The U.S. president, Barack Obama, famously brought hip-hop into the American political mainstream during a televised primary debate in 2012 when he wiped the “dirt off his shoulder,” a reference to a 2003 recording by Jay-Z.
It was a moment in which two worlds – hip-hop and the American political elite – merged for the first time.
The gesture during Mr. Obama’s election campaign is one of many in the U.S. president’s “bromance” with the American rapper.
As hard as it is to imagine the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, bopping her head along to Jay Z, hip-hop has firmly established itself in Germany.
The proliferation of German rap performed in the German language has firmly cemented itself in the German music mainstream, even if the number of rappers with reflective lyrics, politically charged content and a differentiated way of portraying their own lives is much smaller than in the United States.
Amid a dissolution of hip-hop’s previous cultural codes and its status as an urban subculture, a more serious, honest and politically reflective brand of German rap is flourishing.
In 2012, the German carmaker Mercedes was accused of illegally lifting the melody of a hip-hop track by rapstar Marteria.
Not too long ago, German rap star Afrob offered to help out Chancellor Angela Merkel in her 2013 election.
And recently, the big Swedish fashion retailer H&M sold Wu Tang Clan logo shirts – something that renowned American literary critic Fredric Jameson might have called late-capitalist pastiche: the imitation of dead styles resulting in a parody with no hidden or deeper meaning.
But amid a dissolution of hip-hop’s previous cultural codes and its status as a subculture, a more serious, honest and politically reflective brand of German rap continues to flourish.
The German rapper Chefket, the son of Turkish immigrants whose real name is Şevket Dirican, recorded an album called “Identitäter” (a play off the German words for identity and culprit) in 2013 that explores issues of self-identity. Although his music is more self-expressive, Chefket takes an interest in social and political issues.
“I was involved in a project called ‘Bundeswehr Raus aus den Schulen,’ a project aimed at keeping Germany’s Armed Forces out of schools, to stop from recruiting students at an early age,” the rapper said in an interview in Berlin, where he lives.
“This was an important project to me because it hit on a topical theme, like the discussion now about the German government sending ‘semi-weapons’ to Iraq. To me, this is an absurd discussion,” he said.
Megaloh, a hip-hop artist who attracted audiences with his coming-of-age album in 2013, not least because of his sincere take on his own life and motivational lyrics, said in German rap, “there is more musicality and more diversity nowadays.”
In the next few years, the artist, whose real name is Uchenna van Capelleveen, said he believes that “rap will become more political, with ongoing conflicts around the world and everything that is happening politically right now.”
A few German rap artists are already political in their music.
Amewu, whose complex lyrics take a critical view of aspects of German society, is a good example.
“The content of my lyrics is even more important to me than my technical ability, even though I worked hard at developing doubletime rapping,” Amewu told Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood.
Amewu’s music offers compelling insights into German society – a society he believes has much room for improvement. Amongst other things, he critiques the way work is rewarded in modern economies and the lack of social equality.
He might operate in a musical niche market but his intellectually challenging lyrics have the potential to engage listeners of all ages, social classes and cultural backgrounds.
On the status of hip-hop today, Amewu said: “When I first started listening to it, hiphop was something that existed outside of society and was a refuge. It was a space where the discrimination that I, as a person of color, felt elsewhere in my ultimate surroundings didn’t exist.”
A side effect of hip-hop’s percolation into the mainstream is that Germans are more open to listening to hiphop altogether, he said.
Opposed to hip-hop’s increasing mass commercialization, the German rap group Qult has registered itself as a charitable association in Germany. The group organizes its musical performances as official demonstrations.
“We want to show that although hip-hop in the past four to five years has developed in a direction completely opposite to what it used to be – a way to channel aggressions into something positive and get kids off the streets – it can still be different,” Pikasso, a member of the band, said.
Stephan Szillus, who was chief editor of Europe’s biggest hiphop magazine, “Juice”, for more than five years, said the new strain of German hip-hop “challenges listeners to explore and analyze the music they are listening to. It has, in a way, become more adult.”
German rap can be traced to the 1980s. A decade ago, Germany’s hip-hop landscape was dominated by hardcore rap, with artists such as Bushido and Sido taking center stage. Emulating American gangsta rap, their artistic fabric didn’t shy from crude lyrics to describe urban German woes – something U.S. rap journalist Nelson George called a defining feature of early American hip-hop. Sido rose to the top of the German hip-hop charts in 2004 with his debut “My Block,” in which he vividly described life in his 40,000-people public housing complex in Berlin.
Although firmly rooted in German mainstream culture, Mr. Szillus said what is still missing is “an open admission or declaration of listening to hiphop among a certain political, cultural or intellectual elite.”
Perhaps that will come in the next German political campaign, scheduled for 2017.
The author is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org