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Jewish Rapper Takes On Germany’s Hip-Hop Scene

May 12, 2018Thedreidel

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ESSEN, Germany — A yellow star of David — the sort the Nazis forced Jews to wear — on the sleeve of a white sweatshirt appears near the start of the rapper Sun Diego’s “Yellow Bar Mitzvah” video. Seconds later, a scene shows a yellow Lamborghini in the middle of a neon star of David. Jets of flame from a massive gold menorah punctuate rapid-fire rhymes about guns, drugs and money.

Yellow Bar Mitzvah,” released last year, is a rare German gangsta rap recording in which Hebrew features prominently in the lyrics.

And while videos mixing menorahs and yellow stars of David with guns, sports cars and bikini-clad women pushing wheelbarrows full of cocaine would raise eyebrows anywhere, in today’s Germany they are particularly notable: Elements of the country’s booming rap and hip-hop scene have been criticized as anti-Semitic in recent weeks.

On April 12, a major German music prize was awarded to a duo whose album included the line, “My body is better defined than an Auschwitz inmate’s.” At the ceremony, called the Echo Awards, the rappers were booed. I n the weeks since, several prominent musicians returned their awards in protest, and the awards were canceled. The controversy sparked a national debate over rising anti-Semitism among young people and immigrants, two groups most likely to listen to rap.

Sun Diego, meanwhile, has succeeded while proudly proclaiming his Jewish identity. The rapper, born Dimitrij Chpakov, has 272,000 Instagram followers, and “Yellow Bar Mitzvah,” released last year, has racked up more than 9.7 million views on YouTube. Another track, “Eloah,” is closing in on 6 million views. Sun Diego’s autobiography, “Yellow Bar Mitzvah: The Seven Portals From Moloch to Fame,” co-authored with the German journalist Dennis Sand, spent weeks at the top of German best-seller lists after it went on sale in late February.

In his recent take on the 1980s Falco hit “Rock Me Amadeus,” he boasts in a lyric that “a Jew is making a new German wave.  

Sun Diego’s popularity shows that “You can’t pigeonhole German rap fans,” a Berlin-based hip-hop critic, Viola Funk, said in an interview. “Fans aren’t just interested in the art, but in the person behind it — that’s why it’s such a great thing when there is an unbelievably popular Jewish rapper.”

The night after the Echo award ceremony, Mr. Chpakov held court in a dimly lit hookah bar in an Essen neighborhood known for its predominantly Arab immigrant population. Perched on the edge of a deep, brocaded couch in the back, the slender, bearded 29-year-old fingered a diamond-encrusted star of David hanging around his neck, glancing up every now and then at scenes replayed from the ceremony on a big-screen TV.

To his right was his best friend and unofficial head of security, a hulking Lebanese ex-bouncer named Salah Saado. To his left was a waist-high water pipe, its coals burning low. Wearing “Bikini Bottom Mafia” T-shirts (the name of his production company), other members of Mr. Chpakov’s crew lounged on nearby couches.

Drawing on the water pipe, Mr. Chpakov (pronounced SHPA-kov) explained that he is not, technically, a German rapper. Born in the Soviet city of Chernovtsy — once a center of Yiddish culture and now the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi — in 1989, he came to Germany at 3 with his mother and grandmother. Being Soviet Jews, they were given refugee status as members of a persecuted religious minority.

Twenty-five years later, Mr. Chpakov remains a Ukrainian citizen. He grew up speaking Russian at home and attended synagogue regularly as a child. His early years were marked by poverty, and his stepfather was an abusive, drug-dealing Ukrainian army veteran who spent years in a German prison after convictions for assault and murder, Mr. Chpakov said.

Though he is not particularly religious, he said his Jewish identity has always played a role in his life. “I came to Germany with a whole community of people, all of whom knew who I was and where I came from,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re observant or not. I learned as a kid my mother is Jewish, my grandmother is Jewish, my great-grandmother was Jewish — I’m Jewish by blood. I have no choice.”

As a teenager, Mr. Chpakov ran with a rough crowd, dealing marijuana and running petty scams on the streets of Osnabrück, his Ruhr Valley hometown, where he still lives. After an arrest at 15 for theft and fraud, he was sentenced to 400 hours of community service at the city zoo. He dropped out of school not long afterward, working on construction crews while self-producing rap music under the jokey childhood nickname Sun Diego.

By 2011, he had built up a modest career as a rapper and producer — until fans turned on him for being too dance-club friendly. In 2013, he decided to reinvent himself. He donned a SpongeBob SquarePants costume he ordered on Amazon and entered rap battle competitions under the pseudonym SpongeBOZZ.

Delivering profane insults, violent threats and outrageous boasts while dressed as a children’s cartoon character turned out to be a perfect recipe for YouTube success. His videos were a sensation among young rap fans, and a 2015 album, “The Planktonweed Tapes,” briefly topped the German charts.

“He was trying to troll the whole game,” said Konstantin Novotny, a journalist who has written about Sun Diego’s recent popularity for the Jüdische Allgemeine, Germany’s Jewish newspaper. “A skinny guy in a costume, surrounded by insanely expensive cars, rapping about guns and drugs? It was a huge success with younger fans.”

Mr. Chpakov said his time as SpongeBOZZ was formative. He came to enjoy the anonymity of a cartoon character costume, and still insists on covering his face in videos and photographs.

But the costume was also stifling. Mr. Chpakov started thinking about the next act, one that would allow him to scrap the sponge suit. Surveying the German rap scene, he started thinking about a part of his identity he had not engaged with since his childhood.

“Kids have lots of Muslim, Christian, German, Turkish, American, Lebanese or Kurdish role models,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But so far there hasn’t been a Jew people could identify with in the German rap scene. I thought it was time to make an intentional statement.”

In some ways, it was a daring move. German gangsta rap is dominated by Arab and Turkish artists, and reports of anti-Semitism have been on the rise among both immigrant groups and young Germans generations removed from the lessons of World War II. Some of the country’s most popular rappers have put out videos featuring Jewish stereotypes and lyrics drawing on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Yet incorporating his Jewish identity into his new persona seemed to intrigue fans, rather than repel them. “When I put out the book and the videos, it was like I had been resurrected,” he says. “Finally, I have an identity of my own and can do something with it.”

Jakob Baier, a political scientist who studies anti-Semitism in German rap music, says Sun Diego’s embrace of Judaism overturns stereotypes still common in German society. “He’s turned the anti-Jewish resentments around — ‘I’m Jewish, but I’m not weak. I wear a star of David not as a stigma, but as a symbol of self-empowerment,’” Mr. Baier said.

Music critics have taken a dimmer view, panning the songs as clichéd, misogynistic and offensive. The German magazine Der Spiegel accused him of “ethno-marketing,” calling the over-the-top Jewish imagery in Sun Diego’s videos a tasteless attempt to capitalize on his background. (Jewish leaders, however, have not made a fuss.)

Mr. Chpakov finds the criticism frustrating, mirroring taunts he heard at school as a child. “No one in Germany lets you forget: ‘Jew, Jew, Jew,’” he said, jabbing at the smoke-filled air over the hookah for effect. “For the Muslim rappers it’s the same: ‘Muslim, Muslim, Muslim.’ No wonder we all embrace our identities in our music. For me it’s my experience as a child, as a Jew. The Muslims wrap themselves in Palestinian flags. I’ve got a neon star of David.”

By Andrew Curry
The New York Times

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