It’s a Tuesday evening in the east Berlin neighbourhood of Friedrichshain. A diverse young crowd is gathered outside Badehaus, a run-down music venue that closely resembles a western saloon, waiting patiently for the doors to open. After a short while a man – wearing a vest so low-cut both nipples are on display – appears from inside and gestures for them to enter. Dutifully, they begin to file in.
Once inside, two frontmen promptly emerge on-stage. One’s short while the other is so tall he almost hits his head on the low ceiling. A voice booms from behind the bar: “I wanna hear everybody up in here say… ‘It’s Tuesday!’” As the crowd break into cheers, the performers begin drilling out razor-sharp freestyle verses over an up-tempo trap beat. “Welcome to the hip hop revolution,” one of them says, surveying the room. “It’s beautiful to see you all here tonight. Now: bounce.”
This is SWAG Jam, a hip hop open mic night that’s grown from a spontaneous gathering of like-minded friends to something of a weekly phenomenon. Events like this are becoming a regular fixture on the German cultural scene – because right now, hip hop is the single most influential genre in the country. While artists from the UK and US remain popular, Germany’s homegrown acts are the ones that dominate: you’re far more likely to hear domestic artists such as MERO, Capital Bra, or Samra than the likes of Travis Scott or A$AP Rocky. At the time of writing, 17 out of the country’s Top 20 tracks belong to German rappers.
However, in a country that still struggles with systemic racism and far-right nationalism, the scene’s popularity presents something of a confrontation. Given that a large chunk of Germany’s biggest rappers come from post-migrant backgrounds, it leaves many of them in the strange position of being both worshipped and marginalised. But, backed by a generation of young fans, a number of artists are using hip hop’s current popularity as a way to piece together societal fractures, building bridges between different cultures in the face of division.
According to a 2015 report from the country’s Federal Statistical Office, every fifth person in Germany comes from an immigrant background – with most having roots in the Middle East, Africa or Eastern Europe. Many come from families who originally arrived in the 1960s as ‘guest workers’ – part of a deal which saw West Germany, in the throws of an economic boom, invite those from countries with high unemployment figures to help with the post-war rebuild. During this period over a million guest workers arrived to fill the positions, 750,000 from Turkey alone.
The original agreement stipulated a two-year stay but with a seemingly never-ending flow of jobs, it didn’t make sense to keep retraining new workers. So visas were extended. Families followed, the population grew. While many hoped the multicultural injection would create something of a liberal utopia, things didn’t quite go to plan. Far-right nationalism swelled. Division began to take hold.
The cracks remain today. In the 2019 European elections, the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) made huge gains. Meanwhile, in Dresden, an Islam0phobic group called Pegida hold weekly anti-immigration marches. Berlin’s streets have colonialist names that the government are yet to revise. And that’s all without mentioning the right-wing backlash that followed Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to adopt an open-door policy of providing asylum for over 1 million refugees.
“My grandfather came to Germany as one of the first guest workers in the ‘50s,” says Ebow (real name Ebru Düzgün), a Munich-born rap artist. “My parents were both born in Turkey. My mum came when she was 17 with the rest of the family, my dad came to Germany when he was 16.”
One of the country’s most exciting rappers, she was first introduced to music by her aunt-cum-babysitter, who outright refused to entertain the prospect of cartoons. Instead, Ebow was brought up watching the likes of TLC, Missy Elliott and Destiny’s Child perform on MTV. “Missy Elliott was really big for me because I saw this woman who was super comfortable just being herself. After that, MIA was a big influence. I was always writing, trying to connect with other people who make music.”
It’s easy to see why Ebow took to hip hop. In conversation, she’s sharp and inquisitive – every word is considered thoughtfully and spoken with care. She won her first rap battle at just 16, putting her on the radar of local producers. Next came guerrilla gigs (laundromats, supermarkets, the tram), then a mixtape, followed by a self-titled debut LP. Two more albums and an EP later, she’s comfortable having carved out her own unique sound – influenced by Turkish psychedelics and harmonic sounds of the Middle East.
Music, the 29-year-old says, has helped her articulate her experience growing up in a post-migrant family, all while celebrating that heritage. Her lyrics regularly contain references to her Kurdish identity, as well as Alevis – a minority branch of Islam she belongs to. She sees hip hop as a way of mending fractures in Germany, particularly during a time when the genre has never been more popular.
“Did I experience racism growing up? Yes. Munich and Bavaria is predominantly white. There weren’t many kids in my class who weren’t white, and I had a lot of racist teachers. So I had a hard time in school because of that… The impact [of that] is that you don’t feel welcome. You’re trying to fit in somewhere that doesn’t want you. I know what it feels like because I grew up like that… but I think hip hop is helping people understand each other’s cultures.”
What makes Ebow unique is that she’s taking an active role in facilitating that. Not only is her music emblematic of the good that can come from entangling different cultures, but she also hosts songwriting workshops for young girls from a range of different backgrounds, which take place in Munich, Berlin and Vienna (where she’s currently studying for a Masters in architecture).
Having experienced hip hop’s effectiveness as a tool for self-expression first-hand, she believes it encourages young people to open up and engage in dialogue – from that, community will follow. “Hip hop is a genre all [young people] listen to, especially young girls with a post-migrant background. So rap is a good tool to work with these kids – and it’s a way for them to express their feelings. They get to know each other, make a band together, and motivate and help each other. So people from different backgrounds and cultures come together.”
Spurred on by that younger generation, she’s hoping to use the platform that rap has given her to push her message via creative disciplines. She’s currently working on a visual series that “represents the reality” of people from her background, which she hopes will continue what her music has started. “I want to create something that is for us and by us,” she says, defiantly. “About our lives, written by us.”
Dissy, aka Till Krücken, has witnessed the transformational power of hip hop from a different perspective. The 30-year-old rapper doesn’t come from a post-migrant family. He grew up in Erfurt, a small city in the east of Germany – which back then, Dissy says, had a neo-Nazi problem.
Now based in Berlin, Dissy’s brand of hip hop is genre-bending, pulling influences from grunge, punk and trap. He’s also a visual artist, making accompanying films alongside his musical releases. Sat on an old mattress on the floor of his balcony and smoking a roll-up, he explains how he was raised by his mother – an opera singer – without much contact with his father. So when his dad gave him a Beastie Boys CD aged 11, he listened to it on repeat.
By 15, he was making his own music. A natural lyricist, he got in touch with the only hip hop crew in the city, who promptly welcomed him in. “We made music about being in the suburbs,” he remembers. “It was really interest- ing because in east Germany there are a lot of right-wing people – a lot of voters of the AfD. There aren’t many immigrants in Erfurt. But I think that hip hop music changed [things]. The white kids meet immigrant kids and they make hip hop music together. And the [children] of the old Nazi guys dance to it.”
Dissy was in Erfurt during the ’90s, when the neo-Nazi presence there felt particularly alarming. But thanks to an energised younger generation, they weren’t left unchallenged. Dissy remembers regular clashes between young people and the far-right. “There were punks, hip hop kids, immigrant kids – and they all came together,” he says. “It pushed the Nazis to the outskirts of Erfurt society.”
He sees parallels between the situation then and the division of today. But with hip hop now more popular in Germany than he could have ever imagined back then – “it’s more epic, more mainstream” – he’s optimistic about the scene’s ability to create a better future, largely due to its ability to distil important messages and convey them to a huge audience.
“The idols are immigrants, the biggest rappers aren’t white,” he says. “And everybody here – everybody I know – listens to [rap] and is influenced by it. They get in touch with the subjects of the songs, which are often about racism or something, and it’s really important – because it connects.”
“CapitalBra, he makes music which is very traditionally Turkish. He’s the most successful rapper now and he’s in every restaurant and bistro… he made some Instagram stories against racism and told his followers that he’s against the AfD party. I think that’s a good influence for the young people.”
It’s the defiance he finds most exciting. It reminds him of the resistance he saw when he was younger. Only now, it’s on a much bigger scale. “Racist people won’t be accepted,” he says, stubbing his cigarette out on the corner of a Coke bottle. “No tolerance for Nazis.”
Syriaz Music, the studio belonging to Berlin-based producer Sinan, is teenage boy messy. Discarded packs of roll-up cigarettes, open cans of Red Bull, keys, wallets, phones – it’s hard to find a clear surface. Among the chaos, Sinan sits hunched over his laptop and production desk, nodding his head to German-Kyrgyzstani artist OG LOCKE, who raps from behind the glass of the live room.
At just 26, Sinan (full name Sinan Bombeiter) sits at the core of Germany’s volcanic hip hop scene. Born to Croatian-Turkish parents and brought up in a small town called Villingen-Schwenningen in the country’s south, he started playing the piano aged six. Three years later, he was composing his own music.
As he grew older, he got into “old-school” hip hop, particularly admiring the work of a producer called Figub Brazlevic. Noticing that Figub was missing keys in his productions, he wrote to him one day offering his services. “I just said ‘Hey. You need keys.’ I was 18. He answered ‘Yes, I do need keys.’ So I moved to Berlin!”
Now Sinan works on most of Figub’s projects and has made a name as one of Berlin’s most established producers, working with Germany’s biggest artists – including Rin, Sero and John Known. Despite this, there’s no hint of ego. Sinan speaks glowingly about the industry he’s helped shape, quick to cite and celebrate the work of others.
“German hip hop is more popular than pop,” he says. “It’s the new pop music. And it’s only getting bigger. There’s MERO – he’s the biggest rapper in Germany right now. He [gets] millions of clicks, more than Travis Scott. He dropped a trailer for his album and it got more clicks than Star Wars!”
In Sinan’s view, hip hop allows artists from post-migrant backgrounds to use it as a space in which they can embrace their heritage more freely. “What can you do to be different? Put your culture in there. Don’t copy and paste. Make your own thing, make something different.”
In that sense, he believes that music makes people more receptive to the unfamiliar, citing the success of German rappers from Turkish backgrounds as an example. “A lot of Turkish people started rapping, and bringing their culture to the music. So they’ll make German rap, but then they’ll drop a part in Turkish. And the people love it,” he says.
“There’s a big switch that I’m noticing right now. MERO made a song which had a Turkish hook – a real Turkish song. And in Germany it’s number one, even though it’s Turkish. And now in Turkey he’s also very famous. So he’s bringing together entire cultures.”
Back at Badehaus, it’s 2am – a school night – but the crowd don’t seem to care. As different acts take to the stage in front of them to perform, there’s nowhere else they’d rather be – arms swing high above their heads, drink spilling from cups onto the sticky floor below. Right here, right now, everyone is in it together.
It is initiatives like SWAG Jam that help channel the energy of Germany’s hip hop scene into a tangible community. On top of the open mics, SWAG Jam support and host musicians and activists from around the world, connecting global acts with local artists. Many performers will play there as part of wider initiatives supporting NGOs.
But, more importantly, they create a physical space for the young Germans – particularly those from post-migrant backgrounds – to feel ownership over something that truly belongs to them. The country’s hip hop community is a borderless environment where diversity is celebrated. While, in Germany, tensions remain, the energy of a united hip hop scene presents a picture of a better future.
It’s a vision best expressed by Sinan. “That’s the point of hip hop,” he says. “Working together and making something. 11-year-old kids in school walk around listening to hip hop on their phones, so people get used to it. It builds bridges. And it’s only getting bigger.”
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