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Songstress Nina Hagen preaches for peace and power to the people on her latest album "Volksbeat" (Folk Beat). Civil rights songwriters and anti-establishment icons are among those who get a nod from the German singer.
Over a career spanning nearly 40 years, 55-year-old Nina Hagen has left an impenetrable mark on German contemporary music. Known for her piercing eyes, operatic trills and eccentric artistry, the singer born in former East Germany has been called everything from a punk icon to the mother of un-convention. Hagen is also an outspoken peace activist who has famously flirted with Hinduism and more than her fair share of younger men. Now, though, family and love with a capital L may be serving to tame the creative diva - at least a little. She says she saw the face of God after tripping on LSD at the age of 17. Two years ago, she was christened in a Protestant ceremony. In 2010 she published a book of memoirs. In late 2011, she released a new album with cover versions of songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, German singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann and Curtis Mayfield. Deutsche Welle caught up with the quirky queen of German avant-garde music to discuss pop, politics and her plans for the future.
Deutsche Welle: Why did you call your latest album "Volksbeat"?
Nina Hagen: Because the heartbeat of a people, the rhythm of a nation, compose its songs. There have always been propagandists who say "Yeah, Adolf Hitler always used the word 'Volk.'" But we are the people. It doesn't matter whether some psychopath abused the word for his own evil purposes. We are the people - Patti Smith has said it. Power to the people - John Lennon. We are the people. Period. We are the people of a good spirit, a people of love, a people of peace and freedom. And now we have to fight to regain that with the only weapon that amounts to anything: with our love.
Why is the album so obviously inspired by music from the 1970s?
All those songs of protest from the past have lost none of their relevance. I recently appeared on a TV show and the host said that I am preaching on this record. If that's what you call preaching, then I'm proud of it. Perhaps it's the first time that young man heard a proper sermon. In my opinion, today's youth are sort of fumbling in the dark. The young people I meet are very distracted, they have so many toys, they have it so good, or bad, as the case may be. They don't look beyond the horizon.
The many faces of Nina Hagen
For example, they don't share my deep concerns about all that tension in the Middle East. I've been shaped immensely by anti-fascism and politics since childhood. My father was an anti-fascist and survivor of World War II and the Nazi dictatorship. My grandfather didn't survive it. And as the daughter of such a great mother who strummed song after song on her guitar since my earliest childhood days - those are my people. They brought me into this world. From them I gained my core knowledge - my career preparation in a manner of speaking. That's why for me there's always a "folk beat," even if it's called something different.
What's your message?
I want truth and nothing but the truth, peace and nothing but peace. I want love to flourish and fear to be eradicated. Precisely as is written in the Brecht song "Bitten der Kinder" (Children's Prayers), the first track on "Volksbeat." In that sense, it is a battle-cry, an outcry, a plea for disarmament and the de-escalation of tensions - that we commit ourselves to respecting human rights. Every good civil rights movement - including in former East Germany - was empowered by its songs. The civil rights movement in the GDR is unique in human history because the people felt such extreme solidarity. Through peaceful resistance, which they maintained throughout the 80s, they ultimately succeeded in steering negotiations to benefit the people.
Protesting against nuclear energy (Nina with red bow in hair)
Your album contains cover versions of songs by former East German dissident Wolf Biermann, Bob Dylan and Curtis Mayfield to name just a few. Have they had a special influence on you?
They are all my brothers who should go to heaven with me. I want to take them by the hand. There are many more, but they wouldn't all fit on a small CD. On this album we wanted to show that the main thing is that you remain true to yourself, true to your love, and don't allow anything to be taken away, especially not the freedom to make music.
Interestingly, all the artists you've covered have different backgrounds for their protest but they all demand the same thing…
Yes, I think that it's really great. Wolf isn't a Christian. He's a humanist and ethicist, which is great. I've never met Dylan personally and I don't know about his convictions or religion, but I know it in my heart. He is a son of God, just as Biermann is and just as every single child ever to be born into this world. We're all children of one creator - and for those who don't believe in a Creator - of one Big Bang. At any rate, life is a gift and we have to cherish it.
You're a very spiritual, religious person. Did you turn more toward Christianity by having yourself christened two years ago?
I've been Christian since childhood and was christened in spirit during my near-death experience in which I spoke to God face-to-face. In the early 80s I sang the Lord's Prayer in both German and English. On my album "In Ekstase" (In Ecstasy) I even sang "Spirit in the Sky" in German and "NunSexMonkRock" was scattered with quotations from the Bible. Look at my lyrics and you'll see that I've always struggled and preached in the name of love, in the name of Jesus Christ and not just since my Christening.
Nina's got a bent toward Hinduism
Your faith appears to be very important to you...
My heart beats for all the victims of torture in the world, for all the refugees, for the babies born in Africa who are threatened by malaria mosquitoes, et cetera. I am concerned. I worry. I consider myself a full member of humanity. As an old mother and hopefully one day a grandmother, and as a German poet, thinker, songwriter and singer, of course I think a lot about reaching as many people as possible with my music and the great message that whether you believe in eternal life or not, it is our duty as humans to ensure that civil and ethical principles are adhered to and we can all stand up for that.
Tell us more about the song "Soma Koma," which was inspired by works by authors George Orwell and Aldous Huxley...
The books by Huxley and Orwell with their terrible visions of the human race being genetically manipulated, in which there is a slave race and everything is controlled, everyone has chips - we are growing into such a horror scenario right now if we don't inform ourselves and unite. My pastor and I wrote a book called "Vorboten der Zukunft - wie wir die Welt verbessern" (Harbingers of the Future - How We Can Improve the World). That's exactly what I'm talking about. There are many civil initiatives coming together and joining forces - beyond party lines. It has nothing to do with political parties because they offer no solution. They only want to achieve power but no one is addressing our problems.
Nina Hagen's not one for being quiet
You have also written a biography. Was that so you could end a certain chapter in your life or was their another reason?
My life has been wonderful so far and in a sense that's why I had to write the book. There are so many idiots that have nothing better to write about Nina Hagen other than that I am a shrill publicity junkie. What kind of a job description is that? If I'd been born a man, then I would have been given a little more respect. If, for example, my name was Nino Grönemeyer, no one would dare to call a creative male musician such things and such insulting nicknames as they have for me. It really is interesting.
You've already mentioned the near-death experience you had when you were 17. Can you tell us more about it?
Read my book. It's really difficult to tell such a personal story on the fly. During my near-death experience I really did die and was able to let go. I was in heaven. I experienced God's love for me and this experience was such a gift. For a long time I begged to be able to stay there and never have to be sent back. But I was told why it is so important that we are here and endure till the end when we die a natural death.
What are your plans for the future? Will you go on tour soon?
In March we start a great German tour with a few gigs in France, too. And there's no time for being lazy. I'm already back in the studio, working on really great things with my mother, daughter, son and their friends. We're making absolutely fantastic music with the whole family. It'll be beautiful dance music, and it's so much fun.
Interview: Marc Mühlenbrock / df
Editor: Louisa Schaefer / Rick Fulker