Anti-Semitism row over Muslim rappers dominates German headlines

Internationally, Germany has often been lauded for its reckoning with the Holocaust – its so-called Erinnerungskultur, or culture of remembrance.1 Whether this at times gushing praise of Germany’s historical conscience is fully warranted is another matter.2 (The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party has, for one, always demanded that the country stop banging on about the horrors of its past – which might not have been so horrible after all – and rehabilitate a proud, nationalist sense of self-worth.)

‘Muslim anti-Semitism’

Since the ‘summer of migration’ of 2015, however, the culture of remembrance has assumed renewed urgency in the minds of mainstream German policy-makers. (Muslim) immigrants are supposedly ‘importing’ a new anti-Semitism, thereby threatening to undo the gains of Holocaust remembrance.

From public statements of major political and media figures, one would be forgiven for thinking that anti-Semitic offences in Germany are overwhelmingly committed by Muslim perpetrators. Yet 95 per cent of cases that are brought to the attention of the police are carried out by individuals and groups from the far-right.

In spite of this numerical imbalance, it is above all Muslims and immigrants – two categories and labels that are used increasingly synonymously in the German context – who have been incessantly scrutinised for their suspected anti-Semitic tendencies. The awarding of a music industry prize to two Muslim rappers gave further proof to this dynamic.

Controversial reference to Auschwitz

On April 12, 2018, Germany’s pop music industry gathered in Berlin for the Echo awards show. The Echo, while marketing itself as ‘Germany’s most important music award’ is conferred mainly on the basis of sales. Its format has been frequently criticised in the past – both for the award show’s poor recognition of talent and artistry, and for its (real or alleged) political blunders.

It was no different this year. Particular ire was directed at the fact that the Echo jury chose to award the prize for best domestic hip-hop act to the rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang with their album Jung, brutal, gutaussehend 3 (Young, brutal, good-looking 3, shortened to JBG). A bonus version of the album contains the track 0815, which was castigated for being anti-Semitic. (The track can be listened to here).

Attention centred on a line delivered by Farid Bang in the track’s opening verse. In a somewhat clumsy phrasing, the rapper announces that his “body is more defined than [the bodies] of Auschwitz inmates”. (A ‘defined’ body has a low share of body fat, thus rendering muscles clearly visible.) The line occurs wedged between a barrage of insults directed against women and fellow rappers, set against Kollegah’s and Farid Bang’s self-glorification.3

Criticism from Auschwitz survivors, musicians

The International Auschwitz Committee, an organisation of survivors of the Nazi concentration camp, condemned the Echo committee for inviting the rap duo: Kollegah and Farid Bang’s participation at the awards show was “a slap in the face for all Holocaust survivors and an event putting Germany to shame”, the Committee asserted.4

Other artists followed suit: Already at the awards ceremony, the lead singer of a rock band lambasted the duo for its anti-Semitic (as well as homophobic and misogynistic) content. Subsequently, a number of artists started returning the Echo awards they had received over the preceding years out of protest; and on April 24, the German music industry announced that it would discontinue the award.

A misplaced accusation

German rap music, whose popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, has often been criticised for its reactionary lyrics. Yet the wave of indignation at Kollegah and Farid Bang is hardly a meaningful contribution to the debate.

To begin with, few have questioned whether the line in question is actually anti-Semitic at all. In line with their ideals of masculinity, both rappers maintain a muscular physique; and their bodybuilding regimen figures prominently in their lyrics. The claim that their bodies are more toned than those of Auschwitz inmates surely betrays a willingness to break taboos by openly invoking the Holocaust in a rap song; it also signals a lack of taste and of respect towards Holocaust survivors. Yet it seems less clear whether this line is genuinely anti-Semitic: It does not pander to negative stereotypes about Jews and makes no claims about the nature of Jews as a collective.

The hullabaloo centred on Farid Bang’s line thus simply appears misplaced. Instead of discussing anti-Semitism in German rap (and the society at large), all the enraged commentators were actually taken in by the rappers’ attempt at self-promotion: For two weeks, the duo managed to reign supreme on German news media – with a track and an album consisting of infantile similes, dated production, and absolutely no artistic or political ambition.5

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in rap, rock music

What also fell by the wayside was the fact that Kollegah has arguably published tracks in the past that are much more problematic. Both 2013’s “Armageddon” and 2016’s “Apokalypse” chronicle the end of the world, brought about by illuminati, freemasons, occult forces, and London bankers. The imagery of the accompanying music video is ripe with symbolism seamlessly incorporating anti-Semitic notions of a Jewish world conspiracy. At some point, the image of a horned humanoid monster bearing the Star of David on its forehead is shown. (The video has been taken down from YouTube since the Echo scandal but can still be watched here.)

Nor are rappers such as Kollegah the only ones who have taken to the Echo stage with comparable messages in recent years. In 2016, the South Tyrolian band Frei.Wild (literally Free.Wild, a play on words with Freiwild, the German term for fair game) was awarded the prize for best domestic rock act. The band has roots in the neo-Nazi scene; and although the band members have sought to distance themselves from their past politics, their lyrics continue their nativist, fascistic and at times anti-Semitic imagery.6

When Frei.Wild was first short-listed for an Echo in 2013, the award committee was faced with considerable public backlash, ultimately causing the cancellation of Frei.Wild’s nomination. Yet, in line with the zeitgeist, by 2016 Frei.Wild’s far-right rhetoric had become more acceptable to the mainstream, and the band was re-invited to the show and finally obtained its award.

The drama of belonging

Against this backdrop, the reaction against the line delivered by Farid Bang reeks of hypocrisy and double standards. Music critic Oliver Marquart denounced the saga surrounding the two rappers as a further instalment of “the little drama called: ‘The German bourgeoisie decides who has the right to belong and who hasn’t.’”7

According to Marquardt, the two rappers “were only pilloried for anti-Semitism for one reason: because of their Muslim faith.” In line with what Marquardt called “the fairy tale of the ‘imported anti-Semitism’”, it is Muslims – no matter whether born Muslims such as Farid Bang or converts such as Kollegah – who are the only ones who have supposedly not learnt the lessons of history.8

Externalising anti-Semitism

Leading AfD politician Alice Weidel, for one, quickly tweeted her demand that Farid Bang’s German citizenship be revoked and that he be deported to Morocco because he “despises our values and does not belong to our country.”

It is indeed noteworthy that the debate surrounding the Muslim rapper’s alleged anti-Semitism quickly rehashed the terminology of ‘belonging’ that had recently been revived by Interior Minister Seehofer’s statement that Islam did not belong to Germany.

Externalising anti-Semitism from ‘truly’ German society by casting it as a ‘Muslim problem’ is, therefore, a convenient tool for denying the ongoing salience of anti-Semitic prejudice throughout German society. Populists themselves are frequently rehabilitating anti-Semitic tropes when they assume the role of lone voices of truth against a global conspiracy of political correctness. And mainstream conservatives such as Interior Minister Seehofer are doing the same when they roll out the red carpet to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – just after the latter won another 2/3 majority in parliament by conducting a blatantly anti-Semitic electoral campaign with George Soros serving as the bogeyman of world Jewry.9

Rappers produce what consumers buy

That anti-Semitic allusions to worldwide conspiracies are successful in the music business is, therefore, a sign of the times. In German rap, a genre primarily driven by the profit maximisation imperative, it is also a sign that money can be made by catering to stereotypical notions.

It is, after all, the consumers – Christians, Muslims, and atheists; children and grandchildren of autochthon Germans or of immigrants alike – who propel the sales of Kollegah and Farid Bang as well as Frei.Wild. As another rapper put it in an interview: “I started [my career] by doing anti-war texts […]. And then I realised that people just don’t want to hear that. They just want to see an anti-social, fucked up Kanaken” – a derogatory term used to refer to people of Turkish or Middle Eastern ancestry.10 Rappers produce what society wants to buy.

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