How Greek hip hop is thriving in the face of hostility

How Greek hip hop is thriving in the face of hostility
Midas touch — Problems in Greece are far from over. But amid the turmoil and division, a group of young Athens artists have built a dynamic scene from the embers of crisis – one that serves as a direct rebuke to those seeking to other them.

A version of this story appears in Huck 73: The Sanctuary Issue. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

The midday sun is beating down on a scruffy industrial estate in Tavros, a suburb on the outskirts of Athens. Everything in sight is a shade of sun-bleached dirt, except for some imposing warehouse gates topped with razor wire, and a big metal wheelie bin painted yellow with black stripes – the colours of the local team, Fostiras F.C. (The ‘Yellow Army Hooligans’).

Suddenly, a shiny Hummer – also yellow and black – pulls up and out jump two guys and a girl. The taller man, wearing a tight t-shirt and gold chain, is Kareem Kalokoh, a 26-year- old rapper whose star is rising around the world. Kareem is co-founder of ATH Kids collective, an Athens rap crew that first started around 2015 and now find themselves at the forefront of Greece’s dynamic homegrown hip hop scene.

ATH Kids’ Kareem Kalokoh and Joseph Mouzakitis on the streets of Faliro.

Flanked by his girlfriend Alessia and regular collaborator Kid Young, Kareem grinds a cigarette into the floor with his leather loafers and walks over to fire some verses directly into a pair of traffic mirrors. “Tell my mother I made it, I’m on TV,” he raps in English, all while being captured on an analogue Super 8 camera wielded by Kaius Potter, an Australian filmmaker. With its strictly yellow and black colour palette (a tribute to the neighbourhood where Kid Young grew up), the video they’re shooting is another striking example of what ATH Kids do best: presenting Athens – a city known to outsiders for its ancient ruins and riots – in a way that few have seen it before.

“We speak Greek and rap in English – our crew has black dudes, a latino dude, white dudes,” Kareem says. “We put it all together – just like you’ll find in the neighbourhoods of Athens. That mix is the most important thing about who we are.”

Amid a volatile political climate, with police and far-right violence rising once again, Greek rappers have a lot to get off their chests. Despite what the new right-wing government would have you believe, problems here are far from over. Times are hard for almost everyone – especially if you’re a second-generation immigrant. If your voice is ignored and your skin colour is seen as a provocation to many, what do you do?

For those who make up the Greek hip hop scene, you respond by collaborating with people who share your worldview. As a result, a new generation of Greeks are now growing up with musical heroes who, for the first time, reflect the country’s growing multiculturalism. But there is still work to be done.

“Here they only accept you as Greek if you’re successful,” says rapper Negros Tou Moria as he wanders around his old neighbourhood of Kipseli. Dressed in a bright African-print shirt, Negros is a character who demands attention. The 27-year-old is fascinating in conversation, with the charisma to match: he only needs to speak a few words before it’s clear he’s a man with a message.

Negros tou Moria in his old school yard, in Kipseli.

“Nearly everyone at school was white,” he continues. “Although growing up in Kipseli and Ambelokipi, I had mixed-race friends, black and white, kids from Romania, Albania, Cameroon. But our emotions are broken, because some people will say, ‘You’re speaking Greek, you feel Greek, you are Greek.’ But on the next block it’ll be, ‘I don’t care if you speak this language and we have a communication, you’re a foreigner – you’re not an Ancient Greek.’”

Born in Athens to Ghanaian parents, Negros (real name Kofi Ansong), lived for years without Greek citizenship, which led to near-constant harassment by the police as a teenager. He was effectively stateless for the majority of his life, until the previous Syriza government brought in legislation to make it easier for second- generation Greeks to claim their full citizenship rights in 2015.

While Kareem and ATH Kids rap in English and present the Greek reality in an internationally consumable format, Negros Tou Moria raps in Greek and colours his verses with deep cultural references, such as ‘rebetiko’ (Greece’s ‘outlaw folk music’), the Orthodox Church and ancient Greek civilisation. He often performs in traditional dress – ‘tsarouchia’ shoes with woolen pom poms, leg garters known as ‘gonatares’ and a ‘fustanella’, a pleated skirt-like garment worn by the country’s Presidential Guard. It’s a bizarre sight at a hip hop gig; for the nativist far-right, a provocation.

“If I see a certain type of racism or discrimination, I’m going to address it,” Negros says. “My early work was driven by the anger at Greek people not accepting me as a citizen. But everything is still about showing this society what I’m about and what I want to say. I’m speaking the language of this country, I’ll teach you things you don’t know. Lyrically, I always wanna go bananas. I use Greek words even Greek motherfuckers don’t understand – when they have to get out the dictionary, that’s magic.”

Negros views his platform as an opportunity to blend the old with the new and prove that he is as Greek as anyone else – particularly to those who would seek to deny him a voice. “It might be said that he becomes more Greek than his fellow citizens,” wrote critic Kostas Maronitis, “due to his mastery of the language and for his deep appreciation of subcultures often overlooked by the nation’s institutions and by his own industry.”

With everything he releases, Negros is looking to hold a mirror to Greek society. He believes, fundamentally, that it’s broken – but not beyond saving. “Greece is never gonna die,” he emphasises. “But whether Greeks like it or not, the new mainstream sound will be latinos or blacks speaking this language. So listen – and learn.”

Greece has been a bridge between the East and West for millennia. The ancient philosopher Isocrates once said: “Greeks are they who partake in Greek education.” Yet, while not everyone wants to acknowledge it, modern Greek culture and identity has been definitively shaped by successive waves of immigration.

Back in 1922, Greeks expelled from Asia Minor by the new Turkish state arrived, swelling the population of Athens and other cities across the country. Those who followed have since brought their own contributions to the Greek cultural melting pot: such as the refugees from the collapse of Albania’s communist regime and the Balkan wars of the ’90s, as well as Africans, Filipinos, Russians and Ukrainians, and the Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis who are still arriving today. All have faced varying levels of hostility.

MC Yinka’s parents are from Nigeria. The rapper, born Emmanuel Olayinka Afolayan, first picked up the mic in 1998, getting his start MCing at drum and bass nights and jungle raves. He has played in scores of different bands over the years – from funk and soul to jazz, dub and reggae – but hip hop has always been his central focus.

MC Yinka performs to a packed crowd.

Alongside other pioneering acts like FF.C, Active Member, Terror X Crew and Razastarr, the 38-year-old helped establish a place for hip hop in Greece during the ’90s and early ’00s, becoming one of the first major Greek artists with African roots. While he’s humble about his impact, it’s clear that Greek rappers wouldn’t be where they are today if it wasn’t for the battles fought by Yinka’s generation. “That was one of the biggest challenges – you can’t dream of creating anything here because you’re not seen as a Greek citizen, just an immigrant,” he remembers.

Yinka only got his citizenship in 2015 at the age of 34, which cost him €700. “I couldn’t go on tour, I once spent eight hours in a cell,” says Yinka, whose brother was threatened with deportation at the age of 18. “But that experience made me more political. Music trained me to communicate my problems. I connected with people in other struggles, got involved in the movements and we fought for our rights together. Here, music and culture is merged on many levels. I was always down with strikes, demonstrations, anti-fascist groups, benefit gigs and playing in squats and squares to reclaim the streets.”

He grew up between run-down inner-city neighbourhoods like Patisia, Kipseli and Agios Panteleimonas, which was the launch pad for neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. Back in 2012, its far-right leaders took advantage of widespread anger as the Greek Crisis unfolded, catapulting the party to 18 parliamentary seats and almost 7 per cent of the vote in the country’s general election – the biggest showing for a fascist party anywhere in Europe at that time.

Electoral success further emboldened the party’s violent, paramilitary wing and its attacks on immigrants and leftists in neighbourhoods such as Yinka’s. In early 2013, a Pakistani man, Shehzad Luqman, was stabbed to death in Petralona by two men with alleged links to Golden Dawn. Later that year, Pavlos Fyssas, an anti-fascist rapper who performed as Killah P, was stabbed to death by a party associate in Keratsini.

A view of the city.

Luqman’s death was barely covered in the media but Fysass’ killing became an international story. The hip hop community’s response helped raise awareness, fuelling enormous protests and public outrage, which finally forced the state to act. In September 2013, a mammoth trial addressing Golden Dawn’s crimes – from racketeering and weapons possession to murder – began. It charged 68 people, from the bottom to the very top of the party, with participation in a criminal organisation. All denied the charges.

“Back then, the hip hop community didn’t approach it like a political assassination,” Yinka says. “But those guys were enemies, they came after us and they killed this guy. Greek hip hop is often afraid to be political, we don’t want to be associated with any party or ideology. But when you rap and you talk about social issues, you are political. I felt strongly that we had to resist this violence and fight back as a movement.”

“Revolutionary acts always come with a price, and Pavlos Fyssas was the sacrifice,” he adds. “Eventually, around 800 rappers signed a manifesto that said: ‘We’re here, we’re anti-fascist, we’re going to be there outside the courtroom and we will fight for Golden Dawn to be taken down.’ That was a real unifying event.”

After more than six years, the biggest trial of Nazis since Nuremberg ends this spring. Looking back, Fysass’ death proved to be a turning point. Since then, anti-fascist activists and artists have built alliances and claimed back neighbourhoods that were once far-right strongholds. Action on the streets, combined with pressure in the courts, has helped to dismantle Golden Dawn’s power and influence. The party didn’t win any seats in the 2019 election.

The party may have collapsed, but much of the racist fury that fuelled its rise has remained – as attacks on refugees, aid workers and journalists this year have shown. Under the new government’s law- and-order agenda – sold as an end to the ‘lawless’ years of the crisis – police have been targeting young people, leftists and refugees in heavy-handed operations at nightspots, universities and squatted social spaces. As tensions rise on the streets of Athens, whether they want to or not, rappers may once again be forced to take a stand.

It’s getting late in Marousi and Negros Tou Moria is laying down verses in the studio with an up-and-coming rapper known as Moose. Thoughtful with his words, Moose, whose real name is Mamus Godwin, is a huge presence on the mic. After years of rapping for himself, the 27-year-old announced his presence with the track ‘Kipseli’ in summer 2019, a collaboration with Negros that paid homage to the central Athens neighbourhood that raised them both.

“Kipseli is really misunderstood, people assume it’s ghetto as hell,” says Moose, who was born in the Nigerian Delta and moved here aged eight, when his dad came to play football for Olympiakos. “They say there’s lots of crime but all I see is kids having fun. People say there are drugs on the corner but that happens everywhere, even in the rich, Greek suburbs. Kipseli is full of beautiful spots and it’s really multicultural – we got Greeks, we got Albanians, we got Africans. When you’ve got so many people living in harmony… that’s dope!”

Negros tou Moria scribbles down rhymes at Destiny Studio.

English is Moose’s first language, so it has always flowed more smoothly than Greek for him in the booth. After a glowing reception for his debut album In Greece We Trap, he took a risk and quit his job to pursue music full-time at the beginning of 2020. So far it’s all going to plan: he’s helping push Greek trap forward and was the driving force behind The Kompilation, an album that brought the best hip hop artists together – regardless of what language they rap in – for the first time. It was made from a series of mammoth 12-hour sessions, with nothing written outside of the studio. The response has been huge – six of the album’s 14 songs hit the Greece Viral 50 chart on Spotify – and it generated attention outside the country, too. “People really fuck with this album,” Negros adds. “It made a big impact.”

But Moose argues the talent represented is just the tip of the iceberg. He views hop hop as a landscape where people can come together to express themselves and be heard. Building on the groundwork laid by earlier pioneers, the rappers of today – and of tomorrow – will continue to shape Greek culture for a long time to come, regardless of who opposes them.

“Greece can be a dream killer,” he says, his tone reflective. “There’s so much to separate us, but music brought us together. If we join forces, there’s no way we’re going to lose. Athens could be a major capital of hip hop music in Europe. The UK and France have always been on it, but Greece is gonna be on the map for some years. Now we have rappers who speak Greek and English, so this thing can go worldwide. We never had a voice to talk to people outside Greece before. Now we have a voice, it’s time!”

The ATH Kids crew at their ‘Brown Sugar’ event.

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