It's more dangerous for a rapper to talk about politics than it is for a politician to talk about music. Rap expert Falk Schacht explains why the rap scene has responded with full force to Germany's sway to the right.
German hip hop is expected to become ever more political. But why should a musician, a rapper even, know more about politics than anyone else who feels free to spew their thoughts out onto the internet?
Hip hop label owner Marcus Staiger said 15 years ago - using other words - that he'd rather listen to a song about sex than to a bad rap song about politics. But that begs the questions: Why should rap touch on politics? And, ultimately, can rap change anything?
Good boys and bad boys
Rappers are usually concerned with looking cool, and politics don't rate as cool. Political rap songs often result in committing a faux-pas and putting your reputation as an artist on the line.
The general public often label rap music as being extreme. But there are a few rappers, like Cro, who embodies the image of the nice, harmless boy from next door, who you could even take to you parents' house for dinner. The message behind that is: everything is fine. That's "nice" rap - which has found a solid mainstream following.
On the other hand, there are German rappers like Bushido - the bad-boy foreigner who some people think should be deported. Their secret message: everything is not fine. If it were, there wouldn't be any gangsta rap in Germany - because gangsta rap only develops in societies that aren't perfect.
To understand what isn't fine exactly, we have to ask the right questions, but the answers are complex and uncomfortable. So many people think that it's better not ask. It's much easier to just judge gansta rappers. They always say bad things anyway.
Rap has always been (secretly) political
It's this indirect political message that children have always wanted to know about but never dared asked their parents, which has made rap music political since day one. It's the voice of the voiceless.
Rap first arose out of the ruins of the Bronx, a poor neighborhood of New York City, which was plagued by a wave of arson cases in the 1970s. That musical style was slowly adopted by German artists in the early 1990s - a time when Germany was dealing with welding its two halves together after its reunification. The Yugoslavian Wars also began at that time, fuelling the political climate in Europe at the time.
As refugees started to stream in from newly opened Eastern Europe, mainly from former Yugoslavia, and from other regions in Asia and the Middle East, the media spent many months hashing out the asylum debate, in which terms like "asylum abuse," "fake asylum," and "economic refugees" were instrumentalized by politicians and the media. This provided an ideal framework for neo-Nazis to go on the offensive.
In August 1992, Germany experienced some of the heftiest racist riots since World War II. Rostock-Lichtehagen, the main center where asylum-seekers were admitted at the time, was barraged for days on end. "Now you'll burn!" attackers shotued as they tossed Molotov cocktails into a building housing 100 Vietnamese refugees, while 2,000 German neighbors looked on and applauded.
Rap arose out of the flames of hate
For the German rap scene, Rostock-Lichtenhagen in the early 1990s became their own burning Bronx from the 1970s. Politics still wasn't a cool subject, but being a slient bystander was no longer an option, as matters drew ever more polarizing.
In its early beginnings, the German rap scene stayed small and responded to such xenophobic attacks with benefit concerts, compilation albums with various artists rapping against neo-Nazis and far-right ideology. There were plenty of albums, singles and music groups that made bold statements like "Advanced Chemistry" in their famous song, "Fremd im eigenen Land" (Foreign in your own country).
Part of the song translates freely (without the German rhyming pattern) as such:
"Politicians and the media report sooner or later
About 'exceeded intake capacity.'
It's explained until you get dizzy
That foreigners are a threat to us,
So citizens who have prejudices think
That they are in danger.
He's losing it, it's getting away -
His oh-so-important German quality of life"
It seems as though, 25 years later, that we've returned to the very same place. And so it's not surprising that in the past two years or so, a growing number of political songs have been coming out of the German rap scene. So many, in fact, that we are seeing a re-politization of rap.
Successful rappers like K.I.Z., who in "Boom Boom Boom" rap lyrics like "The lynch mob is green with envy / of the five-star hotel in the asylum-seekers' home. Do you think the refugees got in on a party boat / with the big dream of selling drugs in the park?"
And then there's Samy Deluxe, who explains why his toilet paper is now "Black Red Gold," and Eko Fresh, who raps that he is shocked by the recent success of the populist AfD party in state elections in his track, "Nightmare for Germany!"
The group OK KID meanwhile produced an impressive video called "Gute Menschen" that takes wannabe do-gooders to task and tackles German stereotypes.
Even beyond the mainstream radar, things are getting political in German hip hop and rap. Ali As and Pretty Mo allow prejudices to clash against each other with sobering results in their song "German / Foreigner." And Zugezogen Maskulin reports from "Oranienplatz," a popular square in Berlin where refugees have been "cleared out" by the police.
But can rap change anything?
The reason rap music always reacts to society lies in its political heritage. Despite its mainstream success, rap has remained part of a counter-culture. Ultimately, the question is, what good does it do? Or should we just rap about sex?
If rap gives a voice to the voiceless, its first goal is achieved when that voice is heard. Whether that voice says something good or bad can be examined at a later stage. And that's the good thing about political rap - even bad political rap: tt agitates and motivates. It stirs discourse. And there's always hope that it can sow the seeds for a solution.