Old Beats, New Verses: 21 Newly Composed Essays on Turbofolk

Emergence of Folk Rap

        Music is not categorized into one genre but is composed of many such as pop, rock, hip-hop, and much more. Genres continue to emerge, evolve, and disappear. They are defined by the attributes of the artists and music they play. They keep their coherence through a set of styles or ‘streams’ through which many genres flow (Lena, 2012). When it comes to music, it is important to understand the impact of  target audience to increase a given genre's chances of success. Since genres are not clear-cut categories, they influence each other and intermix to create new, hybrid genres. These hybrid music genres then have the power to communicate their music to the masses. For instance, hip-hop has an influence on a Serbian musical genre, turbofolk, and it helped to create a new, hybrid genre called folk rap. Folk rap is a fusion of “modern hip-hop beats with sounds you might typically hear emanating a Balkan wedding” (Saric, 2018). In the early 1990s, turbofolk grew as a social movement reflecting the transformation of the Balkans. While hip-hop started out in the U.S. in the 1970s and became a steady global cultural force, popular in Europe and beyond. Additionally, folk rap changed the Balkan music entirely by going against the traditional Balkan values and created music that focused on consumerism and politics. Sharing a sense of social justice and a belief in community action, turbofolk and hip-hop brought their two styles together to create a new wave of party and protest music for the younger generation. Taking different elements from turbofolk and hip-hop, both genres generated two kinds of folk rap in the Balkans, one more about celebrating consumerism and the other involving more political themes. Ultimately, folk rap grew in popularity and brought music to new audiences to function as the voice of those underrepresented.
     Initially, turbofolk developed a socialist Yugoslavia as a result of the urbanization of traditional folk before it became an agent of capitalist reconstruction. Turbofolk is a fusion of folk music and a mix of American and West-European music such as rap, hip-hop, dance, and house (Kronja, 2004). During the Milosevic regime, turbofolk was accused as a government-proposed genre promoting nationalism and war. Yet, the Balkan society also used this genre as an outlet and its lyrics to reject pre-established ideologies (Mokri, 2015). Hip-hop inspired the youth to bond over shared ideas and laid the foundation for an imagined community, thus connecting internal cultural forces and producing social cohesion (Hilkens). Thus, hip-hop was one of the reasons for the creation of folk rap and the cultivation of political rebellion in the Balkans. 
     Hip-hop is an art and cultural movement that started in the 1970s in South Bronx, in New York City, by inner-city African-Americans. The hip-hop culture can be organized into four elements that are considered its main pillars, which consist of DJ-ing/turn-tabling, rapping/MC-ing, graffiti painting and b-boying (Tate & Light, 2019). The music is usually stylized and rhythmic, and contains the element of rapping/MC-ing, which is defined as a “vocal delivery that incorporates rhyme, rhythmic speech, and street vernacular which is performed or chanted… over a backing beat” (Tate & Light, 2019). Hip-hop is also known as an art movement for its expressive and visual art, like b-boying, a style of dance and graffiti painting, which is done in unauthorized areas as a rebellious act. Other elements include the style, fashion, and language. Hip-hop is more than just a music genre; it is an art, a culture, and a lifestyle. 

     Hip-hop was mainly contained to the United States, but after the 1980s, the spread was global as many countries began to create new subgenres and started mixing it with their own local styles. Although hip-hop started out as party music, it slowly turned into an outlet for the youth as it reflected aspects of their social, economic, and political experiences and realities.  Over time, turbofolk grasped onto hip-hop and began to take on new and different forms. Among the younger Balkan generations, hip-hop influenced the emergence of a new turbofolk subgenre called folk rap. Folk rap can be defined as a fusion between wailing vocals, traditional instruments, like accordions and zurnas, with choruses that can be found in traditional Balkan folk music layered over modern hip-hop trap beats (Saric, 2018). The music still has the melancholy aspect of Balkan folk but also depicts the “daily agonies of life… and the social realism that is commonly [seen] in hip-hop” (Lazevic, 2018). The first artists to create folk rap music was a duo called Elitni Odredi in the early 2000s, using YouTube as the main platform for their music. In just a short time, Elitni Odredi’s popularity grew and their music was played at elite club scenes; but they also booked shows at prestige venues that were usually only reserved for traditional folk stars. Their unique new sound appealed to a wider audience, to both the fans of turbofolk and hip-hop, as well as to the cross section of fans that listened to both genres. Folk rap is quickly becoming one of the most popular and influential music trends in the Balkans averaging millions of views on each video all across the internet. 

      Along with music itself, visual elements of turbofolk and hip hop cultures are also found in the folk rap. Folk rap started on the platform of YouTube which helped create a new form of music consumption for people. Film graduates from Belgrade launched iDJVideos in 2011, which is a “monetized YouTube channel that produces films and released music videos for local artists” (Lazevic, 2018). However, the music they feature is exclusive to the iDJVideos Channel. Many, if not all the folk rap music can only be found through this channel which racks up millions of views and subscribers. Throughout the visuals of the music videos, it is clear how undeniably similar the fashion and ‘vibe’ are to that of Western hip-hop videos. For example, in the music video for “Mafia” by Jala Brat and Buba Corelli, both artists are depicted like typical Western hip-hop rappers. They wear sunglasses unnecessarily, are covered head-to-toe in designer clothing and jewelry, wear fur coats, and stand in front of expensive cars. As turbofolk is constantly evolving and with the emergence of folk rap, it is “evident that pop culture transcends… borders and boundaries… While [they] might not be a direct mimic of the [West], they are undeniably similar” (Mokri, 2015). 

     It is apparent that Balkan artists began to adopt the lifestyle and culture of Western hip-hop artists. Turbofolk emerged at a time of war and political unrest, but after the war ended, turbofolk evolved and took on new and different forms, like the emergent folk rap. Turbofolk evolved away from the topic of war and more towards social realism, which is seen commonly in hip-hop and Western culture. When comparing the lyrics from both genres of hip-hop and turbofolk, it is clear that they are very similar. In hip-hop rap, they revolve around the party and club scene, and sex, drugs, money, and violence, which can also be seen in turbofolk and folk rap (Mokri, 2017). This change is seen in the song lyrics of “Balkan Express” by Aca Lukas from the mid-1990s and “Mlada i Luda (Young and Crazy)” by Jala Brat in the late 2000s. With the first song, the title itself, “Balkan Express,” is the name of an overnight sleeper train system that ran from Belgrade to Istanbul. It can be seen as an escape from the war-torn country and the hardship. In the lyrics, “tonight I will tear down everything / so that I don’t wit like a flower, like the Balkans / it values my blood / I’m so hungry for love” reflects on the war and shows the destruction and sadness that happened during the time of political unrest with the hope that it will end soon. But over time, with the influence of hip-hop, the lyrics in the songs shifted. This can be seen in the song lyrics of “Mlada i Luda (Young and Crazy)” by Jala Brat, who is one of the artists from the newer generation of folk rap. He raps, “she’s sipping drinks / doesn’t want to remember anything / she’s going out every night / all the girls want to be like her.” It reflects the shift towards a more Western culture of the party and club scene and the movement away from the traditional Balkan views and the topic of war. The lyrics are all about the actions of a woman, living a unfettered lifestyle, breaking the norm and the traditional pre-established ideologies of the ‘typical’ woman. 

     However, not all folk rap shifted fully and adopted Western cultures. Some folk rap artists still try to maintain the Balkan roots and traditions and write about the hardships of war while still incorporating some hip-hop ideas of social realism. The song “Budala” by THCF starts off with the lyrics: “new car, house, necklace/ In a jet there aren’t even bars/ all this money doesn’t mean anything to me,” depicting the shift towards the Western hip-hop lifestyle. This is also clear in their music video, as there were multiple clips of various drugs being weighed, bands of cash, guns, and women dancing around them. Yet as the song goes on, the lyrics change to “I carry chains like St. Peter/ I can see trouble coming from a mile away/ All my dreams are kidnapped by the wind/ Life hits me straight in the epicenter/ Days are grey, no, days are black/ I don’t give a fu*k/ Call the dealer and order a round/ We’re a bit wild because of our Balkan blood.” These lyrics are poetic; TCHF is able to draw a connection between gangsta rap and ‘Balkan blood,’ both glamorizing and showing the real cost of the gangster lifestyle.

     Turbofolk was a combination of old folk and various cultural influences such as rock and hip-hop that reflected the social and political realities of the youth subculture. The influence of hip-hop on turbofolk generated another kind of folk-rap with a political aspect. This music was blasted in all local radio stations across the Balkans containing “stirring melodies and lyrics glorifying local commanders” and giving “stands on political developments and propagandize about the war” in supporting nationalism and Milosevic’s regime (Branson,1995). However, only when turbofolk was influenced by hip-hop it produced activist music against nationalist parties and corruption. For instance, Brano Jakubovic of folk rap group, Dubioza Kolektiv band, and music producer, says, “The front exists although it’s a guerrilla fight, because politicians are untouchable… Music can’t directly change things, but it can start changes. Music pushes the stone from the hill, then it rolls on” (Sito-Sucic, 2007). Brano suggests the Balkan people relied on turbofolk as an escape from hardship to reject nationalist and communist ideologies in hopes to have a better standing of living. Turbofolk dissolved as a genre and was overtaking other genres, leading to the formation of folk rap. 
     In post-war Bosnia, the war continued to inspire various hip-hop artists to rap about the situation in Bosnia and politics. Directed toward nationalist politicians, various hip-hop artists including Edo Maajka, Frenkie and Univerzalni Vojnici vehemently sang about relevant topics and represented the forefront of the Balkan society. For instance, the Bosnian hip-hop artist, Frenkie, launched multiple critical songs against the political elite. His songs portray the corruption of the political elite while condemning injustice. Frenkie quotes, “The more people listen to this music, the more they think about these problems. The more they talk about them, the more a critical mass grows” (Sito-Sucic, 2007). All of his songs reflect the political conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina and invite the people to rise and fight back. Another Bosnian hip-hop artist, Edo Maajka, creates music that focuses on the corruption of the post-war society which can be seen in his song, “Trpaj (Take Us).” The lyrics, “Let's go to the patrol car/ Take us to the police station/ They'll beat us up/ They were trained for it” reflect police brutality in Samobor in 1995. The lyrics, “I didn’t pull a gun, so why do they beat me/ I don’t steal money, so why do they beat me/ I’m not corrupt, so why do the beat me” affirms that young men and women were accused and beaten up by police officers for their taste in music and personal style. Lastly, the Belgrade hip-hop group, Beogradski Sindikat, released “Govedina (Beef)” which instigated much controversy in Serbia and Montenegro. The lyrics, “I wonder why our president is dumb and what Milo is up to... fu*k him in the mouth!” displayed negative attitudes towards many political officials including the former president, Slobodan Milosevic. Despite much controversy in these hip-hop artists' lyrics, their ultimate goal was only to inspire the youth to “build a better future, away from the attitudes that made the country an international pariah in the 1990s” (Sito-Sucic, 2007).
      Folk rap was a controversial music genre due to the influence of hip-hop. Hip-hop as a “distinct cultural foreign import with an indisputable urban background” started to communicate political messages through turbofolk (Sentevska, 2017). Yet the government retaliated and critics rejected turbofolk as a popular music genre, labeling it kitsch. For example, in 2011, Macedonian public transport authorities issued an all-out ban on turbofolk on its buses from the Macedonian capital. This issue started with commuters complaining about how turbofolk was tiresome so the head of the transport company changed the music played on the buses. Despite these changes, bus drivers rebelled and continued to play loud turbofolk music. Moreover, turbofolk continues to be mainstream among the masses in the Balkans (Marusic, 2011). The media ban on turbofolk only helped further its reputation and gain popularity, particularly with the younger crowd. 

       Turbofolk adopted lyrics from western hip-hop culture and made them its own. The evolution of turbofolk continues to bring people together and change the way they think. Though hip-hop developed on the other side of the world, the effect that it had on turbofolk was huge and helped with the emergence of a new subgenre of folk rap. Both turbofolk and hip-hop continued to produce two different kinds of folk rap. While one focuses on partying and escapism, the other focuses on politics. Music can serve as a tool to unite people, allow them to present their point of view, and inspire them to take action. It can also be used by those who feel like they don’t have a voice but can connect their life through the stories told by others. The growth of turbofolk started in a time of hardship for many countries in the Balkans, but from there, it was able to take influences from other genres, like hip-hop, and to create its own identity. Folk rap truly shows how music can transcend borders and be used to create change.

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