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Joe Chialo: Ex-metal singer becomes Berlin's culture senator

April 28, 2023

As former singer and music manager Joe Chialo of the CDU steps into the role of culture senator, he'll be in charge of a $1 billion budget. He says culture shouldn't be elitist and wants Berlin's club scene recognized.

Joe Chialo grins as he looks into the camera during a German talk show
Singer, manager and most recently, politician: Joe Chialo of the conservative CDU will be Berlin's new culture ministerImage: Kirsten Nijhof/dpa/picture alliance

Joe Chialo is relatively new to politics but is set to assume the high-profile role of minister for culture in Berlin. He replaces Left Party (Die Linke) politician and former deputy mayor of Berlin, Klaus Lederer.

The reshuffling of positions is a result of the new coalition government agreement reached between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD).

After a long career in music, Chialo, who only joined the Christian Democrats in 2016, is expected to inject some fresh perspective to one of Europe's leading cultural capitals.

Having run unsuccessfully for a seat in the last federal election, the Berlin senator who ran a music label and sang in heavy metal bands now has a chance to promote Berlin's high culture, but also its grassroots creativity — and especially its legendary club scene.  

The six-person German jury for the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest
Joe Chialo was part of the German jury for the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest Image: Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa/picture alliance

A man who earns his money with culture

Chialo is not your typical conservative CDU politician.

The son of a Tanzanian diplomat, he was born in Bonn in 1970 and was not initially granted German citizenship. His parents moved around the world as diplomats, leaving him and his brother behind at boarding school.

After studying politics, history and political science, Chialo dropped out of university and pursued a career as a musician.

He became the singer of Blue Manner Haze, a band combining heavy metal with funk and hip hop. Chialo has since compared the musical complexity of metal with classical music.

An avowed fan of German hard rock band Rammstein, Chialo also had a stint as a bouncer at a Nuremberg discotheque.

He then segued into the role of music manager at Universal Music, where he was primarily responsible for marketing African artists in Germany and Europe. He founded two labels of his own, under which he also marketed Irish-American band, The Kelly Family —  who are hugely popular in Germany.

Politically, Chialo was a member of the Green Party in the 1990s, but the treatment of Greens leader and former vice-chancellor of Germany, Joschka Fischer, who was Chialo's inspiration, drove him from the party.

It was chancellor Angela Merkel's willingness to welcome refugees fleeing war in Syria in 2015 that convinced Chialo to join the CDU a year later.

Promoting Berlin's club scene

So what can Joe Chialo offer as Berlin's culture tsar, and what does he know about high culture?

Tasks such as naming the new general director of Berlin's largest opera house, Deutsche Oper, and defining Berlin's role in the controversial Humboldt Forum, will be on his to-do list.

But Chialo insists culture should not be elitist. Whether it's the club scene, theaters, operas or museums, all have a valid place in the cultural life of the capital, he says.

Which is why Chialo wants to recognize Berlin's clubs as "cultural sites."

"Clubs are talent factories, make an important cultural contribution, they make inner cities more attractive [and] attract audiences," he told the Berliner Zeitung.

Berlin: Capital of techno and club culture

"Culture is not an elitist event and not just for Berlin-Mitte," he said of the city center where major museums and classical music venues tend to reside. And just like cultural life can be found across many Berlin districts, "there have to be clubs everywhere, too," he said.

Berlin as global cultural hub

Chialo also hopes that culture can better work with business to attract more global creative entrepreneurs to Berlin.

As an active promoter of African culture and music for decades, Chialo stands in stark contrast to predecessor Klaus Lederer, who, while embracing diversity including queer culture, was perceived as less cosmopolitan.

Chialo, who in his autobiography describes himself as a proud "Afropolitan," also encourages cultural producers to confront Germany's colonial past.

He would like to promote alternative narratives of German life, for instance, including the success stories of migrants.

Joe Chialo next to CDU candidate Kai Wegner, the new mayor of Berlin.
Joe Chialo (left) with Berlin Mayor Kai Wegner of the CDUImage: Philipp Znidar/dpa/picture alliance

A chance to reshape culture in the capital

The anointed culture senator says he doesn't want to become a symbol of wokeness or the focus of debates around racism.

Still, even though he may want to stay in line with the CDU's brand of center-right politics, he nevertheless symbolizes diversity and doesn't fit the party stereotype.

Though the new coalition agreement devotes only six of 136 pages to culture, it is an office in charge of a massive €928 million ($1 billion, in 2023) budget. Many in the capital are hoping Joe Chialo can deploy it to refocus the power and potential of Berlin's cultural life.

Whether he will shape culture in Berlin differently than his predecessors remains to be seen.

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.