Turbo folk is associated with the 1990’s, but it developed from the older genre “neo-folk,” a response to rapid urbanization in Yugoslavia. As formerly rural residents moved to the city, “newly composed folk music” became popular, featuring lyrics about love, fondness and nostalgia for rural life, and the rhythms, melodies, and instruments of traditional folk music. It experienced a large boom under Slobodan Milsoevic when the Serbian government began intensely promoting it in a bid to strengthen national culture. Radio stations pushed neo-folk, state money for production went to neo-folk, and this passionate promotion led to a strong association between the music industry and the increasingly nationalist regime in Serbia. However, growing influence from Western commercial pop music led to increased electronic dance rhythms and synthesizers featured in songs, and a decrease in traditional folk elements. This new hybrid, labeled turbo-folk, was powerful club music retaining the bare minimum “folk” characteristics by occasionally using traditional vocal trills and accordion phrases (Gordy, 134). The MTV-style music videos featured “predominantly scantily clad, sexually provocative women singing about love, passion, death, sex and money” (Cvoro, 5). Turbo-folk moved away from nationalism and embraced consumerism, showing off the “good life” in the city through ostentatious wealth inaccessible to much of the population in the years post communism. The few who could afford these lifestyles were often the new rising criminal elite. In 1994, Milosevic declared that there was a need for new culture in Serbia and the regime withdrew its support for turbo-folk, calling it a “struggle against kitsch”(qtd. in Gordy, 105). The music still had wide-reaching appeal despite the former nationalist association and the loss of institutional support. Turbo-folk was energetic, catchy, and was played by soldiers on both sides as motivational music during the wars in the 1990s.
Ceca’s turbo-folk stardom was a development from her more humble beginnings. Ceca was born and raised in rural southern Serbia where she gained experience singing in kafanas, similar to a cafe-lounge. In 1988 she was discovered after winning a state-sponsored competition for young musicians, and she quickly came out with her first album the next year. Her album featured love songs playing up her background and tapping into the audience's ideas of purity in rural and adolescent life. The marketing of Ceca started the beginning of her long career as a turbo-folk star and the careful curation of her image. These songs of first love were also infused with sexual undertones, the first of many songs in which Ceca takes control of her sexuality and exerts power in her relationships with men. As Cvoro described in their chapter, Ceca’s popularity hinged on two “key aspects of her public personality: the highly personal ‘confessional’ aesthetic of her lyrics and her femme fatale image” (5). She relies on her actual background and uses her music as “a form of personal narration of history...Ceca’s public image and music have been framed through an emphasis on authenticity and ‘real life’ experience” (Cvoro, 5). This was enhanced after her marriage to Arkan, and the subsequent dedication of her songs to her husband.
Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan, was a Serbian career criminal and gangster who profited off of smuggling, robberies, and other illegal businesses before and during the Yugoslavian civil wars. He had a reputation for cruelty, and powerful connections within the Yugoslavian government, which kept him from facing punishment for his crimes. In 1990, Arkan created his own paramilitary group, the “Serbian Volunteer Army” also known as Arkan's Tigers, in response to the Croatian secession from Yugoslavia. Arkan personally led many of the operations meant to support the Serbian national army. The Tigers were active on the Croatian and Bosnian fronts, fighting against other paramilitary forces while killing and deporting Bosniak citizens. Arkan rewarded top performing soldiers with the results of their looting. He and his force were responsible for multiple acts of torture and genocidal murder in Bosnia and Croatia.
Ceca and Arkan met when she was on tour performing for his troops. As a “patriot,” Ceca was “one of the first female Balkan singers to pose in a military uniform”(Volcic, 40). She fell in love with Raznatovic, at that time married to his first wife, for his bravery and said that next to him she felt like a “real woman” (Ceca, qtd. in Price). They got married in 1995 in a symbolic traditional ceremony which was filmed, the video distributed for sale, and billed by the tabloids as a “Serbian Fairytale.” The video showcased the Orthodox rituals, a tiger wedding cake, and a performance by Ceca at the reception (“Ceca i Arkan Svadba”).
After her marriage to Arkan, Ceca was launched to Serbian superstardom. Her music videos had the biggest budgets of any turbo-folk diva and she had a lavish lifestyle as well. Ceca’s songs, which had always been about love, were now devoted to Arkan, her husband. However, given Arkan’s occupation as a paramilitary leader still embroiled in a war, much of her work related to her husband had overtones of nationalist rhetoric. Her most overt references may be in the music video for “Nije Monotonija” in which Ceca lounges and dances provocatively on screen while cuddling a tiger cub or with the image of a tiger superimposed on the background, references the mascot of Arkan’s force. She also addressed themes of war in “Kad bi Bio Ranjen”. The song is primarily a love song and about her devotion to Arkan, but the violent imagery in the lyrics: “If you were wounded, I’d give you my blood/If you were blind, I’d give you both of my eyes,” (Goldyloxx, LyricsTranslate) reference the very real possibility that Arkan could be wounded in the war. Ceca showcases her devotion to her husband, and the hyperbolic lengths she would go to if he was injured while fighting.
Arkan dissolved his force in 1996, though with the promise that he would bring them back if they were ever needed. He was indicted in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1997 on 24 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and breaches of the Geneva Convention (ICTY v Arkan). However, he never faced trial as he was assassinated in 2000 by a young police officer with ties to the criminal underground. This was extremely traumatic for Ceca. Arkan was shot outside a hotel in Belgrade where she was shopping and they raced to the hospital, but in a tragic end to their romance, he died in her arms in the car before they reached the hospital. She went into mourning and took a two year break from the spotlight.
When she returned to public life in 2002 the Milosevic regime had ended. Ceca, who had always been nationalist-adjacent, became explicitly a-political. Turbofolk, which had eventually been suppressed by the same political regime which originally promoted it, was now being scrutinized for its connections to the war, and Ceca the queen of turbofolk could not escape questioning. She wholeheartedly rejected the idea that she had any connections to politics or a nationalist agenda. “I don't know what they're talking about,” she responded when asked about nationalism in her songs, “ I don't sing songs about nationalism. I only sing about love. And besides, Milosevic has been gone for four years, and I'm still here” (qtd.in Prodger, “Serbs rally to ‘turbo-folk’). Changing her association with crime and nationalism is difficult given ongoing controversies. Ceca is still strongly associated with her husband Arkan, and since his death she has been the subject of multiple scandals and investigations. This active dispute about her music connection to nationalism did not affect her loyalty to her late husband. When asked about him, she says he was a “great patriot” and seen as a “national hero” (qtd. in Price, “Serbia’s heroine”) in Serbia, but misunderstood in Europe. Even at her 2002 concert at the ‘Marakana’ stadium she dedicated the concert to “[her] husband Zeljko, for Belgrade, for Serbia...” and some attendees attended “to pay tribute to Arkan,” (“Widow leads concert for Arkan”). On a Serbian talk show she responded to a question about the ICTY war-crime proceedings by saying “God help us in burning down the Hague Tribunal” (qtd in Volcic, 41). In 2003, she was arrested and held for 4 months in jail as part of an investigation into organized crime related to the murder of the Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, though she was later released uncharged. Some of the men allegedly involved were her friends and she stands by them. “I'm not a coward. These friendships have lasted for more than 10 years. They didn't start yesterday. Do you understand me? They're not recent friendships - where I made a mistake.” (qtd. In Higginbotham, “Beauty and the beast”). She was also arrested for illegal possession of firearms twice and accused of embezzling funds from the Obilic Soccer team, the club which Arkan owned and she once was the president of, all counts which she denies and says she is innocent.
Ceca is “reluctant” to speak about scandals and incidents, “to protect [her] family from all the labels that were attached to [her],” and so as not “to say something that might be misinterpreted.” She is hyper aware of her image in the media and as she has been subject to villainization, suffering from a double standard in how the media sees her versus other prominent society members (Jelaca, 41). “When Ceca does it, it's scandalous, but senior state officials associated with [former paramilitary leaders and criminals], too: going to dinners and parties. And nothing happens to them” (qtd. in Higginbotham). She is skillful in conversing with the media; when asked about Arkan being connected with violence, she responded “Do I look like someone who, being a young woman, being fragile, can be with someone who is a criminal and murderer to you? I think I don't look like that” (qtd. in Price). She turns it around to answer her own question and offer her own narrative, avoiding the connotations of the war. Arkan's death had given shape to her new image, as she elaborated, “I am fragile and emotional...What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger... I’m a victim,...a victim of my name and my huge popularity, and of my great love...that I was married to Zeljko. I’m not a criminal... I’m just a woman who’s fighting her way through life” (qtd. in Volcic, 41).
Ceca’s personal narration has resonated with her fans. Her fan base is primarily young women who “ignore Ceca’s political connection and represent her as a strong woman who suffers but is able to overcome all her personal grief and trauma” (Volcic, 49). Her songs’ “thinly veiled references to events in her life,” make her emotional and personal songs even more moving, such as the song “Kukavica” in which Ceca sings about her painful love for a married man, or the song “Lepi Grome Moj” which laments an ill-fated passionate romance ended by outside destructive forces: both references to her relationship with Arkan. Ceca’s blending of her public and private life, which create the image “of being a misunderstood and wrongly demonised woman whose only fault is being ‘guided by her heart’”(Cvoro, 5), allow her to sustain her popularity and transcend any outside narratives which may arise. This romantic image reaches across national lines and makes her relatable and compelling to fans outside Serbia who would have been in opposition to any nationalist rhetoric.
Thanks to social media and modern technology, the Ceca brand has been able to expand without relying on mainstream media. Her most frequently updated social media account is Instagram. She posts a couple times a month, but more frequently uploads Instagram Stories, which are temporary, often intimate, and immediate looks at Ceca’s life. Since Ceca herself is often recording the videos or taking the pictures which go on to her Story, they feel very personal, like followers have a direct connection to the star. The regular posts are pictures of her, half of these are selfies, and pictures of her children or extended family. Family posts include the pregnancy announcement of her daughter-in-law, snaps of her and younger children on Easter, but the most frequently featured family member is her daughter Anastacija. These posts are promoting Anastacija's music career, which is produced by Ceca and her company CECA Music.
Her children are a large part of her brand. As extensions of herself and of her relationship with Arkan, they have developed from celebrity children into celebrities in their own right. Anastacija, 21 years old, is an up and coming pop singer, her identity while separate is very similar to her mother's at that age. Veljko, 23 years old, has a very different image. He is a professional boxer, called the “Serbian Ace.” Veljko posts frequently on his Instagram. He posts motivational and aggressive messages on his profile along with pictures of him during or after fights and training. He posts pictures of big cats, such as lions, jaguars, and most significantly tigers, which are fighting or eating prey, before boxing matches or featuring motivational messages to imply he is like the predator big cat. He often tags his posts with #tigersblood, presumably a reference to his father Arkan, and almost always puts a Serbian flag in the caption.
Ceca is still producing music, and with her two children becoming adults and celebrities on their own, she is not going away anytime soon, but instead is growing in popularity and reach. She has weathered jail time, bad press, and more. She is deeply embedded into Serbian and Balkan culture, so much that a Serbian textbook author used lyrics from one of her songs as an example to teach grammar.
“[The author] purposefully wanted to take the examples from the popular culture that is close to the age of the children that will use this textbook. Ceca, [and other musicians used as examples] all belong to the same segment of the popular culture which is recognizable to fifth grade pupils.” (Serbian Monitor)
Ceca is a fixture of Serbian society, but audiences should not simply accept her at face value. The wars in Yugoslavia are still very recent history for the Balkan countries. While war should not define the region, it is important to remember them and realize the effects are still being felt. Though denying that she is an ethnonationalist, Ceca married Arkan and directly profited off of a devastating genocidal war. Ceca and her children still enjoy the benefits of success and profit gained during that period. Ceca was a star in her own right but Arkan significantly influenced her career through connections, reputation, and financial support. Ceca may not have actively participated in the nationalist and genocidal wars, however her marriage to Arkan, her branding his actions in the wars as patriotism, and her subsequent references to him in her music at best “[propagate] a passive complacency” and at worst condone his actions (Jelaca, 37).
Today, being associated with nationalism is not beneficial and Ceca has distanced herself from politics in post-war years to change her image. Ceca is a very smart businesswoman who is able to emphasize parts of her experience to curate her image, however it is her built up cultural and financial capital, much of which was accumulated during the war period, which allows her to gloss over and whitewash those years with the force of her tightly managed brand.
“Ceca i Arkan - Svadba 19.02.1995.” Youtube, uploaded by Svetlana Ceca Raznatovic, www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLc-eO6m4as
“Da raskinem sa njom.” Youtube, uploaded by Svetlana Ceca Raznatovic, 18 June, 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=o20g5Sac7U4
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Prosecutor of Tribunal v. Zeljko Raznjatovic (Arkan). 1997. ICTY.org, www.icty.org/x/cases/zeljko_raznjatovic/ind/en/ark-ii970930e.pdf
“Lepi Grome Moj.” YouTube, uploaded by Svetlana Ceca Raznatovic, 27 Jan, 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_SQ_7-8KjE
“Nije Monotonija” YouTube, uploaded by Svetlana Ceca Raznatovic, 15 Jan, 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=soiKKyQs-6k- .
Raznatovic, Veljko. https://www.instagram.com/veljkoraznatovic/
Raznatovic, Svetlana Ceca. www.instagram.com/cecaraznatovic/
Bjelotomic, Snezana. “Folk singer Ceca Raznatovic finds her way to Serbian school textbooks.” Serbian Monitor, 3 May, 2018, www.serbianmonitor.com/en/folk-singer-ceca-raznatovic-finds-her-way-to-serbian-school-textbooks/.
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Prodger, Matt. “Serbs rally to 'turbo-folk' music.” BBC News, 11 Jan, 2005, news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4165831.stm
Raznatovic, Svetlana Ceca. “Ceca: Serbia's singing heroine.” Interview by Matthew Price. BBC News, 16 June, 2002, news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/2043291.stm
Raznatovic, Svetlana Ceca. “Beauty and the beast (part two).” Interview by Adam Higginbotham. The Observer, 4 Jan, 2004, www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2004/jan/04/features.magazine77#maincontent
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“Widow leads concert for Arkan.” CNN World, 16 June, 2002, www.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/europe/06/16/yugos.arkan/.