Tupac in Sarajevo: The Rise of Rebellion Rap in Eastern Europe

Tupac Amaru Shakur promotional photo
Photo by Albert Watson, © 2003 MTV Networks and Amaru Entertainment, Used under Fair Use

Vildana Muratovic, a native of Bosnia-Herzegovina and now a citizen of the United States, describes the impact of hip-hop music on the people of the Balkans following her 1997 return to Sarajevo.  Her paper was written in 2007.

Since its humble beginnings in the 1970s to its present day multi-billion-dollar industry, hip-hop and rap have transformed the world of music and pop culture and come to represent the political and economic struggles of African Americans. What started as a rebellious artful expression, soon transformed itself to a capital-generating, culturally-transformative lifestyle which did not take long to reach the global scene.

Among the vast regions of the world that hip-hop has touched are the recently-war-torn Southeastern European nations. In the 1990s rap and hip-hop emerged as major tools that expressed the anger and outrage people felt towards the ethnic conflict which led to war and many economic setbacks. But it wasn’t until 1997, when I visited my family back in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina that I realized the full impact hip-hop had on the Balkans. The way young members of the society used rap to deal with their impoverished situation as they tackled their socio-political challenges intrigued me. Despite this war torn nation’s protracted battle with the aftermath of economic depression, and political instability, urban youth still hoped for a better future.  Rapping became an integral part of that expression and hope.

I was surprised that in one of my classes in Sarajevo, the first thing classmates asked of me when they found out I had lived in America was to help them translate one of Tupac’s songs. They felt that they had much in common with this recently-deceased African American rapper.  The large graffiti slogans, just one of hip-hop’s component elements, were painted onto bullet scarred walls and buildings left splattered with grenade remnants. Slogans such as “Death to Chetniks!” “Welcome to Hell!,” and even “2Pac for Life” were visible throughout the city and gave me a sense of discomfort. It made the pain of war all too evident and real. In spite of it all, there was still a sense of hope as many of the young people behind these outcries had combined their suffering with the politics of war and the African Americans’ form of expression. It was a form of healing that brought change to society.

Hip-hop music first appeared in the United States during the late 1970s and soon became a symbol of modern pop culture.  As a cultural movement developed, initiated mainly by the inner city African American youth in New York City, New York, hip-hop expanded into a new form of expression that included but went well beyond music to embrace a new lifestyle.  A decade later, gangsta rap first became a major part of hip-hop and eventually created a place for itself in American popular music. Gangsta rap caused controversy due to its lyrics, which were interpreted as promoting violence, promiscuity, drug use, and misogyny. However, by the beginning of the 21st Century, hip-hop was “a staple of popular music charts” and became part of the global artistic discourse. By 2001, Eminem and 2Pac were among the best selling artists worldwide, retailing close to eighty million albums each.

Listening to hip-hop one enters a world of complexity and contradiction. In the midst of our modern day consumer culture, which glorifies violence and avoids intellectualism, hip-hop has promoted a style which boastfully exaggerates these national characteristics on the airwaves even as it assertively initiated progressive politics and called on the nation to recognize the emotion and beauty, angst and anger in youth culture.  Hip-hop and rap represent to many young people “black language, black music, black style, and black youth culture.” That form which in its early years was viewed as artistically rich, but impoverished economically has now been transformed into one that is artistically impoverished, but backed by huge corporate dollars.

If hip-hop was born in American ghettos, soon Southeastern European nations became incorporated into its growing musical and cultural world.  In fact, Serbia now is one of the better known rap states, and is home to a well-known group Beogradski Sihdikat (The Belgrade Syndicate). The group’s name indicates these rappers’ main agenda is Serbian politics and their impact on the citizens of the nation. They represent the hoods of Belgrade, one of the biggest cities in Europe. Belgrade Syndicate’s last album Svi Zajedno (Everyone Together) was the best selling album in 2005 within Serbia.

Serbian hip-hop started in the early 1980s, with the birth of b-boy crews and their battles. The Master Scratch Band in 1984 recorded the first sound recording, presenting b-boy electro-breakbeat tracks with a bit of rapping. Throughout the early to mid-1990s hip-hop was staking its ground as the first significant album Da li Imas Pravo? (Do You Have the Right?) by Gru was released. This first Serbian hip-hop wave reaching its peak in 1998 as new groups broke out of the musical underground, such as Full Moon, Bad Copy and Belgrade Ghetto to name a few. As the momentum of successful music producing took off, finding new talent came to a near halt primarily because of the Kosovo War of 1999, which prevented many hip-hop albums from being released between 1999 and 2001.

Bosnia, on the other hand, has famous rappers like Edo Maajka, Frankie, Univerzalni Vojnici (Universal Soldiers) and many others. Edo Maajka is one of the best known rappers from the Balkans, notoriously known for his songs dealing with the Bosnian War during the 1990s. He is part of a popular group named Discipliltska Komisija (Disciplined Committee) and is their lead rapper. In addition, Frankie represents some of Bosnia’s nationalist rappers who are represented as the BH Fanaticos (Bosnian Herzegovinan Fanatics) group. Bosnia’s bordering country, Croatia, established popular rap in the late 1990s with the rise of Tram 11, Bolesna Braca (The Sick Brothers) and other rappers who focused on social issues.

Bosnia Herzegovina hip-hop has grown rapidly primarily due to the media.  Music television programs and the Internet carry hip-hop throughout the nation.  The Bosnian War which lasted from 1992 through 1995 produced thousands of refugees including many rappers who sought refuge in other European countries and in the United States. This had allowed the Bosnian Herzegovinan hip-hop artists to spread out on a global scale.  They recorded and performed in the United States, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Edo Maajka in his songs refers to those that fled the country but who now send money to family members who stayed behind.

There are close similarities in the lyrics of Bosnia’s newly emerging rappers and the legendary African American rapper, Tupac Shakur.  Edo and Belgrade Syndicate, for example, were greatly influenced by Tupac’s music and protest lyrics.  In Changes, Tupac brings to surface the African American struggle in the ghettos against police brutality, welfare dependency and crime, all of which are strongly connected to America’s racist ideologies. In his lyrics he raps about it all.

I’m tired of bein’ poor and even worse black
My stomach hurts so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch
Cops give a damn about a negro
Pull the trigger kill a nigga he’s a hero
Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares
One less hungry mouth on the welfare
First ship `em dope aced let `em deal the brothers
Give `em guns step back watch `em kill each other

I see no changes all I see is racist faces
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races
We under I wonder what it takes to make this
One better, let’s erase the wasted…
And although it seems heaven sent
We ain’t ready, to see a black President,
It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact
The penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks

We gotta make a change…
It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes
Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live
And let’s change the way we treat each other

And still I see no changes can’t a brother get a little peace
It’s war on the streets and the war in the Middle East
Instead of war on poverty they got a war on drugs
So the police can bother me

Tupac powerfully portrays these conditions in his music video as viewers are given a sense of the reality of what it is truly like to be an impoverished African American. He shows African Americans living in urban ghettos and public house projects, who not by choice but by their circumstances opt for dealing drugs in order to survive. His mother’s Black Panther days have also had a great influence in his portrayal of white police officers and their brutality, as that is exactly what Black Panthers dealt with as they attempted to bring positive changes to the struggling black populations of South Central Los Angeles, California.

Similar themes can be seen in to Edo Maajka’s song entitled Jebem Vain Mater, which mirrors the conflicts a war torn nation has to deal with. Edo Maajka describes the shifting roles of rural folks migrating to urban centers who replace the many city dwellers who left the country to become refugees.

We count the years from the time of the Dayton Agreement,
People are scared and everyone votes for their own,
Villagers are becoming city dwellers,
`Till yesterday they turned the lights off with an ax, and now they are in suits
So you know, ideology is not important, but instead biology,
Genetics are important of the balije [sic ](Bosnian Muslims), ustase [sic] (Croats) and chetniks [sic] (Serbs)!

I know who started the war, I know what it’s like to starve!
I know when the enemy came to my town

We talk about what it’s like, rarely do we budge,
We are filled with holes like potholes on our streets

It has become our habit that no factory works,
Youth is fleeing the country, refugees will never return
They don’t have to, they are making the money,
They can just send us the money

We will live in the dark
The whole country is paying a debt
Weapons in homes leftovers from the war,
We have mines like we have strawberries

I keep my mouth shut in front of strangers
How do I greet: selam (Muslim), zdravo (Orthodox Christian), bog (Catholic)? What’s proper?

Although the white rapper addresses post-war issues in a Bosnian Herzegovinan context, he, like Tupac, criticizes government’s failure to confront economic problems and conflicts between the three ethnic groups (Bosnian Muslims, Catholic Croats and Christian Orthodox Serbs). Both Tupac and Edo Maajka point to the problems in their backyards that their governments ignore.  They also both show us the consequences of human suffering and political indifferences. In addition, Belgrade Syndicate in their music video for the song entitled Poroci Beograda talk about corrupt political officials who deal with mafia groups to cover up their criminal behaviors. Their video is filled with people going on strike to protest the Serbian politicians’ failure to address the economic crisis.5 It is a reality that is all too evident today.

In their second video, Oni Su (They Are), viewers see the Belgrade Syndicate with ski masks kidnapping a Serbian politician in a capitol building and recording a ransom video where they express their anger towards unjust treatment meted out by the government against its own citizens.  “This is not politically correct, Left or Right,” they state, “rather right on the nail,” referring to the citizens who get ripped off by government officials through their hoarding of tax money and refusal to take care of their citizens. These outspoken rappers call for revolution since war-torn Serbia — or in their words “black and white Serbia” — does not have many positive attributes to offer the people.6 Just like Tupac’s music video Changes which criticizes the U.S. government and the racist practices committed by the police, Edo Maajka and Beogradski Sindikat in Oni Su express their views of their war-torn world and their perspectives on failed governments.

Despite the negative forces arrayed against them, both the black and white rappers show a sense of hope for the future.  Edo Maajka in his dark video appears with an infant in his hands, representing the future generation and the joy it might bring. What Tupac and Edo have in common in the end is their desire to educate their listeners to the problems of their respective “ghettos” and to challenge them to make a better place for those who come after them.

Hip-hop was produced and advanced initially by African Americans but they have passed the microphone to white rappers in other parts of the world, including Southeastern Europe.  No one can deny that rap is one of the world’s most powerful mechanisms for the expression of discontent and a potent weapon used against those who chose to oppress others. As Tricia Rose writes, “Oppressed people use language, dance, and music to mock those in power, express rage, and produce fantasies of subversion. In this way, rap music is a contemporary stage for the theater of the powerless. “7

This is exactly what is taking place today whether on the streets of Los Angeles or Sarajevo.  Hip-hop has provided youth in nations throughout the world a way to allow their frustrations to be expressed and a process by which they can cope with societies’ inequalities. It has become a tool for change.

For some it is simply a business that generates huge profits for those involved in the production of the music and clothing which have become central to that lifestyle.  For many others around the world, hip-hop has given those who feel suppressed a voice to be heard and those who feel powerless a place where they can reign.  Hip-hop and rap have traveled the globe and affected the cultural arts of even the nations of Southeastern Europe.  In this musical migration the world is beginning to appreciate not only this young, bold genre but also the pride and pain of the people who first produced it.