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Roma Hip-Hop and Rap Emerges Onto World Stage

Four members of a Roma rap group.
Some of the original members of Sutka Roma Rap: Fet Joe, Error, Nelly, and Al-Alion, from promotional material for I Sutka tani mo than, released in 2010. © Elisaveta Bejkova

These days, there’s more to Roma music than nifty violin playing. Since the early nineties, youth in Roma urban communities around Europe have been creating a new, non-conformist identity drawing on U.S. hip-hop and rap culture. There are many parallels between Roma and African-American communities, some positive—a persistent Roma civil rights movement which draws on the African-American example—some negative—histories of state-sponsored exclusion, oppression and neglect. The interest in rap amongst Roma youth has grown quickly and no more so than in Šutka, Macedonia.

For at least a decade and a half, hip-hop has been listened to and performed in Macedonia’s Roma municipality of Šuto Orizari or simply, Šutka. Šutka is the largest Roma populated municipality in Europe; just a few miles away from the modern center of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, yet a world apart in terms of culture and economy. Here, hip-hop and rap have steadily gained popularity among the local youth, who meet at Roma “rap” studios (their songs are based on free internet hip-hop loops and samples), at occasional Roma TV hip-hop competitions and at hip-hop and R&B parties in local clubs. Homemade video spots by aspiring Roma artists are easy to find on YouTube. Rebellion and provocation are important parts of the allure; anger and alienation, similar to that of hip-hop’s founding fathers, are there too.

Now, one Roma hip-hop group is decisively emerging onto the world stage. Šutka Roma Rap, a fusion of Roma hip-hop and traditional artists, will perform at the World Music Expo (Womex) in Greece between 18 and 20 October. Womex is the premiere global event in world music and Šutka Roma Rap are one of only nine acts selected from over 300 applicants from the Womex Club Balkan Stage. The idea of Šutka Roma Rap goes back to 2010 and an initiative launched by the Foundation Open Society Macedonia. The compilation I Šutka Tani Mo Than (Šutka My Hometown), whose release was supported by the Foundation in May 2010, was the first ambitious effort by these Skopjan, Roma rappers. The album embraced diverse local Roma approaches to hip-hop and in November 2010 it managed to reach 15 in the prestigious World Music Charts Europe and 118 (from 886 releases) in the overall 2010 charts. The album received an enthusiastic response from the world music circuit.

After this encouraging debut, a live act grew out of the studio project in 2011. Four of the top rappers were joined by a band of Roma musicians, including drums, bass, trumpets, sax and clarinet. The new line-up brought its Balkan Roma rap music to a number of major concerts and festivals in 2011, including well-received performances at Roskilde Festival, Denmark, Sziget Festival, Hungary, and at their home town’s Skopje Taksirat festival—a hard test since the local Roma music is largely ignored by non-Roma audiences.

Meanwhile, Šutka Roma Rap has evolved into a group regularly working and practicing together. Some of its old members have left, and new members have joined. Rehearsals throughout spring and summer 2012 have resulted in 15 brand new songs recorded for their new album. The group’s songs are in Romanes in keeping with their desire to maintain those elements which make their act unique.

Šutka Roma Rap 2012 are the rappers Al-Alion, Error, Fet Joe, Kay One & Nusret and Sabri & Taki and the musicians Mendo (sax, clarinet), Ajnur (trumpet), Ice (violin), Ismet (bass) and Meko (drums).

Roma hip-hop is not confined to Macedonia. There are vital Roma hip-hop scenes in Prague, Budapest and Belgrade as well. Plenty of Roma teenagers from the Balkans have moved with their families to Western Europe, where well-developed Roma hip-hop scenes in the towns and cities of Belgium (especially in Brussels, the leading star there, Big Papa Shekil, was born in Skopje) and Germany, have flourished. Facebook and YouTube are the lynchpin that keeps the scene innovating and thriving.

Reflecting on their first album release, one of Šutka Roma Rap’s members, Sabri Mustafovski, said, “I think that this project is for other Roma in rap, to encourage them to be more ambitious, not to be only the rappers from around the ‘hood, but to try and do something more.” The feeling that this is about more than music is one many members of the group share. On their performances in Roskilde in Denmark and elsewhere one of the group members reflected, “it was very exciting, especially the thought that we are representing not only ourselves, but Šutka as well.”

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