of wine. Sure enough, the first people arrived. "Are you the flash mob?" Yes, I was.

Sudden interest

I poured some wine for my new comrades. Then a police officer, who'd been waiting with his colleagues in their van 100 meters away, asked, "Are you responsible for this demonstration here?" He didn't seem too unfriendly so I tried the truth: "Yes, I am."

"Well, you did not register it with us. But if you want to do that, now you can," he replied. "Or if you don't continue this thing here for too long and not too many people come, we can also kind of ignore it." I chose the second option.

The next person who came was the lady from the embassy who'd told me on the phone to call Budapest. Now she wanted to talk after all and brought the young/old man with her - the one who later explained he privately listens to "this kind of music, too." Now she was all talkative with me and I expressed my surprise to her with all my smiling ironic politeness: "You told me on the phone that you cannot say anything about this censorship at all. But now you can?"

"It is not censorship," the young/old man interjected. "It is against obscene language and this kind of music should not be played publicly." That must be the reason he ostensibly only listens to Ice-T in private.

"But we listen to it publicly here in Germany and nobody feels offended," I countered. "I think the government you represent really wanted to hit the alternative free radio station that played the song. And it used some good old rap song because this way people think, 'Oh yeah, that is obscene,' even though they wouldn't have noticed it without the censorship and the attention that it stirred because they don't listen to this alternative station anyways and particularly not at midnight when the song was played."

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
Prime Minister Viktor Orban was reelected in AprilImage: Getty Images/AFP

No hangover, no end to censorship

It was useless arguing with them. Why waste my energy instead of having a good time on a clear winter day with some mulled wine, a flash mob and some Ice-T on the speakers?

I didn't feel like going to war with the embassy people and I thought, "Don't hate the player. Hate the game," so I offered them some of our mulled wine. They wanted some but when I reached for the thermoses, they were already empty. Two jugs are not enough when it comes to warming up a flash mob, I learned. And unfortunately I don't possess Jesus' skill of turning two jugs into a dozen. (On second thought, maybe it's not that unfortunate because if I could, I would probably constantly be throwing a flash mob somewhere and drink all that wine for good causes. And that would end in more than just one New Year's hangover.)

Our flash mob had no effect on the Hungarian media policy. Hungarians still can't listen to Ice-T's "It's on." The government even recently got reelected, so Hungarians seem to be more down with their right-wing president than they are with Ice-T and freedom of speech. I have his song on CD now, though, and the government agents that privately bounce gangsta rap at their crib got no mulled wine from me.

Nothing's really changed. Yet.