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Lyrical diss

Interview: Kate MüserJuly 19, 2013

Rapper Bushido offended top politicians - and has landed on Germany's list of forbidden music. Publicist and musician Jan Kage explains why he did it, and why Germany deals with scandalous music differently than the US.

Rapper Bushido
Image: Getty Images

DW: In his song "Stress without Reason," rapper Bushido basically sings a death wish for certain German politicians. Does that shock you?

Jan Kage: Since I've heard other songs done in the last 40 years saying something similar, I don't really think it's that shocking that a musician should say something like that.

I think it's really interesting which politicians he wants dead. Normally when I listen to music that calls for the death of politicians, it's right-wing politicians. Here a rapper is going after a Social Democrat like the Berlin mayor [Klaus Wowereit], a Green party member [Claudia Roth] who criticized him for being anti-Semitic, and a liberal democrat [Sekran Tören from the Free Democratic Party].

That is the new thing about it. You have to know that Bushido himself did an internship for the CDU, the conservative party, in Parliament, with high-ranking politicians like the German minister for interior affairs or the very influential Bavarian conservative leader [Horst] Seehofer.

They were happy to have photos taken with Bushido in their arms. That is the new thing - that a pop musician who is playing with a radical image is really imposing very conservative content. It's anti-gay, and all the politicians he's dissing are coming from the liberal side of things.

Jan Kage
Jan Kage understands the rap and hip hop scenes on both sides of the AtlanticImage: Stefan Ruhmke

Do you think he is making true political commentary, or is he simply stirring up feelings?

I think music is always about stirring up feelings - or dealing with feelings. If you want to deal with politics seriously, I think you should write essays or books or participate in discussions. Music can only always address feelings and I think he expresses some of his feelings because he was part of a bigger debate. For instance, with Claudia Roth from the Green party, who criticized him publicly, and I think that evoked his feelings that he militantly disses her in his song.

Germany has an index for music that it considers not acceptable for minors. Can you explain exactly what that index is and what it means for artists?

The German index has a long history and is aimed at young people. They say it's not censorship, but of course it is when you say people under 18 can't listen to this song. It's like in America with rated R movies or the typical parental advisory stickers for records.

As I understand, the difference is that songs on the index in Germany are actually removed from the Internet, while in the US it's just a warning. Is that correct?

That's completely correct. But then again even in the 1980s when I grew up as a teenager, there was a funny punk band called Die Ärzte and they were put on the index. That was pre-Internet, pre-CD. In those days somebody bought a vinyl record and 10 of his friends would copy it onto a tape. And there was no problem having that tape - actually it was way more interesting. 'Oh that's the censored tape? Can I have that?' Even then you couldn't ban music from the public by putting it on the index. I think it's really useless.

What's the different between Germany and the US as far as what kind of music qualifies as unacceptable for youth?

I think in America it's mostly due to explicit language. It's not often because of content. There were so many disses on New York's ex-mayor "Rudy" Giuliani in any rap song from New York during his term. But nobody tried to sue those rappers. The Beastie Boys even did it! What compels people here is the content. I think what qualifies you to get on the index is being very sexually explicit. Probably also if it's anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi.

Do you think Germany's too sensitive?

I think with censorship you don't really address the problem because the song is still there. The other day my 10-year-old neighbor asked me, 'Hey, do you like Bushido?' No, I never really listened to him, he's just there. But 10-year-old kids dig him, right? You can't get songs that have been published out of the public - they are there.

I question the effectiveness of the index in the first place, and I criticize censorship. But I think it's important that people talk about the content. If Bushido has made it into all the major media outlets in Germany then he's touched a nerve. So let's talk about homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism.

Bushido at the Paul-Löbe-Haus in Berlin in June 2012
Bushido even did an internship in the German ParliamentImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Is that happening?

Kind of. But I think the public is mostly just standing and warming themselves around the fire of a scandal.

How did rap even come to Germany?

The whole hip hop thing came to Germany with graffiti. Then there were two movies that were most influential: There was Harry Belafonte's "Beat Street." That was very influential in East Germany, because when it was socialist they didn't show many American movies, but Harry Belafonte was considered a socialist. Then there was "Wild Style," which was produced by the West German TV station ZDF. They both came out in the early 80s. The first rap groups started then. They popped up in regions where the American army was based, in southern Germany, in West Berlin, et cetera. The GIs did have a strong impact on youth culture there.

Do rappers like Bushido follow in that American tradition, or how has he made the German rap scene his own?

Berlin always had a strong rap and graffiti scene, starting in the 80s, but when German-language rap became a pop phenomenon in the 90s, Berlin wasn't on the map. German hip hop was very ironic or it was political and it was middle-class kids doing it who could afford some baggy pants and a pair of record players. Berlin on the other hand was always very rough. When Berlin was finally put on the map it was with its street style.

Kool Savas at a concert in Berlin
Kool Savas is a groundbreaker in the new wave of German rapImage: picture alliance/Eventpress Hoensch

First there was Kool Savas and he shocked a lot of people by using the adjective gay in a negative way. That got him a lot of attention. Besides being a talented rapper, this made him known. Then came a second wave of Berlin rappers: Sido and Bushido were the most successful of that second wave. Bushido certainly speaks to the migrant youth and the lower-class youth who feel disconnected and often are unemployed.

Based in Berlin, Jan Kage has worked in music for many years, and is also a publicist, political theorist and sociologist specializing in the American rap and hip hop scene. In 2002, he published a book titled "American Rap. HipHop und Identität."