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Rap Against the Machine

A 21st-century style protest song has Belgrade marching to a new beat. by Aleksandar Mitic 7 February 2003 Some 1,000 mostly older workers marching through downtown Belgrade to protest a new, liberal labor law introduced by the Serbian government would normally have gone unnoticed by younger passersby, preoccupied by their own problems and thoughts. But something made those youngsters turn their heads toward the protesters, who were led by an independent union syndicate, on that day in late 2001. It was the music blaring from speakers on a car leading the march:

I know you think we're over, we're gone
But the Syndicate is coming, stronger than ever
Now stronger than ever, we're coming like a storm
We're eager for the fight, because we've gone through a lot.


It was a rap song, sung by one of the premier Serbian hip-hop bands, Belgrade Syndicate (BS). The workers' syndicate had used the BS song as an anthem for the protest. Although the song itself is not political, its mention of "the syndicate" was enough to catch the attention of the protest organizers, who played the song over and over in front of the government building.

Belgrade Syndicate
On the evening news that day, state television commented that "a new wind was blowing through the unions--the proof being the tune of a hip-hop song" rather than the old communist-style tunes.

"In fact, the head of the real Belgrade syndicate--the union, not the band--is the father of a friend of ours, who heard the song accidentally and asked to use it at the protest," says Djordje Jovanovic, one of the leaders of the nine-member band.

But while BS's "Here Comes the Syndicate" became a protest song unintentionally, in the fall of 2002 the band released the single "Govedina" (Beef), an explicit all-around verbal assault on the new political elites in Serbia and Montenegro.

It was the first real protest song of the post-Milosevic era in Serbia, two years after the strongman fell from power and was replaced by a liberal, reformist government.

The fall of Slobodan Milosevic during the October 2000 turmoil in Belgrade gave hope to many in Serbia, especially the young, that change was just around the corner. Promises of billions in foreign aid were pouring in, the opening of the borders for free travel to Western countries was expected any time, the good life was supposed to be back in town after a decade of wars, sanctions, isolation, poverty, and frustration.

WHERE'S THE BEEF?

Two years later, the average Serbian citizen could hardly sense any positive change. Salaries had gone up, but so had prices. State violence had stopped, but organized crime had stepped in. Serbia had opened up to the world, but the world remained closed to the Serbs, who still needed to wait in lines for hours to get--perhaps--a visa to travel westward. Milosevic wasn't there anymore, but his arrogance and "pragmatism" in keeping himself in power was adopted by the new political class. Frustration remained.

"All those great changes are in fact just cheats" goes the BS song, before launching "an artillery barrage" against the "top men" who preside over "tax and duty black markets ... arms sales ... scandals and affairs" and "who are selling it all: the postal service and the cement factories" while "even God asks where all that money's gone."

"Beef" employs more or less explicit metaphors to ridicule the most mediatized political figures in the country, including a "drug addict, former protest leader, who changed his suit but remained the same asshole"--a reference to Cedomir Jovanovic, the head of the parliamentary group of the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition. Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic also pops up in the line "The prime minister is away, it means there is a briefing at Cane's place"--Cane being Stanko Subotic, the alleged king of cigarette trafficking in the Balkans, often linked in media reports to Djindjic.

Within days of the song's release, it was a huge hit. Many had first read the text on the Internet long before hearing the single itself on the radio or television. In fact, some television stations refused to play it, because, they said, it was too inflammatory in the run-up to elections. Others, such as TV Pink--the popular but trashy station that became first the trademark of Milosevic's regime, then an unofficial mouthpiece for Djindjic's government--boycotted the song or were boycotted by the band.

The media reported that many politicians were shaken if not shocked by the song, and that federal Interior Minister Zoran Zivkovic, a member of Djindjic's party, said he would attend a BS concert to see "what it's all about."

It is not known if the minister ever paid an incognito visit to one of the group's gigs.

"We thought a lot about the song, whether it was smart to release it, whether it was safe, and then we realized we just didn't give a damn," Jovanovic says. "We were annoyed by the manipulative political campaigns. ... I'll give you an example about the mother of one of our bandmates, Bosko. She had lost her job at a bank because the government was closing it down. When bank employees protested, the government launched an attack on them by showing images of some of them wearing furs. ... They claimed these were some rich women who did not want to quit their privileged jobs. It's nonsense.

"We are not here to tell the politicians what they should do," he adds. "We don't do politics, but we want them to know that we think they're ridiculous and that they should get serious. We need to talk about this. The time of taboos is long gone, I hope. Politicians accuse each other of cooperating with the mafia, but no one lays charges against anyone else. It's a political game that doesn't end, and that is what is bothering us.

"That's why 'Govedina' is sweet, likeable, and true."

The band's fury and disappointment over the current political scene in Serbia is perhaps even more understandable since--like most other bands on the Serbian hip-hop scene--BS started its career by ranting against Slobodan Milosevic. The group came together in 1999 through a merger of two bands, Tumz and Red Zmaja, along with solo performers MC Flex and Sef Sale AK.

The Belgrade hip-hop scene started at the turn of the '80s and '90s but didn't really get moving until the mid-'90s, a time of war, sanctions, and isolation. Hip-hop found fertile ground in Belgrade, especially among youngsters who liked to think of themselves as ghetto dwellers.

"Slobodan, thank you for the ghetto," reads a piece of Belgrade graffiti signed "the rappers."

While Belgrade "ghettos" could in no way be compared to the worst American ones, they had many points in common--including violence, crime, and drugs. Belgrade's tough neighborhoods were a genuine and true local product of years of conflict, poverty, and black markets. Yet there is no doubt that some Belgrade young people--perhaps inspired by gangsta rap, movies, or television--found a connection between their life and the New York gang style through music, fashion, and attitude.

Basketball, particularly its street variation, often played to a hip-hop soundtrack, provided yet another link. The Serbs are fanatical about the American-bred game, and the two countries are the superpowers of international basketball.

The social aspect of the hip-hop movement spread throughout Serbia, even in towns lacking "tough neighborhoods."

"What attracted me to this music was its realistic depiction of our lives, of our urges, of our needs. The songs talked about violence and poverty," says Marko, 23, who lives in Leskovac, a mid-sized town in southern Serbia.

"The songs were anti-violence, and that suited me, because I was someone interested in building a sports career while so many others were trying to find a way to get quick money through crime." Marko mentions local bands such as Who Is the Best, Robin Hood, CYA, Full Moon, VIP, and the Belgrade Syndicate as his favorites.

"BS is perhaps too direct in 'Govedina,' but it's certainly done with a purpose," he says. "If someone is criticizing you so harshly, it is a sign for the government that something is wrong and that they should question themselves."

Adding to the hip-hop hype in Serbia this season is a hit "basketball Western" called One on One that is drawing moviegoers to its hip-hop soundtrack and topical story of a poor, lone warrior of the basketball courts in a tough New Belgrade district who defends his turf against a ruthless gang of rich crooks.

NO MILLIONS FOR RAPPERS

Belgrade Syndicate are helping make their sound more acceptable to a wider audience. At a traditional year's end concert last December in Novi Sad, BS played between two hardcore bands. Even with half the crowd potentially hostile because of the rivalry between hardcore and rap, their performance was a success and the crowd sang "Govedina" in chorus.

Belgrade Syndicate CD promo
Although BS's recorded output consists of just one full-length CD--Bssst ... Tisincina (Pssst ... Silence!), released last year--and the "Govedina" EP, the band has received tremendous media attention lately.

They recently made a surprise guest appearance on a popular television talk show alongside Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. And on a late-January broadcast of the Serbian edition of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, one contestant was challenged with, "Who wrote the song 'Govedina'?" The player got it right--and cashed in 24,000 dinars (800 euros).

That sum is probably much more than a typical rapper in Serbia earns in a month or two.

"A popular hip-hop performer--if he is solo--can make a decent living in this country on 300 to 400 euros a month. But imagine us, there are nine of us, so we're definitely not living off this," Jovanovic says.

The band says their next move is to help promising new hip-hop acts. They don't even have the ultimate status symbol--their own label--but they gave a big boost to the debut release by a young artist called Ajs Nigrutin by promoting him and producing his first video.

The little money they made on sales of a few thousand records ("10 times better than what we expected," Jovanovic says) in a market dominated by cheap bootleg CDs was enough to buy start-up equipment for a music studio they plan to set up in the basement of Jovanovic's downtown Belgrade apartment.

The group is considering invitations to tour Slovenia, Austria, and Britain but has no plans to modify their sound for foreign ears.

"We have finally overcome the feeling that we should copy what is coming from abroad. Everyone now is trying to find a more authentic, local signature," Jovanovic says.

"For example, we went to Zajecar, a small town in eastern Serbia, and our fans there told us they were divided into the 'Brooklyn Tigers' and the 'Canada Boys.' So we told them, 'C'mon, give us a break, you're not from Brooklyn, you're from Zajecar--work with it.' And since then--I must say it because I'm proud--they shifted into reality gear and have become active at the local level, changing their Americanized names into Serbian ones and working for change in Zajecar."
Aleksandar Mitic is a Belgrade-based journalist specializing in the rise and fall of regimes in Serbia and Montenegro.
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